Hobnobbing with Head Cases on the Rock Walk

makala_ukulele.jpgBefore today, I’d never been to Guitar Center, nor to Sam Ash Music Store in Hollywood.

After today – and you’ll see where I’m going with this in a minute – it’s not as though I’ll never go back, but I left both stores completely mystified by the, shall we say, “clientele.”

See, I picked up a nice little ukulele in Hawaii a few weeks back. I’m learning to play it, and I needed a travel bag and some felt picks since a) I like dragging it around and b) I can’t do that just-strum-with-the-fingers thing because I’m a pathetic n00b.

What the hell, I figured. Shop where all the “professional” musicians shop and you’re guaranteed to find what you need. So at lunchtime, it’s off to Sunset I drive.

I pay no mind to the pharmaceutical casualty who’s swaying all over the cement handprints out front – he’s conducting some imaginary symphony with his beer gut hanging down over his zipper – and I walk in …

Now, Guitar Center’s frickin’ massive, three levels packed to the gills with pricey, screamingly-good-looking guitars and countless dudes in little not-quite-a-uniform navyblue button-down shirts, who are all very helpful. Eventually I muddle my way up to Accessories, where this Character is chatting with the counter man.

The Character looks like he just flunked the audition for Metal Skool last night and has been drowning his sorrows ever since then.

Stringy-long-haired, gaunt and red-eyed like a refugee from EC Comics, he’s wearing a fucked-up blazer, a black t-shirt and what looks like (maybe) underwear and bare feet – along with what’s either a horrible skin condition or the remains of the makeup table that he went face-down in after the tryout.

The Character’s fiddling with some translucent-purple effects box, twirling knobs and hooting into it and trying to pluck its plastic grille as if it were guitar strings – and having a distractedly needy conversation with the CounterMan, who shoots me a sort of “oh thank CHRIST” look of desperation and leaps out from behind the counter with an overeager “CANIHELPYOUSIR???”

Then I notice there’s a $100 on the floor, half-folded, like it fell out of someone’s pockets.

“I need a gig bag for a soprano ukulele – you guys have anything like that?” CounterMan’s not sure, but he swiftly busies himself rummaging through the variety of gig bags. I pick up the $100 and try to decide what to do with it, and then I notice the Character is fumbling with a wad of cash and muttering “aw, shit.”

“Hey, I think you might have dropped this,” I say, offering the Benjamin. “Oh, THANK YOU,” he gushes, takes it. “Thank you VERY MUCH,” and he resumes messing with the effects box. Meanwhile, CounterMan is checking inventory on the computer – no luck – and when I ask him for felt picks, he says no luck there either. I shrug and head out.

“Thank you again!” says The Character. “Sure, no problem,” I reply, and head across the way to Meltdown to browse some comics.

En route, I notice the sign for Sam Ash, and figure, whatthehell, I’ll look there next.

I pull up and there’s a pretty ragged-looking homeless woman blocking the door with her body, peering inside. A lap steel – or maybe a ukulele – is dangling from her hand. “Scuse me,” I say, and she steps aside so I can go in.

At the counter, a rangy-looking burnout in homeless-guy threads is having a heated discussion with the Sam Ash CounterMan while a chagrined Security Dude, maybe 55 is standing by looking like he’s thinking of calling the cops.

I wander around a bit – again, the Help springs to my aid almost immediately, and almost as quickly informs me they don’t carry bags that small, and the only non-plastic picks they have are nylon or rubber, which are way too huge and weird for the job.

And by the time I turn around, Rangy Burnout is being pushed out the door (as gently as possible) by SecurityDude because he’s started screaming at the top of his leathery lungs:

“I’LL FUCKING GET YOU FOR THIS SO HELP ME FUCKING GOD I’LL GET YOU!!! he’s shrieking, his chest up against the shoulder of the short SecurityDude, who’s blocking the door like a defensive end despite the hellacious noise and spittle landing in his ear.

“YOU CAN’T DO THIS!!! I’M ON TO YOU!! I’LL FUCKING …. FUCK YOUUU! YOU FUCKING … PISSANTS!! FUCK YOUUUUUU!!!” and so on, for another minute or so, before he finally yells, GOD!!! and wheels and stalks out – with a gorgeous-looking banjo and the quite-the-opposite homeless woman in tow.

I’m gonna guess he was trying to sell the banjo, but … anyway, the CounterMan and other Sam Ash staff are just chuckling and shaking their heads.

