Memories of... Musical Exchanges

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 2 February 2013
Surely, no guitarist who lived in the Birmingham area during the 1980s and 1990s, will have forgotten the buzzing hive of equipment that was Musical Exchanges. There were of course numerous shops in central Birmingham selling musical equipment through that period. But none, in the course of those two decades, came close to rivalling the glorious ascent of Musical Exchanges, which by the mid 1990s had become so big and powerful in the world of guitar sales that it was advertised as Europe’s Number One store. I spent tens of £thousands in that shop over the years, and not just on guitars – but I very rarely regretted spending a single penny. For me, no other music shop has ever been able to capture the excitement and unpredictability of a visit to Musical Exchanges, with its rapidly evolving stock, and at times, some truly sensational vintage guitars at what we’d now consider incomprehensibly low prices.

Musical Exchanges overview

But when I first discovered Musical Exchanges in the late summer of 1982, it was nothing like the huge, visually impactive guitar superstore you see above (circa 1993/4). Located on Birmingham’s (then) delapidated Broad Street, the Musical Exchanges of 1982 was just an average-sized gear shop, best known as a purveyor of secondhand equipment. Exchanges didn’t just sell guitars – they had keyboards, PA equipment, etc. But in ’82 Musical Exchanges was not, visually, much different from the average new-plus-used stockist of the time.

Where it did differ, was in its reputation for part-exchange deals. The consensus was that no other shop gave the musician as favourable a return in part-exes as Musical Exchanges. The prices offered for trade-ins tended to be a lot higher than those offered by rivals. But this only applied to trade-ins. If you were selling rather than part-exing, you’d just get a standard buy-in rate, similar to what other secondhand shops would pay. Later in the 1980s, I found the above to be true, with an increase of around 35% for a part-ex over and above a straight sale to the shop.

Musical Exchanges logo
The Musical Exchanges logo, circa 1987.

The shop’s location on Broad Street, incidentally, was just on the city centre side of the enduring clock tower of Broad Street’s Crown pub (now the Reflex ‘80s Bar). The land is now occupied by Symphony Hall.

But just a couple of weeks after my first and only visit to the Broad Street shop, it suffered a devastating fire, which not only gutted the building, but also apparently wrote off most of the stock. With no prospect of the shop being salvaged, the building was condemned, leaving Musical Exchanges to find new premises.

Musical Exchanges was out of the picture for some considerable time, until it re-opened the following year as a bigger store on the corner of Old Snow Hill and Lionel Street. That’s where it remained until it was bought out by Sound Control in 2000.

Musical Exchanges basement area
Here’s a really interesting promo from summer 1993, showing what was formerly the warehouse at the Snow Hill shop, cleared out ready for conversion to the massive new guitar basement. Multiple times I remember being allowed into that warehouse to select brand new guitars from the extensive stocks during the 1980s (my Tokai TST-60 and Fender Strat Plus among them). But from late 1993 the very spacious basement was integrated into the store and became fully accessible to the public.

The new Snow Hill shop continued to sell both secondhand and new guitars (there were also departments for other instruments and recording gear). But because of the very high volume of stock, the crowds of visitors, and the general chaos of the way much of the gear was cramped together, it could sometimes be difficult to tell whether the instruments were meant to be used, shop soiled, or brand new. It seemed there was never any great concern on the shop’s part as to how the gear was categorised. If the customer thought a guitar was new, then it could be sold as new. If it was subsequently discovered by the customer that the guitar wasn’t new, the sales staff would “sort something out” in terms of a redress or compensatory gesture. I know that from personal experience, and from anecdotes circulating back in the day.

But that was the essence of Musical Exchanges. They weren’t seen by musicians as crooks, but you pretty soon realised you had to take responsibility for what you bought and make your own checks. It was a very busy shop which must have been almost impossible to fully oversee in terms of what was happening to every item of stock. That added to the unreliability of buying from Exchanges. BUT, there were some serious bargains to be had, and if you used the rather chaotic environment to your advantage rather than let it take advantage of you, there was no commercial store which offered more scope for musicians who regularly bought and traded guitars, amps and gadgets.

Particularly if you bought secondhand from Musical Exchanges, you could use the gear for a few months, then take it back for part exchange and get a reasonable return. You’d almost inevitably lose money of course, but provided you were part-exing and not trying to sell, you’d often be quite pleasantly surprised.

Unlike the other secondhand shops, Musical Exchanges did have pulling power when it came to acquiring desirable secondhand gear. By the time the shop was fully established down at Snow Hill the stock was very substantial indeed. Brand new guitars were being bought in bulk, and that pushed down the retail prices, whilst the part exchange policy attracted lots of musicians who wanted to trade in their existing guitars for the cheap new stock. Short of selling privately (which wasn’t easy without the Internet), it was very difficult to get a better price for your decent secondhand gear.

