“There’s this story about Jaco Pastorius’ bass,” says Philip Wheeler, co-owner of Gold Tone Workshop, a new guitar shop in Plaza Midwood, referring to the jazz musician whose complex lines and light-speed solos revolutionized bass playing. “Everyone that’s played [his bass] says it coaxes those Jaco notes out of you, that the bass was destined to play those notes.”
Wheeler’s business partner Colin Watts agrees there’s a kind of magic in each musical instrument, a sound that’s waiting to come out.
“That’s the only reason I latched onto the name Gold Tone,” Watts says. “I want us to be the vessel for people to find the sound that’s in their head.”
Early this year, the two friends who have known each other since middle school launched Gold Tone Workshop, launching the shop primarily as an online repair service for guitars and amplifiers.
It was a natural move for the two, who are also bandmates in muscular Charlotte rock band Junior Astronomers, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The 34-year-old Wheeler provides the dynamic guitar leads to the band’s cathartic tunes, while 33-year-old Watts gives them a supple rhythmic spine with inventive and intricate bass runs.
“In the process of going out … on tour we’ve had really good guitar techs, and I picked up a lot of tricks and tips from them along the way,” says Wheeler, who describes himself as a wannabe tone aficionado.
It’s always been in the back of the bandmates’ minds to use their road-tested knowledge and attention to each instrument’s sound to launch a store that caters to fellow musicians and novices alike, Wheeler says.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the implementation of the pair’s plans. The side gig has become the main event.
“We both love the craft of creating the best sound possible,” says Watts, who has been in the electronics repair industry for the last eight years. He sees the shop as a kind of offshoot from his day job.
Unlike his partner, Wheeler has embraced Gold Tone as a full-time gig. He says the store keeps the partners close to music while the pandemic keeps them semi-quarantined in Charlotte.
“We still play music all the time,” he says.
The success of the online business prompted Wheeler and Watts to open a brick-and-mortar store in July.
Located at the end of a strip mall at the corner of Central Avenue and Morningside Drive, the shop is currently open by appointment only.
Balancing their business between online and in-person, Gold Tone Workshop offers vintage amps and guitars as well as some new amps.
“We’re selling pedals, some consigned, some new,” Wheeler offers.
The shop also carries picks and strings, and soon will have drum heads and drum sticks in stock.
Like those who have been in business for awhile, Gold Tone Workshop is trying to pivot with the times, Wheeler says. Since people aren’t playing live shows, the shop has started carrying gear for people who are recording at home.
Soon they will stock vintage micropipes and drum mics, which they will rent out at a fair day rate so musicians can record professional sounding tracks in their home studios.
“[It] sort of keeps the wheels turning for everybody,” Wheeler says.
One Good Band in a Sea of Bad Ones
Wheeler says that, for him, becoming a musician was inevitable, particularly given his parents’ backgrounds. His mother is an accomplished pianist and his father was once a roadie for David Bowie.
He figures his life path reached a fork in the road when he was 10 years old. Instead of going to football practice, he stayed home and started fiddling with the guitar.
Watching the Beach Boys play with the Rippers, the band fronted by John Stamos’ character Uncle Jesse in the sitcom Full House was an inspiration, he recalls. Although he started out playing saxophone, Wheeler switched exclusively to guitar when he was 12.
Growing up, Watts was also surrounded by music. He played trumpet in middle school band, and would often jam with his 70-year-old neighbor who played banjo in a Dixieland band that performed at the Elizabeth restaurant Cajun Queen.
Then he got into skateboarding. Watts was introduced to punk rock through the soundtrack to the video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and he fell in love with the genre.
The two became friends, and both eventually formed Junior Astronomers with vocalist Terrence Richard and drummer Elias Pittman.
“I was in a bunch of bad bands,” Wheeler says, “until I wasn’t.”
In the wake of COVID-19, the Junior Astronomers band members have been passing musical ideas back and forth online, Wheeler says, and everyone has stayed in touch.
By a happy coincidence, Richard’s house is directly across the street from Gold Tone Workshop.
The band, however, is still in a holding pattern.
“Writing in isolation is fun and it’s self-exploratory, but [you miss] getting energy off of everybody else,” Wheeler says. He outlines the dilemma of a rock band in self-quarantine. “We have a million parts and no full songs.”
Solving the Sonic Puzzle
Wheeler and Watts focused their energy on opening a business in the middle of a pandemic, trying to create the kind of store in Charlotte that they would like to go to.
But bureaucratic wheels did not turn rapidly in the COVID-19 climate. It took longer to set up a meeting with the bank, both men recall, and they are still waiting for their fire inspection because the inspector took two weeks off.
“It’s been slow going,” Wheeler admits, “but we’re happy to let it be that way. We didn’t want to throw ourselves into the fire and put people at risk.”
When a spot opened up in the strip mall, Wheeler says he took it as a sign that they were doing the right thing.
As soon as they opened the shop, business picked up quickly, simply through word of mouth.
“To get a good price on vintage gear that actually works and sounds good, you either have to go to some weird Craigslist meet-up or you have to travel to Nashville or Asheville,” Wheeler says.
Despite its size, Charlotte has never had a shop like theirs, he maintains.
Watts feels there is an opportunity for the shop to become a community music space.
“If I can show you how to change your strings or tune your guitar, you’re going to play more,” he offers. Watts maintains that this helpful behavior is also a shrewd business move; the more you play, the more reason you have to come back to the shop.
