“We forgot who our core customer was”: Guitar Center CEO says premium guitars key to firm’s future and promises “playground” experience for serious musicians

Guitar Center sign
(Image credit: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Guitar Center’s new CEO, Gabe Dalporto, has outlined his new vision for the US gear retail giant and admitted that the company had forgotten who its “core customer” was.

Speaking in the May 2024 issue of Music Inc. Magazine, Dalporto describes the typical Guitar Center customer as a “serious musician” who was not always best-served by the brand’s focus on guitars for beginners, where shoppers are greeted by racks of $300 cheap electric guitars with premium instruments often out of reach.

“I think one of our biggest challenges as a company is somewhere along the way we forgot who our core customer was,” Dalporto says, arguing that Guitar Center needs to expand its range of pro-quality gear and, crucially, make products such as high-end electric guitars easily accessible for customers to demo.

“We have some premium product, but we don’t have enough,” he says, “and it’s very hard to experience our premium product because we have our best guitars locked on the top row where you can’t easily get to them. So, if I’m a serious musician and I walk into a Guitar Center, it doesn’t feel like the right place for me anymore.” 

Dalporto has a background in nuclear engineering but you get the impression that his career path was inevitably orientated towards Guitar Center. He recalls visiting the gear giant with his father, browsing as any young guitar fanatic does – in a state of awe. 

That feeling of excitement is something he sees as essential to the Guitar Center business model; customers have to see it as a “playground,” a sandbox where they can plug in and play, testing out the latest guitar effects pedals and, ultimately, in the ideal scenario from the retailer’s POV, buying something at the end of it. 

I want customers to walk into a store and have the same experience I had when I was younger and just be hit in the face with, ‘Wow, this is amazing’

“I want customers to walk into [a store] and have the same experience I had when I was younger and just be hit in the face with, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is a playground. This is where I belong,’” Dalporto says. “And that means having a much more premium assortment that’s more easily accessible where I can get in and grab a guitar and plug it in and try all these pedals and effects and just geek out and have a great time.” 

The entrance ot Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard

(Image credit: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

A shopping experience in which all instruments, the high-end acoustic guitar and budget strummer alike, are easily accessible to customers, and where fundamentally shoppers have a good time, chimes with what Gibson CEO Cesar Gueikian told us upon the launch of the Gibson Garage.

In an era where online retail enjoys a massive slice of the pie, Gueikian insisted the experience of the guitar store, where players can hang out and actually get hands-on with the instruments, has invaluable, and the best guitar stores were creating environments that were welcoming of players of all experiences and backgrounds.

“I think they are doing a great job. These are welcoming places,” said Gueikian. “I know that they think about it, and they train their people, and they hire accordingly to make sure that you are welcomed. At any level, you are welcomed… that moment, when you hear the instrument, when you hear it live is where you get really hooked. It happened to me.”

This relationship with the customer is something Dalporto wants to develop further at Guitar Center's physical stores. Delporto became CEO of Guitar Center on 31 October 2023.

If I help you find the instrument of your dreams, and I give you a great experience and I check in on you and make sure everything is good, you’re going to come back

He says he is “honoured and humbled” to lead the largest physical gear retailer in the US, and made a point of working shifts in Guitar Center stores to experience at first hand what it was like on the other side of the counter. 

Besides reorienting Guitar Center’s product range so that more pro instruments are readily available, Dalporto plans on revamping the company’s online presence, and investing more in its sales staff, whose relationship with the customer will be the bedrock of the brand’s future.

“If I help you find the instrument of your dreams, and I give you a great experience and I check in on you and make sure everything is good, you’re going to come back and you’re not going come back to Guitar Center,” Dalporto says. “That trust is built over long periods of time. It isn’t about selling that tuner today, it’s about that relationship over time.”

Guitar Center: Up to 30% off Guitar-A-Thon sale

Guitar Center: Up to 30% off Guitar-A-Thon sale
There's big money to be saved on everything from beginner gear to premium brands like Gibson, Fender and Martin in the Guitar-A-Thon sale, until 1 May. Offers include a cool $100 off the stunning Fender Player Saturday Night Special Strat, loaded with custom Seymour Duncan pickups. This model and finish is exclusive to Guitar Center, too.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.