Schoenberg Guitar Store is the inner sanctum of Fingerstyle Guitar Nirvana. Nestled on a curvy, shady street in off-the-beaten-path Tiburon, CA, the shop is like a little magical glen, festooned with nothing but the nicest guitars you’ve ever seen–all of them dedicated to fingerstyle.
This is not that familiar Mall-land Valahala where you strain to hear the sound of an acoustic guitar over the squeal of a poorly tuned electric in incompetent hands on the next aisle. Here you strum a guitar and its sound reverberates through the dozens of cherry collector’s items lining every inch of the walls. New guitars and a bunch of nice old ones in mint or refurbished condition–including examples of all the best of the larger boutiques, and an interesting selection of smaller builder’s work. Even the carefully selected lower end guitars here are above the norm for quality. Martin Guitars are a mainstay, and I marveled over a $1300 OM cutaway that was just amazing at that price, and then played a stunning high end Martin 000-18 12-fret made of birds-eye maple. If you know anything about Martins, you know that they don’t make many maple-wood guitars. Maples are more of a Gibson thing, and I love Gibsons and maple guitars, so that beauty had me all tied up in knots. A maple Martin, what a concept; I’d never contemplated it. The stuff of obsession.
Meanwhile at Schoenberg’s, only old Gibsons, no new ones. And at closer look, there’s a definite slant to the inventory. You get distracted by a scattering of really nice mandolins, a completely off the wall piece with side sound-holes or fanned frets, or a perfect, adorable 1920s mahogany parlor guitar you would buy on the spot if you were a millionaire, and realize–as to the bulk of the selection, yes there’s a preference here. OM model guitars abound. New Martins, fresh from Nazareth, PA and vintage instruments that are tuned and set-up perfectly.
So, it turns out this is a place with a philosophy, or two. Most important, the OM guitars–we’ll get to that later, but first, how refreshing! A store dedicated to the proposition that thou shalt get to play a guitar that is properly set up when trying to buy it. I’ve so often wondered “why are you trying to sell me an instrument that I have to imagine what it would sound like after I put new strings on it and have a guitar tech set the intonation?” At Schoenberg’s there’s no guess work, the instruments are what they are, and you can get on to noticing and comparing their finer distinctions.
Now what about all these OMs? As it turns out the philosopher in question, owner Eric Schoenberg, deduced in the mid 60s that the Martin OM model was particularly well suited to fingerstyle work. Schoenberg was active in the folk world at the time, and was recorded famously by folkologist Samuel Charters for the Folkways label, accompanying his cousin, Ragtime guitarist David Laibman. At the time ‘vintage guitars’ was not really a concept, and they were not as sought after or valued as today. Schoenberg became convinced the OM guitars–of which few were ever made, with the model discontinued in 1934–were ideal for ragtime fingerpicking for a number of reasons. Where I answered the question “What Is The Perfect Fingerpicking Guitar?” with: “the Martin 000-18”, Eric answered “the Martin OM”. I asked Eric why and it came down to his preference for long scale instruments. The 12 fret 000 series were long scale, but if you wanted 14 frets, those 000 models were short scale. This left only the rarer OM model.
As he became more interested in the old Martins, Eric began collecting and selling them. The need to repair them got him under the hood, so to speak. Eventually his investigation led him to take apart a few old guitars and working with a luthier, rebuild them, learning as much as he could on how he wanted to construct his dream guitar. He pushed Martin to relaunch the OM model by custom ordering the first ones made since the 30s, and then in 1985, convinced Martin to work with him, assembling the first Schoenberg Guitars from ‘kits’ Eric designed with luthier Dana Bourgeois.
By now you’ve made it into the depths of the establishment, and you slowly realize that you are surrounded by OM type models. There’s something particularly appealing about them and you get that deep-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach feeling of “I’m in the presence of some really expensive guitars here”, which for me is kind of like knowing I’ve stepped into a fancy strip joint I can’t afford. I want to stay and play, but…
Yet, the kind owner is earnest–he wants you to appreciate these things, and there I am plucking on something that is beyond what I’ve ever had the opportunity to experience. In most music stores you would have to wait around on the floor until a salesperson happened by and then have the temerity to bald-faced ask them to open the locked glass case and let you handle something you really aren’t going to buy, just to have the chance to touch something this nice–and valuable. At Schoenberg’s you’re free to take anything down off the wall, still you have to take your cojones in your manos to reach above your head and gingerly lower something worth ten months of my cheap rent.
I really love to play with dynamics and I have to admit I can get a lot out of a pretty inexpensive guitar, as far as enjoyment. I also get the OM thing, I realized. My best guitar from my early days was a 70s Guild F-30 I got for 50 bucks out of a pawnshop in Miami, basically an OM. And I used to pick the hell out of that thing, wrote great pieces on that, it was so sweet for counterpoint. Got stolen out of my car in Oakland. Still miss that guitar. But OK, so you take the old Martin OM model and you wonder, how did they hit on this prototypical configuration, the woods, the struts, the bracing, the glues? And in Eric Schoenberg’s case, you wonder: how can I, not so much improve but refine it, and make something as good or if not better, something more finely focused and attuned? You’re not looking for anything blatant, like ‘louder’ or ‘brighter’ or ‘prettier’, what you want is responsiveness. The subtlety and fine variation in tone color that is so much more than just richness. On the Schoenberg Guitars, I found myself hearing new precision within the music I was playing, my favorite whams or pull-offs having all the juice I always intend for them to have and more. These are not delicate guitars, they have punch and verve. You can play folk-blues and thump on them. They’re smaller and thinner–which has an advantage for easier reach around, especially if you’re experiencing tendinitis or just sore shoulders from playing bigger guitars–but they have lots of sound.
The impression playing the Schoenberg Guitars is that you are being given everything that you should be, nothing is holding back. Where Martin has always been highly geared towards quality, perhaps, especially in the day, they still may have had a little bit untrained ear to the particular needs of the more evolved fingerstyle artist–to the things Eric Schoenberg hears. So his guitars have something special, tone and presence that really make them the rare height of craft.