Guitar Aficionado

California Man: A Visit with Norman Harris of Norman’s Rare Guitars

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California Man: From his outpost in a nondescript strip mall in Tarzana, California, Norman Harris has been introducing musicians and film stars to the guitars of their dreams since smog filled the skies and disco ruled the airwaves.

Story by Chris Gill | Photos by Jeremy Danger

The strip mall on bustling Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, California, where Norman’s Rare Guitars is located looks indistinguishable from a thousand other strip malls in suburban Southern California. However, discreetly tucked away in a corner among Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Domino’s Pizza, a shoe store, and real estate and optometrist offices is a mother lode of vintage guitars that attracts famous musicians and celebrities, collectors, and players of all backgrounds, like pilgrims to Mecca. Finding one of the world’s greatest vintage guitar stores in such humble environs is a little like stumbling across a Picasso while surveying prints of clowns and poker-playing dogs at a Goodwill store.

Norm Harris—the Norman of Norman’s Rare Guitars—could have located his store a dozen or so miles southeast in Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Instead, he’s stayed in the relative quiet of the San Fernando Valley since February 1975, when he opened his first storefront shop in Reseda. “A lot of well-known musicians seek us out because the store is a destination shop that’s far off the beaten path,” Harris says. “This isn’t like the Hollywood ‘guitar row’ stores on Sunset Boulevard, where tourists or average walk-by customers constantly drop in to gawk at the instruments. Celebrities like Robert Pattinson and Hugh Laurie come here to buy instruments because there aren’t any paparazzi hanging around to bother them.”

As most customers have to know about the store to find it, Norman’s Rare Guitars has maintained a musician-friendly environment where customers can try instruments without any pressure to purchase and casually chat about any of the 2,000 or so instruments in the store’s inventory. It probably would be easier to list the famous guitarists who haven’t bought a guitar from Norm, but those who have include luminaries like T-Bone Burnett, Mike Campbell, Tom Petty, Richie Sambora, and Joe Walsh. Norman’s Rare Guitars is where Eddie Van Halen goes to buy his vintage guitars and where bands like the Foo Fighters and Green Day stock up before making albums.

The key to the store’s longevity and success is the fact that Harris is a musician and guitar collector himself. He got his start as a guitar collector and trader in the late Sixties when he lived in Miami and played organ in Bobby Caldwell’s band Katmandu. “Bobby and another guitarist in the band doubled on bass, but neither of them had a bass,” Harris says. “I went out to find them a bass that they could use, and I figured that I could learn to play bass, too. I ended up buying an old Fender Jazz Bass from this guitar player named Frank Williams, who used to have a band called Frank Williams’ Rocketeers, featuring Little Beaver. I was blown away, because Little Beaver, whose real name is Willie Hale, is one of my favorite R&B guitar players. When I showed the bass to other musicians, everybody loved it, including Jaco Pastorius, who I knew back then. They all wanted to buy it from me and offered me significantly more money than I paid for it. That’s when I figured out that buying and selling instruments could be a good way to make extra money.”

Harris began buying and selling guitars almost obsessively, locating instruments by scouring newspaper classified ads and music stores that sold used guitars. The collection, which he stored in his apartment, expanded rapidly as he amassed impressive pieces, including pre-war Martin flattops, Gibson archtops and Fifties solidbodies, and various custom-color Fenders. In 1970, Harris and his wife, Marlene, relocated to Los Angeles when Caldwell and Katmandu moved to Hollywood to record an album for Mainstream Records.

“By the time we got to California, I was already selling instruments out of my home,” Harris says. “I had about 40 instruments when I came to California, but my collection grew quickly, because there were so many musicians selling instruments out here. Musicians came to L.A. from all over the country, and when things didn’t work out a lot of them would sell their instruments to pay for transportation back home. Fender and Rickenbacker also had factories out here. I bought a lot of guitars from original owners and even unusual prototypes from factory employees, who kept their guitars in pristine condition.”

In between gigs and recording sessions, Harris hunted for guitars. “My wife had a great idea,” Harris explains. “She said I should get a member’s handbook from the Musicians’ Union and call people to see if they had instruments to sell. I’d look for banjo or mandolin players, because they often had guitars as well, and I’d look for names like ‘Tex’ or ‘Curly,’ because that usually meant it was an older guy; I didn’t know any young guys with names like that. I also started calling people who advertised horses for sale in the classified ads, because I figured cowboys might have guitars. I had to think of some creative pitches when I called them, but I ended up with some unbelievable instruments that way. It was a numbers game. If I called enough people, I would get results.”

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One day in 1973, while Harris was visiting a store where he had a few guitars on consignment, he was told that George Harrison was looking for a sunburst late-Fifties Les Paul. Harrison happened to drop in a few minutes later and explained to Harris that his cherry-red 1957 Les Paul, nicknamed Lucy, had been stolen from his Beverly Hills home and sold by a music store to a Mexican musician who would return it only in exchange for a sunburst Les Paul. Harrison ended up buying a couple of Les Pauls, a 1956 Stratocaster, and a Princeton amp from Harris. Harrison offered to trade one of the original Gretsch Country Gentleman guitars that he played with the Beatles, but Harris declined, as he wasn’t into Gretsch guitars at the time and thought no one would believe that the guitar had been Harrison’s. Harrison’s wife, Olivia, later gave the instrument to Ringo Starr. To this day, Harris considers this the biggest deal that he let get away.

