Wednesday, December 19, 2012

TOP STORY >> Making music for 38 years

Leader editor

Next month, Jacksonville Guitar will mark its 38th year in business, and it may be the best guitar shop in the country.

J’ville Guitar is as respected by local musicians today as it has been for nearly four decades. Though it faces stiff competition from the Web, and teenagers seem more interested in video games and other gadgets, the store’s great deals, quality selection and conviviality keep it going.

Steve Evans opened the store in 1975 when he was just out of high school. Only 18 years old, and inspired to open the shop having grown up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and James Taylor, Evans got some help from his father, who taught him how to rent a building and get the power turned on.

Twenty-six years ago, he built the current store at 1105 Burman Drive. The business was originally on Dupree Drive. It is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Evans’ two full-time employees, Bob Tanner and Bobby Appleby, have worked for him for almost 20 years.

“I think we’re doing it right here. And us three who work here want to stock the things that are smart buys. There are some things that are a little too much for what you’re getting. We try to stock the things that people should buy whether they know it or not,” Evans said.

The store’s walls are lined with photographs of mostly bygone local bands, but several are professional musicians like Evanescence, the Little Rock band that’s found success nationally and internationally, and Kris Allen, the American Idol winner from Jacksonville.

If visitors look closely, they will see a picture of Thunderstorm performing at the Sherwood Recreation Center in the late 1970s. The band included Butch Hale, now district judge in Sherwood, and Sherwood City Attorney Steve Cobb and Michael Connelly, who later became a bomber pilot.

Evans pointed to another photograph. “Gibraltar, they were a super local rock band back in 1979. A member, Keith Stewart, became successful” as a music producer in Asia, he said. Stewart has masterminded some of the biggest hits in Taiwan, Singapore and China with top record labels.

Then Evans points out, “Sanctuary Woods, Dan Hampton went on to play football for the Chicago Bears.” The NFL defensive lineman and Jacksonville native was also an enthusiastic bassist.

Evans recalls Hampton buying two Fenders while he was still playing for the Bears. Keith Van Horn, a Bears teammate of Hampton’s, bought a guitar from Jacksonville Guitar by mail.

More photos include the band Nothing to Lose from 1991 with Neil Allen, father of Kris Allen. Evans said Neil Allen’s other band, Maxzoid, was particularly memorable.

Evans remembered when Chris Allen, a few years before competing on American Idol, came into the shop to try out a Martin acoustic guitar that his mother was buying as a gift for his father.

A 1989 photograph shows Evans with Rick Nelson of Cheap Trick during an autograph session to promote the shop.

One photo shows a few young smiling fellows in a heavy metal band posing in a cemetery in 1984. “I tease this fellow here. See they’re obviously a heavy metal band, and he’s in a graveyard posed for this picture. But today he plays in church. I tease him about this picture, and I say ‘when your preacher comes in, I’m gonna take him over and show him this picture,” Evans said.

“A lot of the old rock band guys now play in church. They became family men.”


J’ville Guitar has seen a lot of changes the over years, but a more recent trend may be the most troubling of all.

“The teenage boys have lost interest. I realize that by going home. My 20-year-old son, he and his buddies have a command base in our living room, they got TVs going, and they’re playing video games. He has no interest in hearing guitar,” Evans said.

“It used to be that was our main customer. When school (got out) at 3:30 or whatever, we’d get a bunch of them in here looking at guitars. But there are more females interested than ever and I think it has to do with their not doing the video games. And they have people like Taylor Swift and role models like that,” he said.

Churches have a lot of guitar music too, which may be helping beat back the video game craze and mail-order onslaught.

Of online competitors, Evans said, “We’re losing business to mail order not necessarily because they’re cheaper. We’re getting the shaft because there’s no sales tax charged by the mail order places. Nine percent sales tax is what we have to charge so that’s a bad deal. I heard mail order has gone up 12 percent this year over last year. I’ve added up our numbers, and we’re exactly down 12 percent over last year. I’m not saying we’re closing up because I really love what I do,” Evans said.

“Maybe 8 years ago, a bunch of the big box stores like Walmart were starting to put in guitars, and I felt like they took some business from me. But there must not have been enough mark-up in it because they’re basically out of that now. So that’s good that I’m not competing with Walmart,” he said.

And shopping online or at a big box store can’t match the experience of visiting an independent community guitar shop. A website doesn’t have the photos on the walls or people strumming or chatting about things. As Tanner put it, “If there wasn’t a guitar shop (Jimi Hendrix) might have played an accordion,” he said.


The store gets some of its best inventory in December for holiday shoppers. “If someone needs a guitar, we have it here,” Evans said.

Beginner guitars start at about $100; and a $99 Fender acoustic has been a big seller for Christmas.

For 6 or 7 year olds, a half-sized electric Stratocaster for $100 would be perfect to learn rock or blues, Evans said. An amplifier to go with it is about $60. Acoustic guitars for kids start at $80.

“You might get a lesson on DVD. We sell them for $10, an hour-long lesson. Get a little nimbleness on where to put your fingers, how to operate your fingers and then sign up for lessons after you get your fingers a little toughened up and get a little dexterity,” Evans said.

Others may want to try a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster for about $500. A more patriotic option with top-shelf quality would be the made in the USA Fenders that cost about $1,000. One of those is a cream-colored Telecaster from the company’s road-worn series. It looks like it’s toured the world a few times with Merle Haggard or George Harrison.

An acoustic standout, is a $2,200 Martin like what Eric Clapton plays with on tour.


Jacksonville Guitar’s private lessons have been known to pay off.

