Ask Brian Haran where he gets his guitars and he’ll say “they just walk in.”
There’s the oddball Guild that’s discontinued. A Yamaha acoustic that tried to end American domination of the 1970s guitar market. The Depression-era acoustic with faux-maple flame. The Silvertone tube amp.
“I’m an oasis of weird stuff,” Haran says from his work bench.
Haran, 31, is the owner of Fret Sounds, a guitar repair shop in downtown Graham that he opened a year ago this week with his wife, Renee Mendoza Haran.
Brian builds, repairs, resells and recycles (or as he puts it, “Frankensteins”) guitars, giving them a new life.
Today, Fret Sounds also duals as a rehearsal space for Brian and Renee’s band, Filthybird, and as a recording studio.
Musicians make the drive here from both the Triad and the Triangle, and walk-in traffic from downtown Graham and the nearby bakery and hardware store keep the doors open six days a week.
Why do they do it?
The shop is set up to do everything they need as musicians and artists, says Renee . Now that it’s up and running, she has more time to do her thing. She’s going back to school full time at N.C. State to get a master’s degree in technical communications.
As for Brian, he’s been obsessed with music since he was 4, flopping on recording studio couches since he first left home. He’s learned to make and fix his own gear because he’s not so great at asking for help, he says; except when something is over his head. That’s just how he’s wired.
The shop’s niche is “working musician,” Brian says.
That includes Winston-Salem musician Martha Bassett who bought a lipstick red Fret Sounds guitar. Before Haran got his hands on it, the 1960s Kay Catalina was virtually unusable. Now it’s on the cover of Bassett’s new record, set to release sometime this year. Graham attorney and musician Julian Doby won’t let anybody else touch his ’74 Les Paul –– except Brian who services it. And Chapel Hill musician Wylie Evan Pamplin can claim he owns Fret Sounds No. 1 –– the first of 15 guitars Haran “frankensteined” to sell when he opened the shop last year.
“He took a 2008 Gibson Melody Maker, added a bigsby, two hot pick-ups, a blend knob and a push-pull knob that can split the front humbucker,” Pamplin says. “It’s perfect.”
That’s guitar speak for the ability to squeeze three of the best-sounding American guitars out of one little guitar: a Fender, Gretsch and a Gibson. The result is a kind of “clean dirty” sound, best heard in tones from players such as Neil Young or Steve Cropper.
Looking back on the past year, Renee says the first year in business was pretty tough. When they opened, the Hillsborough couple was newly married, and Brian had left a job at Roscoe Guitars with a steady paycheck to open a business in a near recession-depression. But they pulled through with a shared belief system, she says.
“It’s part physics and part spirituality,” says Renee, 31.
Faith that the right elements will come together.
It was a year of patiently, and sometimes frighteningly, wondering if it was going to work. One year of believing “if you build it they will come” and seeing what happens when you finally flip the switch.
“Every time I’ve aggressively pursued anything in my life I’ve been severely disappointed,” Haran says. “I don’t do that anymore.”
Growing up outside Queens in Baldwin, N.Y. , Haran was five minutes from the ocean and 20 minutes from Manhattan. He gets “obsessed” about things he’s interested in, he says. When he started surfing, he made his own boards, too. But music was always the undertone.
“When I was 4 and 5 (years old), I’d do my chores and my parents would take me down the street and buy 45s. I always thought musicians were ‘bigger than life’ things, removed, like fiction.
“Why did I put down the surfboard for the guitar? I started going to see bands play. Not big concerts, small clubs with indy bands playing a stage that’s 8 inches off the ground and you could talk to them afterwards.”
Out of high school, he moved to New York City, got a job as an assistant in a studio in the heart of Manhattan’s recording district and took another job at 30th Street Guitars.
“It was right down the street from the studio where I worked. In the studio, sessions don’t really end until really late, and an assistant’s job is to coil up the cables put all the knobs back to zero. I’d crash on the couch there, lock up and go down to the work at the store,” Haran says.
All levels of players rotated in and out of the shop. Beginners and working musicians, such as Steely Dan’s guitar player, Jon Herington, and Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from Television, two of the most technically proficient players in New York’s underground punk scene.
