Guitar Row: Six-String Glory on the Sunset Strip
The tales of rock stars – and the many more hoping to join their ranks – ambling up and down the 7,000 block of Sunset Boulevard in search of that truly great axe (which they may, or may not, be able to even afford) is a cliché, sure. But like most clichés there’s an underlining reality. Today players and gawkers from all over the country, and even the world, make the trek to “Guitar Row” as they have been doing since music instrument stores started populating this stretch of the boulevard in the late 1970s.
And why not? If you have the means to buy that 1960 Fender Jazzmaster certified to be completely free of CBS-components for $7,500, wouldn’t you want to purchase it on this sun-dappled Strip, right in the heart of Hollywood? Heck, in doing so, you may also run into the likes of Slash.
At least that’s what the music retailers want you to think…
But the fabled lane has mirrored the industry itself: while plenty of instruments are still bought here, the number of shops has consolidated. At least half a dozen smaller MI retail outlets have gone away (or online – see sidebar). Meanwhile, two giants, Guitar Center and Sam Ash, have become more dominant.
“It’s shrinking,” states Mesa Boogie’s John Tokarski of present-day “Guitar Row.” “In 1990, there were at least 12 stores that sold musical instruments. But today a lot of the boutique and vintage ones are gone unfortunately.”
Moshe Alvarez of the Carvin retail operation, like so many others who shopped on the Strip before working on it, also laments some of the changes. “Individual stores used to cater to the specific area more,” he says, citing back in the day when there were record stores, and one on Sunset would skew slightly differently in their product mix than one in Burbank. “The big chains, and the Internet, have created a situation where it seems everybody carries the same stuff. You go in and want something a little different and you get, ‘Well, we can order that online for you…’ Well, I could have stayed home and done that myself!”
But the boulevard has changed in other, better ways, too. “It’s a nicer place than it was 10 years ago,” says Guitar Center’s Jourdan Jaacovi. “It’s much cleaner and safer. It’s still very rock and roll, but just more family oriented now as well.”
But the allure has not diminished, and the two chains both report a different experience here than at their other stores.
Jaacovi adds: “It’s a whole different vibe here: Completely different customer, different stock, and a lot more traffic.”
All the stores report a good mix of celebrities, though most would probably agree with Sam Ash who, after naming a couple of big-name customers adds, “We don’t care so much who is buying it, only that they buy it from us.” Sam Ash, after a decade, is still the “new kid” on the block, and most recently the chain has impressively expanded its presence on the Strip. This is despite the still-uncertain economy, and certainly despite the formidable competition in the area.
“We love the competition – that’s why we’re here,” says Sam Ash’s T.J. Milian. “We wanted to be in the heart of Guitar Row.”
“If you’re a musician visiting L.A., you’re going to come to this block,” Tokarski states “There are a lot of toys, and instead of seeing them online, you can come here and actually play them.”
Those who may sometimes complain about a lack of foot traffic could not be blamed for being jealous of the Sunset Blvd. Guitar Center. After all, they have up to six tour buses stopping at their doorstep daily. Their Rock Walk of Fame immortalizes over 400 musicians, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons who, when he was being indoctrinated, famously said, “I’ve made millions in rock and roll by playing three chord songs, but in my mother’s eyes I hadn’t made it till I put my hands in cement at Guitar Center Hollywood.”
The chain has a long history. It opened as The Organ Center in 1959, and in 1967 started carrying Vox products. It would become the “Guitar Center” and move a few doors down to the present street address in 1985. Today, around 75 employees look after the 30,000 square feet stocked with instruments and gear.
Jaacovi, the flagship store’s Platinum Room manager, has been with the company since 2009, and personally caters to a lot of the stars. Much of the business he does is artist relations and he states, “I’d say more than any other shop, we cater to the largest clientele of working musicians.” And not just local musicians, either, as Jaacovi estimates more than 20 percent of GC Hollywood’s daily business comes from happy minstrels visiting from other parts of the country.
