Tigard music shop is a one-stop shop for instruments and instruction

Robert Adrian knew he wanted to tweak the big box guitar store format.

Instead of a sprawling warehouse atmosphere crammed wall to wall with merchandise, the former Guitar Center consultant envisioned a business equally focused on music education and retail — what he calls “a studio store.”

“We devote as much square footage and attention to our teaching business as we do our retail business,” Adrian says of Guitarfish, a store that opened its first location in Tigard last July. “Guitarfish was designed to sort of bring the best of music education — in a contemporary model — with the best of retail.”

A syllabus for rock

While designing their “proof of concept” store in Tigard, Adrian and co-owner Todd Meislahn decided against simply renting out classroom space for music lessons. Instead, they tapped into Meislahn’s past success developing educational course materials for a private tutoring company. With a core focus on music technology, they developed a standard curriculum for all levels of musical experience.

“We thought there was an opportunity to combine some of the systematic things (Meislahn) had learned on the tutoring side and apply it to the music education world,” Adrian says.

At Guitarfish, private instructors collaborate within a kind of faculty framework. Each instructor is a professional musician, and many are graduates from prestigious programs including Berklee School of Music in Boston and the Los Angeles-based Guitar Institute of Technology.

But street cred and an impressive resume aren’t enough.

“We really handpick our instructors to make sure they’re not just great musicians, but great teachers as well,” said assistant manager Nick Lawson. “That they’re good with people of all ages, all experience levels.”

Guitarfish music lessons are broken up into three segments: The skills component focuses on the logistics of handling and playing the instrument. Foundation classes cover basic scales, chords and general music theory. The playlists segment allows students to decide which genre of music they want to explore as they develop technique.

Thanks in part to sponsorship from Fender Guitar, students can begin their musical journey in one of Guitarfish’s eight studio-style classrooms, which are soundproof and outfitted with digital recording equipment. Framing the perimeter of the showroom are four guitar and bass studios, two digital piano studios, a large group classroom and a drum instruction room.

Instruction is mostly geared toward playing popular music, Adrian says, from classic rock to current Billboard favorites.

Two sides to the business

Just outside the studio classroom doors, the Guitarfish retail store displays a well-curated collection of Fender guitars, Roland electronic pianos, Sabian drum kits and Yamaha recording equipment. The space is welcoming, even orderly, following an aesthetic Adrian describes as the “Nordstrom merchandising model:” high-end, with top-of-the-line products.

Guitarfish currently employs 10 people in its corporate office, with three in-store sales representatives and eight instructors. With new locations planned in Hillsboro and Oregon City, it’s no secret that the brand is positioning itself to give the international Guitar Center chain a run for its money.

The battle plan is straightforward, according to Adrian: By keeping their stores relatively small, and with the advantage of a comprehensive course offering, Guitarfish can afford to undercut Guitar Center’s prices.

And Guitarfish aims to be more inclusive. Because Adrian and Meislahn didn’t want to limit their customer base to the 20-something male demographic, a group they felt was already well served by the majority of guitar retailers, their aim has been to attract entire families — from 5-year-old keyboard enthusiasts to 9-year-old guitarists to adults taking up an instrument for the first time.

“I would say it works because we’re combining two businesses,” Adrian said. “There’s the music education business along with a retail business that’s designed strategically to be very small and efficient. And that’s how we stay competitive.”

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