In addition to scouring the L.A. Times classifieds for guitars, Harris started to advertise his business in the Times. This led to his first encounter with Robbie Robertson, who called him about buying some instruments. “Robbie came out to my apartment and bought a few things,” Harris recalls. “The next week he called again and asked if he could come back with a friend. He brought Bob Dylan, who bought a Gibson F-4 mandolin from me. After that, word quickly spread around the musician’s community that I had good stuff. I became known as the guy who was paying more for old instruments than people were paying for new ones. They thought I was out of my mind, but I didn’t care as long as people kept calling to sell me guitars.”

Harris’ business grew rapidly after that, and soon his collection of instruments outgrew the limited storage space in his apartment. His wife suggested opening a retail store, which seemed like an exceptionally good idea, as his career as a musician hadn’t progressed much since his arrival in L.A. Harris found an ideal location on Tampa Avenue in Reseda, less than two miles from the store’s current location.

In addition to the 2,000-plus instruments he stocks in his store, Harris has kept about 700 instruments for his personal collection. He shared many of his personal instruments in his 1999 book, Norman’s Rare Guitars: 30 Years of Buying, Selling and Collecting, although he estimates that about a third of the guitars shown in that volume have been sold and replaced with other pieces.

“I love vintage guitars,” he says. “I didn’t start doing this to make money. In the beginning, I was conflicted over whether I should sell a 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 other guitars I was interested in. That’s how the business got started.”

While the move to Los Angeles had obvious benefits, due to the thriving music industry there, the locale offered an advantage that Harris hadn’t considered when he first moved there: the film industry. In 1976, actor David Carradine, who was already a customer, asked Harris if he would rent out period-correct instruments for a film he was making about the life of Woody Guthrie, called Bound for Glory. A few years later, Robbie Robertson contacted Harris to purchase several instruments used by various members of the Band for the film The Last Waltz.

“Robbie wanted some really cool instruments for that,” Harris recalls. “He said that the film studio would pay for anything that he wanted. They ended up with Gibson’s first Citation model [with serial number 1], a one-of-a-kind 1919 Martin 00-45K, a Gibson harp guitar, a bunch of old tweed Fender Bassman and Twin amps, and more. That film is a parade of really cool vintage guitars. Robbie made sure that they got the best stuff ever.”

Norman’s Rare Guitars also supplied the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap with the vast vintage guitar collection shown off by the character Nigel Tufnel in one of the movie’s most memorable passages. Christopher Guest, who played Tufnel, also wore a T-shirt with the store’s logo on it in several scenes, providing some of the best promotion that Norman’s Rare Guitars has ever received. “Christopher Guest is actually a folkie, like the character he portrayed in A Mighty Wind,” Harris says. “He bought instruments, like herringbone Martin D-28s and F-style Gibson mandolins, from me, so when he was looking for electric guitars for Spinal Tap, he knew that we would have what he needed. The Foam Green 1966 Fender Bass VI with the hang tags that he wouldn’t even let [Spinal Tap “director”] Marty DiBergi look at was from my personal collection, but”—as Harris related in our Spring 2010 issue—“I sold it.”

Harris estimates that he’s sold or rented guitars to about 50 film and television productions, including Back to the Future, La Bamba, NBC’s The Temptations mini-series, and Why Do Fools Fall in Love. Actor Jason Segel wore a Norman’s T-shirt for about 20 minutes of scenes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which is longer than many supporting actors appeared in the film. Recently, the store supplied guitars to the ABC television series Nashville (look for a 1938 Martin 00-42 in a few episodes) and the upcoming Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, which is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk and Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the Sixties.

Although Norman’s Rare Guitars has also made cameo appearances in a few recent reality shows, like Antique Adventures, Auction Hunters, and It’s Worth What?, Harris has turned down numerous requests to be the subject of his own reality show. “I don’t want to interfere with my business and become a T-shirt shop,” he explains. “Many of the musicians who are my best customers probably wouldn’t come in anymore if I did that. We want people to relax and have a good time when they come to the store. You can’t do that when people are lined up waiting just to get into the store.”

A reality show isn’t necessary anyway: anyone who wants to witness the daily adventures at Norman’s Rare Guitars need only check out the 200 or so videos posted on the store’s YouTube channel. Highlights include a recent visit by Joe Bonamassa and Joe Walsh, glimpses of Norm’s “secret stash,” and crazy customers, such as the guy who insists that his battered National Duolian is worth $20,000.

It may sound cliché, but Norman’s Rare Guitars has remained successful because it’s a store run by musicians for musicians. Harris’ passion for the instruments he sells is as genuine as those of his customers who walked in and found an instrument that they’ve always wanted.

“Guitars are inspirational,” Harris says. “When you pick up a guitar, it almost writes the song for you. When you pick up a Fender, you play in a certain way that is different from how you’d play a Gibson hollowbody or a Martin acoustic. Musicians still love vintage guitars, and there will always be demand for them. When I started out, I thought this business would just be an inside thing for musicians, but vintage guitars now have universal acceptance. But I never want to lose that connection I have with musicians. When I come into the store each morning, it doesn’t feel like I’m going to work.”

This story is from the October/November 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado, which is available on newsstands and at our online store.