Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sweet Baby James


We drove all night, arriving around dawn. We staggered wearily into the hotel restaurant, and as I sat there mesmerized by the aroma of coffee, eggs, and bacon, it slowly dawned on me through the fog of fatigue that music was playing in the room.

The first song I was aware of was a slow, quiet song – a mellow-voiced man singing about “Sweet dreams and Flying Machines in pieces on the ground”. The album continued to play, and as I listened more closely to the songs, I realized that I was hearing something special but I had no idea who the singer was.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Different Enough


When you stop to think of all of the guitarists that you have heard in popular music, you begin to realize that not only are there hundreds or more, but even those that play the same genre are all clearly different. Then the next thought for me was, “Well duh – that’s why we have heard of them.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

No Stairway


If you love guitars, you have probably spent a fair amount of time in guitar stores browsing, drooling, talking, and playing. Store personnel do their best to provide customer service to those ready to buy, and for those that are just browsing. While this is part of retail life, especially with big-ticket items like guitars, basses, and amps, it is helpful to remember that there is a code of best practices for customers as well as retailers.

“Common sense and the Golden Rule still summarize almost everything there is to say about guitar shop etiquette,” says George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee.

Guitarist Kenny Long worked briefly in a guitar store.

“I was about 18 and a hot shot (so I thought) guitar player. I thought working in a guitar store would be the coolest thing – play guitar the whole time, jam, and have fun. I was shocked when the owner told me he expected me to vacuum the floor and take out the trash! I’m a guitar player man – I don’t do floors! Needless to say, I didn’t have that job for long.”

A guitar shop may seem like a good place to hang out, but for those that own and work in these stores, it’s not a hobby – it is how they make a living. Guitar store employees know that most customers aren’t buying, at least that day. They know that a good deal of their time will be spent answering questions that may or may not lead to a sale, yet most of them handle it professionally.

“This business is essentially a hobby that got out of hand,” said Gruhn. “All of the staff at Gruhn Guitars and most other music stores truly love fine fretted instruments and have a passion for what they do. We welcome people who truly want to learn regardless of whether or not they are prepared to buy today.”

Shop owners, employees, and patrons usually have stories to tell about things they have seen – good and bad. Matt Umanov, of Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker Street in New York City, told me:

“An old man, literally dressed in rags and apparently homeless, pulling out a wad of cash from his pocket and buying three children’s-size acoustic guitars, walking out and coming back in twenty minutes later and buying three more. Turned out he was giving them away to people who were walking down the street with little kids, which was not easy since he looked so ragged, but he came back and bought more four times and then left.  Never saw him again.”

Scott Krell is the sales manager for Ed Roman guitars, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“There have been many positive experiences over the years,” said Krell, “but one of the best things is when someone gets a guitar that they truly love and they show such enthusiasm, excitement and sheer joy. That is such a great feeling when someone is that happy, it's contagious.”

On the other hand, the stories can be about something not so positive. On a December Friday afternoon, George Gruhn told me in an e-mail:

“It’s a rainy day in Nashville. Earlier today we had two somewhat intoxicated guys come in wearing dripping wet jackets wanting to take guitars off the wall and play. Needless to say, they didn't want to take their jackets off so they didn't get to play.”

Scott Krell says the worst thing is:

“When someone damages an instrument and doesn't care. Accidents happen, but when a person shows that they think it's a joke, it's just disheartening.”

Matt Umanov’s store has been a mainstay in Manhattan since 1969, yet he reports mostly positive experiences.

“It's been over 43 years, and I've never had anything truly bad happen here.”

Matt said that one of the things that does bother him is:

“People who flail away, loudly and ferociously, with absolutely no regard for the fact that they're scratching up the guitars.”

“I’m a lot more careful when I go into a guitar store now,” said Kenny Long. “Now I know that it’s not cool to put a ding in a store guitar – a cheap one or a $4000 Gibson – it doesn’t matter.”

Scott Krell told me:

“[It’s] always great to see different players in all walks of life, and it is always nice to see excited guitar players.”

Matt Umanov enjoys:

“When we hear some truly great music coming from a complete unknown.”

Some guitar shops display signs requesting that customers not play songs like ‘Stairway To Heaven’, ‘Smoke on the Water’, and ‘La Grange.’

