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(TNS)—Abby McGuire started playing the ukulele at age 5. A couple years later, she sold 300 homemade bookmarks to earn the money for a 3/4 -size guitar. Now a fifth-grader, Abby spent the pandemic plugging away at virtual lessons, practicing on her own, even giving a front-yard recital.

In October, her mom took her shopping for a Christmas present: a full-size guitar. “I heard from her instructor that if she wanted one, we better get it right away,” said Julie McGuire, who lives in Chesterfield, Mo.

Instruments have been harder to come by during the pandemic, especially guitars. Some players, like Abby, have dedicated more hours to their hobby while stuck at home and are now upgrading. Others are testing out their musical talents for the first time, buying starter pieces. Scrambled supply chains have further thinned the selection.

The sales of musical instruments have been one of the few bright spots for stores. Foot traffic has crashed. In-person lessons have stalled. And rentals—without school programs—are almost nonexistent. Repair work is up, as are online sales, but they haven’t always compensated for the other losses.

Guitar Center, the largest musical instrument retailer in the United States, reported an 85 percent jump in business in August, moving almost three times as many guitars as usual. But it wasn’t enough to stave off bankruptcy, which the company blamed on not being able to bounce back from the spring shutdown of most of its nearly 300 stores.
Small stores have been hit hard, too.

St. Louis Strings specializes in orchestral instruments. Its violins, violas, cellos and bass run from under $500 to $50,000.

“My best salesmen are my instruments,” said Joe Behan, manager of the company’s Dogtown location. “Nothing sells an instrument like having a player play it.”

But the coronavirus has shifted shopping habits, making customers less eager to pick up a violin and tuck it under their chins.

And that’s taken a toll on this year’s revenue, leaving the company with “a mountain to climb,” said Behan.

A second shop, in Chesterfield, was slated to open in March but got delayed until June.
Even so, Behan has encountered aspiring performers who are finally motivated to give orchestral music a go.

“We definitely get those folks who are crossing the violin or the cello off their bucket list,” he said. “In 2020, that demographic has taken off.”

‘A buying Frenzy’

All types of instruments have been difficult to come by in the past nine months.
The components of a single violin or guitar originate in multiple countries. Most manufacturers halted production in the spring, and not everyone started up again on the same schedule. Even when they did, safety and sanitation measures slowed the process.

Some stores reported deliveries taking twice as long as in the past. At Music Folk, in Webster Groves, the wall of guitars and racks of banjos have a few gaps.

Don Ploof has been co-owner of the shop for a quarter century. He sells a few hundred instruments a month, split between newcomers and more advanced players.

Ukulele sales have been particularly strong this year, continuing a wave of popularity the Hawaiian staple has enjoyed for the past decade.

“It’s been a pretty big force,” said Ploof. Beginners like it for its relative simplicity and low cost. For less than $100 and a few hours of practice, they can pluck out a four-chord tune.

Music Folk’s online sales and repair work have picked up since the pandemic started, but that has been offset by the loss of on-site lessons.

Higher-end stores, like Killer Vintage in Lindenwood Park, have fared better. Owner Dave Hinson’s customers are serious players who know what they are looking for and are comfortable buying online.

Hinson restores and sells vintage guitars—counting U2 and the Eagles among his customers—but has had trouble finding enough sellers to keep up with prospective buyers.

“I never imagined a guitar would be a thriving commodity during a pandemic,” said Hinson. “People are in a buying frenzy.”

Even before the pandemic, his business had been accelerating. Early this year, he sold a 1960 Gleason Sunburst Les Paul for $200,000.

But Hinson has also seen a spike in interest from up-and-comers looking for entry-level instruments. More girls and women are embracing the guitar than when he started playing in the 1960s.

“I think it’s really promising that people are flocking to music,” Hinson said. “There’s nowhere to hear it, so they’re making their own.”

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