McCabe’s Guitar Shop cuts through the noise of L.A.’s relentless cultural disruption, staying true to artists and audiences for 50 years and counting

By Steve Appleford

Singer-songwriter Mindy Smith pauses at the microphone shortly before her Sept. 8 concert in the back room at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Photo by Steve Appleford.

A musical moment isn’t always about sound. It’s also about silence, the spaces between the notes, the beats and the breaths taken at the microphone. And nowhere does the quiet carry more
weight than in the back room at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where performers find a room of genuine warmth and aching clarity, facing a crowd of respectful
but demanding music fanatics, while accompanied by the kind of quiet that amplifies the slightest cough or bum note from the stage.

For half a century, this little room in Santa Monica has empowered and defeated its share of singer-songwriters, banjo players, folk-rockers, bluegrass singers, comics and blues shouters, young and old. For generations, it has hosted some of the greatest artists of their era, sharing classic songs or woodshedding new material. Sometimes it’s young voices taking their first steps onstage. And all of them face that awesome moment of silence before striking their first note.

“It can throw you off sometimes on stage, especially if you’re an electric performer and used to playing to a crowd with a consistent murmur, like living near a freeway,” says singer-songwriter Dave Alvin, a road-hardened veteran of hundreds of far flung gigs across North America and beyond, first with the Blasters and X, then as an acclaimed solo artist in the classic mode. “At McCabe’s, there are people sitting on folding chairs and they’re staring at you and you’re naked.”

Beck returned to
original form for a January benefit show at McCabe’s
Photo by Danielle Hardy / daniellehardyphotography.com

Alvin was back on the McCabe’s stage in June, and for two sold-out nights performed his album “King of California” in full to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The album was a landmark for him as both a songwriter and a singer, equally literary and heartfelt, and a classic he could call his own. On his second night, Alvin wore cowboy boots and faded black denim, his sleeves rolled to the wrists. On the song “Barn Burning,” his eyes were shut tight, and he sang in a weary but understated growl: “the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.” Then in a near-whisper, he came to the closing lines: “Good man’s in prison/ And a bad man runs free … Best not say you spoke to me/ ‘Cause there’s an evil in this land.”

After hitting a bad note on another song, Alvin joked, “You guys are getting mistakes tonight that other people didn’t get.”

Behind the stage, the store’s guitar-shaped logo is stenciled in white on a brick wall painted black, right where originators like Ralph Stanley and John Lee Hooker once performed. The audience sits in rows of metal folding chairs, beneath boxes of Deering Goodtime Banjos stacked high on a shelf and the old signs on the wall: “Most of these instruments are for sale or may be rented with option to buy at attractive prices” and “Gerald R. McCabe — Guitars, Banjos & Mandolins.”

On show nights, there is no booze for sale, just coffee and cookies. McCabe’s is not a nightclub. People are here to listen.

Alvin says he first performed at McCabe’s in 1989, sitting in on guitar with his friend Syd Straw, the folky, quirky singer of songs humorous and dark. “I don’t suppose he mentioned that he was kind of terrified,” Straw wonders later. “It’s very intimidating because absolutely everybody that anybody loves and admires plays there.”

Straw likes to jokingly call the guitar shop Macabre’s, and at one of her shows there years ago, a fan stood up and proposed marriage. Straw did not accept, but has maintained the room as a recurring stop in her performing career since 1984. “It’s very wonderful if you want to be heard,” says Straw. “For a touring musician it can be very few and far between to have those listening room experiences. It’s just a small select crowd and they pay great attention and I think are well rewarded by people really giving their best.”

Beck’s ‘Old, Weird Los Angeles’

At 150 capacity, it’s not unusual for the back room at McCabe’s Guitar Shop to sell out. But some nights are special. Last year, a long line of McCabe’s alumni returned to celebrate its 60 years in business (opening in 1958) and its unique place in the Los Angeles area music scene (hosting live shows since 1969). Last fall, Jackson Browne played two nights. (Like Alvin, he brought along slide guitar phenom Greg Leisz.) In January came the return of Beck, who once took lessons there as a kid, and then performed in the back room (with Liz Phair) as a promising new artist in 1994.

