Sam Radding spends most days in his backyard workshop off of University Avenue surrounded by guitar bodies. He smells of sawdust and has the wild-eyed look of a mad scientist.
He has a bald spot outlined by unruly, white hair and sky-blue eyes that have a tendency to focus off in the distance. Sitting across from him, each of us on matching stools, he rarely makes eye contact. His mind is elsewhere. Within the span of seconds, Radding’s thoughts skip from guitars to the good ol’ days, to his future plans, back to guitars again. His brain is perpetually turning.
Radding’s story begins in May of 1970 in a Lemon Grove guitar shop named American Dream Musical Instrument Manufacturing. It was there that he trained a legion of luthiers who would go on to leave a sizeable mark on the music industry. Radding would later sell his American Dream shop to Kurt Listug, Steve Schimmer, and Bob Taylor for a mere $2400. His shop turned into Taylor Guitars, a company that reportedly grossed $106 million in 2014.
Radding began building guitars as a teenager to prove a point to an obnoxious salesman.
“Back when I was in high school, in the early ’60s, I wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll star just like every other young man of my time. I saved $125 one summer to buy a guitar. A friend and I went to downtown San Diego to a bunch of music stores. Our last stop was Apex music. There was a Gibson ES-125, perfect for what I wanted. It was 144 bucks. I find a salesman and I said, ‘Hey, I saved 125 bucks, that’s all I got. Is there any way we can make a deal here?’ and the guy, just nasty as can be, yelled ‘No!’ and walked off.
“Back then, music stores would make deals all the time. If they were asking for $150 you could offer $125. That was common practice. I asked my friend Kenny, ‘Do you have any money on you?’ He had 10 bucks, so I went back over to the salesman again. I said, ‘Look, he’s got 10 bucks. That’s $135. You’re asking $145. Is there any way we can do this?’ He gave me the same nasty, ‘No!’ I turned to my friend and I said, ‘Hey, Kenny, looks like I am just going to have to build my own guitar!’ The salesman grabbed me by the T-shirt, pushed me, and said, ‘You don’t build guitars; you buy them in stores!’ A month later I built my first hollow-body electric.”
A kid who lived down the street saw Radding’s guitar and gave him $100 to build one for him. From there, Radding began building guitars for just about every kid in his neighborhood. He learned how to build dulcimers and began selling those as well.
“Around my third or fourth year [at SDSU], my brother and I decided to open up a music store. We called it the American Dream Music Store. It was on College and Adams Avenue.”
Radding learned quickly that he and his brother did not work well as partners, but more importantly he realized he was more interested in building instruments than selling pre-made ones. He decided to branch out from the store he and his brother owned and open something different under a similar name.
“Around that time I met two people — Bob Morris and Lee Fulmar. They were both interested in starting a guitar-manufacturing shop. Neither one of them knew much about building but I said, ‘Okay, let’s put some money together and go find a shop and set up American Dream Musical Instrument Manufacturing.’”
About six months later, the threesome threw down a couple thousand bucks to buy equipment and to cover the first and last month rent on a shop in Lemon Grove.
“It was a true bootstrap operation. We took people without a lot of experience and tried to turn them into guitar-builders. I always thought of it as a co-op because I didn’t set any hours. If people had equipment, they could bring it in. They could use their own hand-tools. If I remember correctly, it was a 60/40 split. They would get 60 percent and the shop would get 40 percent. We had this huge collection of really interesting people. A lot of people came into the shop and wanted a bench to work at. They had to convince me. I had to know they deserved it.”
The cast of characters who worked and hung around American Dream included Greg Deering, Bob Taylor, Tim Luranc, Larry Breedlove, and James Goodall, to name a few.
“I was basically the mother hen teaching all these people who didn’t know very much how to build. At some point — I don’t remember how or when — both Greg Deering and Bob Taylor came into the shop and convinced me to let them have a bench. Two minutes after Bob Taylor walked in the door, I knew he deserved it. You could tell. He was like me, the only other natural I’ve ever met. He brought along one of his guitars. It wasn’t perfect but it was quality. He knew what he was doing. He was barely out of high school. Honestly, I don’t remember how it came about with Greg Deering. All I remember is that he was there. I have no idea really how we met. I knew he had capabilities. He was another one of those where I thought right away, Yeah, this guy has capabilities; he can make something of this.”
The Deering Banjo Company is located in an 18,000-squarefoot warehouse off of Campo Road in Spring Valley. Surrounded by palm trees and a 30-minute drive from the ocean, it seems a bizarre location to house a factory that produces an instrument made for bluegrass and country music. But Greg and Janet Deering, the couple behind the family business, were born and raised in Clairemont.
