Inside San Francisco’s little kingdom of guitars

Dec 14, 2017

 

When Metallica, the Rolling Stones, or other big rock acts come to the Bay Area, and they need their guitars fixed, there’s a good chance you can find them down at 15 Lafayette Street in San Francisco.

There, you’ll find a constellation of five shops crammed into one building, the oldest of which has been running for over 30 years. The owners and operators of this institution have held onto their lease and clientele by serving the local music community and maintaining a special vibe.

This little kingdom of guitars is tucked away on an alley off one of the busiest intersections in the city. Jesse Cobb grew up here and describes the place as “a nondescript building on a rather isolated, dirty street.” Jesse’s dad, Chris Cobb, owns a part of this kingdom.

 

The first thing you walk into is Real Guitars. Open since February 1986, it’s the oldest vintage guitar shop in the city.

 

 

Cobb walks me through the shop. We maneuver past stacks upon stacks of amplifiers. Guitar pedals and parts ooze out of what Chris jokingly calls the office. The place has so much character, Woody Allen filmed a scene for the film “Blue Jasmine” here.

“We need a bigger space but it just wouldn’t be right if we moved anywhere else but where we are,” says Cobb. “It’s the kind of shop I went to as a teenager in the ‘70s.”

Jammed with instruments made decades ago, Cobb shows me some alluring gems like a Rickenbacker from the 1960’s.

Cobb picks up an acoustic guitar made of metal called the National Tricone. There is a set of little cones in it (called resonators) which “gives some real power to it,” Cobb says as he strums. Before amplification, the resonator guitar was used to cut through the rest of the band's sound. Eventually, it became a blues staple.You’ll pay $2,200 for this seventeen-year-old guitar.

Next, Cobb shows me a Les Paul SG made nearly sixty years ago. “ You’re basically paying a whole lot of money for wood from 1961, because just about everything's been replaced on it,” Cobb says.

 

But people are willing to fork over $3,500 for nice, dried-out Honduran mahogany and a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard.

 

“You can’t get anything like that anymore,” says Cobb. “The wood supply in the world is just not that way, but people know the quality of wood has a lot to do with the sound of an electric guitar.”

Full of history lessons and music knowledge, the shop is a small paradise for local guitar enthusiast and musicians. Celebrities like Carlos Santana come in and know they can keep a low profile, but it’s also a place for newcomers. Nineteen-year-old Mason Mejia found the shop by accident on his way to one of the larger, corporate music stores in town.

Mejia skipped breakfast because he was too excited to pick up his 1965 Epiphone Cortez. “It’s the sunburst version and this guitar is one year younger than my dad which is pretty gnarly,” he says.

Real Guitars co-owner Ben Levin says unlike other shops, this place is like a community center. “People just come by and talk politics and movies and TV with us and just hang out,” he says, “we’re like a corner store.”

Past the guitars, a few basses and pre-statehood ukuleles made of Hawaiian koa wood, you’ll find the Gary Brawer repair shop.

Famous musicians trust the people back here to modify and repair their instruments, but some folks working behind the counter are celebrities themselves.

Shop manager Fernie Rod of the glam rock band Jetboy is just one of them. Fernie sets up an amp and plays the riff from Jetboy’s 1988 jam, “Feel the Shake.” And while his long hair is now cropped short, all the flair is still there.

The five businesses here complement one another. Brawer himself takes me back into the guitar building area.

“What I like to say is people show up with a napkin with a drawing on it and say, here make this,” Brawer says.

We find veteran builder Danny Ransom sanding a master for graphite bass necks. “Most of the people I’ve built for are old school San Franciscan bands like Airplane, the Dead, and Joe Satriani — not so old school,” Ransom says.

When asked how long it takes a build a custom guitar, both Brawer and Ransom tell me it’s a secret. “If you took the hours and the amount of money you’re getting paid I’m pretty sure you’d get depressed and find another job,” Brawer explains.

Brawer has the kind of reputation that summon the likes of Willie Nelson. Trigger, Willie’s famous guitar, has a big hole in it from years of playing and names carved into it.

“Before we saw the guitar we thought they were like Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty...but the names were like Ed, Dave,” Ransom says. “It’s the names of his roadies, his buddies, just the guys he hangs with! I just love that part.”

Like Willie’s roadies, these are the people who work off stage to help musicians get the sound they want out of their instruments.

Ransom walks me out of the building area, back into Real Guitars. He says there’s nothing quite like the sound of a music store.

“There’s no orchestration to it,” he says. “It’s like three of four different people playing all different stuff and it almost never blends together. You just don’t find that in music anywhere else.”