Guitar Lessons

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Salesmanship—the skill required to convince people to buy stuff they probably don’t need–has a long history. The techniques of persuasion have gotten infinitely more sophisticated over time. In the 1950s, door-to-door selling was a major way of moving certain kinds of merchandise. The Fuller Brush man was part of the landscape. Many books were written on effective salesmanship. Most were themselves sales pitches and promised a path to riches for those who mastered their techniques. But whoever was getting rich, it wasn’t the door-to-door salesman.

My brother Bill was caught up in the lure of salesmanship and dreamed of getting rich. Among the schemes he got involved in, selling guitar lessons was the most bizarre and for a time the most lucrative. Bill got me into the guitar lesson business too.

We were introduced to selling guitar lessons by a rather charismatic character named Hank. Hank could go through a suburban neighbourhood with a guitar in a case and in a few hours, drive out of it with $200-$300 in his pocket. Hank was a big man who devoured steak dinners and drank black Russians, a cocktail made of vodka and Kahlua, like water. We were always amazed at how he could look fresh as a daisy the morning after downing so many black Russians the night before. Once Hank and Bill were in a bar (I was too young to drink), and Hank thought the waitress had insulted him. He told Bill to get by the door and be ready to take and throw some punches because he was going the slap the snotty waitress, and all hell was going to break loose. That Bill managed to talk Hank out of this plan may be the best sales job Bill ever did.

Hank would approach a music store and propose the following. He would enroll students for ten weeks of guitar lessons, which the music store would provide free. At the end of the ten weeks, the music store could sell a certain number of the kids in the class expensive electric guitars. I think Hank did the high-pressure selling of the guitars as well as the enrollments. Bill and I did just the enrollments.

Here’s how enrollments worked.  We would go door to door, separately of course, saying that we were enrolling kids for ten weeks of free guitar lessons if they could pass a music aptitude test. No kid ever flunked the aptitude test. Neither Bill nor I could play the guitar or any musical instrument.  If anybody asked us to play something, we would smile and say we never played while we’re working. We got $20 for every kid enrolled.

I have no idea how good the guitar lessons were or how many kids kept up the guitar at the end of the ten weeks. I imagine not very many. But I know that several ended up with electric guitars because the music studios never failed to pay and were always ready to sign new contracts. Eventually, though, it petered out, and Bill moved on to selling other things. For all I know free guitar lessons that end in an electric guitar sales pitch are still going on, but the era of the door-to-door salesman is ancient history.


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