On a recent Friday night, Andy Zipf and Sam West were in the far-back corner of East Long Beach's Dawn of the Shred, warming up for the gear shop's first in-store performance. Zipf plucked at a new semi-hollow prototype from Wilmore Guitars, the Long Beach-based company that organized the event.
Plugged into a white Marshall amplifier, the handmade guitar sounded warm and clean, almost dreamy in tone. The singer/songwriter smiled to himself; gliding from note to note, he looked genuinely astonished as he faced West at the drum kit. “This guitar is really cool,” he whispered.
“I know,” West slowly mouthed back.
This is the reaction most musicians have when trying out stuff at Dawn of the Shred, a store specializing in handcrafted and small-batch amps, guitars and effects pedals. In its cavernous storefront across from Heartwell Park, you won't find any mediocre Boss distortion pedals or Fender Stratocaster gift packs—just a generous selection of small, quality brands; select vintage finds; and owner James Demetra, who is more than happy to help you navigate through it all. “I genuinely enjoy selling stuff,” says the scruffy, heavily inked Demetra. “I love those moments when everything clicks, such as when a musician has found what he's looking for in the store and is playing it through the right pedal or the right amp. It all becomes one, if I can get overly romantic about it.”
A doom-metal guitar player with a decade-long interest in boutique music equipment, Demetra is a Texas transplant who ran through jobs in Houston's tattoo and culinary industries before landing at the Art Institute of California, Orange County in Santa Ana. But learning about art only stifled his visual creativity, he says. After selling name-brand gear in the accessories department at Guitar Center in Lake Forest, he decided to quit and invest his final paycheck in becoming an online dealer for the growing number of small pedal builders he'd discovered over the years.
He finally opened his store last December. Demetra's pickiness when it comes to his own gear easily rubs off on his business. “The fact that I'm more of a rhythm player helped push me into the boutique side of things,” he explains. “I got more obsessed with how things sound because if I'm going to play fewer notes, they better sound good.”
As with other industries shifting from commercial production methods and retail chains (think craft beer, specialty coffee, slow food), music equipment is also taking a more organic path.
In Orange County—the longtime home of Rickenbacker electric guitars (favorites of a little band called the Beatles) and birthplace of the Stratocaster—companies such as Divided By 13 Amplification, Morgan Amps and Shadow Amplification are leading the way with locally hand-crafted amps. Fullerton's Creepy Fingers is the county's only boutique pedal producer, with such models as Fuzzbud, Sugarboost and Doomidrive all hand-soldered by Brad Davis (bassist for stoner-rock band Fu Manchu) and available at Dawn of the Shred.
For effects pedals, the step away from mass-produced worship is nothing new. In the 1990s, bands such as Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement reignited interest in analog stompboxes that first appeared in the 1960s. Fueled by low buy-in costs and the availability of schematics, starter kits and how-to guides on the Internet, pedal geeks (“Pedal-philes just sounds wrong,” jokes Demetra) in garages across the country are now making custom devices at such a rate that, Demetra says, he could add two new pedal brands per month and not run out of options for a long time. “I try to find a balance between wanting to put everything in the shop and being selective so it's not too cluttered,” he says.
But the ease of buying and selling niche equipment via the Internet also creates a barrier for buyers who have no idea how the equipment will actually sound on their rigs. Since Guitar Center and Sam Ash only stock midlevel (read: larger production) boutique labels, if at all, and Tone Merchants closed its Orange location last year, Dawn of the Shred is currently the only local spot to test equipment from companies such as Creepy Fingers, Verellen Amps, EarthQuaker Devices and Blackout Effectors.
“If you like a pedal you find online, that's great for putting it on a list, but you need to hear it through your own gear to know for sure if it's what you want,” says Demetra. “We know what different products sound like here, and we're here to help eliminate factors from the equation.”
This article appeared in print as “Pedal to the Metal: Local guitar shop Dawn of the Shred turns hunting for vintage accessories into an art form.”
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.