Recession Busting at Subway Guitars
By Thomas Wictor
Tough economic times hit musicians especially hard. Now more than ever,
it's vital to search for the best possible deal when replacing an instrument
or moving up to something better. That's why a place like Subway Guitars,
located in Berkeley, California, can be a real lifesaver: the store sells
quality custom instruments at rock-bottom prices.
Repairperson/activist Fat Dog owns Subway Guitars. When he's not organizing
local events such as the Rock Against Racism concert series, he oversees
a cottage industry that puts together "Proletarian" guitars averaging
in price between $250 and $300. Over the years, Fat Dog (who isn't really
fat -- just large) has bought out the stock of many companies that
have either folded completely or discontinued instrument lines, including
Eko, Vox, Hagstrom, Coral, Kay, and Danelectro. He also shops around for
factory seconds and demonstration instruments, buying enormous quantities
at miniscule prices. And he picks up bulk consignments of hardwaare and
electronics from Japanese companies as well as such American firms as Bartolini
"We can make a right- or left-handed instrument with just about any
neck, pickup combination, or type of hardware," Fat Dog says. "As
for the Proletarian line, we're set up to build the instruments quickly,
and since my investment for the parts is so small, we really charge only
for labor, the tuning gears, and the pickups." Subway can supple 4-,
5- and 6-string basses with long or short scales and solid or hollow bodies
-- even a custom acoustic/electric bass made from a Danelectro jazz guitar
body and a Hagstrom bass neck. "I dreamed up that one out of the blue
one night. It's a great instrument that we can retail for $350 to $400,
while other companies sell similar basses for much more."
For players who live outside the San Francisco Bay Area, Subway has a mail-order
catalog that explains the various combinations available. Here's how Fat
Dog describes the process: "We use what we call 'new/old' parts from
the '60s, and customers can have them tailored just the way they want.
One of our more popular instruments is a reissue of the Danelectro Long
Horn bass; we've actually improved the hardware, and we can make it right-
or left-handed for $250." A small deposit sets the technicians in
motion, and soon the buyer can be playing a self-designed, affordable, quality
instrument. Such luminaries as guitarists Jimmy Page, David Lindley, Jackson
Browne, and Ry Cooder have shopped at Subway, and Primus's Les Claypool
plays a Subway Beatle Bass put together from Eko parts.
If you want an instrument that's more conventional than, say, a Vox with
a mother-of-toilet-seat pickguard or a Dan Armstrong sporting a see-through
body, Subway can put together a slightly more upscale custom bass tailored
to your specifications. "The customer chooses the wood, the neck shape,
the fret wire, and the electronics, and for about $600 we create what would
retail elsewhere for $1500 to $2000," says Fat Dog. "Wholesale
prices make everything shockingly cheap, and the technicians are happy to
Another way in which Subway helps budget-conscious musicians is with its
trade-in policy. "We offer a trade-in for three-quarters of what we
would sell the instrument for, so a musician can basically exchange one
instrument for another by paying the difference. In this way, the store
functions almost like a library or a barter co-op." Subway's profits
comes from the volume of trade-ins -- which happens to be quite a lot, as
it's the only store in the area doing business this way.
When Fat Dog acquires a used instrument, he often upgrades the hardware
and electronics from his vast array of parts, improving its value for the
next owner. Similarly, he might recommend a generic import (such as an
inexpensive P-Bass copy) to a prospective buyer, noting that the instrument
has a satisfactory neck and body but could stand to have its tuners and
pickups replaced. Thus a new, affordable, quality instrument can be obtained
without a massive outlay of cash.
Subway's wholesale-only approach also extends to electronics. "Let's
say someone wants a high-tech pedal or a rackmount thing," Fat Dog
explains. "I order it wholesale and charge our standard 25% commission.
The customer gets it for 25% above wholesale -- a great deal -- and we
don't have to keep it in stock, especially if it's something somewhat esoteric."
Subway also buys strings in bulk, avoiding the materials and labor required
to package them. Thus a set of bass strings can be had for $8, rather than
$20 or more.
After a customer buys an instrument, Subway offers "a week to experience
ecstasy or a full cash refund." This may sound like a risky proposition,
but Fat Dog is unconcerned. "The policy makes buyers feel comfortable,
and it wins out every time over high-pressure sales techniques. If customers
know they can bring instruments back, they're much more likely to give something
different a try."
Trade-ins are seriously considered at a high value.
1800 Cedar Street
noon til six, Monday thru