Jul 8, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Turn it up!

Browsing Chengdu’s music street

☆ Side Quest: Music Street

Objective: Check out Chengdu’s guitar and music shops

Chengdu's Music Block
Tom Lee Music in Hong Kong
Above: We had to go all the way to Hong Kong to find flat-wound bass strings. Right: But Chengdu’s Music Block is a fun ramble.

Moving to China, one of our biggest logistical hurdles was figuring out how to get three of our six seven guitars here with us. Shipping is very expensive, and there are some nightmare stories out there about guitars on airplanes. “Why are you even bothering? Just buy new guitars when you get there,” advised the man who bought Peter’s Vypyr 30 amp from us.

But who knew what we’d find in China’s guitar shops? Definitely not us. So the guitars were coming with us (some of them, anyway).1

Now, since we’ve been here, we’ve made it our habit to check out the music store situation in every city we’ve visited. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Hong Kong is basically like New York, in terms of what you can find. The excellent Tom Lee Music, a Guitar Center-like Sam Ash-like [Peter: Guitar Center sucks!] super store, carries pretty much everything — including some things that we had somewhat of a hard time tracking down in NYC, like flat wound bass strings for my Hofner.

Our hometown music store
Our hometown music store.
The worst statueBig guitar
You can tell its Music Street by the wonderful statues.
Ming Wu Music
The Ming Wu Music Store is the gem of the bunch in Chengdu.

In Luzhou, by contrast, the pickings are much slimmer. We actually live right near a bunch of music shops — we met our first non-school friend, Hank, at the store that’s right next to our school. But the main focus of these stores is either pianos or traditional Chinese instruments. Good rock gear is hard to come by. (Though we were able to find some serviceable amps, guitar stands, a guitar cable and a modeling stomp box.)

Where there are guitars, most of them are acoustic, with little space devoted to electrics. And pretty much all of the guitars are knock offs; fake Fender, Gibson and Ibanez being most common. One store even had a knock off Steve Vai Jem Signature.

Chengdu’s a bigger city, so we were hoping for a bigger range. A Google search of “Chengdu Guitar Shops” offered surprisingly little information, but we did glean that the area around the Sichuan Conservatory of Music is fertile ground.

We had to wander a little bit to find “Music Street.” One false lead pointed us to the South First Section of First Ring Road. (Tip: It’s near First Ring Road, not on First Ring Road.) But you’ll know when you’ve found it, because there are literally dozens of music shops all packed into just a few blocks, selling everything from traditional Chinese musical instruments to hard-rocking guitars. There are also giant, mostly horrible, sculptures relating to music that line the street — a grotesque figure playing a distorted Ibanez guitar was particularly bad.

Hands down, Ming Wu Music (which also might be called Famous House) is our favorite store. Someone online called them “The best guitar store in Chengdu,” and we totally agree. (They are located at 69 Qunzhonglu, I think.) This crowded little shop carries authentic guitars and equipment from the brands you know and love. They have acoustics upstairs, but the whole first floor was devoted to electric guitars — quite heavy on the Schecters.

The display guitars were all shrink-wrapped in plastic, which we found kind of strange. My guess is that it’s to keep the guitars scratch-free in their densely packed racks, but a side effect is that Ming Wu is surprisingly quiet for a guitar store. The cacophony of seven different kids butchering seven different versions of “Stairway to Heaven” was definitely not missed.

The amp selection was great as well. They had the Vypyr that Peter just sold, as well as the beloved Roland JC120 that he sold in an earlier life. (“It still breaks my heart,” Peter says.) When we’re ready to upgrade our amps, this is probably where we’ll go.

The other stores in the area mostly seemed to carry knock-offs. A lot of different kinds, but knock-offs just the same. We checked around for my bass strings, but no one, not even Ming Wu/Famous House, had them. We didn’t come away empty handed, however. Peter loaded up on picks, with a good handful of Dunlop stubbies among his spoils, and I got a decent guitar cable to replace the crappy guitar cable I bought in Luzhou. Success!

But the music just gets louder …

1. How did we get three guitars to China? Well, we took a chance on the airline, planning to take two guitars as carry-ons and checking the third.

The recommended strategy for carrying your guitar on is act first, apologize if you have to. If you confidently take it as your carry-on like this is something you’re supposed to be doing, people around you, including the gate staff and cabin crew will also act like this is something you’re supposed to be doing.

The other tip I have is: Board as early as you can, so that you can find an empty overhead compartment, and then stash your axe in the first free compartment you see. We had no issues with this on the four legs of our very long journey. And all three guitars arrived safe and sound with us in Luzhou. Big ups to American Airlines!