“About 20 years ago, a mom came in and wanted to sign up her son for guitar lessons. The boy was 5 years old, and we told her that probably won’t work. About 10 years old, that’s when they’ll sit down and practice and their fingers are stronger. But she told us, ‘he really wants to do it,’ and the teacher was willing to try. He’s kind of a superstar today. Seth Freeman is his name. He’s not rich from playing, but he does some touring across the country, and he’ll stop and play in Little Rock often,” Evans said.

(Freeman will perform at the Blue Chair Studio in Austin on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17.)

There’s one lesson room, two teachers and with about 25 students who are mostly beginners. Lessons are $18 for a 30-minute private lesson.

Andy Fullerton has been teaching guitar for 40 years. He’s played for 47 years, since he was 11. He’s been with Jacksonville Guitar for eight months, teaching guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and resonator.

Matt Emfinger teaches guitar and bass on Saturdays.

Fullerton has 10 or 11 students now — kids and adults. “I have an 83-year-old lady who’s taking guitar lessons. She doesn’t seem 80 though, I was surprised when she told me,” Tanner said.

The students come from Jacksonville, Cabot and Sherwood.

Fullerton’s old band, the St. James Group, toured with Olivia Newton John in Mississippi in the 1970s. The band also opened for Bad Finger and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

“I met Jim Croce three weeks before he died” in a plane crash in Natchitoches, La., on Sept. 20, 1973.


Appleby started working at the shop in 1993. “I was barely 21 at the time. Now I’m an old bald guy with gray whiskers,” he said.

“I’d been coming here as a kid and I was trying to find a job. I think I was in buying strings. Steve called me and said ‘hey, if you want to (work here) you need to learn how to work the register,’ which was a trick because it was really ‘clean all these photos’” that had collected some spider eggs and cobwebs, Appleby said.

He bought his first guitar at the shop around Christmas of 1984. “It was a Peavey Patriot made of ash, natural wood. Probably the only guitar I have left that’s unscarred. It looks brand new still.” He still has it, but doesn’t play it any more to keep it in mint condition.

“I originally wanted to be a saxophone player. My parents took me down to Bean Music, and immediately turned around and came over here. It was too expensive,” he said.

The store’s address, 1105, is the same as his birthday. What he calls “the real creepy tie-in.” He feels connected to the place.

It’s a lot busier today compared to his first day on the job.

“Going through a daily routine of cleaning and adjusting, restringing. Doing a lot of repair work, maybe putting a bridge on, leveling the fret wire, trimming the edges so there’s nothing sharp on the edge of the finger board,” Appleby said.

He says “the word of mouth for the shop is real good, too. Being around as long as Steve has.”

“A lot of people go for the online thing just because it’s a good deal. But, heaven forbid, if shops like this go away, it’s like losing the garage down the road. I don’t even know how to change oil, same with guitar strings. I take it for granted because I’ve done it for so long,” he said.

He’s proud to be a part of J’ville. “Not very many of these places left. The good old music store is dwindling down. Last of the Mohicans it seems like,” he said.

“We help (our customers) out. It’s not fair to the little guy. The free shipping, no tax sounds great, but it comes down on the little guy,” Appleby said.

“It’s kind of like the song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ (Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club, 1979). Technology takes out the human element.”

Appleby studied jazz guitar and religion at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He’s as comfortable talking about Ornette Coleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or any number of Miles Davis’ sidemen as he is about Hank Williams, John Prine or heavy metal.

He’s in the bands Moses Tucker — outlaw country Southern rock — and Stereo Down — Soundgarden meets the Allman Brothers.

Moses Tucker recently played in Brinkley for the Tri-County Farmers Association, a two-hour gig. They played some originals, George Strait covers and threw in some Jimi Hendrix, who he says “is like jello, there’s always room for him.”

But the bands don’t perform much these days though. “There is no money to be made in this gig of life that we call music. It’s just a matter of loving it and doing it,” Appleby said.

He graduated from North Pulaski High School and lives outside of Gravel Ridge. He plays a Telecaster, a Les Paul and an acoustic with a steel resonator. He plays every day.


In March, Tanner will mark his 20th year at the guitar shop. He played professionally in Memphis before Jacksonville Guitar, touring the Southwest and Southeast with the Café Racers, a new wave dance rock band.

He grew up in Jacksonville and in Little Rock, where he now lives. He plays either the bass guitar, keyboards or drums every day.

As a student at Warren Dupree Elementary, he participated in the Strings in Schools program, an orchestral education program for primary students.

It was the first year for the program to be offered in the Pulaski County Special School District. He credits that with helping him appreciate music and learn music. That program was canceled by PCSSD long ago.

Tanner earned a music scholarship to attend the University of Memphis and study music performance for the upright bass. He found the program to be too intense and eventually got a degree in radio, TV and film at UALR.

Now he plays in a band called Blue Wave, which covers everything from Elvis to the Police. They recently performed in Walnut Ridge at the Rock and Roll Highway/Beatles at the Ridge Festival.

He talked about the time when the Beatles visited Walnut Ridge during a short break in their tour of America during the 1960s. Late one night, the band’s plane touched down in the town they knew as the hometown of rockabilly music. The stars rode horses, shot pistols at a ranch owned by the tour’s promoter.

Tanner looks forward to the next big direction for American music. “We’re 20 years past something big happening (with music). I’m afraid right now it’s like canned cheese. They call rap music, I don’t call rap music. I think it’s an art form or an expression, but it is not music. If you can chart out rap then you can prove to me that it’s music.”

He thinks it might even happen in China or Thailand. “Maybe there are some kids over there that are going to put their spin on American rock and roll just like the Beatles. You never know,” Tanner said. “Somewhere out there, there are some kids right now rewriting rock and roll.”

But musicians don’t need to worry about breaking new ground. “My philosophy is the Mel Bay philosophy. It’s not how well you play, it’s how much you enjoy it. I just enjoy people experiencing it and making it a life-long journey,” Tanner said.