In a town full of guitar players, Dino Bradley is a guitar player’s guitar player. To walk through the door of his shop, Bradley’s Guitars, located in the Chestnut Square building adjacent to Greer Stadium, is to enter a guitar playground. Teiscos, Kays, Stellas, and Harmonysstudent guitars of the ’50s and ’60s now popular among players and collectors alikehang on the walls in various states of repair. Alongside them are rare-bird Epiphones, Gibsons, and handmade instruments. Scattered throughout the small, cluttered workspace are the mahogany blocks, plywood, spare parts, tools, relics, original artwork, and memories of a 30-year career in the care and feeding of guitars.
Ask him about his profession, and Bradley will tell you he’s a guitar nerd. “It’s an institution,” he says, “a unity of guitar nerds, some of whom I’ve known half of my life.” Bradley has forged a career out of procuring, building, and restoring instruments for this loose association of obsessive professionals and collectors who live for their next findwhether it’s a Magnatone lap steel or Plexi-Kay hollow body. “Some guy will call you from Germany or England who you’ve known for 15 or 20 years and say they’re looking for a certain part or instrument,” he says. “The vintage guitar world itself is a fairly small one, and especially now with e-mail and online postings, we make finding it real possible.”
Bradley’s Guitars offers the avid guitar player, whether amateur or professional, a unique experience. Here customers can fondle the merchandise and run their fingers through boxes of parts without fear of sales pressure or dinging a valuable finish. “My thing is affordable guitars,” Bradley says. “It’s as much fun to deal with a $250 guitar as anything. It’s the guys who really have fun playing, the nerdsthey enjoy those guitars just as much as the expensive ones.”
Unfortunately, experiences like those found at Bradley’s are becoming increasingly rare. Mid-level and mom-and-pop music stores are closing their doors, finding it impossible to compete with the Wal-Mart-like musical instrument superstores springing up around the country. Sam Ash, The Guitar Center, and Mars Music all buy shiny new merchandise and shrink-wrapped parts in such volume as to practically name their own wholesale price from the manufacturer, then pass the hard-to-beat savings on to the consumer. Independent, locally owned retailers, in turn, lose business because they can’t afford to offer their wares at such a drastic markdown. “It’s difficult not to get too negative or too anti mega-store,” Bradley says, “but the nature of the business is that it’s squeezing out the middle-size stores.”
At issue, Bradley argues, is a shift in the retail musical instrument business from service to sales. The superstores “might have good people and definitely have great prices, but what about the feel, atmosphere, and service?” he asks. “Two huge stores [Mars and Sam Ash] come into Nashville, open within seven days of each other, and right away, a half a dozen family-owned, middle-size stores such as Hewgley’s, Sam’s, and Madison Music dry up.... And they were all what I’d call friendly, service-oriented stores.”
Ironically, Bradley now often finds himself scavenging the leftover stock of failed music stores to find the parts he needs. “It’s kind of sad and weird that part of my business is seeking out some of these neighborhood shops that have been closed for a few years to try to follow up and find parts for custom work, rebuilding, and resale.... Some of these shops had been there 50 or 100 years.”
Despite owning a guitar shop in his native Ohio, Bradley’s real education in vintage instruments came during a two-year stint at Gruhn Guitars on Lower Broadway in the early ’80s. “At the time, George [Gruhn] was the guru of guitars, handling more vintage stuff than anyone else in country,” he says. “The drool factor at Gruhn’s was incredible. You’d get to see all of the good stuffD’Angelicos and ’59 Les Pauls that you just didn’t see a lot of.” In addition to being a hands-on learning experience, Bradley’s time at Gruhn established his reputation among “hard-core guitar people,” as he puts it. Soon he was doing research for Guitar Player magazine, rubbing shoulders with the likes of session great Reggie Young and guitar legend Lonnie Mack.
It was at Gruhn’s where Bradley first met Hank Williams Jr., with whom he became friendly and ended up serving as a guitarist on more than one occasion. “Those were good days. He and I were buddies, we’d be sitting around a hotel playing, and he’d say, ‘We should cut that!’ It started with ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ’ in 1983 and went on until the early ’90s. I think I was on five albumsthree went gold, two went platinum.” Bradley’s gold and platinum awards hang inconspicuously behind the rows of guitars: “Wall-candy!” he exclaims. “My lawyer made me put ’em up.”
Several years after leaving Gruhn in 1984, Bradley set up shop in Springfield, Tenn. Although focused on the vintage market, his store also had the advantage of being the only conventional retail music establishment in town. By the mid-’90s, the lure of a road gig with longtime associate David Allan Coe and the perils of absentee ownership led to the closing of his Springfield store. The birth of his son, Gordon, in 1997 brought Dino back off the road and into a new store in Madison. Frustrated with the changing business climate and unable to compete with mega-store and mail-order prices, Bradley downsized into his current, service-oriented location a little over a year ago.
It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen to stores like Bradley’sthe ones that have been able to survive this long. It’s also hard to know how this shift in retailing is going to affect musicians themselves. As Bradley points out, young, developing players are missing out on what was once an important ritual: hanging out at the local music store. “I think the super-stores are actually marketing to parents,” he says. “I don’t think the kids today have a warm feeling about these environments as a place to hang out. You don’t really know what it’s like to be a musician until you’ve been in a jam session at your local music store.”
Adopting a wait-and-see attitude, Bradley himself has managed to stay in business by giving up retail musical instrument sales while falling into “the void that is service,” as he puts it. “To survive, the smaller stores such as mine have to downsize and become very focused, whether that be in service, custom building, vintage, or what have you. My customers are generally people that are prosnot necessarily the top musicians in town, but appreciators of the product and the time that you’re going to take.”
No matter where people choose to shop, Bradley has one piece of advice for anyone about to buy an instrument: “Buy it from someone who knows gear. It’s not that the super-stores are trying to rip you off, but it’s essential that you talk to someone who knows the equipment well. It’s your livelihood, and it’s important.”
Bradley’s Guitars is located in Nashville at 427 Chestnut St., Suite 105. Although Dino’s often hanging around the shop, he’s also available by appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (615) 593-7497.
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