The Guitar Shoppe has served musicians through the decades with custom instruments, lessons and more.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Many things have changed in Laguna Beach over the last 50 years, but one local staple, established in 1972, remains nearly the same. The Guitar Shoppe, owned and operated by Jim Matthews and Kirk Sand, has provided every level of service to guitar, bass guitar, mandolin and banjo players, offering instrument, equipment and supply sales, lessons, repairs and even custom-made guitar selections since its opening.
“This is the real deal pro shop—you know you are in a real guitar shop when you come into this store,” says Sand, who is both an owner and a luthier at the shop. “There aren’t many of these kinds of stores left in today’s market, which is one reason for our longevity. We’re experts at this—no one knows more about guitars than the old Guitar Shoppe.”
Sand says when someone is looking for great advice or products in any industry, they go to a pro shop, and The Guitar Shoppe is this place for guitar players. Not only is the staff well-versed in the world of string instruments, but they are friendly and welcoming to musicians of all levels.
“The secret to our success is that we know and love everything about guitars, and there’s nothing we don’t do to share that knowledge and help fellow guitar players with repairs, products or just fine-tuning their skills,” Sand says. “We have the atmosphere of an old ’60s guitar shop—this is the place for professionals. We sell nothing but high-quality stuff at various price ranges, and we even make our beginner guitars as easy as possible so that they’ll continue playing it.”
More Than a Shop
Indeed, The Guitar Shoppe goes far beyond selling stringed instruments.
“We do everything you can possibly do to a guitar and with a guitar, including repairing them and teaching people how to play them,” Sand says. “We always have a good staff of teachers, and lessons are a wonderful way to bring people into the store. There’s no better customer than someone who’s learning to play.”
“The Shoppe is a one-stop shop for guitar players and bass players,” adds Ben Wagner, general manager at The Guitar Shoppe. “Retail, sales, repairs, modifications, restorations, custom building and lessons—we do it all. In any given week, we have 150 students in for 30-minute lessons.”
The Guitar Shoppe has also boasted its fair share of celebrity customers, including the late Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau, as well as Tommy Emmanuel and José Feliciano, to name a few. Sand says that the custom guitar side of his business took off and hasn’t slowed down since Atkins started playing his guitars 30 years ago.
Sand recalls a lot of the “LA guys” started coming down to Laguna Beach to talk about getting one of his custom guitars after Breau, a Canadian-American who played a seven-string guitar with a high note than no one could figure out, became a customer. And, many of Laguna’s own talented musicians continue to frequent the shop.
“There are all these guys who used to be little kids that came into our store when they were learning to play,” Sand says. “Now, so many are out there playing professionally and some of our students have gone on to win Grammys and play in high-profile bands.”
Wagner notes that the store is a Martin guitar dealer—one of the larger ones in the county—which also brings people in.
“We also have Taylor guitars, Fenders, amplifiers, pedals, strings—you name it,” Wagner says. “The Guitar Shoppe is a happy place for everyone whether you are a beginner or a seasoned professional. We can set you up regardless of your skill level.”
To date, Sand estimates he’s made 800 custom guitars that are now “somewhere out in the world.” He started his career as a luthier in the 1970s when there weren’t many handcrafted guitar makers to be found. He says he excelled at wood shop and loved the guitar, and to marry the skills needed for both together has enabled him to create beautiful pieces.
“To make a great guitar, you have to be able to play well, have studied the instrument and have a good eye for woodworking,” Sand explains. “I’ve played the guitar my whole life, but I found that playing guitar professionally wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed, so I started dabbling in building custom guitars. Made them right here in the Guitar Shoppe—it fell in my lap and I fell in love with it.”
Sand says the custom guitars he makes are built to each individual’s taste, including the trim, size of the neck, number of strings and inlays. He makes the guitars in batches by type of wood, like mahogany versus rosewood pieces, because it’s easier to build a group that are all alike, and then he can focus on the next batch. Sand’s customers usually hear about his guitars from others in the music industry who are already playing his creations, and he makes about 20 guitars each year.
“I really personalize the guitars for the player. Sometimes it’s artistic, sometimes not,” he says. “The seven-string guitar I made for jazz player Lenny Breau—that’s one of the notable ones. The guitar became quite famous and there are pictures of him playing that guitar. The nylon-string classical guitar I made for José Feliciano also got some notoriety; it was specifically made for the player. I’ve got to tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a guitar you made being played on TV.”
The shop focuses on finger-style guitar playing. “Chet was the king of this style, which really changed the guitar in the 1950s. He was a pioneer of turning it into a real instrument,” Wagner says. “When Kirk started building guitars for Chet, his followers wanted the same thing and started ordering them direct from Kirk.”
Sand adds that the shop’s talented staff does a great job and they also have a good time together. In addition to Sand, Matthews and Wagner, the tight-knit group includes manager Jake Rosen, who also does repairs; repair technician Anson Ditt; and Brad Beylik, who works in retail sales.
“We get to dabble and play with guitars all day,” Sand says. “I was just a kid from Illinois who loved guitars his whole life and I ended up in one of the best careers I could have ever imagined. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Photos by Candice Dartez