Herb David Guitar Studio: 50 years (and counting) of bringing music to Ann Arbor
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Fifty years ago, things in downtown Ann Arbor were a little different from today. The Pretzel Bell was one of the hot spots. The City Council consisted of eight Republicans and two Democrats. There was no North Quad, no One North Main, no Tower Plaza.
University of Michigan football coach Bump Elliott led the Wolverines to a 2-7 record. The opening of Borders Book Shop was still 9 years in the future, while the coming of Zingerman's was 20 years off.
The community has seen countless changes since 1962. But the whole time, Herb David Guitar Studio has remained a constant downtown: teaching musicians of all ages and skill levels, selling and repairing instruments, and serving as a gathering place for music lovers. Even more remarkably, Herb David himself also has remained a constant that entire time.
“If you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life,” he says with a smile, paraphrasing Confucius.
Throughout this year, the studio quietly has been celebrating its 50th anniversary. The final event takes place this Saturday with a free concert starring another Ann Arbor music mainstay, Dick Siegel and the Brandos, plus other local musicians.
Amazingly, given that he's spent 50 years and counting at it, the music shop actually is Herb David's second full career. Born in Chicago in 1931, he fell in love with music early but initially pursued a career as a psychologist. Moving to Ann Arbor after a stint in the Army, he started teaching music out of his home, ultimately deciding to make it a full-time gig.
The first location of Herb David Guitar Studio opened April 12, 1962 in the basement of Bob Marshall’s bookstore on State Street, David recalls in a recent interview.
“The things that go on in Ann Arbor were so vital and stimulating," he says. ”“I didn’t worry about whether I was going to make a living or not. And it’s gone far beyond what I thought it would.”
The business spent a year in the basement, then moved upstairs. There, David became acquainted with a rock band down the hall—a band whose drummer would soon find fame (and infamy) as proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop. A young Bob Seger also "came here a lot," David says.
A growing reputation
David's shift from psychology to music drew considerable attention; he was featured in articles about people changing careers in different publications, including Newsweek. He's also been featured in The New York Times and once appeared on the TV game show "To Tell The Truth."
The business saw its standing grow quickly, finding a national reputation among top musicians. When Eric Clapton broke a guitar neck right off, David was able to repair it overnight for him. Other celebrity clients have included the Grateful Dead, Chicago, and Jack White. “A lot of them I made instruments for,” David says.
The State Street space worked for a while for all this, but it had its problems—rats and roaches, for starters. He also realized he could use more room to do more things. A move was in order.
A new home
In 1982, David moved the business to an old house on the corner of Liberty Street and Fifth Avenue, where it remains today. The building gave him plenty of room for lessons, instrument sales, offices, and the repair shop.
Along the way, David also taught himself to make instruments from scratch, something he continues doing today, even experimenting with unique combinations like a bass with a keyboard. He says initially he felt unsure about working with wood, but tried and found he could do it.
“I just filled a lot of waste baskets and read a lot of books,” David says. “I’m convinced you can do whatever you want to do if you put your mind to it You may not be great, but you’ll be as good as you can be.”
David's also traveled the world three times, seeking out remote areas to learn about their music and instruments. The store and his office upstairs are filled with rare and exotic instruments. He seems to have a story behind each.
David is interested in the science of music, too, noting its benefits for the brain. That's one reason that jam groups for adults have remained part of the studio's mission.
David says the closure of Fifth Avenue for construction of an underground parking garage led to a 50-percent drop in sales, although lessons and repair business held steady. And with traffic flow restored, “It’s noticeably coming back, little by little,” he says.
“People still came to take lessons and have their instruments repaired We have some really fine craftsmen who work here.
“I’ve got one of the best bunch of people to work with," he says. "We have a really good staff here, and they keep reminding me of it all the time. This is probably the best staff I’ve ever had.”
Store Manager Sean Rogers, who's worked at the studio for 19 years, says the formula for success is simple: “We try to offer quality instruments at reasonable prices,” he says. “We try to give good service.”
They also try to give back to the community, actively hiring employees with disabilities and sponsoring free concerts and other events to give back. One of those will close out the anniversary year this Saturday.
“Our basic thing was to try to bring music to the people of Ann Arbor,” David says. Mission: accomplished — and continuing indefinitely.
The special anniversary concert starring Dick Siegel and the Brandos will take place at Herb David Guitar Studio starting at noon Saturday, Dec. 15. Others on the bill include Justin Johnstone, David Menefee and Don & Grant. Siegel and the Brandos will play about 1:30. Admission is free. The store is located at 302 E. Liberty St. (at Fifth Avenue). For more information, see the store's Facebook page or website.