And what they find in the store is something distinct from your “typical” GC. “There are definitely differences,” Jourdan says. Worth the price of admission alone is the Vintage Room, and as this single store does the entire vintage buying for the 223-store chain, suffice to say it’s by far the best GC for old gear. The vintage category alone has an eight-person staff.
“Another difference is the Platinum instruments, the most expensive new guitars in the world from Gibson and Fender custom shops, and Paul Reed Smith’s private stock collection. We have the largest collection of new guitars over $3,000, and a lot of them – probably over 300.”
Otherwise, there’s just more. Every department a typical GC has is here – it’s just bigger with more selection. “We have an extremely large live sound/DJ/recording department that’s at least double the size of the usual room.”
The store does a good job flaunting its legendary aspects, and the Rock Walk has the same allure that draws people to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Obviously a lot of the visitors to GC Hollywood are music fans hoping to spot a rock star trying out a new amp, but Jaacovi insists that that is no problem; he doesn’t even take issue with non-players handling the gear.
“Our motto is that we want people to come into this store and experience it. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a Guitar Center, and the local store kept all the guitars behind the counter far from those who wanted to play it.” But even those with no intention of buying an instrument have an opportunity to spend money, as another unique aspect of the store is there are plenty of t-Shirts, gifts, and souvenirs to take home.
“It’s a destination, and visitors just want to be a part of the rock and roll history.”
“We opened the Sunset store about 10 years ago, starting it as a Manny’s,” says Sammy Ash. “It had a great vibe, great gear… but it didn’t translate to the L.A. market. After a few years, we threw in the towel on that model and created Sam Ash Hollywood.”
T.J. Milian is the regional manager for Sam Ash in Southern California, and says that the three-store approach is working well. The main Sam Ash (originally the Manny’s) operation is two stories, with guitars on the first floor and keyboards, and winds and brass on the second floor. There’s a separate live sound (DJ/pro audio) operation across the street from Guitar Center. In 2008 Sam Ash opened up a separate drum shop.
“It’s just fantastic,” Milian says of the setup. “Though it’s definitely higher cost in terms of rent and payroll, it really pays off in terms of customer service. Customers have been loving it.”
“Since we opened our third storefront on Sunset, we’ve been able to triple the size of the brass and winds department and upgrade the technology division,” Ash adds.
Milian says this all created more space for guitars. “Now upstairs there is an acoustic guitar room geared toward the higher-end buyer.” They carry many high-end Gibson and Fender custom shop instruments, plus high-end Martins and Taylors. Also in the mix are some “esoteric” instruments you don’t see everywhere, and while Sam Ash does carry some Steinbergs and Warwicks in their other stores, there are many more of them on Sunset Blvd. The horns are in a remodeled area, much bigger than before they got the third store, and they carry all the major brands including Yamaha, Selmer, Cannonball, P. Mauriat, and more.
Ash didn’t shy away from the considerable competition, big and small. “There’s always a lot of competition, but it’s how you deal with your customers. As we were able to increase the departments, we were able to service the market better. Our guitar department is truly spectacular and our new acoustic guitar room makes me want to buy something.”
Ash reports a wide variety of clientele – the rockers, the tourists, the wanna-bes. But also Moms and Pops come in for sheet music and school music accessories. Another segment he’s pleased to see are the “tons” of transplanted New Yorkers that come through. “We have a loyal customer base and when we came to L.A. they searched us out. Lots of old friends who went to California for greener pastures come here because they loved the experience in New York, and now they can have it Hollywood.”
Rather than “go Hollywood,” the Ash operation purposely went for a New York feel. “There’s lots of bare brick, slat wall, graphics, and on display is our family culture that took 87 years to develop,” says Ash. “I spend a lot of time out there with [executive vice president] Howie Mendelson making sure that the culture remains in place and reflects how we are as a family.”
