Highway to Sell

Is a musician's dream gig a post at Guitar Center? We spent a day on the job to find out.

The mural bearing His image gazes down upon us, and we -- the two-person congregation of 41-year-old Matthew Rohman (professional electrician and amateur guitarist) and myself (Guitar Center sales trainee) -- stand beneath with our necks crooked back and eyes skyward, soaking in the radiance of the vision. While looking up at Him, Rohman reaches to the wall to choose the proper instrument for his expression, a Paul Reed Smith 513 electric guitar with Brazilian rosewood and mother-of-pearl inlays depicting a bird in flight. It's a sleek, turquoise machine of which He Himself might approve. Rohman plugs into the burliest amplifier within reach and lets fly a note-for-note facsimile of one of His solos while looking at the iconic portrait. During this moment, Rohman and I are paying homage to the patron saint of the El Cerrito Guitar Center, the great Carlos Santana.

Rohman finishes the riff to "Smooth" (the hit that changed Santana's twilight career into a supernova) and exhales, half-whistling through pursed lips. If you were to squint and Rohman were to drop about 40 pounds, the Oakland man might be able to pass for the guitar god immortalized on the wall above us; he wears his hair a little long in back, and has a well-kempt 'stache and olive skin. When I mention this to him he smirks and tells me that it is his favorite costume at Halloween.

"And you know the girls love a rock star," he adds furtively.

There isn't a chance to prove Rohman's theory, because today -- like most other days in the El Cerrito guitar emporium -- there aren't many members of the gentler sex present. "It's a great place to check out gear," one of the store's clerks tells me over the steady din of riffs. "It's a terrible place to check out girls."

I'm here to check out the culture of Guitar Center itself. There is a car that parks in my neighborhood whose bumper goads, "Real musicians have day jobs," and even though I've never understood that sentiment (or "My other car is a broomstick" for that matter), it's clear that most musicians, real or not, needday jobs. Among the nonmusical gigs out there for musicians, selling instruments seems obvious. But is it? I ventured to find out during a day at Guitar Center, which, as the nation's largest instrument retailer, probably has to also be the nation's largest employer of musicians.

The very name means many things to many people. For musicians looking to buy something, a trip to Guitar Center is kind of like a ride on a Gravitron: It's thrilling at first, but by the time it ends it's usually a little nauseating. Granted, the place is silly with sparkly gadgets and gizmos that are guaranteed to be available for the lowest price on planet Earth (except for maybe outside the Third World factory where they were assembled), but what a person saves in dollars costs in other ways -- let's call them "soul dollars," which are spent hand over fist while putting up with smooth-talking, hard-selling salesmen, weekend warriors who test "guit-fiddles" and quote Spinal Tap, and the incessant, ceaseless noodling that might make the perfect soundtrack to a person's night terrors. For the musician looking for a place to pay the bills, this bipolar gearhead's paradise will hire nearly anyone with a pulse. In this way, Guitar Center is simultaneously heaven and hell, and by the end of today I will have journeyed between them.

Rohman, who comes into the shop about every month ("Never to buy anything, just to see what's hot, you know, what's new"), thinks it would be a dream job. But he has already moved on from his Santana homage and, mostly for my benefit, is playing licks from Joe Satriani's Surfing With the Alien, while simultaneously looking up at Satriani's mural.

About halfway between Benicia and San Francisco, Interstate 80 tugs east and runs at a close parallel to San Pablo Avenue, past a strip of low-rise buildings, commercial lots, and drive-through fast food of every stripe. This little dell of commerce -- the 3.9 square miles that is El Cerrito ("Little Hill" in Spanish) -- is a safe place, blessed with good weather, quiet streets, and the Bay Area's oldest Guitar Center. Although the store's garishly spray-painted shell doesn't look very promising from the outside, when you maneuver through the rows of Moms' old minivans parked in the lot and enter, it's a strange, magical place.

Bill Heinbach is perched atop an amplifier near the doorway to greet shoppers, buttressed on all sides by glittering gadgetry. The youthful, blond 22-year-old looks more like a member of the El Cerrito High School debate team than a store manager; he's all shiny-faced smiles. Amidst the display of gear at the front door he acknowledges visitors with a nod while taking a bargain-priced bass guitar for a little test drive.

Heinbach is willing to admit that a part of each of his paycheck goes right back into the store (though there is a small discount for employees, Heinbach and everyone else I spoke with kept the details of their hook-up pretty close to their chests). Heinbach is a guitar player himself by trade, and loves keeping up with the new tackle for his home studio.

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