Sweetwater vs Guitar Center (Head-To-Head Comparison)

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  • Sweetwater vs. Guitar Center – How do they square up?
  • Find out which site is better to buy a guitar and why
  • We compare two of the best online guitar stores of 2022
  • Also, see our post on the best places to buy guitars online

Here’s the Short Answer: While there is no clear winner, Guitar Center has a slight advantage over Sweetwater as they stock more guitars, ship faster, and offer a 45-day return policy compared to the 30-day Sweetwater return policy.

Moreover, Guitar Center has nearly 300 stores across the US, which equates to same-day in-store pickups and the ability to play before you buy.

All else equal, here are three solid reasons to shop guitars at Sweetwater a) they stock exclusive guitars, b) they offer a free 2-year extended warranty on all make/models, and c) every buyer is assigned an expert ‘Sales Engineer,’ which is extra helpful when buying your first guitar.

I spent a few hours on each website to independently test the user experience, navigation, selection, checkout process, and customer support. Here’s my honest review.

Sweetwater: A Brief Overview

Sweetwater

Sweetwater is the largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the United States, based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

View Sweetwater

Sweetwater (SW) is one of the biggest names in the world of online music retailers. Founded by Chuck Surack in 1979, it has become one of the go-to websites for buying guitars.

They are also a reputable marketplace for buying sound, light, and pro-audio gear.

Extended warranty, excellent customer support, and top-class QA are the three biggest reasons to buy guitars from Sweetwater.

They have a 55-point inspection system before they ship your instrument, which ensures it is ready to play out of the box.

Guitar Center: A Brief Overview

Guitar Center

Guitar Center is an American musical instrument retailer chain. It is the largest company of its kind in the United States, with 294 locations. Its headquarters are in Westlake Village, California.

View Guitar Center

Owned by Brian Capital, Guitar Center (GC) is one of the most reputable brands when it comes to online guitar stores. They are one of the world’s biggest musical instrument retailer, with nearly 300 brick-and-mortar stores across America.

GC’s success is fuelled by a unique combination of a vast retail chain and an equitable online presence. They also have a “trade-in” policy, which means a local store will evaluate your musical gear to make you an offer if you wish to sell it.

Imaginably, their website has one of the best selections of used and vintage guitars, comparable to the likes of Reverb and Sam Ash.

Sweetwater vs. Guitar Center: A Comparative Analysis

In this section, we’ll go through all the relevant factors for a hassle-free shopping experience on both of these online guitar stores.

Some may matter more to you than others, which is why they are presented as a shootout. 

User Experience on Desktop & Mobile

The user experience of a website is directly proportional to the quality of your online shopping experience. The best site to buy guitars must be well-organized, easy to navigate, and fast-loading with advanced search filters. 

Having tried both online stores, I found that Sweetwater’s landing page and product pages are slightly better than Guitar Center’s.

Many guitars I looked up had video demos by Sweetwater staff and higher-quality images, which helps make your decision.

Both sites are informative and organized. Guitar Center has excellent filtering features, making it easy to find guitars immediately. But the product pages are relatively lackluster.

Takeaway: Sweetwater offers a slightly better user experience, although both sites are organized and operate smoothly. Sweetwater loads faster and has better product pages.

Guitar Center has better search filters and an In-Store locator, which is useful if there is a GC store in your town.

In-stock Guitars

We are comparing two of the largest online guitar stores, so both sites have an exhaustive selection for buying guitars. After rigorous research, I discovered Guitar Center (currently) stocks more guitars than Sweetwater.

However, Sweetwater partners with manufacturers to offer exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else. These guitars have unique finish options like this Quilted Ash PRS SE 24 Electric Guitar and Heavy Relic Fender CS Telecaster.

There are 226 exclusive guitar deals on Sweetwater at this time.

There are a few other reasons the scales tilt in GC’s favor. Sweetwater has one store, which pales before Guitar Center’s nationwide retail chain. The advantage here is that GC ships guitars lightning fast if a local store stocks them.

You can also schedule in-store pickups and try out guitars.

Lastly, you can find great deals on used gear at Guitar Center. Sweetwater doesn’t have the same reputation for used guitars.

Both online retailers sell B-stock guitars – blemished, scratched, dented, or warehouse-returned guitars with markdowns and price drops.

Takeaway: Guitar Center has a better collection of guitars compared to Sweetwater. Exclusive deals notwithstanding, GC is the better option for buying new, used, and vintage guitars.

Plus, the ability to test or return a guitar at the local store earns GC extra brownie points.

Pricing

I compared ten guitar models from big-name brands like Ibanez, ESP, Fender, Gibson, Martin, and Taylor. Blemished, returned, and clearance guitars are one-off deals, so I didn’t consider them.

You pay the same amount in each shootout at Sweetwater or Guitar Center.

That’s because prices are standardized based on the manufacturer. An even-steven affair.

For instance, both online retailers list the Baby Taylor Mahogany BT2 guitar for $449. Sweetwater offers a 6-month (Easy Pay) payment plan and an extended warranty (free). They may offer additional discounts on select products.

Guitar Center offers lease-to-own options (without a credit check), 6-month payment plans, and up to 48-month financing to creditworthy US customers. They also promise to give you the lowest price with their Price Match Guarantee.

Takeaway: This was a close contest, with GC scoring slightly better than Sweetwater in payment plans. But prices vary when both sites offer discounted deals and massive price drops.

If you know what to buy, check both online guitar stores to find the best price.

Customer Service

Sweetwater is the clear winner in this category of my analysis. It’s not just me, either. They are known in the music community for offering the best customer support among all online music retailers.

