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.

"All the guys here are gear junkies," he admits with a smile. "It's just kind of something that hooks you in here in the first place."

I'm certainly hooked. Heinbach walks me through the store, a cluttered labyrinth of rooms dedicated to keyboards, drums, and recording equipment, each one a veritable Egyptian tomb of wankeriffic toys. We end in the main showroom, a space as big as a basketball court with guitars from floor to ceiling and murals of demigods like Santana and Satriani, as well as Hendrix and some guy from Deadstar Assembly, whose name no one can remember.

"This is where it all happens," Heinbach says, and he trots off to assist a customer. Almost on cue, another nearby shopper picks up a jagged-edged Epiphone Explorer (List $749.99. NOW $449.99!) and goes to work on some Jimi. Cruising the main floor, we hear a lot of Hendrix, a lot of Zeppelin, and a lotof Metallica. According to one clerk, Moe, today isn't even that bad.

"Sometimes, man," Moe explains, "you'll get a guy over here who wants to play a little louder. Then, some guy in the other little area will want to turn up too a little bit, because, 'If that guy's turning up, why can't I?' and then the next thing you know everything kind of cancels each other out, all these riffs in all these different keys. It's just noise."

This is the kind of thing that Moe, a former vacuum engineer from Boston who decided to move west to work in environmental issues and somehow got trapped here, goes through for $7 an hour, plus commission. In the middle of our conversation, a guy in a hoodie and sandals approaches him with an instrument in hand. "I'm getting more and more pumped about this bass, dude," Sandal Man says.

It's time for me to take a well-earned trainee break.

I steal to the back of the store, away from Hendrix, Metallica, and Moe, and hide for a few moments in the bathroom. But even the portraits of the musicians that decorate the toilet bear signs of Guitar Center's brazen rock edge. Someone has drawn a mustache on Sinatra, a swastika on Miles, and a cock on Stevie Ray Vaughan.


When you enter the drum room of the El Cerrito Guitar Center, don't be surprised if a man with half his head shaved and the other half sprouting long, lavender cornrows thrusts a pair of drumsticks into your hand and smugly suggests, "Maybe you'll be more comfortable with these." His nametag reads Elvis. It is toward the end of my training day, and at this point I'd be more comfortable at home.

In the back corner of this room, Victor McElhaney sits behind an enormous vintage Rodgers drum kit. He's black, and keeps his closely shaved head down so that he can barely see over the thundering 24-inch bass drum. The enthusiastic performance has drawn a small crowd, and most of us stand agape as he bashes out a long cadence of freaked-out free jazz. He holds the sticks in the same open-handed, traditional grip as the heroes pictured behind him on the wall: Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa. It's clear that McElhaney is probably the most inspiring show of talent I'm going to get at Guitar Center today. He is 7 years old.

"I told him if he was good in church today we could go up to Guitar Center," says his father, Clarence, who makes the trip up from Oakland as a reward for his son. "So of course he sat there perfect the whole time."

The senior McElhaney stands by wearing a mix of pride and migraine that might someday be classified as "Parent-of-Drummer Face" while Victor dismounts and finds another set of traps to assault. The second-grader starts hammering out a bizarrely sensible (given the fact that he can hardly reach the pedals) Afro-Cuban pattern as his father and I walk over, but as soon as we do, Victor takes off, bouncing around the room from one drum set to another like a little rubber ball. Victor is inspiring.

"He's been going at it for a while now," Clarence says, with more than a touch of fatigue. Victor has a child-size drum set at home that he is quickly outgrowing and a handful of African hand drums. His eye is on a Cajon, a Peruvian box drum, for his next acquisition, and he will be good in church until he gets it. "Slowly my house is filling up with these drums," his father says.

When Victor's performance comes to a brief intermission, I ask him a few questions, but, like most drummers, he doesn't offer the most illuminating interview.

How long have you been playing? "I dunno."

What kind of music do you like to play? "All kinds. I just like playing music."

Why do you like coming here to play? "'Cause this place is cool."

And for Victor and his dad, and Elvis with the lavender cornrows, and -- quite all of a sudden -- me, this place is cool. After Victor's show though, I can't take any more riffing, or drumming, or selling. The store will be closing pretty soon, but I need to leave, right now, and so I do, without saying goodbye or thank you or good night to my hosts. The Moms' minivans have mostly left the parking lot, and I walk to my car and start it, just after reaching down to turn off the radio, just before driving home silently.

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