Sure, Los Angeles is home to swimming pools and movie stars, but it’s also a mecca for musicians. Between touring and recording, LA-based acoustic musicians make time to jam at their favorite haunts, such as Largo, where every month Sean and Sara Watkins host the Watkins Family Hour, featuring guests ranging from Jackson Browne to the Milk Carton Kids. and multiple festivals, including the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, and professional associations such as the Bluegrass Association of Southern California, attract acoustic guitarists from around the world.
The city has a rich history of communities brought together by song. Though his stint was brief, from 1937 to 1941, folk-legend Woody Guthrie spent formative years in LA, performing his “Oakie” tunes for prairie transplants living in Hoovervilles and on his radio show on KFVD. Up the hill, in Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Carole King, the Eagles, and many of the brightest songwriters of the late ’60s and early ’70s were neighbors who frequently gathered—acoustic guitars in hand—at each other’s homes for all-night jam sessions. By the early 2000s, Elliott Smith had settled in Silver Lake and—alongside Devendra Banhart and Rilo Kiley—paved the way for a thriving indie-folk scene that later embraced Dawes, Father John Misty, and Local Natives.
These days, the City of Angels has a lot to offer acoustic guitarists wanting to buy a new axe, hit up an open mic, or listen to bluegrass while chowing down on pizza. Here are 12 insider-spots to experience LA unplugged.
The Watkins Family Hour
Siblings Sean (on guitar) and Sara (on fiddle) Watkins take over the 280-seat Largo at the Coronet Theater every month or so for this convivial show that’s big on special guests and even bigger on musical delight. With the homespun banter, the evening is the closest Los Angeles comes to A Prairie Home Companion (which is not all that surprising given that the Watkins’ former Nickel Creek bandmate Chris Thile has replaced Garrison Keillor as host of that popular NPR radio show). On a recent night, Glen Phillips and Kevin Drew joined the Watkins siblings, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench for 90 minutes of tasty bluegrass, country covers, and originals for an evening that was as entertaining as it was informative. And don’t even think about taking out your cell phone during the performance unless you want to risk incurring the wrath of owner Mark Flanagan.
366 N La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles
This vaunted Santa Monica haunt opened in 1958, and in many ways, it feels like nothing has changed. The cluttered, wood-paneled front room features a gorgeous assortment of guitars, mandolins, and banjos that hang on the walls, while the small, no-fuss back room (think unfinished basement) is one of the city’s most intimate acoustic-concert venues. Its low-slung stage is so tiny that musicians sometimes have to stand on the adjacent staircase to let others pass by, and the tightly packed folding chairs won’t win any prizes for comfort. But history seeps from the walls: For decades, it’s been the place to catch such legends as Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Lucinda Williams, Ry Cooder, Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, John Gorka, and Tom Paxton. When the Louisiana Cajun band Beausoleil plays, the joint levitates. Get there early, since there are no reserved seats.
3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
A stone’s throw from McCabe’s in Santa Monica, Truetone Music may not have the history, but it’s got the largest selection of guitars in town and a friendly—but not pushy—staff eager to help beginners and professionals alike navigate the 4,000-square-foot shop and test the gear. With floor-to-ceiling new and vintage instruments, it’s almost as if the guitars are beckoning with songs waiting to be written. Truetone, which turns 20 next year, draws a who’s who of artists who stop by to purchase guitars or have them repaired. Among the notable clientele: Keith Richards, Brad Paisley, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, Carlene Carter, Brian Ray, and Rusty Anderson.
714 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
Cody’s Viva Cantina
Burritos, beer, and bluegrass happily co-exist at Viva Cantina in Burbank, where every third Monday of the month is Bluegrass Night, courtesy of the Bluegrass Association of Southern California. Visitors have come from as far away as China to see acts such as the Brombies, a four-piece formed by guitarist Jo Ellen and mandolinist George Doering nearly 30 years ago. Other acts in rotation for one of the two stages at the cavernous Cantina include Burning Heart Bluegrass Band and the Getdown Boys. If you’re not hungry, just belly up to the bar to enjoy the music. Viva Cantina is near the Equestrian Center, so it’s also a fave for riders who have just gone for a trot. Bonus points for proximity to a bowling alley.
