Guitarists have no worries with the Fret House

John Patrick
LV Life Editor

Unlike faceless conglomerate music chains such as Guitar Center or Sam Ash, the Fret House in Old Town Covina seems less like a Wal-Mart and more like a local pub – the kind of place where you can just kick back, relax and wax philosophic for hours on end. 

It is that comfortable feeling, the backbone of Fret House culture, that keeps the customers coming back.

“We have a different business model than the large corporate stores,” said owner Tom Seymour, whose long gray hair and gentle, methodical voice make him seem more like a leftover hippie than an entrepreneur.  “Small businesses can manage smaller niches.”

Those smaller niches, which are made up of several aspects including a greater emphasis on high-end acoustic guitars, teaching, performance and repair work, have carried the Fret House well since it’s opening in 1970. 

“Finding guys for repair work is problematic because there are not many good ones,” said Seymour, who makes many of the repairs himself. 

Area guitarists tell horror stories about other stores botching up repairs that eventually had to be undone by Seymour and his staff.  A friend of local comic and bass player Alex Elkin had to send his guitar to Seymour after Guard’s Music in Glendora tried to shore up the instrument’s neck using guitar picks.  Seymour returned the guitar in primo condition.

This commitment to workmanship isn’t just appreciated by seasoned players whose guitars have seen the gamut of soulful harmony and raging solos.  Novices and first-time buyers can expect the same care when making purchases from the Fret House. 

It is important to Seymour that new players who aren’t ready to make the investment in a top-of-the-line piece of equipment get a quality instrument. Every guitar that is sold at the Fret House is set up by staff members to ensure that even the least expensive model will play well.

“We might put $100 worth of labor into a $100 instrument, but the kid who plays it won’t be defeated by a bad instrument,” Seymour said.

Those kids who buy their first instrument from the Fret House will find dedicated teachers like Ruben Ramos who have the skills to instruct students in a variety of techniques.

“For me it’s about a balanced curriculum,” said Ramos, who believes that students should receive training that combines theory, reading skills and playing by ear.  “I want my students to be able to make music by themselves and in a group.  I think that makes them solid.”

“We’ve had really good teachers, which has been a good part of the store’s culture,” said Seymour, who doesn’t want his instructors to view teaching as a paycheck between gigs.  “I expect a lot from the teachers.  Not just from their skill but from their commitment to teaching.”

For these reasons students will find that many of the teachers either possess a degree or are working on one.

This emphasis on teaching helps to create a solid consumer base.  Novice players can buy their first guitar, take lessons and purchase accessories – both cosmetic and necessary – all in the same store.  And after they reach a certain skill or comfort level, Students can take part in the longest continuously running open mic night in Los Angeles County and possibly west of New York.

Seymour is proud of the open mic’s 35-year run.

“It creates a lot of good long term public relations and gives back to the community that supports us.”

In addition to the open mic night, the Fret House’s 1200 square foot concert room has hosted a whole array of axe men and women from rock gods like Dick Dale to local favorites like Rick Shea, who has been a longtime customer and recently took a position at the store after having played the concert room for years. 

“It’s somewhere between the local music store and a world-class guitar store,” Shea said.  “It’s a great performance hall that’s on par with McCabe’s (in Santa Monica)… and a great place to meet other people in the music community.”

Today it is easier than ever to find out who will be playing the Fret House’s concert hall.  All the upcoming acts along with information about products, lessons and other services are posted on the store’s Web site at http://covina.com/frethouse/index.htm.

Though the Fret House has found its merchandising niche in high-end acoustic guitars, Seymour is constantly looking for new items that will bring in new customers and satisfy regulars.  Just recently he added Daisy Rock Guitars, which are designed to appeal to female players.

“We have a ton of girl customers and no one assumes that they’re just a player’s girl,” said Fret House employee Mark Heffington.  “We all have been photographed with a pink daisy-shaped guitar and have been man enough to play it.” 

The performance hall, lessons, repair work and merchandise all add up to a comfortable, albeit somewhat eccentric, atmosphere that welcomes customers and employees to a guitar shop that concerned with more than profits.  When asked how much money the Fret House made last year Seymour replied, “I wouldn’t know that off hand, but we haven’t had a tax loss since we’ve opened.”

“They’re not trying to sell,” said customer Matt Breatore of San Dimas.  “It’s not mom and pop and not really capitalist.  They’re just a bunch of guys with guitars who are trying to make a buck without working too hard.”

“We started thinking about what a great screen play this place would make,” said Heffington, elaborating on a story of how the infamous David Koresh of Waco fame bought all his musical equipment from the store while his commune was in the area.  “With the characters that come through the door, the conversation is not what you’d expect from a music store.  You don’t get the conversations at Guitar Center that you get here.”

Heffington is right about that.  As I took my last notes and began browsing around the store for myself, the conversation turned from music to politics to gonzo journalism and philosophy.  I suddenly found myself immersed in the Fret House culture.

John Patrick can be reached at jpatrick@ulv.edu.


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Posted April 4, 2005
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