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Hollywood Corner Plays to Guitar Lovers

Music: With stores, studios and clubs, the intersection of Sunset and Gardner is center of the world for many rock 'n' rollers.

February 10, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rock musician Russell Bentley felt like he had died and gone to guitar heaven.

Except that Guitar Heaven was that shop over there. The one next to Freedom Guitar and Voltage Guitars--the place just steps away from Valdez Guitar, Carvin Guitars, Jimmy's Guitars, Galvan's guitar school, Guitars R Us, Guitar Center, Johnny Guitar, Mesa/Boogie guitar amps, Sunset Custom Guitars, Barkev's guitar case service, Village Guitars, Guitar Research and R&B Guitar Repairs.

Bentley was standing at the guitar center of the world: the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street in Hollywood.

To those for whom rock 'n' roll is life's heartbeat, the intersection marks the center of their lives.

To the east are the studios that have produced the best rock music known. To the west are legendary clubs where the biggest stars of the past honed their acts and where today's best bands perform.

The legendary Sunset Grill hamburger stand, made famous in song by rocker Don Henley, is in the middle of the collection of stores. Gardner Street School, where Michael Jackson studied in the early 1970s, is next to them. The garage where 50 years ago Les Paul built the first two-track recording machine is within shouting distance.

Nearby are neighborhoods where apartments and duplexes reverberate at night with the screech and rumble of guitar chords being practiced by those dreaming of becoming the next Korn or Wallflowers.

The intersection has turned into a magnet for those across the country who know it's where they can come and actually strum a vintage Gibson or the newest Stratocaster pictured in guitar magazines.

It's a delightful surprise for those who stumble upon it.

Bentley, a 23-year-old London chef who plays in a band, was headed to Mann's Chinese Theatre with friend Paula Urquhart recently when he spied the guitar shops from his bus window.

"It is heaven," said Bentley, who quickly ushered Urquhart off the bus.

Said Urquhart, cradling a tour-guide book in her arms: "My heart sank when I saw these stores."

Scott Reardon headed straight for the corner when he arrived from Dallas five months ago in hopes of launching a music career.

"That area is awesome. It blew me away," said Reardon, 25, whose goal is to write music and land a record deal. So far he has spent $3,000 on special effects equipment, power amplifiers and pre-amps from three stores at the corner.

Musicians say the guitar shops complement each other. If one store doesn't carry a particular brand, a nearby one does. Some specialize in vintage collectible instruments, others in used gear.

One store will handcraft a densely lacquered electric guitar for you. Or carefully carve a delicately formed flamenco guitar from the finest spruce and maple.

"This one's $25,000," said Arturo Valdez, lovingly fingering a beautifully detailed concert instrument that gleamed under uncounted coats of French polish.

Valdez, 62, is a grandfatherly type with the rare ability to move easily between both the Eddie Van Halens and the Andres Segovias of the world.

"I give rock musicians a lot of credit. They have to spend as much time as a classical musician keeping up," Valdez said. "Guitarists these days are a lot more versatile than they used to be."

Twelve guitars are in various stages of completion in the back of his shop--it takes about 90 days to make one. Inexpensive factory-made guitars line the front of the store.

The $89 instruments are for those just learning how to play. Valdez also teaches guitar: A roomy recital hall next to his shop is used by his pupils.

The space is what lured Valdez to move to the corner in 1979. Back then, only one other music shop was in the area.

It was the Guitar Center--the street's biggest store. It opened in 1965, originally selling accordions and home organs.

These days, the Guitar Center occupies a former movie theater and anchors a 28-store chain that operates from coast to coast. Eight more outlets are scheduled to open next year.

"This has always been a choice location. You wanted to be on Sunset Boulevard--it was always the street of dreams, even back then," said Dave Weiderman, a Guitar Center executive.

*

Weiderman works in an upstairs office near where the old theater's projection booth used to be. His walls are lined with photographs of top rock stars. Three-foot drum heads--such as one bearing 180 autographs of artists ranging from Roy Orbison to Frank Sinatra--are on display.

The stars are customers. Some are also honorees at the "Rock Walk" in front of the store, where handprints are cemented into the walkway.

"You treat everyone like a potential star," Weiderman said, referring to the mix of T-shirt-and-jeans and business suits on the sales floor below. "Because you know what? They are."

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