There are a few blocks of Pico Boulevard where one can still get a sense of what Santa Monica used to be like before most of it was bought up and turned into luxury lofts and the like. Rae’s Restaurant is still there, and the UnUrban Coffee House, along with a few other longstanding choice establishments, and right in the middle of it all (geographically and spiritually) is McCabe’s Guitar Shop.
While McCabe’s is a perfectly lovely place to go guitar shopping, calling it a guitar shop almost feels reductive. Its front room is populated mostly by mandolins, banjos, the occasional sitar, assorted instruments that completely defy description and, really, just a few guitars. Through a hallway lined with violins and ukuleles is a larger guitar showcase room that doubles as a concert venue, where everyone from John Fahey to Alison Krauss and Tom Waits (to name but a few) has played over the decades.
McCabe’s isn’t just a relic of a bygone era; it is a living piece of history. Much like the folk music tradition itself, it’s an institution dedicated to keeping the old stories alive and telling new ones, with concerts featuring seasoned and emerging musicians alike, and lessons and workshops to pass the old ways down to a new generation of players. I like traditional folk music, and there’s plenty of that at McCabe’s, but it’s the stuff on the margins that really moves me, and McCabe’s is a hub for that as well. I remember seeing the band Tin Hat in the back room of McCabe’s a few years back. Tin Hat draws on traditional folk, jazz and even classical influences to create a kind of alien Americana music, much stranger than the sum of its parts. Their performance there almost seemed like theme music for McCabe’s, rooted in tradition, but full of oddities and curiosities, blurring the lines of genre and style, past and present. While my own musical output is somewhat different in its particulars, that idea of melding different elements of American roots music to create something new has been highly influential to me and, in a way, McCabe’s feels like a manifestation of that idea in a physical space.
Lincoln Mendell is the program director of the L.A.-based music education nonprofit In The Band, providing hands-on, collaborative music programs in underserved communities. He also works as a keyboard player, both with ensembles and solo, and as a composer, arranger and music director.