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The Guitar Shoppe: A true Laguna Beach institution

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Guitar Shoppe has stood on the corner of Fairview and PCH since 1972. Now expanded to four suites from its original one, it is an anomaly: an independent storefront that has managed to survive – even thrive – in a brutal retail climate. 

Finding an infinite “rabbit hole”

Owners Jim Matthews and Kirk Sand have owned The Guitar Shoppe since the beginning. Sand came to California from Illinois in 1972 to study classical guitar at the University of Redlands. Coincidentally, 1972 is the year Matthews opened the Guitar Shoppe (Sand joined as an owner in 1974). “I fell down that rabbit hole of guitar. Once you get the bug as a kid you pretty much don’t want to do anything else,” explains Sand.

He was a fixture at the local guitar shop in Illinois and learned much of the business there. When he first came to California he worked at the Fender Guitar Factory. Eventually, he found the Guitar Shoppe, and that was it.

Is that snow?

“I came to Laguna and walked down to Shaws Cove – remember, I’m from Illinois, everything is muddy bottoms and crawfish. When I saw that water I thought ‘I’m not going anywhere. This is my spot,’” remembers Sand. California was so delightfully foreign to him that he thought the “L” that sits in the hills above Laguna Beach High School, painted white at the time, was a patch of snow. 

Elvis and The Beatles are to blame

Matthews, on the other hand, was much more familiar with the ways of California. “I was an Air Force brat. I went to high school in Riverside and college in Long Beach,” he explains. 

We were on the path to finding out how he came to his involvement in The Guitar Shoppe when the conversation took a turn to Elvis. Sand is very gregarious. Matthews, on the other hand, is happy to let the conversation shift from him to another topic, especially if it’s music.

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Kirk Sand and Jim Matthews, owners of The Guitar Shoppe, work the counter

Elvis comes up quite a bit in our conversation. He and The Beatles feature prominently in the musical biographies of both men. “I wanted to be a Beatle. He wanted to be Elvis,” says Sand of his and Matthews’ early musical inspirations. ”You always want to be a rock star. I mean, let’s face it, most guitar players start because girls like it.” 

Matthews elaborates, “In the ‘50s it was Elvis. I got my first guitar. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got the knee moving, the sneer…” Sands interjects, “He has an incredible singing voice.” Matthews accepts the compliment, “Why, thank you.” It’s a brief exchange but it shows a little of how these two men have survived such a lengthy partnership: a deep amount of respect for one another mixed with a good sense of humor.

Rock star dreams give way to an incredible legacy

It is fortunate for guitar aficionados everywhere that the rock star thing ultimately didn’t pan out for these two. From their once small, now greatly expanded storefront, they have touched the lives of countless musicians, both known and unknown. 

A true School of Guitar, in all ways

“We have a “School of Guitar,” says Sand. “Not to brag, but we have some pretty incredible guitar players coming in here: Sting, Richie Sambora, Jose Feliciano.” Adds Matthews, “Some of our students have won Grammys.” 

Of course, the majority of students are not guitar gods. But whatever their level, the instructors at The Guitar Shoppe are total pros with a long history of teaching. “Two of our teachers, Randy and Peter, have been here for 40 years. We select our teachers. They have to be good teachers, not just good players. Randy has had students for 20 years!” says Sand proudly.

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There is something for everyone at The Guitar Shoppe, including custom guitars

The six studios were all full with students when we met. The shop was bustling with activity and there are guitars everywhere. The shop sells $10,000 guitars and $100 guitars. They even have private label guitars. This is how they have adapted to what has become the latest scourge. 

According to the partners there have been two big “storms” to hit their business. The first was the emergence of the big guitar stores like Guitar Center. The second, and latest, is a problem all retail stores, not just guitar shops, are having to contend with: e-commerce.

Adapting to the times to stay relevant

So, Sand and Matthews had to adapt. “Now, everybody is selling guitars,” laments Sand. However, one of the reasons The Guitar Shoppe survived the big store inundation is the same reason it is making a formidable stand against cheap guitars on the internet: service. 

It may sound cliché but, as Matthews explains, “Guitars aren’t like a VCR. They’re individual. Even guitars that are the same make and model can be different.” For that reason, everyone who works at The Guitar Shoppe must know their way around guitars. In fact, they all know how to build them. Because an important part of making guitars sound good is the set up, it’s something The Guitar Shoppe prides itself on. However, not every place that sells guitars offers that service. The big super stores would, for example, send their customers to The Guitar Shoppe for that service. Once their customer came in, they would almost never go back to the big store, and The Guitar Shoppe would gain another customer.

The importance – and enjoyment – of repairs

“I’ve always been heavy on repairs,” says Sand. “They’re paramount.” Matthews agrees, adding, “It’s a diversion. It’s enjoyable, for certain people, to work on guitars. They get the satisfaction of working with their hands. It makes some people happy.” Clearly, Matthews and Sands are those people. “There are always three to four guys working on guitars here,” says Sand.

Making a name in custom guitars

Taking the business of repairing guitars a step further, Sands began making custom guitars years ago. To date he has made 780, developing such a reputation he is back-ordered two years. He made guitars for Chet Atkins (“Mr. Guitar”) and that really jump-started his business. “When you make something for someone like Chet Atkins, everyone takes notice,” he says. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be rich and famous to order a custom guitar. “Just rich,” laughs Sand.

Making the most out of inexpensive guitars

And you don’t even need to be rich to buy a regularly manufactured guitar at The Guitar Shoppe. They sell their privately labeled guitars starting around $100. “We sell a lot more inexpensive guitars than expensive guitars,” says Matthews. “It’s kind of counterintuitive. We don’t recommend a beginner buy an expensive guitar. You have to become sophisticated to be able to know what you want.” 

And since Matthews and Sand know what they want, they say they “cherry pick” the inexpensive Chinese imported guitars they sell. Matthews says, “We make them better, and if you have a problem with it, we fix it.”

Not enough time for actual playing

All of this, the repairing, the custom making, the running of the store, means surprisingly little time for the thing that got them both in the business to start with. “I wish I had more time to play the guitar,” says Matthews. “I still love it. When I’m at home and I pick up the guitar I think, ‘Why don’t I do this constantly?’” Sand still manages to attend conferences like one for fingerstyle guitar, a la Chet Atkins. “It’s the rhythm and the melody at the same time. It’s like a mini-orchestra,” explains Matthews.

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The Guitar Shoppe manager and luthier Ben Wagner shows how it’s done

That is a very apt description. I can say that because during our interview Sand and Matthews called Ben Wagner, one of the managers, over, and asked him to play. He grabbed a guitar, sat down and played a lively yet extremely complicated song so effortlessly that even to my uneducated ears it sounded ridiculously impressive. This spawned a conversation about music from country (they are impressed with many of country’s new musicians) to rap (“How can you hum to that?!” wonders Matthews.).

Survival depends on creating an experience

In their 46 years, they have seen a lot of music trends, but people’s love for guitars has, thankfully, not wavered. “If we could have gone out of business, we would have,” laughs Sands. Matthews adds, “When we started we never looked that far into the future. Back then, five, six years is a long time when you’re young.” 

Now, they may not be quite so young, and 46 years through the lens of hindsight undoubtedly seems like the blink of an eye, but they’re still here. “If we can get through this current internet-thing…” sighs Matthews, “Stores like ours that create an experience will survive.” Judging by the number of people I saw coming and going through The Guitar Shoppe doors, he looks to be right.