Hanging from the walls are a saz, a charango, a bouzouki and dozens of djembes, didgeridoos and kalimbas, along with hundreds of ukuleles, mandolins, banjos and guitars variously stringed, shaped, amplified and not. A couple of harp guitars (the baroque axe Robbie Robertson played in The Last Waltz), a 19th-century varietal, and electric guitars with Hello Kitty stickers, oddly popular with young boys. There’s even a section reserved for the left-of-hand. Coming upon an open office whose door sign makes me laugh, I ask the young lady working at the desk therein what the Department of Folk Mathematics is.
“I’m the accountant,” she responds, smiling.
Welcome to McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary as L.A.’s premier triple threat of musicality: music store, music school and concert hall. To enter McCabe’s is to leave the sterile and corporate that poisons our lives and chews up big chunks of our hearts. It’s a church without the ridiculous theology, a zone where worship of music without commercial baggage is practiced. Although a retail outlet, humanity prevails over profit. A well-known L.A. guitar dealer was succinct: “There’s no way in hell McCabe’s should still be in business.”
Furniture designer Gerald McCabe had been fixing his pals’ guitars. The ’50s folk boom supplied the demand, and McCabe decided to supply the supply. He opened the first McCabe’s at 3015 Pico in 1958, a homey hang for L.A. bohemians. Dave Zeitlan, recently retired after 42 years, was an early employee. “We didn’t pressure people into buying things,” he notes. “We treated customers like people and people like customers. World-famous artists like Doc Watson would sit around and play just for the fun of it.” A 16-year-old Ry Cooder practically lived there. After “Walk Right In” became a No. 1 hit in 1963, fledgling folkies clamored for the distinctive 12-string sound, which McCabe’s supplied by grafting new peg heads and bridges onto wide-necked Martins. The store’s success forced a move to 3103 Pico, and then 3101 Pico in 1972.
The late folk-blues guitarist Elizabeth Cotten wrote “Freight Train,” the song every developing finger-picker strives to nail. A 1969 L.A. booking had been canceled and she needed fare to return home. Guitars were moved, windows blanketed and, with no sound system, “Libba” played. Thus began McCabe’s legendary concerts. Current gig director Lincoln Myerson explains that performances “make a little bit of money. But the premise was we’d have shows, people would remember the shows, see the guitars on the wall, and remember McCabe’s when they were looking for a guitar. They would buy their first guitar here, take lessons, get good, and then trade their first guitar in and end up walking out with a Martin.”
The first official concert in ’69 was opened by a young songwriter named Jackson Browne. Memorable artists are too numerous to list here but include the Sun Ra Arkestra sardined into the tiny back room (capacity 150) by packing musicians onto the stage, stairwell and into the first row of the audience. Charlie Haden playing bass with the Minutemen. John Hiatt’s first L.A. gig opening for John Lee Hooker. Springsteen sitting in with John Wesley Harding one night and Nils Lofgren another. Bill Monroe. Meat Puppets. Townes Van Zandt. Los Lobos. Emmylou Harris.
Dylan briefly took lead-guitar lessons here. Joni Mitchell came to hear slack-key guitarists Ledward Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui. After posing for a photo backstage with Mitchell, the two Hawaiians asked an employee, “Who was that?”
Former repairman Ron Chambliss remembers George Harrison coming in not long before his death. (“A lot of stars come in. We have a hands-off policy.”) Harrison chatted Chambliss up, shared his deep passion for songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, hipped Ron to a reissue of Carmichael’s recordings and then left. (For Beatles completists: He also bought a metal-body National ukulele with a brown wrinkle finish.) A little stunned, Chambliss went back to work. A half-hour passed and someone told him he had a phone call. He picked up the phone: “Hello Ron, this is George, I was in there a little while ago.” Chambliss affirmed that he remembered who he was. Harrison had simply called to give Chambliss the catalog number of the Carmichael CD so he could order it. “He took the time to call me back. It gave me a boost in humanity.”
Not surprisingly, musicians love McCabe’s. Loudon Wainwright III’s 1979 album A Live One was partly recorded there. “Your agent will tell you, ‘It’s a listening room’ — that means they won’t be drunk,” says Wainwright. “It’s true for McCabe’s, because there is no alcohol served. The sound is always good. And if you’ve forgotten your capo, you’re in luck — you’re at McCabe’s! And if you wanna really splurge and buy a ukulele — you’re in luck!”
Richard Thompson has a personal connection to McCabe’s: He married Nancy Covey, concert director from 1974 to 1984. Thompson first played there in ’82. “The concept of the guitar shop in the front and a little concert hall in the back struck me as a real community idea,” says the former Fairport Convention lead guitarist. “Even in the early ’80s, it still seemed in the ’60s. There’s something amazingly stuck in the flower-power generation about the place. The staff was casual and the coffee free. I see that as a positive thing. The vibe isn’t, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
In keeping with McCabe’s family tradition, Thompson and Covey’s 16-year-old son, Jack, works there. For Covey, the best night was her going-away show in ’84. The entertainment included hubby Thompson, Jennifer Warnes, Van Dyke Parks and T-Bone Burnett. Browne, Cooder and Warren Zevon showed up to jam. “Then Elvis Costello walks on, and the audience gasped, including me, because I didn’t know he was going to come,” Covey recalls.
“The younger bands don’t know McCabe’s, and their jaws drop when they come inside,” gig director Myerson says. “One of the comments I always get is, ‘What an authentic place.’ We get solicited for photo shoots, commercials, showcases. We almost always say no. One of the biggest commodities we have is authenticity. In L.A. that’s pretty rare.”
“Buildings have vibes,” Covey adds. “I dream that I still work there.”
McCabe’s 50th Anniversary: A Living History of Music will take place on Thurs., Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m., at UCLA's Royce Hall. Scheduled performers include Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, David Lindley, Jennifer Warnes, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Ricky Jay, the Ditty Bops, Peter Rowan and Peter Case, plus surprise guests. Produced by Nancy Covey and Lincoln Myerson. Odetta will perform at McCabe’s on Fri., Oct. 3.