That does not imply Guitar Center doesn’t have excellent customer service.

Both online guitar stores are helpful if you want to buy, exchange, or return a guitar. But Sweetwater’s Sale Engineers are specialists who understand the listed products. You stay connected with this ‘assigned’ sales rep for future purchases.

With GC, it’s hit or miss, and you can speak to someone helpful in one instance and to a customer representative who doesn’t understand the product in another.

Takeaway: Sweetwater offers (relatively) better customer service thanks to its team of dedicated specialists. Guitar Center is also superb but slightly inconsistent.

Shipping

Musical instruments like guitars are large, oddly-shaped, and bulky. Shipping costs can mark up an order if the retailer doesn’t offer free shipping. For those reasons, you should consider shipping times when you shop for guitars.

Sweetwater offers free shipping on most of the guitars I tried to order. Shipping times are 1 to 5 days in the lower 48 and 7 business days for Alaska and Hawaii. They have expedited options like FedEx 2-Day, Standard Overnight, or Priority Overnight shipping.

Guitar Center ships orders (before 3 p.m. ET) on the same day. Standard ground shipping times vary based on the location, with most orders received within 2 to 5 business days.

GC also offers same-day in-store- pickups, and next-day or two-day expedited shipping.

Both sites provide shipping estimates when you checkout. Sweetwater’s SweetTrack feature gives up up-to-the-minute updates on the status of your guitar, which is a perk. But neither of them offers free shipping on clearance items or used guitars. 

Takeaway: Shipping, handling, and delivery of both online retailers is evenly matched. Sweetwater ranks slightly better because the site offers free shipping on more items than Guitar Center.

On the other hand, GC offers unrivaled same-day in-store pickups.

Warranty

Complete coverage and gear protection matter if you spend hundreds of dollars on a guitar.

Every guitar comes with a manufacturer’s warranty. Online retailers offer additional coverage over and above the manufacturer’s warranty, but it adds an extra 10% to 20% to the cost of the guitar.

Sweetwater goes the extra mile to offer 24 months of “Total Confidence Coverage” in addition to that, at no added cost to you. It means you have complete coverage for a substantial period.

Guitar Center does not offer an extended warranty or anything comparable. You get a standard manufacturer’s warranty after buying a guitar. Buyers can opt-in and pay extra for Pro Coverage, which varies based on the cost of the guitar.

Bear in mind warranty repairs are rare unless you are a gigging musician. So, this factor doesn’t carry weight in our Sweetwater vs. Guitar Center shootout. A standard warranty will generally suffice, but a free extended warranty is not a bad thing!

Takeaway: Sweetwater’s free 2-year warranty on new instruments is a clear winner. Guitar Center’s Pro Coverage is a wise investment if you buy used guitars.

Return Policy

A return policy is a crucial factor for buying guitars online with confidence. It allows you to return a guitar with factory defects, shipping damage, or other flaws.

Moreover, you can never guess how a guitar feels in your hands, which is particularly important for some guitar players.

A hassle-free return policy allows you to return a guitar if it doesn’t feel right, no questions asked.

You can return a guitar bought from Sweetwater within 30-days, no questions asked. Guitar Center has a 45-day return period, meaning you can get a full refund for any reason.

You pay for shipping the guitar back in both cases. Return Policies may vary based on the actual product.

Takeaway: Guitar Center has a decided edge in this regard. 45-days is the industry standard, so Sweetwater is slightly behind the curve in this metric.

On the plus side, they assign you a dedicated Sale Engineer who can be very helpful in processing your return or exchange.

Final Verdict

Both Sweetwater and Guitar Center are first-rate online guitar stores, and either could qualify as the best place to buy a guitar. The user experience, selection variety, pricing, and return policy are evenly matched for the most part.

So, the best place to buy guitars boils down to what make/model you need and the exclusive discounts offered by each site at that point, which is why you should check out both.

If I had to pick one, I’d say Guitar Center is the best for buying guitars. They stock more guitars and have 250+ stores, which is valuable for a) buying online and trying it before you pay, b) getting a setup or mod, and c) using the storefront to process returns for online purchases.

That said, Sweetwater is better for first-time buyers. There are two reasons for this – a) the user experience is better, and b) customer service is top-notch.

Every potential buyer is assigned a dedicated Sales Engineer who will answer your questions patiently, no matter how silly.

FAQs

Is Buying A Guitar Online A Good Idea?

Online shopping is convenient, and buying a guitar online is a great idea for the following reasons – a) you can select from a wider variety of guitars, b) competition sites price match to offer you the lowest price, c) you can return a guitar no-questions-asked in a 30 to 45-day return window, and d) there are lots of price drops and discounted deals throughout the year.

Does Guitar Center own Sweetwater?

Sweetwater and Guitar Center are competitors. Guitar Center does not own Sweetwater. It’s owned by Chuck Surack, who founded the company in 1979. Guitar Center is owned by Brian Capital, the firm that also owns Musician’s Friend, another popular online guitar store.

Does Guitar Center Price Match Sweetwater?

Guitar Center will match the (checkout) price of Sweetwater or any competing online retailer at the time of purchase. The offer stands for 45 days after your purchase, meaning GC will refund the difference to your original payment if you find the identical item sold at a lower price later.

Is Sweetwater a Good Place to Buy a Guitar?

Sweetwater is one of the top online musical instrument retailers in the US, making them one of the best places for buying guitars. They have a large variety and exceptional customer service. Moreover, they offer a free 2-year extended warranty and free shipping on all guitars.

Still keen to shop around? Check out our guide to the 9 Best Places To Buy Guitars Online!