Greensboro to Graham
In 2004, Haran moved to Greensboro where he met Sanders Trippe, guitarist for Vetiver, who worked at bass and guitar builder Roscoe Guitars in Greensboro. The company is still cranking out basses today.
A job opened there to wire in electronics and assemble the guitars in 2006, and Haran took the spot.
A few years later, the couple was playing in a band together, getting married and talking about opening a shop of their own. Renee wanted Brian to invest in himself, she says. He looked at a few places in Greensboro, but nothing came together.
“She definitely prodded me in the sense that I wouldn’t dream of stopping a job that paid well. Her face was very reassuring in thinking that I could do it,” Brian says.
By 2009, they were meeting more people in the Triangle through Filthybird, and their record label, Holidays for Quince Records, was also in Chapel Hill. So East seemed like a good direction to go.
On a drive one day, seemingly going nowhere, they found an empty storefront in downtown Graham. The space was 3,000 square feet, two times more in rent than they wanted to pay, and the landlord didn’t want to divide the space.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know why, but I think we should do this,’ ” Renee says.
Brian did the math. They were already paying $300 for rehearsal space in Greensboro. If they had more space, they could bring in other bands and record there.
“I figured that would generate a little money, too. It was terrifying to sign up for that much rent, but it just worked,” Brian says.
They took out a loan (looking back, Haran wishes it was more), and started to build their inventory.
They thought about selling new guitars, but “that’s not really what we’re about,” Renee says. So they scouted out the first 15 guitars, talking to guitar owners who had extra stuff they didn’t want. Haran bought the guitars, rebuilt them and sold them in the shop.
“We were used to being resourceful and not having a lot of things,” Renee says. “If you don’t have the ingredients to make cookies, you make biscuits.”
The Fret Sounds recording duo
There’s a doorway just behind Haran’s workbench at Fret Sounds. Just through the curtain is the rehearsal and recording space. It’s twice as long as the retail space footprint, with high ceilings and plaster walls.
Over the last year, Haran and Raleigh-based audio engineer Jim Bob Aiken have been stomping around the place with a hand drum, lugging amps and microphones around the room, trying to find the best sounding spot for every instrument. The last year has been about setting up the room, running 50 channels of cable and power from the recording room to the control room.
There’s been so much touring the last year, there hasn’t been a lot of time for recording. Currently, they’re working on a new record by Randy Bickford, who drives down from Washington, D.C., for weekend sessions.
Aiken’s utilitarian approach to recording combines practical technology with odd, but not necessarily vintage, pieces. He buys things at good value and upgrades the parts.
“I like to use what’s available and not feel like I have to buy something to make it sound expensive,” says Aiken, who holds a bachelor’s degree in audio engineering from Middle Tennessee State University.
In the studio, Haran and Aiken don’t assign each other roles, they just intuitively work around each other.
“I’ve never experienced working with a team or a duo of engineers,” Bickford says. “There’s this really cool interaction between the two personalities — yin and yang. Jim Bob is a tweaker and kind of meticulous, and Brian seems much more in touch with the aesthetics. They’re bros, peers, both really accomplished engineers in their own right.
“They get off on thinking about gear and the technical aspects of recording that just go over my head and glaze my eyes over.”
Back at the shop
It’s a rainy, Tuesday afternoon at Fret Sounds. William Fulks, 20, walks in. He lives in Graham, plays guitar and bass –– early Pink Floyd stuff. He came downtown today with his dad, who is hanging out at the hardware store around the corner.
He sits on a stool across from Haran’s work bench, and he’s about the same age as Haran when he started hanging around the guitar shop in Manhattan. The two are nearly the same height, over 6 feet, and if Haran hadn’t recently sheared his bushy brown hair short, the similarities would be even more striking.
“I’ve learned it’s better if the person working on your guitar has done it before,” Fulks says about what he’s learned from coming here.
He says he left the hardware store to come hang out with Haran, to get a reprieve from the nuts and bolts of things there.
That’s what every good guitar shop does. You walk in weary, and walk out, all charged up.
Contact Molly McGinn at email@example.com.Want to go?
What: Fret Sounds
Where: 20 NE Court Square, Graham
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday; closed Sunday