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Timewarp: Where Old Instruments Go to Live Again 

Back to the bylophone

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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Each time you walk into the aptly named vintage musical instrument shop Timewarp, that same old-timey gearhead guy will be behind the counter, brow in perpetual furrow, up to his neck in guitar guts. That’s Shane Gudlow, Timewarp’s owner. Another paradox of time-space: A good portion of the rock & roll canon has already come through, even though Gudlow’s store has only been around for as many years as a bass guitar has strings (i.e., four). Glenn Danzig bought effects pedals. Lauren Hill, sporting a huge afro, oozing diva attitude, alighted from a stretch Escalade, needing to outfit her band with vintage instruments. “Would you want to go on tour with me as my musical instrument coordinator?” she asked Gudlow, regally.

MTV came to him when they needed to make an old Pinto sing (literally) on their show Pimp My Ride. Gudlow picked out a Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard and they hooked it up to the car. Now, when you touch the car’s arm rest, it plays a note. One of the guys from Daft Punk came in to check out an obscure Maestro Rhythm King drum machine. “It was perfect for their music,” Gudlow recalls, “with those superarticulate drum beats.”

When Jackson Browne’s bass player comes in, it’s rare and treasured as a Bigfoot sighting. Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo is a regular. Hang out long enough and eventually someone will bust out with a small impromptu concert, whether it’s Ikey Owens, who played some of the songs from his Mars Volta repertoire — then sold Gudlow an amp — or the young anonymous Asian boy who picks out the melody of Für Elise on a toy piano near the checkout counter.

click to enlarge ORLY OLIVIER - Music man Shane Gudlow

One Thing Leads to Another

Timewarp is an archaeologist’s dream of a music store. Here is where you go when you desperately need a Duran Duran–era keytar. Or a funky-jazzy Stevie Wonder–style electric clavichord. Or a classic American guitar from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, or any of the vintage effects pedals lined up like pastries in a case. It’s crammed in there, a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

Gudlow points to an oddball instrument in a room of oddball instruments. “We have every possible rock instrument in here ... and a harpsichord.” He bought it thinking Fiona Apple’s producer, who has a soft spot for eclectic instruments, might like it.

Where else on Earth are you going to find a green Flintstones-esque xylophone-like instrument called a bylophone? An artist like Tom Waits might use it onstage, for both its visual and auditory qualities — it has mahogany bars that make a deep, resonant “pong.” Maybe eBay? “But that same customer who buys the instrument for cheaper online will often come back to us to repair it,” Gudlow says. “Still in its bubble wrap and ‘I Bought It on eBay’ box.”

Man, the stuff that comes through. Beach Boys stuff washes in regularly, like the tides. One of Michael Jackson’s original master recordings. Kurt Cobain’s guitar. Tom Petty’s guitar. An amp once owned by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. If you watch Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” video, you’ll spy a 1960s keyboard and classic microphone that came from Timewarp. Instruments are “players grade” (priced for working musicians), not just absolutely pristine pieces — the $65,000 Fender Strats at high-end Norman’s in Tarzana, say — you can only afford to gawk at.

Word of mouth drives both Gudlow’s acquisitions and his sales. Desire for certain instruments is cyclical. For a while people kept bringing in accordions. Lately, it’s been Japanese guitars from the ’70s. After the holidays, kids bring in trumpets they got for Christmas and exchange them for other instruments. A guy brought in a bunch of instruments he’d found in a dumpster: a vintage Gibson Les Paul smashed into an amp smashed into three other guitars. Gudlow traded him $400 in store credit. After Gudlow restored it, that Gibson became one of the best-playing Les Pauls he’d ever heard.

Sometimes people just plain leave stuff on the doorstep. Like a vintage 1930s reel-to-reel recorder. He dragged it in, cleaned it up, and eventually someone else came in and gasped, “Oh, my god! I’ve been looking for exactly that!”