“I love being able to teach people how to get the sound they’re looking for,” says Watts, who’s been buying gear for 10 years in an attempt to find his own sound. He feels his extensive experience with different pedals, amps and combos will help him solve the sonic puzzle for others.
As far as selling gear at Gold Tone Workshop, Wheeler says it’s mostly online at this point, although there have been a few examples of people coming in to play instruments and buying them.
“By and large, we’ve mostly been selling vintage guitars which I’ve been buying at estate sales,” Wheeler offers. “We’ve actually been holding onto [some of] the good stuff for people who walk through the door.”
Wheeler and Watts both say they are astonished by the number of consignment guitars and amps that have come their way.
“I’ve been surprised at how many people messaged me and said, ‘I have an amp from the ’60s, and I’d like to put it up,’” Wheeler says. “We got a wall full of gear all of the sudden.”
The demand for these items is also high, so it’s an efficient way for the store to have vetted gear in stock. When amps and guitars come in on consignment, Wheeler and Watts check them out and move them out the door. Wheeler reckons that 50% of the gear displayed in the shop comes through consignment.
A Tale of Two Plaza Midwood Guitar Shops
Less than a mile from Gold Tone Workshop down Central Avenue is Midwood Guitar Studio, a boutique guitar shop also in the heart of Plaza Midwood that stocks high-end and custom-made guitars, basses and amplifiers.
“I go into Midwood [Guitar] and drool over everything that’s in there,” Watts says. “It’s all top gear and I don’t have the money for it.”
Since opening in 2016, and before the onslaught of COVID-19, Midwood Guitar Studio has striven to be a hub for Charlotte guitar players; a place where musicians could attend seminars, catch performances and exchange notes about instruments, amps and accessories.
Do Watts and Wheeler see high-end competition down the road?
Not really, says Wheeler.
Midwood Guitar Studio doesn’t address the needs that Gold Tone Workshop focuses on, he asserts. For instance, they sell Collings guitars, a higher-priced acoustic line for boutique players.
“That’s not necessarily for the touring musician or a community player,” Wheeler says. “They don’t sell a lot of vintage stuff. Vintage is huge [for us].”
Watts often adopts the mindset of where he was 10 years ago when Junior Astronomers was just starting up. Back then he didn’t have much gear, and he had no clue what to get.
That puts him in the shoes of many beginning musicians who come through the shop’s door. This approach serves the first time buyer, he maintains, someone who doesn’t know what kind of amp they need.
“I want to have someone come in and be able to say, ‘This is what I’m after. This is my budget,’” he says. Patrons like that don’t necessarily need to buy a $2,000 amp when a $200 model will do.
“While high-end gear is nice, you may not want to bring it to a bar gig,” Watts says. “Bringing a $3,000 guitar to a house party may not make any sense.
“I’d love to [establish] a presence in the community that offers that kind of guidance,” he continues.
He wants to treat every guitar and amp that comes into the shop like it’s the best gear the customer can get. It all boils down to one question, Watts maintains: “Where are you in your journey?”
Wheeler says Gold Tone Workshop is starting to see some School of Rock students and other young players who are starting bands.
“We like to sell them cheap good stuff that has been vetted by us,” he says. “It’s cool [gear] and they can afford it.”
He also hopes to encourage younger players to work on their guitars, which in turn will foster their enthusiasm for playing.
Wheeler emphasizes that the business is not just handling cheap instruments, amps, and accessories. He cites some $2,000 amps that are currently on the shop floor. Ironically, it’s the kind of equipment that would appeal to the clientele at Midwood Guitar Studio.
On the other hand, Wheeler insists inexpensive does not equal bad. He raises the example of a cheap Peavey PA 400 amp. He acknowledges that players might look down upon such a ho-hum piece of equipment.
But that make and model was Greg Ginn’s main amp throughout his career in the influential hardcore punk band Black Flag, Wheeler says.
It was with the Peavey PA 400 that Ginn created the roaring grinding tone that presaged the rise of grunge.
The Learning Curve of Gold Tone
With Wheeler’s and Watts’ focus on working and emerging musicians, Gold Tone seems like the perfect place to offer lessons.
“I don’t have the patience for that,” Wheeler says, laughing.
“I tried to give lessons once and it was very [hard],” Watts adds. “Kudos to everybody who does it.”
That said, Watts professes to love the difficult and nuanced profession of teaching.
“We’ve discussed doing workshops for people that want to be able to do basic things on their own,” Wheeler offers.
Pullover founder and frontman Phil Pucci, who also teaches at the School of Rock, has been sending students Watts’ and Wheeler’s way.
“It’s so hard for him to explain how to change your strings over Zoom, which is the new normal for teaching,” Wheeler says. “I’m sure it was frustrating for him, but he’s been sending kids over to just get their strings changed for the very first time.”
As a result, Watts and Wheeler are considered serving musical novices, offering tone workshops, workshops on pedals and the basics of working and maintaining guitars and amps — without giving away trade secrets.
Above all, the partners look forward to benefiting Charlotte’s musical community through their experience, expertise and attention to tone.
“I love helping people find a distortion sound, or a cleaner sound,” Watts says. “I love that stuff. I love being around it.”
“I would play different guitars all day for free, so this [job] is a privilege,” Wheeler says. “Guitars and whoever plays notes are the most important things in my life, and I treat everyone’s instrument like they play for a living.”
His goal is to make each guitar the clear conduit between what a musician hears in their head and the sounds that fill a room.
“A good instrument that sounds good begs you to play it,” Wheeler says. “I want guitars to invite people to play them and coax great things from their hands.”
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