Back in the day, it was easy to buy a bass. You went to the local music store, talked to a salesperson, tried out some instruments, and picked the bass you liked the best (or the best one you could afford). Now, it’s not so simple. Most of the mom-and-pop stores that offered good service are gone, replaced by big-box operations—and the internet has become a major source of gear, offering tremendous selection but little in the way of personal service.
Marc Najjar, bass guitar manager at Chicago Music Exchange, is well aware of this situation. He got his start at the store as a customer, after moving to the Chicago area from Kentucky to study music education at Northeastern Illinois University. Originally a tuba player, Marc began to play electric bass when he was 13. “I was a fan of the lower register for as long as I can remember,” he says. On his first visit to Chicago Music Exchange, Marc was impressed by both the products and the service. “The selection was mind-boggling,” he says, “and the staff was very knowledgeable. I was treated with this approach of no BS with regard to my questions. So when the opportunity came along to work there, it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
That was six years ago, and since then Marc has become a key member of the store’s large staff, well known to many bassists in Chicago—and beyond. He acknowledges the impersonal aspect of online sales and appreciates steps the store’s CEO took to address the problem. “Several years back, we integrated a chat feature into our website. We were told not to use scripts and to treat people on the other end of the computer as if they were in the store. That was really exciting, and I made that part of my day.”
With the large amount of bass gear on the market, Marc’s position requires knowledge of a wide range of products, both vintage and contemporary. “Sometimes a ’62 P-Bass through a ’66 B-15 sounds right,” he says. “Other times, it’s a fanned-fret Mayones Jabba with a Darkglass Microtubes 900 with the overdrive cranked up. I’m always learning and always trying to share that with our customers.”
Because of the website’s chat feature, Marc says he can provide personalized service to customers anywhere, sometimes assisting several at the same time. “In the store, we like to provide the best one-on-one service we can offer. You’re happily engaged, but there might be other people walking around who need assistance. With chat, I can be working with three or four at the same time. It’s great to be able to provide even more service that way.”
Marc’s engagement also extends in the other direction, to suppliers, and he has worked hard to develop relationships with the people who make bass gear. In some cases, this has led to special product runs. He cites one recent example involving Fodera Guitars. “When people think of Fodera, they think of a specific aesthetic—beautiful, top-tier basses that really accentuate the wood. We wanted to be faithful to what they do, but extend the aesthetic into heavier music like metal. So I got together with our product manager, Mike Rinkenberger, and we came up with an idea—when in doubt, murder it out: black satin finish, black neck, black headstock, ebony fingerboard, no inlays. Fodera liked the idea and came up with elegant, sleek-looking instruments that can cross genres and that sound awesome.” The resulting Emperor Standard Special 5-string and Monarch Standard Special 4-string are now featured as “CME Exclusives” on the website.
Whether it’s chatting online with a player who’s just starting out, assisting an experienced bassist searching for a vintage axe, or teaming up with a builder for a special product, Marc Najjar always has a clear goal in mind: “I want bass to be cool,” he says. “I want playing bass guitar to be cool. That is my mission.” For more information about Chicago Music Exchange, go to chicagomusicexchange.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).