A 300-year-old cello with a broken neck came in recently, the oldest piece yet. Gudlow coaxed it back to life. He reset the neck, replaced the fingerboard. Now the cello is being played by a musician in the New York Philharmonic. “So you see? You never know what the destiny of these instruments will be.”

Handy Man

People come in for the instruments, sure, but they also come in for Gudlow. It’s dog-eat-dog with these music stores, and Gudlow is his own secret weapon. Al Anderson of the Wailers swung by to get an emergency setup for his Les Paul before a gig in El Salvador. He stopped in at 5 p.m. and made it to his 7 p.m. flight. A setup is like a tune-up for a car. In Gudlow’s hands, it’s a precise chiropractic adjustment. “You want your guitar to play to optimal quality. But every guy has a different preference. Some want their strings low to the fingerboard for fast fingerwork. Or high for a rhythm-guitar player who wants resistance so he can dig into the strings without that clacking sound.” He customized a Fender Jaguar for Interpol. A 45-year-old Wurlitzer electric piano for Norah Jones. The list goes on and on. He was watching the Letterman show on late-night TV and saw someone playing an instrument he’d worked on just that day.

Gudlow, who is self-taught, basically got tired of schlepping instruments to stores and them not fixing them right. Soon, people were asking him, “What do I need to do to my instrument to get this kind of sound?”

A woman brought in a Flapper-era banjo belonging to her grandfather. He’d taken it apart and couldn’t put it back together again. She brought the thing in in several bags. Gudlow does a lot of that, too: rescuing someone’s project that went awry. “This banjo sounds like a trumpet,” he said.

If you go, you’ll probably see Paul Kim, or “PK Fuzz,” the store’s electronics guru. “He also promotes the store a lot,” says Gudlow. Kim grunts. “He’s into doom metal and he goes to shows that most people can’t tolerate. Shows where you have to wear two sets of earplugs.”

Or 16-year-old Sebastian, who works weekends, whose band mate Gray Tolhurst is the son of Cure drummer Laurence Tolhurst. When Sebastian and Gray performed at the nightclub next door, the Good Hurt, they projected slides on the wall, old family photos of Gray’s dad and Robert Smith as teenagers shortly after they started the Cure.

Sometimes, on show nights, Gudlow drives by and sees 350 people staring in his shop window.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Plug in the Wurlitzer reproduction 1940s “bubbler” jukebox currently sitting in that window and its 200-watt amplifier fills the room, shaking the dust off the drums piled in towers. Gudlow originally thought he’d sell it, but he’s gotten used to it being there. That’s one of the problems, letting go of the cool things that come into the store. He picked these things for a reason. It’s bittersweet when an item sells.

“Motherfucker,” said a guy whose band had come in for a gig from New Orleans. “You have that guitar. I’ve been all over the country looking for that guitar! That’s the only guitar I’d cut off my arm for.”

“Of course, you won’t be able to play without your arm,” said Gudlow. The guy bought the guitar for $4,500 and played his next set with it.

Gudlow has big plans to turn the space into a School of Rock–style music academy. Demolition is under way in the adjoining space, a former bank. He was giving a talk on the history of guitars to a group of students the other day in the tiny, cramped space where the store is right now. “Does anyone have any questions?” he asked. One girl raised her hand urgently. “Um, why is there a hole in the ceiling?”

My question is: How is he expanding when the recession seems to be shutting everyone else down? “Musicians will always find ways to get things they want,” he says, shrugging. And yet there are pressures, too. Not least of which is finding wow-factor items that keep people coming back.

A Grammy-nominated children’s artist eventually bought the toy piano from him. Gudlow took apart the wobbly plastic thing at her request and made it play tight and strong as a Steinway. She clapped her hands in delight, promptly sat on the store’s grubby floor and busted out with the Bach and Beethoven.

Timewarp Music, 12255 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (323) 600-5050 or www.timewarpmusic.com.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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