For two nights, Beck’s 90-minute performance returned him to his original form, before the fringed pants and the Flaming Lips. No dance moves and no set list. His acoustic songs were “Canyon jams,” he said, echoing the classic folk-rock era of Laurel Canyon, when the likes of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Neil Young were musical neighbors and living room collaborators.

Beck began with “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” an early song filled with yearning non sequiturs, and something he would have played the last time he was on the McCabe’s stage 25 years before. “Tonight the city is full of morgues/ And all the toilets are overflowing,” he sang, strumming his acoustic, in the first of 21 songs and fragments (including a couple of playful Led Zeppelin riffs and a gloomy version of “Lost Cause” he re-titled “Lost Goth”). Beck joked and improvised, making up lyrics, slipping unexpectedly into Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” asking the crowd to sing along. “I think I’m hitting some bad notes,” Beck said. “We’ll Auto-Tune it later.” (It’s a music crowd, so they get the jokes.)

He referred to McCabe’s as a surviving specimen of what he calls the “Old, weird Los Angeles” that he remembers while growing up. It’s a distinctly local spin on how critic Greil Marcus refers to the ancient blues, folk and country sounds of “old, weird America” that once rose organically from the ground up to inspire a young Bob Dylan and a lot of the roots-flavored sounds that immediately followed in popular music.

For Beck, old, weird Los Angeles is also about the city’s physical being, the strange corners of culture that sprung up even amid the hardboiled “Dragnet” days. So much has been bulldozed away since, as generations of city leadership acquiesce too quickly in discarding the past. In the music scene alone, Los Angeles has lost essential venues from the Ash Grove to Raji’s, with ongoing threats now to landmarks on the Sunset Strip. One crowd’s cultural Mecca is another man’s development opportunity, but McCabe’s is a rare, unlikely survivor.

In 2019, Beck is a journeyman player, and life experience adds new weight to old songs. He’s no longer the precocious indie folk eccentric who seemed even younger than his 22 years, pulling from his pocket a crumpled piece of paper with song lyrics he wrote that day. Today he’s a leading figure in the old, weird Los Angeles represented by a beloved guitar shop.

“I know exactly what he’s talking about,” Alvin says of the old and the weird that Beck remembers. “It’s the part of Los Angeles that’s disappearing. Partially, it’s getting gentrified out of existence or priced out.”

Old bookstores he favored for decades, and the sorts of bars and shops “where you could run into Charles Bukowski or one of his girlfriends,” are gone. Alvin famously grew up in Downey and co-founded the roots rock act the Blasters with his brother Phil, and eventually relocated to Silver Lake. “I live on the road and I have a place in Los Angeles for all my stuff. So much of what I grew up surrounded by is gone, so there’s the Troubadour, there’s McCabe’s,” Alvin says. “I don’t feel that connected. My connection is more to that old, weird Los Angeles.”

Cooder, Ronstadt, Waits, Doe …

When McCabe’s was founded in a small storefront on Pico Boulevard, a shop devoted to acoustic guitars was a novelty, and for founder Gerald McCabe it was less a commercial enterprise than a reflection of his personal obsession with music and woodworking. He was a highly regarded designer of modern, mid-century furniture, and his wife, Marcia Berman, was a successful folk singer. As a master of woodwork, McCabe was often asked to help repair the delicate wooden instruments of his wife’s musician friends, eventually leading to the creation of the guitar shop.

As interest in the folk revival soared by the early Sixties, followed by an explosion of rock ’n’ roll, so did business at the store, but McCabe never took his focus away from his furniture design and teaching. He left the running of the place to McCabe’s partners Walter Camp and Bob Riskin, who introduced live performances to the back room. By the time McCabe sold his interest in 1986, the little guitar shop had expanded into a larger space down the block and became an essential corner of West Coast acoustic music.