900 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank
Me-n-Ed’s Pizza parlor
Don’t feel like heading to the Valley? Then head 30 miles south to Lakewood. For more than 40 of its 64 years, Me-n-Ed’s has been serving pizza and bluegrass every Saturday night. Among the bands featured are the Murphy Family, Grassland, and Paradise Junction, and each has built up their own devoted following, according to management. The manager’s also pretty sure that participating acts get free pizza. Everyone else has to pay. There’s an arcade to keep folks occupied between sets if the $10 pitchers of beer don’t do the trick.
For 60 years, the iconic West Hollywood nightspot has played host to the biggest singer-songwriters and served as the nexus of the Southern California sound born in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s here where the Byrds first played Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” in 1965 and Buffalo Springfield made its debut one year later. The Troubadour’s front bar is where the Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey met. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and James Taylor all played their first LA shows here. As rich a history as Doug Weston’s Troubadour boasts, the 400-capacity club is not stuck in the past. The Troubadour remains a rite of passage for acts on their way up and even acts who have moved on to much bigger venues, such as Weezer, who often returns for warm-up shows or tapings. The fabled room is general admission and the best place to view a show is just to the side of the stage by the front door, although others swear by the back bar with a straight-on view to the stage. Seating upstairs, when not reserved for band guests only, offers great views, but the floor is where the action is.
9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
With exposed brick walls, red velvet curtains, perpetually dimmed, round light fixtures, and wood panels, this Hollywood mainstay resembles a Parisian bordello, if bordellos featured some of the hottest acoustic music in town. Owner Marko Shafer’s musical policy is, “If it’s good, I’ll book it.” He curates each night, which can feature up to four acts. (Since each artist only gets an hour on such nights, shows start on the hour and on time.) Last year, Shafer opened a 90-capacity Second Stage to complement the 200-capacity main room and to nurture smaller acts. The central location, artist-friendly vibe, and great sound makes Hotel Cafe a fave for bigger names like John Mayer or Coldplay’s Chris Martin, both of whom have done surprise shows here. So have Leonard Cohen, Laura Marling, and the Lumineers. For a taste of the local scene, check out the weekly Monday Monday show at the Second Stage, where a dozen or so singer-songwriters get up to work out new material and share sets.
1623 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles
Opened by Paul Kulak in 1999 as a labor of love to support musicians, remarkably, Kulak’s Woodshed is still around. I say “remarkably” because admission is free, there are no alcohol or food sales to speak of (patrons can grab a can of soda or snack and leave a donation), and Kulak pays the expenses by passing a bucket. With seating for 49, mainly mismatched old sofas and cozy chairs, Kulak’s Woodshed resembles your great aunt’s living room, where the walls are covered with mementos and the Christmas lights stay up year round. Monday night is open mic night, with each artist performing one song. (The order is chosen by randomly pulling names from a basket.) The free show streams live with Kulak recording every performance—for a $20 donation, acts can buy a multi-cam, 24-track copy of their appearance. The second and fourth Tuesdays of every month are also open mic, but artists are guaranteed a slot and get to perform two songs. The other nights feature single acts. Kids and pets welcome.
5230 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood
With its deliberately casual vibe, Songwriter’s Square at the Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe, emphasizes stories over style. The third Sunday of every month, host/creator Bill Berry leads a diverse trio of singer-songwriters through an evening of music and behind-the-scenes tales, often inviting the audience to chime in with questions. The songwriters sit in a square—hence the event’s name—with the audience seated in the round. Participants, which have included Lone Justice’s Marvin Etzioni and folk legend Christine Lavin, are encouraged to bring their guitars, for “some terrific instrumental jams,” Berry says. The menu includes beer, wine, and plenty of vegan offerings.
