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Arturo Valdez, guitar maker to the stars

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Sunset Boulevard is home to dozens of guitar shops. Most of them are clustered around the 7500 block of Hollywood, which is often called Guitar Row. Reporter David Weinberg brings us the story of one of L.A.’s best kept secrets on the block: The Valdez Guitar Shop.

Across the street from The Guitar Center on Sunset is a little guitar shop that is in many ways the exact opposite of the giant national chain. It’s called The Valdez Guitar shop, and if you walked by you would probably think it was closed. The iron gate at the front entrance is perpetually locked. You have to yell through the bars to call for the 78-year-old owner, Arturo Valdez. But when you do, Arturo will appear from somewhere in the dark interior and greet you with a smile.

Arturo is short and soft spoken with big round glasses and a tiny bit of white hair on the back of his head, which is exceptionally round. His specialty is flamenco. For $70 an hour you can take lessons or if you’re a serious player and have the money to spend he will build you a custom guitar. Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know about Arturo. He built the KISS Battle Axe.

The walls of Arturo’s shop are covered with black and white photographs and handwritten notes from famous musicians. There’s John Lennon, Rick Derringer, John Denver and Eric Clapton, who wrote “thanks for the memories” – which is misspelled (one too many m’s).

The list of Arturo’s customers is huge: Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, Rick James, Journey, Bonnie Raitt, and Van Halen.

The story of how Arturo become the Luthier to the stars begins in 1965 when Arturo was working for the city as a bus driver. While driving he would think about opening his own guitar shop. Arturo  figured he could give lessons during the day and keep his job to make ends meet. He also wanted to learn how to build guitars. So to teach himself he decided to buy a Ramirez from Spain, the best flamenco guitar maker in the world. His plan was to take the guitar apart and study it piece by piece to learn how it was made. So he went to the bank and withdrew every penny he had and told the teller he wanted to send the money to Spain.

“The guy at the bank said to me, ‘it’s like you are getting a pig in the poke,’ that crazy guy, and he says, ‘okay, when the guitar comes back I want to see it,’” Arturo recalled. Dutifully, Arturo brought the guitar in to show the teller. Then he told the teller he was going to disassemble the instrument. The teller thought he was crazy. Arturo smiled and walked out of the bank with his Ramirez.

Arturo wasn’t making enough money giving lessons to quit the bus route but everything started to change one day when a guy wandered into his shop with a broken guitar. “When this person brought me a guitar for me to fix I didn’t know how to repair. I didn’t know anything,” Arturo said. So he told a bit of a lie. He said, “sure, I can fix that,” and he took the guitar.

“At that time, I said, I have to learn how to work on guitars,” Arturo said. And he did. Within a few weeks Arturo figured it out and he successfully landed his very first customer. Who happened to be Robbie Krieger from the Doors.

Photos by David Weinberg

“He’s a really great craftsman,” Krieger said. “Maybe he wasn’t yet at the time, but I’ve seen a lot of stuff he’s done and he’s as good as any guitar maker. I’ve been back there a hundred times and it’s always looked the same. The place hasn’t changed.”

Once word got around about Arturo’s talent he had a steady stream of work from musicians all over the world and he’s still at it. In fact the next chapter of the Valdez guitar shop is just beginning.

“My daughter is coming to help me with the business,” Arturo said. “She’s inheriting it and my two boys too.”

Arturo’s daughter, Susan, holds up a drawing of what the shop is going to look like after the remodel. The exterior will have a new screen printed awning and a real front door instead of an iron gate.