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This article was originally published in issue #56
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Opening in 1975, Norman’s Rare Guitars started off in a relatively small location in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, California. However, the store's (even then) fantastic collection of hard-to-find vintage guitars from the likes of, Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, Martin, Gretsch and many others earned Norman Harris credibility not only among local musicians and collectors but many of the most significant music stars in the world.
Stop for a second and think of a few historically significant guitars and what comes to mind? The 1959 Les Paul? A 1950 Fender Broadcaster? A pre-war Martin D-18? Well, all that and much, much more have passed through the doors of Norman's Rare Guitars over the years. Now the Guitar Interactive Magazine team can claim the same honour, as we pay a visit to the legendary store in Tarzana, California and chat with founder, Norman Harris, resident guitar expert, Mark Agnesi, plus we take a closer look at some hidden six-string gems.
Opening in 1975, Norman’s Rare Guitars started off in a relatively small location in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, California. However, the store's (even then) fantastic collection of hard-to-find vintage guitars from the likes of, Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, Martin, Gretsch and many others earned Norman Harris credibility not only among local musicians and collectors but many of the most significant music stars in the world. Regular early customers included George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to name just three.
Harris had initially moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of hitting the big time as a professional musician in the early 1970s. However, when performing didn't quite work out, plan B was buying and selling guitars, and unbeknownst to Norman he had hit the perfect storm as many groups (just like Harris') made the pilgrimage to LA also hoping to hit it big, but those who didn't quite make it would regularly sell their instruments. This helped transform early-1970s Los Angeles into a haven for some incredible vintage guitars and most of them where at Norm's.
Around the same period, the recording industry began to recognise the exceptional and unique sound a vintage instrument produced, while Hollywood also began to realise the value of time-correct instruments in film. This provided an unexpected income for Harris as he has gone on to rent guitars out to about 50 film and television productions. These include: Back to the Future, La Bamba, Inside Llewyn Davis, and (arguably most famously) the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap. The later showcased not only the vast vintage guitar collection of character Nigel Tufnel but also the store’s logo on a T-shirt worn by actor Christopher Guest in several scenes of the movie. To this day, the iconic rockumentary provided some of the best promotion that Norman’s Rare Guitars has ever received.
These factors and more, quickly influenced the value of elderly instruments, and today that figure has grown even more dramatically since the 70s. However, although the prices have changed, Norman Harris' approach to allowing the store's visitors a relaxed and hands-on experience with the guitars in-stock has not. Within 30 seconds of entering the doors, you will have easily set your eyes on around one million dollars worth of guitars, and you are free to pick one up and play. You are even encouraged to do so, and if you are any good, you may end up on the shop's ever-growing YouTube channel.
In addition to the 2,000-plus instruments Harris stocks in the store, he also has over 700 instruments as part of his personal collection. This constantly huge inventory is a large reason for why It probably would be easier to list the famous players who haven’t bought a guitar from Norm. He just has the best stuff. The store is regularly visited by Harris' good friends Joe Bonamassa, Richie Sambora, Joe Walsh, Bruno Mars and even a local picker that goes by the name of Eddie Van Halen, so don't be surprised to spot some familiar faces if you are lucky enough to pay Norman's a visit.
The real key to Norman's Rare Guitar's success and longevity is Harris' love for great instruments, and as he is a musician and guitar collector himself, the store emanates a friendly and welcoming vibe that could only be present in a store that's clearly run by musicians for musicians.
“I love vintage guitars,” Norm states. “I didn’t start doing this to make money. In the beginning, I was conflicted over whether I should sell a really cool guitar or keep it. I fell in love with every guitar I bought, but eventually, I ended up needing to sell guitars to buy the other guitars I was interested in. That’s how the business got started, and I'm sure glad it did.”
If you love vintage guitars, next time you are near the Los Angeles area, skip Disneyland and go make the trip to Norman's Rare Guitars!
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