That aside, it is a different world justifying differences in approach. “Quite a few vintage guitars are over the $10,000 mark and higher-end or new guitars that make people come from all over the world to see the extra selection,” Milian says. Related, this Sam Ash does a lot more selling and trading at this store than others found across the country.
Foot traffic is strong, and there are lots of tourists mingling with the celebrities. “Some come in just to see what Sam Ash is like, and end up buying their first instrument here.”
Milian says the vibe at this location is different than any other. Helping is the people working there: “We have an experienced, veteran crew.”
And now as it has its separate store, Milian says they have, “By far the best drum shop on the West Coast.”
Neely Custom Guitars
For many reasons, not all easy to disseminate, many of the smaller shop owners on Guitar Row have shuttered their doors over the last decade.
Then there’s David Neely. His small shop is still trusted with countless area guitarists for repairs, adjustments, and custom work.
Born in Nashville, Neely started playing guitar at around 12, inspired by the agents of influence at the time (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard). By 15 he was playing professionally, “Sometimes making more money than my dad,” he says. He was touring while in High School, and even got booked playing for some questionable audiences in the Northeast with alleged organized crime members (“They loved us”).
By 1975, touring got less attractive and David ended up working with luthier Bill Lawrence at the newly transplanted Gibson shop. About 18 months later he started his own shop in Nashville. A plea from Waylon Jennings put Neely back on the road for a good long run. Once that ran its course, he went off to college, earning a degree in electronics. He worked with innovator Rick Turner at Westwood Music, before hanging out his own shingle on Sunset in 1996.
“This place is packed – it’s a madhouse,” Neely declares. “I do everything here.” Not only do a lot of rock music’s greatest players trust him, but so do the industry’s greatest manufacturers who send him plenty of repair, restoration, and custom work. Neely Custom Guitars is an authorized service center for Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Guild, and Ovation, to name just a few.
“It’s a great life, living in Los Angeles, and having a successful shop,” he says.
“I do provide the best service you can possibly find, and as I’ve been playing guitar professionally for so long, I know what the client wants.” And they want everything from basic setups, to pickup swaps, to major restorations.
Neely wouldn’t dream of moving. “My location is great, but more than that, you have to make yourself valuable. If you need to learn bookkeeping for your business, learn it. Spanish? Learn it.”
John Tokarski of the Mesa Boogie store reports that they are, “Getting through these crazy times with pretty good sales.” Celebrating its 20th year on the Strip, the factory-owned operation is frequented by fans of the high-end gear where the selection is unprecedented. Just Tokarski, local musician Jimbo Head, and Mark Riccardi, former manager of another store on the Strip, work here.
“Believe me, overhead on a store like this is not cheap, so we have to hustle,” Tokarski says. It’s the only store owned by the amp maker, and because the Mesa Boogie depends on good relations with the retailers everywhere who carry their products, they actually hold themselves to the letter of their own strict discounting policies. This includes what they sell online, where they ship, and what they charge for it. But from the low the operation hit in 2008, being able to sell even some on the Web has helped them up considerably.
In addition to their own products, high-end guitars are found at the Mesa Boogie store, including Tom Anderson, Collings, Sadowsky, Mike Lull, Fano, John Suhr, and others. “When we first opened up, it was our amps and Tom Anderson guitars, and that’s about it,” explains Tokarski. “But we’ve since decided to become more of a full-out boutique guitar store. Our customers like seeing instruments from premiere guitar builders here.”
He credits being in Hollywood on Sunset has with so many big-name guitarists coming by. “They are all friends of ours, and like to come in just to hang out and talk sometimes. We’ve been blessed. Let’s face it – music retail has changed a lot in the last couple of years. I’m in my late 40s and from Philadelphia, and I remember liking going to my local music store because it was cool to hang out there. That’s what we try to be.”
