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Sam Ash, Gold Tone and the Importance of Neighborhood Music Shops

How Phillip Wheeler and Colin Watts continue to cultivate the DIY scene

Colin Watts and Philip Wheeler in front of Gold Tone Workshop, Sam Ash closing
Colin Watts and Philip Wheeler in front of Gold Tone Workshop. (Photo by Justin Smith)

While perhaps expected in the wake of news about widespread closures up and down the East Coast, it was still jarring when confirmation came in May that Sam Ash Music would be closing all of its locations over the summer, with the Charlotte location expected to close by the end of July. 

Sam Ash wasn’t just a local store, but an institution you could count on as a musician. I can’t even begin to count the times during my early twenties that, out of sheer boredom, I would drive down the road to either Guitar Center or Sam Ash to try out some new pedal called the Swollen Pickle I had no money to buy or just poorly noodle around playing “Smoke on the Water” while more seasoned musicians demonstrated all of the available arpeggios. 

When Guitar Center on Independence Boulevard closed, the options began getting slimmer, leaving Sam Ash as the big player in town — unless you traveled to the University area for the other Guitar Center or made the trek down to Rock Hill for Woody’s. 

There was a time where you could go into any Best Buy and pick up guitar strings, but eventually that went away and Best Buy began to close down locations and severely gut the inventory at its few remaining shops. 

For almost 20 years, the Charlotte Sam Ash location on Tyvola was the spot not only for guitar players; they also had a robust drum section, DJ equipment and keyboards galore. The decor included pictures of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani adorning on the walls while an eternal loop of Michael Schenker shred videos blasted over the loudspeaker. 

While that might sound like hell to the non-musician, to me it was comforting. There’s a warmth in the familiar, when you can look out at the city skyline and recognize the town you spent half your life in, but over time those symbols fade. 

For years, this was the ritual: Drop your guitar cabinet off at Speaker Doctor and, if you needed an amp repaired, bring it to Steve Stoekel. When Steve, Tony and Alex announced that Speaker Doctor was closing its doors 2015, due in part to the ever-changing landscape of Independence Boulevard, it was difficult to figure out where to turn. 

I get it, things change and we adapt, but a little bit of consistency would be nice. 

At Sam Ash, you knew what to expect, and like Guitar Center you knew that a young musician might know where to find it. It wasn’t out of reach for a Ballantyne parent who could drive you after soccer practice to pick up a Squier pack or, if you were lucky, a Tom DeLonge signature Fender.

So now what’s a young musician to do?  

Yes, the appetite for retail has moved online, ultimately leading to Sam Ash’s closure, and I’d be a hypocrite if I said my buying habits haven’t shifted online. Why drive the 20-30 minutes when I can get GHS Flea signature bass boomer strings from Amazon for 20% less? 

But that’s only for those situations where I know exactly what I want to buy. The store experience, on the other hand, allows you to explore and discover things to your specific taste — not just what the algorithm feeds you. 

The hole in the market might help the regional Music & Arts market at the Park Road Shopping Center or Arboretum, or even the remaining Guitar Center locations in University City and Pineville to survive for the time being, and that’s nice, but what this closure has really demonstrated is the value in a neighborhood store. 

Big box locations can’t compete with online shopping ala Sweetwater, so don’t compete, go micro. 

Fortunately, Charlotte musicians are in luck thanks to the folks at Gold Tone Workshop. The store is owned by local musicians Phillip Wheeler and Colin Watts, whom you may also recognize from long-running indie-rock staple the Junior Astronomers. 

Queen City Nerve highlighted the pair’s efforts to open the store despite the ongoing pandemic in 2020.  

Junior astronomers
Phillip Wheeler (left) and Colin Watts in 2020. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

According to Wheeler, it was the pandemic that accelerated he and Watts’ desire to one-day open a music shop, as they suddenly found themselves with no shows or rehearsals and plenty of free time. 

“We fast tracked that, ‘what was that fun plan we had for when we were 50?’ by about 20 years,” Wheeler told me. “All of a sudden, we didn’t have shows or rehearsals and we had about 10 spare hours a day to fill. We chose to fill that with going into the deep end on our instrument/electronic tinkering fascinations.”

He added that he had been watching a lot of The Repair Shop on BBC during the pandemic, which “romanticized the whole thing.” 

Perhaps ironically, given the point I’m making here about neighborhood shops, Gold Tone was launched as an exclusively online business, though their fast success prompted them to open a brick-and-mortar store in July.

Since then, the space has taken in Premium Sound, a boutique record store owned by Luke Stemmerman that was previously housed inside Tip Top Daily Market. 

“Premium Sound had been hosting pop-ups in and out of brick-and-mortars for about a decade and, thanks to good timing, we were lucky enough to be the landing spot for him when he left his previous location,” said Wheeler. “Luke has a special kind of good taste and when he puts you on to a record, it’s a lock that it will be good.” 

Inside Gold Tone Workshop. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Gold Tone Workshop is actually the second neighborhood guitar shop in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, while Midwood Guitar Studio has catered to a higher-paying clientele since opening in 2016, Gold Tone focuses on vintage amps and guitars for a more budget-conscious player. It takes both kinds to fill in the gaps. 

While they may not be blasting live Steve Vai instructional DVDs, Watts and Wheeler, as local musicians themselves, have a real knack for knowing what a specific musician needs in their respective journey. 

The beauty of these local neighborhood shops isn’t only in their specificity, but also in the times that you get started talking about whatever gear you might be looking to buy only for the conversation to move into music or whatever TV show you’ve been watching recently. 

Like your favorite barber, these relationships run deep after you’ve frequented a shop over the years. 

gold tone workshop
Gold Tone Workshop (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

As for what’s next, Wheeler says he and Watts have considered getting into product development after learning more about the needs of their customers over the last four years, but that can wait. 

“We are thinking about dipping our toes into developing a few very specific products. Unfortunately, the iPod and the fuzz pedal are already taken,” he said. “In the short term, we are focusing on building out the back of the shop a bit more so we can take in more amps and instruments for repair and keep the wait times short.” 

Wheeler and Watts want to make Gold Tone Workshop feel like an integral piece of their local community, a place where regional kids from the surrounding suburbs can make the retail adjustment with the current and coming extinction of the big box music store, and learn to love shopping local again. 

“The relationship between guitar and player is extremely personal and wholly based on touch and feel,” Wheeler said. “I’ve picked up five different Les Pauls — same model, same year — at a Guitar Center and only one felt right to me. Wand chooses the wizard kind of thing. That’s impossible to replicate at an online retailer and shipping isn’t exactly a friend to the setup and playability of a guitar or any other instrument.” 

“Your instrument is your voice and an extension of you- getting something shipped to you is essentially a blind date,” he continued. “It might be incredible but it’s very often not the right fit. 

He also pointed to the importance of neighborhood music shops as a place for local musicians to congregate and network in a way that they can’t on social media. 

“Cards are passed out for instrument lessons, flyers are in the windows for upcoming shows, questions are asked about how to get certain tones, leaflets go up for upstart bands looking for new members, shows are played after hours,” he said. “Venues, record shops and music stores are the beating heart of music scenes — the infrastructure that supports great music coming out of a city.”

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