Kenny Long laughed about this question:

“When I worked briefly in that store, the first thing I did was grab a sunburst Les Paul off the wall, plugged it into a Marshall stack and started playing ‘Stairway.’ One of the other guys, walked over to me, switched off the amp and just shook his head. I never tried to play that song in a store ever again – as an employee or a customer.”

Umanov told me: “We did [have such signs] back in the 1960's and 1970's; may have been the first to have them, but don't anymore.”

Krell told me that Ed Roman guitars does not have ‘No Stairway’ types of signs.

“No, as I said earlier about our business model being somewhat different, we tend to not hear those classics as much as we used to anyway.  I worked in smaller shops for years, prior to working at Roman Guitars so I definitely get the joke, but it is an old joke.”

“Our showroom is not an audition hall,” said George Gruhn. “Customers are very welcome to play instruments, but not to attempt to perform or draw a crowd.”

Gruhn continued: “We recognize that in order to try out electric guitars they need to be plugged in and customers who are trying out amplifiers need to be able to crank them up briefly, however, full volume rock 'n roll music is not welcome in the middle of the showroom.”

“Yeah,” said Kenny Long, “I had that part wrong when I worked in a store.”

Scott Krell: “If I am asked to demo a guitar I tend to keep it general, it's not about me, it's about what the customer wants. If I can play something that would be helpful to them, then I try my best.”

Well known shops such as Gruhn, Umanov, and Roman, are going to attract tourists – a different crowd that what you would find in your local store. Gruhn Guitars is especially attractive to tourists, being located in a historic part of Nashville.

Gruhn: “After 42 years in business, we not only have a large number of customers coming to see us as a destination, but we also are sometimes inundated with waves of tourists.”

Ed Roman Guitars is located in Las Vegas – one of the top tourist destinations on the planet, but the store is no longer open to the general walk-in public.

“We are currently on-line based and by appointment, so we minimize some of the trappings of the local store,” said Scott.

Without good customer service, no one stays in business, and they learn to handle the balance between working with customers ready to buy and those that aren’t.

“Our sales staff is busy handling walk-in traffic, phone calls, e-mail, and other duties,” said George Gruhn. “Working the showroom can be a pressure cooker for our staff, but we all try to provide uniformly excellent customer service.”

Scott Krell: “Again it would come down to that particular person knowing that there are other clients and employees trying to get things done, so it's a careful balance, as long as everyone is respectful it tends to go smoothly.”

“All customers deserve to be treated respectfully and in turn we expect customers to treat our staff with respect,” said Gruhn. “Our instruments are fragile and many of them are expensive. We have signs posted asking people to please ask for help in taking instruments on and off the wall. This is not to prevent people from playing, but to minimize damage.”

We all want to maximize any guitar store visit, whether we are buying or just looking.

Matt Umanov said: “Be polite, and listen to what others are saying to you.”

Scott Krell said that it is important to be:

“Thinking about what you want and why you want it. Putting a mental list of the things that are most important to you as a guitar enthusiast, so when you do shop you can focus on what you feel is most important to you, and relate that to the people at the shop you may be dealing with so they can best be of help.”

Krell continued: “Patience is a virtue...”

George Gruhn: “Guitar shop etiquette is 99% common sense and application of the Golden Rule. We are very happy to spend time answering sincere questions from students and the general public as well as from skilled musicians. We must, however, work within the constraints of available time and space. Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully, but we also expect the public to take note of the times when the showroom is extremely busy and not expect instantaneous undivided attention at the expense of everyone else in the room.”

It is probably also a good idea to remember the ‘No Stairway’ rule. But then, as Matt Umanov said:

“…we got used to it long ago.”

My thanks to George Gruhn, Matt Umanov, and Scott Krell for corresponding via e-mail, and sharing their thoughts for this article.

Gruhn Guitars is located at 400 Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee, one block from the Country Music Hall of Fame, next door to the Ryman Auditorium, one block from Bridgestone Arena, one block from the convention center, half a block from Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and in the middle of the honky-tonk tourist district.

Matt Umanov Guitars, 273 Bleecker Street, New York NY. In business since 1969; store opened in 1969.

Ed Roman Guitars, Las Vegas, Nevada – by appointment only.


Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.



Saturday, February 2, 2013

The ‘Top’ Man


He was the first lead guitar player in one of the great guitar bands of all time. As a founding member, he helped to shape the early direction of the band, as they quickly became one of the premier acts in the busy London blues scene of 1963. By 1964 though, he had left the band, to be replaced in succession by three of the most popular lead guitarists in rock history.