But they knew what was what. They’d give you an attractive part-exchange value on a desirable instrument, but they’d pay very low rates for the undesirables. That kept the shelves and racks well populated with eyecatchers, and that, in turn, attracted more good part-ex’d stock. A good, varied and extensive stock, coupled with enticing trade-in deals, has the power to attract more good stock. That, I’m sure, was the cornerstone of the Musical Exchanges business model.

The increasing incidence of prize pieces in the stock led to the assembly of various themed displays – the best of which would be high up on shelves and ledges where customers couldn’t reach the guitars. There was, for instance, a vintage Fender shelf, featuring old Strats, Jazzmasters, Jaguars, etc, from the early to mid ‘60s. The prices stayed relatively modest until about 1988, afterwhich they started to rise quite sharply. When I say modest, the Jags and Jazzmasters would be labelled at approximately £395 to £595, with £595 corresponding to the all-original custom colour examples. The pre-CBS Strats would, by 1988, be in the ballpark of around £1,200. The refinished ones typically cost less than the pretty skanky looking originals, but there wasn’t a great deal of difference. By the mid ‘90s, the prices on vintage Fenders had pretty much tripled. However, in the mid ‘80s when prices were still relatively modest, the old Fenders didn’t shift very fast. You’d see some of the same guitars there on that shelf, month in, month out.

Incidentally, I actually remember all three 1960s Strats listed in the ad above. The sunburst was very worn (at a time when most guitarists weren’t really into the relic look), and the pink one was meant to be salmon but the refinished body looked overly shiny and not orangey enough to be convincing. The red ‘63 was Dakota red, and had a vintage dullness to the lacquer. I didn’t like the colour much at the time, but a few years later I’d have grabbed that like a shot. All three Strats, along with a heavily cracked Olympic white ‘63 they’d just sold, had very green nitrate scratchpates, and yellowy-brown pickup covers. One or two of them had a substantial part of the Fender decal missing, I seem to recall.

But that shelf, along with the other eyecatching themed displays, must have captured the interest of so many guitarists. It wasn’t like the other shops, where you’d have to hunt for one ‘sexy’ instrument on a rack full of crap. You’d walk into the main Musical Exchanges guitar room, and blam! The whole thing smacked you straight in the face. Mid ‘80s Fender Japan display with all the cool models, Tokai display with some absolutely stunning copies in the most striking finishes, the vintage Fenders, the old Gretches, the old Gibsons… They also had ‘70s Fender Strats and Teles, Gibson Les Pauls, semis, etc, but none of that was even worthy of a contrived display. It would just go in the secondhand racks alongside the copies, the used Yamaha SGs and the like.

When the electric guitar rooms were moved from the Snow Hill shop's street level down into the basement in 1993, Musical Exchanges really went into overdrive. A lot of guitarists said they preferred the chaos of the street level rooms, and that it became harder to find bargains after everything had been organised into plenty of space downstairs. But commercially, the vast new electric guitar department was surely a winner. Half the battle of selling guitars was in the way they were displayed to potential buyers. The much bigger room allowed the guitars breathing space, and let the customers see them at their most enticing.

The point at which Musical Exchanges died is a matter of some debate. There are even some musicians who maintain that it was never the same experience after the Broad Street fire and the move to Snow Hill, so for them the magic died in 1982. However, most of those who, like me, were teenagers in the early to mid '80s, seemed to think the heyday of the shop came in the late '80s and early '90s, at Snow Hill, before the warehouse was converted to an immense public showroom. What was never really in doubt, is that at some point the Internet was always going to destroy the vibrancy and intensity of the shop's secondhand turnover, without which it could never have the same excitement.

Walking into that shop and being confronted with a long rack of Strat copies, including Tokai Springy/Goldstar Sounds, Squier JV series, Fernandes RST50s, etc - and nothing in the line costing above the region of a hundred and seventy-five quid - was just too good to last. The Internet would kill that luxury, and the death of that luxury would, in turn, kill the concept of Musical Exchanges.

The year 2000 was the right time for Musical Exchanges owner Dave Quill to sell the business. Whatever his reasons were at that particular moment, I'm sure he'd have had at least half an eye on the future and the shift in the secondhand market towards eBay. What made Exchanges special was its unique, almost non-committal approach to buying and selling. If you bought the wrong guitar, it didn't really matter that much because you could take it back and 'chop it in'. The confidence that gave buyers was immense. You'd never fear spending money at Musical Exchanges in the way you might elsewhere. But lose the secondhand side of the business, take away that safety net, and suddenly the confidence evaporates.

All images for this article were taken from original Musical Exchanges advertisements, published between 1987 and 1994.