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 and Warmoth.

"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 do it."

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.

Subway Guitars
1800 Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703

(510) 841-4106
noon til six, Monday thru Saturday
Pacific Time