In addition to the famous and the soon-to-bes, the Mesa Boogie store sees a lot of students from the nearby Musician’s Institute. There are also plenty of world travelers. “I had a guy in the other day from Japan, and he left with a beautiful Suhr guitar.”
Tokarski’s only regret about the store is he wishes could be bigger. He laughs and says that the 1,400 square foot operation’s storage area in the back, “Is organized… creatively, let’s just put it that way.”
The Mesa Boogie store has a strong reputation for repairs, and they do between 50 to 70 a month. Tokarski is proud of this, noting that customers like that they know whatever they bring in will be fixed right there as opposed to shipped off to some other place, which is increasingly the norm.
Then there’s the advantage that only a factory-owned store can offer. The factory’s sales team is in touch and prototypes are sent for playing and testing. “That’s really fun, because we’re all fanatics about this stuff.”
Carvin Guitars and Pro Audio
Moshe Alvarez recalls with great fondness being brought to the Sunset Carvin store by his father when he was merely 11. “At the time, they had full stacks that filled the store, from front to back. And the guitars … I wanted a Carvin since 1984 and didn’t get one until 1994.” Alvarez would actually end up getting his first guitar during that year a few doors down at Waldo’s, which has since closed. As for Alvarez, he has no excuse to not be steeped in Carvin gear, as today he’s eight years into working for the retail operation.
Save for some On-Stage Stands and a few sets of strings and guitar tuners, it’s an all-Carvin operation, with guitars, basses, amps, and P.A.s from the company on display. They do light and basic repair work in the shop, and send other repair work back to the factory in San Diego. And along with Alvarez, there’s David Hauge and Jason Fresquez to serve customers who come to worship all things Carvin. The three-man operation is an advantage, Alvarez says, and contributes to the laid-back vibe at the store. “The big thing we hear from our customers is they like to come in here because in other places on the Strip they get overwhelmed with 20 [sales] guys as soon as they walk in the door.”
As one of the few manufacturers with a retail operation, Alvarez is quick to agree that it’s an advantage. Recently a prototype of a smaller VT 50-watt amp head was given to them to check out. They were able to give feedback on, and ultimately influence, the final version. “It’s this very versatile and clean sound, but then it has this overdrive that can rip your head off – and it’s super light.”
They’ve managed through the tough times on the friendships and relationships they’ve built over the years. And, as with the other area MI stores, they see their share of tourists. The Carvin store gets an especially big uptick during the January NAMM show. And the during summer, as “players from all over the country come in excited to be in the store as they’ve been receiving the company’s catalog since the 1980s.”
Alvarez chuckles a bit in mentioning how extremely fanatical some of the customers are, and how their enthusiasm translates to minutia-detailed discussions on the showroom floor. Then he backpedals: “But I love it! I’m a gearhead myself and have a soft spot for anybody who is like me, anxious to talk about the first Carvin they owned, or the latest amp.”
Not surprisingly, he says a big advantage is that the trio is knowledgeable about everything in the store. “When there’s a new product, we go to the factory and check it out, so by the time it hits the floor, we already know it like the back of our hand.” This is especially helpful for a clientele not normally associated with the Strip: school and church folk. “So many of those people aren’t used to running P.A. systems, so we gauge a person’s knowledge and make sure they have a complete understanding about the Carvin gear they are buying. We don’t want someone to come back with a blown speaker because they didn’t know how to operate it. We’ve always been good about that, but it’s especially important nowadays. People want someone they can trust.”
Speaking of trust, despite being competitive, there’s a lot of goodwill on the Strip between those who work at the various stores. (This is good, as a manager leaves GC and goes to Sam Ash, one leaves Carvin to go to Mesa Boogie, et cetera) “We all know people from the other stores, and we all often refer customers to other stores. If someone is looking for something at Sam Ash, and they don’t have it, they will refer him or her to us. It’s not dog-eat-dog like it used to be, when stores would try to badmouth each other. We all figured out that that’s not cool.”