Girl with microphone

Where to Go & Who to See in Essex & beyond!

Music shops are where many budding musicians get there first hands-on  experience with the tools the trade but our high-street retailers are under threat, we get the low-down with:

Adam Fry

Manager, PMT Southend
Adam, if we could start with how you got in to guitars and subsequently retail?

“I got in to guitar because I hated piano - my mum used to make me go piano lessons. I was listening to a lot of cool guitar solos and thinking I want to do that, not piano. So eventually we struck a deal, I got a guitar and carried on from there. As far as getting in to retail it was the usual thing, at fifteen, sixteen, wanna leave school, don’t wanna get a real job, don’t know what to do. So went and saw a careers adviser and in those days it was YTS. So they said what do you like? I said guitars and music and they put me in touch with Tim Gentle Music in Leigh-On-Sea. I went down there, had an interview and started from there, one day a week with a few days a week at the London College of Furniture building guitars. Then when the course finished Tim asked me to go full time at the shop repairing guitars. “

What were your early influences?

“As a kid it was ELO. Jeff Lynne and his fat Les Paul tone on Mr Blue Sky. Later Van Halen was the biggest one, and then in the early eighties I got in to the Southern Rock thing with Lynryd Skynyrd, Allmans and so on.”

Do you think it’s important to have repair or tech skills when selling guitars?

“Up to a point it is because someone will say this guitar doesn’t feel quite right and the salesperson has to know whats wrong, and if you can do that then you’ve got a sale.”

You have quite a lot of staff here, how many of you specialize in guitars?

“We all do guitars to a certain extent."

You came in to the business in the mid eighties when keyboards were everywhere. Was there ever a point where they were selling more than guitars?

“Not really, looking back. Pete Townsend said in the early eighties that in ten or fifteen years time the guitar would be dead, what an idiot!”

So going back a bit, how did you get from Tim Gentle to PMT?

“When we hit the mid-eighties, things were getting a bit wobbly financially, it was funny time and eventually he went bust.He put me in touch with the guys from Monkey Business and I went to work for them for a while before ending up back in Basildon at Music Makers, selling pianos and organs which was painful but it shows if you can sell, you can do it.
That was alright for a while, then I moved over to Del’s Music in the Liberty Hall Shopping Centre. He was a proper character but he didn’t run it properly so that ended up going bust in 1991 when the recession really kicked in. So after that I tried all sorts, tried to get real jobs - post man, this that and the other and I hated it, really did, it just reinforced how much I loved doing guitars and music. Did a little bit for Music Village as they were then, now Digital Village in Chadwell Heath.Then, after much blagging managed to blag a job at the original Soho Soundhouse in about ‘94. That was in Soho Square which was fantastic - whole other world. Then we moved to Charing Cross Road, which used to be Selmers where famously Paul Kossof used to work. So that was really cool, again that goes up another notch but that all got too much in the end with sales pressure, seriously hard work for not a lot of money. Then MJ’s Music asked me to help them set up so I ended up going back and working for them for a few years until the CoOp asked them to sign a ten year lease which was out of the question so they closed down. So after that I went round the corner to work for Sound City but that didn’t work, even after helping them set up a Gibson account, so I rang up Terry at PMT who I’ve known forever. So I had an interview with him and Simon and they said can you start tomorrow, and that was nine years ago.”

Would you say PMT are now the biggest music retailer in the country?

“Without a doubt, nine stores. Starting down the road in Westcliff in ‘91. Then they got Romford, Birmingham, Oxford, Northampton, then Manchester and Leeds after the aquisition of Sound Control, then shortly after that Bristol. The newest acquisition was Dolphin Music after the tragic death of one of the founders in a skiing accident. So now we’ve got a proper web presence.”

Have you noticed a big difference since the onset of the internet?

“It’s been a long hard road, especially with the onset of mobile internet. A few years ago, people would walk in to the store and the only way they’d be able to check a price would be in a magazine. Then people started coming and saying I found it on the website for this price. With the initial web sales, and it still applies now you only get a manufacturer’s warranty. Whereas we give you a four year warranty, you’ll get a free set-up on the guitar. I’ll sit and talk to you for an hour about it, you know - service. Eventually all the big players had to pull their prices in to line with the internet because the end user never really understood the difference. Most people now use it as a tool to get the spec and a rough idea of a price and they’ll come in ready to buy. The kind of stuff we sell is very hands on, people want to touch a guitar, they don’t want to look at a picture of a guitar.”

That’s right, you can’t feel a neck profile from a picture online.

“Or like these studio monitors, are you going to look at a demo on YouTube? No, you wanna come in and hear them thumpin’ in the shop. Normally if there’s a grin on someones face, they’ll buy it.”

Who would you say has had the most influence on guitarists coming in the shop?

“We did a little survey a while ago and across the board, it was Hendrix, followed by Clapton, then it would have to be Van Halen.”

At the moment, there’s an explosion of acoustic acts and singer songwriters, have you seen loads of acoustics and loop stations fly out the door?

“An unbelievable amount, it started with KT Tunstal.”

Talking of all things acoustic, is they’re really a craze for ukeleles at the moment?

“It’s unbelievable with ukeleles at the moment, because they’re cheap, £15. We sell thousands, we just sold sixty four yesterday to a school”

When you and I started playing, you could not buy a transistor amp that did overdrive well. Things have changed now, are valve amps still as popular?

“More popular than ever! Which comes down to the fact that at low levels, having a valve amp is largely a waste of time because transistor amps can sound just as good, but the minute you turn it up, the output valves get hot, the gasses expand and they really start to sound right. Which is why, decades after valves were obsolete people still like valve amps.”

Going back again, you’ve been able to buy reasonable Fender copies for several decades, but it’s only recently with the onset of CNC routing and Chinese manufacture that you can now get some really good Gibson or Rickenbacker copies. Would you say they have made a dent in the sales of the real thing?

“ No, not at all. People can still afford them and they ‘re iconic, like a Harley or something. Older players will buy them because they’re earning decent money now and younger guys will see their idols playing them and get the money or borrow it to buy one.”

Guitarists have traditionally been the technophobes in the band, do you think this is changing?

“Very much so, most of the people who are coming in who want to do Mac based recording or whatever are guitar players. They’re just gem-med up on it and they’re the ones that run the bands.”

Whereas once upon a time it would be the keyboard player.

“Yeah, now with a basic two channel interface and some software most people can get their heads round it and hook it up to their home PC and start doing it.”

Finally Adam, and on a most serious note, what would you say is the new ’Stairway’?

“Without a doubt, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.”
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