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Store Hours: 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday through Friday • 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM Saturday • Closed Sunday

Local Mainstay Born Again – The Blue Guitar

DeForest Thornburgh

Local Mainstay Born Again – The Blue Guitar
by Raul Sandelin
The most common scenario in the
music industry is the shooting star,
out of the gate bolstered by energy
and maybe some talent and hype.
Whether they deserve it or not, most acts
put out a frantically busy few years followed
by atrophy. The Beatles and
Nirvanas of the world fit this bill,
although most fizzle less splendidly than
these more famous examples. Then, there
are the acts that last and last, and perhaps
last a little too long, parading their
irrelevance around before finally being
sent out to pasture. We can all look at the
stable of today’s stars and pick out the
ones who have outlived their 15 minutes,
15 months, or 15 years of fame.
Then, there are those performers and
bands who find ways to last and last yet
do so with an ever new-found vigor,
somehow reinventing themselves while
erasing any vestiges of plastic surgery.
But, these instances are rare although I’m
sure we all have our favorites. For obscurity’s
sake, I’ll throw out the Count Basie
Orchestra, which still swings hard and
tours like a mofo, 20 some odd years after
the Count last left the proverbial building.
Like fractals in nature, the above
models apply to virtually all facets of the
music business, including the humble,
local guitar shop. Of these, you have the
ones that bounce onto the scene, buoyed
by wet tee shirt contests and rock star clinicians
only to find themselves in
Chapter 11 within the year. You have
those that last and last, hoping that their
stockpile of Hondo Les Pauls with bolt-on
necks will soon catch on as the next retro
And, then, you have San Diego’s Blue
Guitar pack with amp, which has kept itself at the forefront
of the local (and international) guitar
community while growing and finding
new strength through a series of personnel
and ownership changes over the
last 46 years.
For those of you not entirely
acquainted with Blue Guitar’s history, the
shop first opened in 1961. With local
luthier extraordinaire Yuris Zeltins always
a main ingredient, the store’s associates
once included Ed Douglas, founding
member of the Scottsville Squirrel
Barkers, which gave a pre-Byrds Chris
Hillman his start, and, later Steve Neal,
who continued as an owner until retreating
to Idaho in 2003. Occupying over a
dozen locations in the last 46 years, Blue
Guitar has traversed the Midway-P.B.-Old
Town triangle. And, most probably
remember it in its India Street location.
In 2005, it moved into its newest digs out
on Mission Gorge Road.
Yet, despite its ever-shuffling changes
in venue and ownership, the Blue Guitar
has maintained its reputation as one of
those primeval rocks in San Diego guitar
culture, thanks in no small part to Yuris
Zeltins’ track record as a crack guitar
In 2003, Blue Guitar entered into its
latest incarnation. Steve Neal was ready
to open up his new workshop in the
decidedly quieter environs of Idaho. (He
still builds his Saqui Guitars with a twoyear
waiting list and runs the Salmon
River Guitars workshop.) So, in stepped
DeForest Thornburgh, a long-time Blue
Guitar customer and devotee, to buy out
Neal and interject new dynamics into the
store’s long history.
A Southern California native,
Thornburgh found himself in the middle
of surf guitar country as a kid and spent
his adolescence listening to the masters
like Dick Dale. During the British
Invasion, he leaned toward the bands displaying
“guitar gymnastics” like the
Yardbirds. Later, he would meet members
of the Buffalo Springfield who were practicing
and hanging out in a neighbor’s
garage in Palos Verdes. At the same time,
many of his nights were spent on the
Sunset Strip where he regularly caught
bands like Cream playing the Whisky
and other local haunts.
Thornburgh soon drifted to San
Diego, walking into Blue Guitar for the
first time in 1971. He would become a
regular customer and friend of Yuris and
Steve. While building a career in computers,
DeForest jammed around town and
in the Palm Springs’ blues scene, developing
a solo acoustic, finger-picking style
akin to John Fahey. Being a lefty, he was
happy to find people knowledgeableabout gear, especially
those who were able to findleft-handed gear.
Over the years he also found it worthwhile to
learn about theindustry. Starting in the early ’90s,
Thornburgh began attending NAMM shows regularly
and making the connections thatwould soon serve
him well.Finally, in 2003, he bought
out Neal. Already part of the Blue Guitar
family, it was an easy transition. Yet,
Thornburgh also wanted to bring thestore up to date,
employing many of the industry tricks he had
learned along the way. One thing he
spotted right off was that Blue Guitar had gone
through periods when it just did repair followed by
periods when it just did retail. Part
of Thornburgh ’s plan was to balance the two so
that the shop could still continueto showcase
Zeltins’ world-class craftsmanship
while providing the wide array of guitar gear that has
made the bigger box stores more successful.
He also sought to ground his new
