On the day of our visit to Trilogy Guitars, we got a call from store manager Ryan Ayers. A client from Japan had flown in, and they needed to pick him up at LAX and give him some time to try out guitars. Could we move the interview just a couple of hours?
When we arrive later in the afternoon, we're greeted by Ayers, owner John Silva and his chocolate lab Kona, who both live in Playa. They take us to the intimate main room, where 20 different models of flamenco and classical guitars adorn the walls. The shop also carries a few steel string guitars, Cuban instruments like the tres, acoustic guitar strings, and they've recently started selling handmade flamenco dance shoes as well.
As we take a closer look, we discover how each guitar has unique, poetic pieces of artwork on the rosette band around the sound hole and on the headstock. Some patterns look like herringbone, while others are very intricate mosaic-style inlays.
"Since the construction of a guitar follows very specific guidelines, guitar makers get to express their artistic individuality through the designs of the rosette, the bindings on the sides and the headstock," Ayers explained and pulled out a guitar with an exceptionally beautiful headstock in black with carved ornaments.
Most of the guitars here are handcrafted by luthiers who may not make more than 20 instruments a year. Some cost more than $10,000 or $20,000. Beautiful little handwritten labels inside the soundholes reveal the origin of each guitar: Spain, Germany, Mexico, USA.
If you want to come and see the guitars, however, you better call first. Trilogy is open by appointment only. Silva and Ayers explained why.
"Our guitars start at about a thousand dollars with the student models. At this price range, you don't only want to get an instrument with a good feel, you also want to see if it has the nuances that work for you. A more experienced player can detect differences in warmth and darkness," Ayers said. "We try to guide people through that process here. If two guitar players sit in this room at the same time playing different things, you can't really make a decision."
The flamenco guitars look fascinating, with their large tap plates in white and clear plastic. The plate shields the delicate wooden body underneath from all the aggressive strumming and rhythmic slapping that comes with the playing style. Flamenco guitars that are collectible can cost forty or fifty thousand.
Patch: What is the difference between a classical guitar and a flamenco guitar?
Ayers: In flamenco, the guitar works both as a drum and as a guitar. So the flamenco guitar will be of a lighter weight because of the wood it's made out of, but also in order to get that pop and rasp from them, which is a little bit like the snares on a snare drum. The neck angle is also a little more flat, which allows for the percussive and "buzzy" effect as well. In classical guitars, on the other hand, we're looking for a clean and pure tone.
Patch: Flamenco guitars are generally divided into two categories: "blanca" and "negra." Can you explain the difference for us?
Ayers: The "blancas" are the original flamenco guitars. Back when gypsies in Spain made their guitars, they used cypress tree because there's plenty of it available in the region. Blancas have a lighter and brighter sounding wood. The primary goal for flamenco guitarists back then was to accompany dancers and singers, so you could hear these bright guitars over the heals of the dancers' shoes. But when flamenco guitar evolved as an art form on its own with solo players, a guitar with a little more versatility and body was needed. That's when the "negra" was designed to meet in the middle of the classical guitar and the flamenco guitar.
Trilogy ships guitars all over the world, but some of their customers find it more convenient to fly out to LA, perhaps book a room overnight at the Playa del Rey Inn, and stroll down to the shop to explore the entire inventory over a couple of days. If it's been raining, they might come back to see how their favorite guitar sounds on a less humid day. These connoisseurs include professional musicians, amateur enthusiasts with a lot of money to spend, collectors, celebrities, older players picking up classical guitar for the first time or returning to it, but also students from different college music programs.
"We have a group of students driving down from Vegas in the next couple of days. They'll be here for two or three hours, going through the guitars and seeing if there's anything that really excites them," said Ayers, who started working here after receiving dual degrees in recording and classic guitar at Loyola Marymount University.
John Silva lives in the neighborhood and is the owner of Trilogy Guitars. It's been 10 years since he started his own guitar shop after working for many years at another guitar shop in Santa Monica. He credited his success to a reputation of good service.
Patch: You don't have any signs on your building. In spite of that, you've had your store for 10 years and you host concerts with top artists here. How do you do it?
Silva: People often ask me how we do business without a sign on our door. The classical guitar world is such a small community. I've been in the business for almost twenty years, so many people in it have heard of me. It's also about treating our customers right. It's a real personal thing for people to buy these kind of instruments, where the average price is four to six thousand dollars even for a student. If you're spending that kind of money, you're not looking to get a guitar shoved down your throat.
The store walls are decorated with many black-and-white photos of the local and international artists who have performed here, including Alex de Grassi, Scott Tennant, Andrew York, Roland Dyens and more. Concerts take place here every couple of months. Invitations are sent out to people on the store's e-mail list and they post upcoming shows on their website, but that's all the advertizing they do.
Patch can reveal that they're throwing a flamenco show in April, so visit their website and sign on to their e-mail list as soon as you can if you're interested. Due to the small venue (that can only host 60 people at the most) and the low-key, private party style, the shows tend to sell out quickly.
"The artists love doing concerts here, because they play for a different crowd than what they're typically used to," Silva said. "They often play at colleges for students who can be a little blasé (laughs). Here, they have a small, but very appreciative audience. Many of the concertgoers here haven't been exposed to this kind of music before. And the artists get to interact with the guests in a different way, because our venue is smaller and more intimate. They'll mingle with the guests as they sign and sell CDs, and it's real fun."