On a balmy afternoon in January, I drive west through a dreary series of Los Angeles strip malls and arrive at 3101 Pico Blvd., in Santa Monica, where I pull on the guitar-neck door handle to enter McCabe’s Guitar Shop. I step into an alternate reality—seeming less like a music emporium than a quirky Wes Anderson film.
Just past the threshold, across from a century-old cash register, a mechanical cobbler inside a plexiglass case hammers away at a shoe sole, while a replica of a fossilized Apatosaurus louisae dinosaur head watches over the proceedings. A decommissioned traffic light gives its signals, and a vat of complimentary coffee percolates. Among the classes announced on a whiteboard are Mali Fingerstyle Guitar and Indian Slide Guitar.
McCabe’s is gently humming with activity. A young man picks ethereal arpeggios on a Celtic harp while a small girl barely old enough to hold a parlor guitar works out some chords. In the repair department, open to the front showroom, guitar-tech Matt Bradford (shown below) is in deep concentration, reviving an old Gibson archtop. Staff members chat collegially with customers, and a German public-radio crew scurries about, setting up equipment for a broadcast.
In the center of the main room, Bob Riskin, the longtime proprietor of McCabe’s, takes it all in with an inscrutable expression. His wife and co-owner Esperanza Riskin (the couple is shown above), who goes by Espie, joins him, smiling beatifically. After a pleasant introduction they lead me into the shop’s private room, with its redwood-paneled walls and rows of banjos and Taylor guitars.
McCabe’s is one of the world’s great guitar shops—so storied that LA Weekly instituted the annual awards category, “Best Guitar Shop (That’s Not McCabe’s).” It’s also among LA’s most treasured music venues—and one of the best spots on the West Coast to catch acoustic music—as well as a music school and unofficial community center.
There’s no place quite like it.
McCabe’s namesake, original owner Gerald McCabe, was a furniture designer by trade, who in the mid-1950s wandered into a musical community through his first wife, the folksinger Marsha Berman. On the strength of his woodworking skills, McCabe occasionally fielded requests to repair instruments, and in 1958, opened a little shop down the street from the store’s current location, to accommodate the needs of a burgeoning folk and roots scene. He hired an ethnomusicologist friend, Ed Kahn, to sell books and records, and took another friend, Walter Camp, under his wing for guitar repair.
Riskin—the son of Robert Riskin, who directed It Happened One Night, and Fay Wray, who played the lead in the 1933 King Kong—grew up in West Los Angeles, not far from McCabe’s. He first walked into the shop one day in 1959, when he was 16. “It was the only guitar store in LA at the time, and aside from one employee, Walter Camp, it was pretty much empty,” Bob says, his voice causing banjo heads in the room to resonate.
Bob had just received his first guitar, a 1912 Martin in need of professional attention. He started hanging out at McCabe’s and soon became an employee, sweeping floors and running errands before apprenticing on repairs. He was his own first customer. “The Martin was seriously bashed up, and I figured out how to repair it, splinter by splinter,” Bob says. “And then I learned other things, like how to scrape a piece of rosewood to thickness with a hand scraper, and never left.”
The McCabe’s team set up a coffee pot and a table and chairs in the shop, and it became a destination for local musicians as well as those passing through the area. A teenage Ry Cooder was among the early regulars. “He was only 14 years old and we were already worshipping him. He was one of those musical sponges—anything you could play, he could play right back to you,” Bob says.
“And better!” Espie Riskin adds.
“That’s when I knew I was never going to be a musician,” Bob concludes.
In working on instruments, Bob and his cohorts had to devise their own methods, because at the time there weren’t any resource materials, let alone standardized approaches for guitar maintenance and repair. Accessories that guitarists now take for granted came about through their experimentation. “We invented a thousand things, many of which are still in the industry—string winders, for example. I used to build them by hand,” Bob says. “I made some really good picks out of cheese, but that’s another topic.”
In the service of new trends in music, the shop also made instrument modifications that today would be unthinkable—and that would influence guitar designs among the major manufacturers. The 1963 Rooftop Singers’ hit “Walk Right In” led to a demand for 12-strings, and since there were few on the market at the time, Bob converted six-string Martin 00-21s, with their wide nuts. “It was a bit of work. We extended the pegheads, matching everything perfectly, and swapped out the bridges. They were great, beautiful-sounding little guitars,” says Bob, adding that Martin soon began offering 12-strings in response.
McCabe’s flourished in the early and mid-’60s, as US sales of guitars soared. In 1964, the shop moved to 3103 Pico, having outgrown its previous quarters. That year was also good for Bob on a personal note.
“I met my wife here,” he says.
“He sold me my first guitar,” adds Espie, recalling the Amezcua Guitarra, a Mexican guitar from Paracho.
She was the only customer in the store when McCabe asked if she could keep a watch on things while he went out to photograph a piece of his furniture. “He said, ‘Here’s how you work the cash register—I’ll be right back.’ Luckily, Bob came in. And I never left,” says Espie, who now handles the shop’s business operations after a long career in the biotech industry.
“That’s true, and I got your name wrong—
I just made one up,” Bob says, laughing.
Espie still has the Amezcua.
Peter Rowan played a fantastic first set to an appreciative audience. At the start of the second set, he announced that he had some guests—down the stairs came Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
The Accidental Venue
On another fortuitous occasion, in 1969, the folk-blues guitarist Elizabeth Cotten was stuck in LA with a cancelled gig. To help raise money for Cotten’s trip back home to North Carolina, McCabe’s offered her a stage—even though the shop didn’t exactly have one. “We improvised a space for her to play in,” Bob says. “We threw up curtains—or maybe plastic bags—on the front window and brought out the chairs we used for teaching for the audience to sit on. She gave an absolutely marvelous show.”