acquisition with a smart business plan.
To that end, Thornburgh sought guidance
from the San Diego Small Business
Administration. With the help of one of
the SBA’s mentors—Jim Nelson—
Thornburgh went the extra yard and
actually bought the building where the
store is now located. Besides helping to
secure the financing, Nelson also helped
him analyze Blue Guitar’s clientele and
choose a location that would be freeway
close to its demographic base. The result
is the Mission Gorge location, right off I-
8, which readily connects the store to the
beaches, central city, and all other major
freeways. So, in 2005, the shop made the
Herculean move from India Street to
Mission Gorge Road.
With his natural business acumen,
insights from the SBA, and connections
he had made both locally and through
attending NAMM shows, Thornburgh set
about attracting a big league lineup of
brands and manufacturers for the retail
side of the store. To this end, Blue Guitar
has become the largest Taylor Guitars
dealer in San Diego, winning Taylor’s
New Dealer Award in 2006. Thornburgh
also picked up bluegrass guitar maker
Huss and Dalton’s Top 10 Dealer Award
that same year. In addition, the store is
the exclusive dealer for Santa Cruz guitars
in the city. Thornburgh also set up contracts
with Seagull, Art & Lutherie, Simon
& Patrick, Avalon guitars out of Ireland,
Larrivee, and National Resonator.
He also began stocking an impressive selection
of ukuleles, which bodes well given that San
Diego has one of the largest numbers of uke players
in the country with the Moonlight Beach
and Hui-o-hawaii cultural societies boasting a combined
membership of over 1,000 people.
As Thornburgh reminds us, “Real ukes are not toys.” The
shop carries Ko’olau and Kanile’a ukuleles,two of the worlds
top makers, which retail from $700 upwards to $4,000.
He also stocks Pono, Ko’olau’s budget line, which
run from $350-600
Part of Blue Guitar’s longstanding reputation is
based on Yuris Zeltins’ renown as a high-end classical
guitar luthier. In fact, a number of articles have
been written about Zeltins’ fabled talents.
He even calls three generations of Romero, yes,
those Romeros, not only customers but friends as well. Tim Miklaucic of Guitar
Salon International, the premier classical guitar distributor in the world, called
Zeltins the finest classical repair person he’s ever met. In fact, Zeltins is one of
only a handful of luthiers contracted by Guitar Salon to do its most intricate
repairs. To build upon this reputation in theclassical and Flamenco guitar world,
Thornburgh has expanded the retail end. The store currently carries a number of
Spanish, local, and other names including Ramirez, Cervantes, Antonio
Loriente, Robert Hein, Kremoni, Antonio Aparacio, Cordoba, and Tomas Lazaro. As
an affordable alternative, the shop also carries the Aria classical line.
Knowing that names like Taylor andRamirez would attract a more affluent
and professional demographic, Thornburgh also wanted to appeal to the
younger rock ‘n’ roll crowd. He himself has always swung between refined
acoustic playing and raucous blues. Inthis light, Blue Guitar carries a number of
boutique amps and pedals, including Homebrew, Keeley, Pigtronix, D-Tar
Preamps, and Victoria Amplifiers. In addition, the store is the only Orange Amp
dealer in San Diego and carries a wide variety of better known brands such as
Boss, Seymour Duncan, THD, Dunlop,and Fishman.
Blue Guitar also has one of the largest
selections of strings in the county, ranging
from “Romero” classical sets to
Dell’arte Gypsy jazz to the usual array of
D’Addario and other steel string makers.
In fact, it was Thornburgh’s long-ago
search for strings for various Greek
instruments he’d bought while backpacking
through Europe that brought him
into Blue Guitar way back in 1971. So, it
only seems fitting that strings would continue
to be a mainstay of the business.
Blue Guitar has two large, soundproof
galleries of guitars. One houses the
many acoustic guitars mentioned here.
The other houses an impressive selection
of electrics, including Godins, such as the
John McLaughlin LGXT and Multiacs. A
variety of Chris DiPinto guitars are also
hanging on the wall. DiPintos are the latest
contribution to the retro world with
Mosrite and Teisco contours and modern
amenities. In addition, Blue Guitar sells
RKS Guitars made famous by rocker Dave
Mason and Rick Turner’s Renaissance
Guitars which have been gobbled up by
Lindsey Buckingham, the Grateful Dead,
and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
It would seem that Zeltins’ command
of the workshop and Thornburgh’s creative
insight into the retail world would
provide more than an adequate list of
products and services to Blue Guitar’s
customer base. Yet the store has long
been known for housing an outstanding
stable of teachers who provide guitar lessons
in all styles and to all levels. So,
when the move was made to Mission
Gorge, some half-dozen teachers made
the move as well including local blues
ace Robin Henkel who has taught out of
Blue Guitar for some 20 years.
Given all of this, the 46-year, San
Diego institution known as Blue Guitar
continues to pack a pretty impressive
punch and will positively surprise both
the long-time customer and the casual
guitar player who happens to walk
through the doors.