One turns to me and says, “You know, a year ago when he walked in here, he was totally coherent. I think I sold him a bass.”

I should stress that aside from the counter guys and me – and maybe two customers calmly test-shredding Gibsons at Guitar Center – the characters I’m describing were the only clientele in either store.

So – was it just my experience today? Or do the big Hollywood music shops always attract scary-looking head cases?

16 Replies to “Hobnobbing with Head Cases on the Rock Walk”

  1. Go to McCabe’s on Pico in Santa Monica. They are AWESOME, helpful, not a chain, and I have been the craziest person there every time. Plus I am positive they sell Ukelele bags, and they also have lessons if you want those.

  2. Geeb and Noel – no kidding but, like, where all the REAL musicians at? Maybe they shop at different hours …

    And Annika – thanks. McCabes woulda been a winner, but they’re way ‘cross town from me. I went ahead and ordered online.

  3. All the rad musicians know that West LA Music in Burbank is the place to go. They are kind, sane, wonderfully helpful people there who will match and go lower than any published price on anything you are looking for. They feel more like a family business and remember who you are. My band loves them and I know many others who refuse to shop elsewhere.

    You have to realize that Guitar Center and Sam Ash are the huge, soul-crushing chain stores, and the people there are absolutely clueless about music equipment. I’ve gone there a few times out of desperation and hated every minute of it.

  4. As a musician myself, I’d have to say that the real musicians…shop online :D I hardly buy anything @ Guitard Center anymore, but I did run into Stevie Wonder there once.

    As far as brick and mortar stores, I’ll also vouch for WLA Music on Cahuenga. They get you pretty good deals, sometimes even better than online. I don’t think they stock ukes though.

  5. Actually, ukes are hot nowadays. I go to the NAMM (big-ass music instrument trade show) in Anaheim every January and noticed a freak increase in ukulele manufacturers exhibiting there. Blame that “Iz” guy and his post-mortem movie soundtrack success and that dude on YouTube who plays heavy metal guitar solos on his uke.

  6. They may or may not have eukele gear but when I’ve ventured to Guitar Row I bypass the big mofos and go straight to historic hole-in-the-wall Valdez Guitar at 7420 Sunset. You could also check Stein on Vine a few blocks north of Melrose.

  7. I have to say that I never see wild-eyed street people at the Hollywood Guitar Center or Sam Ash. What I do see at every GC and SA location, including Hollywood, is bunches of suburban teens doing endless bad renditions of Black Sabbath songs, too fast and with way too much distortion (please, kids, go back and listen to Tony Iommi’s tone on those old albums). That, and the occasional middle-aged guy doing some blooze wanking in the Fender room. I don’t know how the employees can stand it day after day.

    Anyway, unless it happened to be “Agitated Persons With No Fixed Address Get Half Off Day” when you walked in there, I have no explanation for your experience.

  8. The only professionals who shop at Hollywood GC or SA are the ones with too much money and half a brain. McCabe’s is great for acoustic instruments, although their prices aren’t the best. Same with Pro Drum Shop on Vine, probably the best store around for drums, but again they can’t match the prices of the big chains. West LA Music’s main store is in Santa Monica by the NuArt, but they have another store in Universal City (I think it only carries guitars and PA-type stuff though). Personally, I think they’ve gone downhill in the past year or so – my experiences with their salespeople recently have been pretty awful (both guitar and drum departments). And their drum department has gone to hell since Glenn Noyes left.

    If you don’t mind going down to the OC, Tone Merchants is really good for guitars, and West Coast Drum Center is one of the two best for drums. Or try to find a good local custom instrument maker, like the Carvin Custom Shop in Hollywood. Though I suppose all this doesn’t help you much with the ukelele.

  9. mrhooks – West LA Music Universal has keyboards, software and recording equipment, in fact that’s what makes up more than half their store. I think the only thing they don’t have that the West LA proper store has is drums and percussion. Their guitar section used to be the old Bass Centre, and the entire store used to be part of a local chain called Goodman Music. Anyone remember that?

    Will – Stein on vine is almost exclusively brass and woodwind instruments – saxomophones, trumpets, etc. The only stringamalings you’d find there are violins, cellos, string basses. So that means Stein on Vine is one place in town were you can find rampant sax and violins.

    My favorite music store of all time WAS Nadine’s Music on Santa Monica and Vine. They closed down almost 10 years but the signage and mural are still up. The space is run as a private recording studio now.

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