Bolstered by the success of that show—and realizing that hosting concerts would force the employees to regularly clean the messy shop, littered with sawdust and instrument parts, McCabe’s began hosting weekly concerts. The intimate space currently holds 150 people. The first official concert at the store was 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 Bob, referencing the route to the West Hollywood folk clubs several miles from the shop.
In the five decades since, thousands of artists have played at McCabe’s. Singer-songwriters Richard Thompson and Joni Mitchell have used the venue as a musical laboratory. Guitar legends Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Norman Blake, John Hammond Jr., David Lindley, and John Fahey are among those to have graced the stage, as have such jazz visionaries as Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and Charlie Haden. R.E.M. performed there in 1987 at the height of its fame, and Beck and Liz Phair played there in the 90s.
After my visit to the shop, David Wilcox, the singer-songwriter known for his formidable guitar chops, tells me, “I’ve played at McCabe’s on my way up and on my way down. The tradition of the store’s concerts is so long and fascinating, and it’s a lesson in mortality to be a part of it.”
To preserve this tradition, thousands of recordings from McCabe’s concert series have been donated to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as part of the Southern Folklife Collection. “They’re going to digitize them before the reels disintegrate,” Bob says.
“I had to go through and catalog them, one by one,” adds Espie, describing this massive labor of love.
Jorge Calderon, left, and Jackson Browne at the Artemis Records Grammy after-party in 2004. Browne has a long history with the concert series—he was the opener at the first show in 1969.
Folding Chairs & String Reverb
Bob became a part owner of McCabe’s in 1969, and around that same time—no one remembers exactly when—Walter Camp left for Northern California. Then, in 1972, Bob took on what remains his biggest project with the shop. He moved McCabe’s up the street, to its current location, a two-story building that, at 6,000 square feet, is four times larger than the previous shop, and he shaped it into the space that people recognize today.
Bob, who became full owner when McCabe sold his interest in 1986, says, “I did a lot of the design work. Almost everything you see in the building I had a hand in originally: deciding what went where, what walls went and what walls stayed. “This redwood appliqué I designed,” he continues, pointing to the private room’s wall. “It looks like everyone’s high-end room. Years ago, people came around here with cameras, then all of a sudden [the wooden wall treatment] was popping up at the high-end room of every Guitar Center and Best Buy.”
Housed in a glass case in the main room of McCabe’s is a selection of high-end flattops whose highlights include a Froggy Bottom parlor and a Martin Custom Shop 00. On an adjacent wall is a duo of Adirondack-topped dreadnoughts, among other offerings, by Collings. Near the ceiling are rows of high-end ukuleles and mandolins, and displayed throughout the store are miscellaneous instruments at all prices, including a Wazoo—a kazoo with a little plastic megaphone—and a sarod. “We cater to everyone from tiny tots to professionals, with a big bulge in the middle,” Bob says.
Aside from some curiosities, like a Gibson Style-U harp guitar above the entryway that’s not for sale, there is a noticeable scarcity of vintage guitars. When I ask Bob about this, he responds in a pragmatic way. “We’re in a golden age of guitar building,” he says. “The guitars that you can buy today are so much better than what was commonly available in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s. It’s just crazy how much higher the standards are now. Imported used to mean junk, but now there’s gorgeous stuff coming out of overseas factories, and there are so many brilliant hand-makers.”
Geoff Muldaur, right, worked over a phrase that he and Greg Leisz were going to play in the second set while Bob Neuwirth looked on. Geoff was very particular about his music and went over each passage in microscopic detail.
Bob walks through a narrow hallway whose walls are decked with inexpensive ukuleles at one end and student violins at the other, and leads into the back room, where the concerts are held. Three of the walls are covered with instruments, from electric guitars to resonators. Outside of a sound room are neat stacks of chairs. “These are the very best folding chairs you can get,” Bob says, ironically.
The back room’s notoriously uncomfortable chairs are trumped by its superior acoustics. Bob originally enlisted sound engineers to design the space. As an unintended consequence of the back room being both a venue and a showroom, sympathetic vibrations from the stringed instruments on display tend to add resonance. Wilcox jokes, “I call it string reverb.”
Upstairs are rooms for lessons and offices, with a hallway densely populated by black-and-white photos of artists who have performed there. “It’s fascinating and humbling to see those pictures,” Wilcox says. “It feels like taking a pilgrimage in the mountains and you realize that many people have been there before.”
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McCabe’s currently has a roster of more than two dozen teachers offering music lessons. A peek in one of the classrooms reveals a blackboard diagramming a 12-bar blues with interesting chord substitutions, and shelves packed with guitar cases.
“So many people who buy their first guitars here end up taking lessons at McCabe’s, and some even go on to teach here,” Bob says.
In the corner office of Lincoln Myerson, McCabe’s concert director, a young employee, Brian Rodriguez, types on a computer. An old Stella guitar and an Oscar Schmidt autoharp lean against the wall next to his chair.
“I got my first guitar here, and I’ve been coming back ever since,” says Rodriguez, echoing a now-familiar narrative at McCabe’s.
[Editor’s note: Walter Camp, one of the founders of McCabe’s, died recently. “Walter was a thinker and a visionary. We put together a place where our patrons could hang out and share music, get repairs, instruction, instruments, and coffee,” Bob Riskin wrote on the McCabe’s website. “The core of his beloved guitar shop was worked out in the decade that he worked here (1960-70). The happiest time of my life was when I worked with Walter.”]
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.