Finding a good groove in Lafayette: Mighty Fine Guitars attracts high-end buyers and players
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Mighty Fine Guitars owner and musician Stevie Coyle is proving there's nothing better than being in a room with strings and a box. And judging by the music lovers packing into Lamorinda Music's Big Room, just steps from where he dispenses high-end, luthier-made acoustic guitars in the shop he opened in 2012, local residents are hearing the message loud and clear.
An ad hoc concert series of guitar playing aristocracy -- some planned appearances, some impromptu sets from artists already playing in the area, audiences notified by email "shout-outs" -- speak volumes for Coyle and the groove he's laying down in Lafayette.
"The heavyweight names are getting the greatest response, but they're only the 'gateway drug,' " Coyle says, in an early August interview. "Once people see them, they catch on that they can trust me to bring in cool folks."
"Cool folks" like Alex de Grassi, fingerstyle guitarist, Windham Hill artist and Grammy Award Nominee; bluegrass flatpicker and Grammy Award Certified guitarist Jim Nunally; and a host of industry insiders whose names don't cross the public's radar as often as those of the company they keep: -- Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Merle Travis, PBS's Ken Burns, Leo Kottke and others.
Drawn by a magnetic quadrangle of a global music scene in transformation, an American economy in doldrums, the Bay Area's knowledgeable, appreciative audience base and Coyle's good-natured karma, musicians are loving the intimate venue.
"During the second set, Stevie started grabbing guitars from the shop and handing them to me on stage and I played them on the spot. That doesn't happen in a concert hall," recalls de Grassi. His March 16 appearance was "an embarrassment of riches," according to Coyle.
Nunally said the performance space is ideal for musicians on the road or for local artists with a rare night off.
"Stevie's years of touring experience must have helped him create (this) space," Nunally said. "His idea of a specialty guitar shop and performance venue can be an inspiration for other communities."
Coyle relies on his eclectic background as a guitarist, vocalist and wannabe priest to attract top-flight performers and music innovators like Daniel Levitin, former music producer and now a cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist who wrote "This Is Your Brain On Music."
"Until the first day in college, I wanted to be a priest," Coyle confesses. "The prof said he'd separate the wheat from the chaff, reduced my theology to a second-grade understanding and put a sledgehammer in my Catholicism. I bless him every day for setting me straight. I discovered girls then, too, so it was destiny."
His destiny included playing a weatherman on an episode of "Cheers," getting blacked out from the "Young and Restless" soap opera when his episodes were superseded by Iran Contra news coverage, and cofounding The Waybacks, a still-extant popular four-piece band he toured with until 2007.
"It was a good run; for a band to stick together for seven years is beating some odds," he says. "I left because they wanted to give away our stellar, acoustic, 'new grass' profile and go electric and play cover tunes."
Coyle's solo career as a guitarist and vocalist continued: "Ten-in-One" is his latest CD and harks back to his circus days. "I was part of a left-leaning, overgrown street act," he laughs. "I had one act where I could get a house cat to walk on bottles and spin to the music." His CD was intended to be "a polite fingerstyle guitar record" but turned into a "light motif with a dark side" concept recording he likens to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Nunally said Coyle "picks a mean guitar" and can "write a spectacular song." De Grassi called him "a great player" and "a champion of the independent (luthier)."
Mighty Fine Guitars carries instruments ranging from roughly $1,700 to a $22,000 mahogany and rosewood Spalt Nouveau. Maker names like Klepper, Hoffman, Perlman and Olson mean something to the professionals, but to the middle-aged men with expendable income who are a large part of his clientele, Coyle's know-how is paramount. For casual shoppers, he shows instruments fitting their budgets, their hands and their musical interests. For professionals, he can spec custom orders or introduce them to alternative makers of the guitar they prefer. Coyle offers private lessons and loves "the 'bicycle moment,' when students suddenly get it," and correcting technical problems that prevent accomplished players from achieving their best performance
When he's not playing impresario or selling "boxes with strings," Coyle is gathering track lists for recording an upcoming live CD and a fingerstyle solo acoustic record.