2106 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles
Blake Mills’ Pop-Up Shows at Mollusk Surf Shop
They don’t happen often, but when guitar wiz/producer Blake Mills hosts his pop-up show at Mollusk, a surf shop in Silver Lake and Venice Beach, you’ll want to be there. He usually brings a full electric band as well as famous friends such as Jackson Browne or former boss Lucinda Williams on acoustic guitar. The way it’s worked for the last five years or so is Mills, who grew up in Malibu, calls the shop and says he’s got some musician friends in town and they want to jam. Mollusk schedules the free gig for a few days later and posts word on its website and Instagram on the day of show, as does Mills.
As the dude at the surf shop said, “They’re super random,” but super cool.
3511 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles
1600 Pacific Ave., Venice Beach
Hollywood Farmers’ Market
Support your local farmers and your local musicians at one of Los Angeles’ oldest farmers’ markets. And bring your guitar along. The market, open Sundays from 8 a.m.–1 p.m., is one of six run by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of LA (SEELA).
Each of the four wings of the market has room for up to two acoustic guitarists, who aren’t paid, but are allowed to put out a tip jar. Either go and enjoy the music or provide it yourself. According to SEELA, there’s no formal application process, so proceed to the information stand at the market and ask if you can stake out a wing. If it’s not taken, your chances are good.
SEELA’s other markets, including one in Echo Park, also offer music, but not as consistently as the Hollywood locale.
Acoustic guitars—and acoustic music—hold a special place at this music store at the crossroads of Culver and Sepulveda. Let’s start with the repair department: Luthiers Randy Broyles, a former builder at Gallagher Guitars, and Troy Sanders, who trained under John Carruthers at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, offer complete repair services for stringed instruments.
The store sports an impressive selection of steel-and nylon-stringed instruments, including Martin Custom Shop models as well as guitars from Martin’s Golden Era and Limited Edition series. Boulevard also is a good place to pick up a Taylor koa.
And then there are those intimate concerts. Recent shows have featured guitarist and harmonica ace Pat Bergenson and his vocalist wife Annie Sellick, the Kentucky bluegrass band the Wooks, and the great flatpicker David Grier, a four-time Grammy winner whose sweet bluegrass licks will make you forget all about the traffic snarl on the Santa Monica freeway.
4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City
Jackson Browne: The Mentor
The first official concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop was in 1969 and featured Bryndle, a local group, with a young Jackson Browne as the opening act. “After that, we never had any reason to drive past La Cienega,” says McCabe’s co-owner Bob Riskin, referencing the West Hollywood folk clubs several miles from the shop. Since then, Browne has performed several times at McCabe’s, but he’s also a frequent visitor to Largo, where he often can be found hanging out backstage with friends and providing moral support for up-and-coming singer-songwriters.
LA photographer Roman Cho, who contributed to this feature, has encountered Browne backstage on numerous occasions. He shared a few thoughts on the pop star: “In the 14 years I’ve been photographing at McCabe’s, he’s the only artist of that stature I see showing up on a regular basis to catch a set by friends or young musicians that he likes. He often sits in with the band Jackshit, featuring his touring guitarist Val McCullum, as well as Sean and Sara Watkins at Watkins Family Hour shows at Largo and McCabe’s. He’s taken the Watkins on the road with him as an opener (he’s done the same with Dawes) and will be touring with them this spring on an acoustic tour. He’s sat in on the Mollusk Surf Shop jam sessions with Blake Mills and even sat in with a Gypsy-jazz band at the tiny Cinema Bar. At a time in his career when many of his contemporaries seem to be resting on their laurels and staying in their circle of friends or pursuing hobbies and interests, Jackson Browne is still devoted to music and is very active in supporting younger musicians.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.