Herb David Guitar Studio has arranged to carry Fender products for the first time in its 41-year history. The shop has seen many famous faces in that time – Herb fixed a Strat for Clapton, made a special “Les-tocaster” for Jerry Garcia, and “just argued” with Lennon. But despite local and international admiration, the shop never made a deal with Fender.

J. Brady McCollough
Do you have any of those guitars that are, like, double guitars? (JOEL HOARD/Daily)

For 15 or 20 years, Herb had talked up Fender at manufacturing shows in California and Nashville, but Fender looked to chain stores like Guitar Center instead. These warehouse-style stores are the Starbucks of guitars; when you walk inside any of them, you feel a well-planned insipidness. But instead of Tazo tea there are Sammy Hagar posters. And unlike coffee, which is just as good at Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonalds, guitars from the chain stores can be seriously damaged when they are pawned off as new.

The beautiful guitars hanging in Herb David tell you it is a one of a kind place. In the back, there is the chair where John Lennon sat during a Free John Sinclair rally; in the front a little boy waits for his lesson, barely seeing above his guitar case. The upstairs echoes with world-class instructors, and on the main floor you might hear a couple of employees pick up guitars and play “Werewolves of London” until it gets old. Hair styles are mostly long, sometimes shaggy, but always “clean” according to hiring standards.

Despite its rootsy simplicity, the store is not a type or a relic. It is the ever-changing brainchild of Herb David, who in 1962 began giving lessons in a dusty State Street basement, where the cockroaches were so big “you could use them for sandals.” Even then, Herb had gained a reputation by his self-made talent as a guitar maker and restorer. Gibson guitar appreciated the character of the basement shop and arranged for him to be a vendor even in those modest surroundings.

Now the place at 302 E. Liberty St. is one of the best-known music stores in the world, and it is a perennial favorite in the Daily’s “Best of Ann Arbor.” It has become a standby while other stores offering ethnic and vintage instruments have folded or moved to Detroit. Here, at least, goodwill has triumphed over market forces.

So what took Fender so long? Herb attributes the new deal to “the power of the woman.” After so many years of trying himself, his secretary contacted Fender, and within minutes the guys at the national office were calling her “honey.” Some reps came to check out the store, and the secretary made sure they had the application papers in hand. Herb gave her and her new husband a paid honeymoon as thanks.

And now Ann Arbor can share in that appreciation. The new amps and guitars are already in the showroom – everything from Mexican Telies and Indonesian Squires to the highest-end Stratocasters, all checked and okayed by Herb himself. And if you want something special, Herb can do it for you. He once made a guitar with pickups at every fret, so it could be played “like a piano.” On the more practical side, he still makes quality acoustic guitars, and like everything the store offers, they are in high demand – when he went to show me one of them, it had already been sold off the rack.

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