A teenage Ry Cooder spent many hours there, watching and learning, which he later attributed to him becoming a virtuoso guitarist, acclaimed over subsequent decades for his slide playing and commitment to roots music. “Ry Cooder was very important,” says Riskin, now the store’s owner. “He was a kid who took some ukulele lessons and became a brilliant guitar player.”

Riskin recalls one afternoon when he and Camp closed the store early and invited folk-blues duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry to stop by for an impromptu session. “We all sat around and drank beer and Brownie and Sonny would play,” Riskin says. “And Ry was just soaking it up as a teenager. He had a gift.”

The back room, with acoustics designed by Riskin, became a favorite stop for singers and musicians accustomed to much larger spaces, including Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits and McCabe’s regular Richard Thompson. By the late Eighties and early Nineties, it was also a place for artists of an alternative bent to stretch out and strip down on acoustic instruments: John Doe of X, Frank Black of the Pixies, Cat Power and REM, among them.

For Nashville-based Mindy Smith, whose career began with a searing 2003 duet with Dolly Parton on a remake of her “Jolene,” McCabe’s is comparable to other historic musical spaces, like her hometown’s Ryman Auditorium, known as “the Mother Church” of country music. Though much smaller, McCabe’s inspires the same kind of camaraderie among artists who pass across its stage. “You know who’s come before you and all the talent that’s going to come after,” says Smith, who performed two nights at the guitar shop this month. “I love the intimacy, hanging out with people. It doesn’t feel like a place where everyone is so far away that I can’t get to them.”

ABOVE: Instruments and ephemera decorate the walls of McCabe’s RIGHT: Dave Alvin pauses for a smoke before a back room concert in June Photos by Steve Appleford

The Stuff of Legend

The front room of the store is much as it’s always been, filled with music books and guitars for every level of player, including the most precious Martin and Guild instruments. (Alvin still drives across town just to buy a particular brand of guitar thumb-picks there.) More guitars are in back, and upstairs are small rooms where individual lessons are provided by veteran musicians to players of any age.

“It really gives me a charge if somebody comes in for the first time,” says Riskin, who is semi-retired, coming into the store a few days a week. “I’m usually in the office now doing accounting and stuff. I’ll give them the tour. And to see a child who is just playing so much better than I ever got, and he or she is like 10 years old, always blows me away.”

Riskin says McCabe’s has been the site of about 4,000 live shows, and recordings of at least 3,000 of them are preserved with the University of North Carolina’s Southern Folk Heritage Institute. That legacy is just one part of what has helped the guitar shop to survive, as so many of its surroundings have gone away.

“We were respected,” Riskin says. “I think the atmosphere was good, with a gender-balanced staff. It gave people a good feeling. Since the great recession, it’s been tough, very frankly. We burned through an awful lot of capital that we’d accumulated over the years.”

For now, at least, McCabe’s still stands, continuing its legacy of music-making. For Kora “Koko” Peterson, who took over the booking of live music a little more than a year ago, one highlight of that history is the legend of an unknown Emmylou Harris performing at McCabe’s at the beginning of her career, years before her Grammys and multiple pop/rock/country hits. Hardly anyone was there to witness it.

“That is such an inspirational story because you can’t even wrap your head around that now — especially for people who are coming up in the world of music,” says Peterson, a McCabe’s employee since starting as a high school teenager 20 years ago. “What I’m trying to do is bring in a lot of up-and-coming talent in addition to some of the greats we have, and balance our history with our future.”

Most of the employees have been at the store much longer than she has, some more than 40 years, and longtime customers speak of a real emotional attachment to the place, says Peterson. “The fact that we have stubbornly stayed the same has given us this constant with people,” she says. “It’s like coming home.”

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