The company began in 1975 after Greg Deering mastered banjo-making at the American Dream Musical Manufacturing Company.
“I met Sam in shop class at SDSU. Sam and Leah Fulmer were in that class. When they saw that I was building a banjo, we got to be real good friends. Sam and Leah, and a friend of theirs, Captain Bob, were planning to open a shop to build guitars,” explains Greg.
Greg was desperate to be a part of it.
“When they opened the shop, I started showing up uninvited and being real helpful without being asked. I overheard them say they didn’t want to do instrument repair work but would probably have to, so I said, ‘I’ll do the repair work.’ They said, ‘We don’t have room.’”
Deering persisted. “‘Well, I will take it home,’ I told them. They agreed. I told my parents, ‘I got a job doing repair work.’ Both my parents thought I was nuts: ‘How do you know how to do that? You are just going to ruin someone’s expensive guitar and we are going to get sued!’ they told me. Well, I didn’t much listen to that. They gave me a bench at the shop not long after that,” says Deering with a chuckle as we sit in his office at the Deering headquarters.
The walls are covered with memorabilia and photos of musicians playing Deering banjos: the Kingston Trio, Mumford and Sons, Taylor Swift... Over the doorway that leads into the workshop hangs the first banjo Deering ever built at SDSU in the shop class he shared with Sam Radding.
The Deering Banjo Company struggled up until 1996. That was the year they introduced the Goodtime Banjo series. The affordable line of banjos was a hit. As a result, Deering consistently produces 10,000 banjos a year.
“We all give credit to Sam Radding,” says Deering of his longtime friend. “The American Dream was a wonderful thing. When I went to San Diego State as a freshman in 1968, Sam was the only one on campus with long hair and a beard. He was a rebel — a good Jewish boy — didn’t drink, doesn’t smoke pot or do drugs. He’s one of the original hippies. He still is. When he does things, he does them really well. He’s a renaissance man. He has done very significant things in his lifetime, but, you know, he lives a very quiet life. He’s not rich, but he’s happy.”
Deering has similar accolades for his friend Bob Taylor, who he has remained close with since their days at American Dream.
“In college,” says Deering, “I was in a folk group with a couple of guys from my church that went to Madison High School. They told me that there was a new guy at the school that played the banjo. I wasn’t too happy about that. I showed up at their house one day for practice and here is this guy with a banjo. I said, ‘How long have you been playing the banjo?’ He said, ‘About six months.’ I had been playing for about six years and he was better than me.
“I told him about the American Dream and building instruments. A week later he was up at the shop buying fret wire and some binding. He went back to his woodshop class at Madison High School and built a guitar. It turned out okay. It was rare for people to start a project like that and actually finish it. That was remarkable.
“When he graduated from high school he started hanging out at the American Dream. Pretty soon, Sam gave him a bench and put him to work. That was Bob Taylor. I have known Bob Taylor since before he built his first guitar.”
In the 1970s, When Kurt Listug was a junior at SDSU, he wasn’t exactly on a career path: he was studying philosophy and German.
“I have always loved music,” 62-year-old Listug declares over the phone from his office at the El Cajon–based Taylor Guitar Factory. “A friend I grew up, with, Bob Huff, got what I would loosely call a job at the American Dream. I pestered Bob to get me a job there, too. Eventually a bench opened up. I talked to Sam and started [at American Dream] in August of ’73.
“One of the people who was teaching me how to work on guitars and do repair work was Greg Deering. He was a talented guy. Maybe a week after I started working there, Bob Taylor started coming by. Bob Taylor and Greg Deering were the obvious talent in the group. Greg, Sam, and Bob Taylor were the stars.”
Shortly after securing a bench at American Dream, Listug dropped out of college.
“I just thought [working at the shop] was a lot more interesting than school. Maybe I could figure out a way to make a living doing that.”
A year later, during the fall of ’74, Sam Radding announced that he wanted to sell his shop. Listug jumped at the opportunity.
“Sam had a new girlfriend and he wanted to go backpacking with her. He wanted us to decide who would take over for him. He wanted $3700 altogether. This included buying his tools.” There were two camps interested in buying Radding out. Taylor was in one group and Listug the other.
“None of us had any money. We were kids. I was only 21. I went to my folks. My dad was smart. He said, ‘Do you know how to build guitars?’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ He said, ‘Who is the best guitar-maker there?’ I said, ‘Bob Taylor,’ and he said, ‘Well, if you can get Bob Taylor to be your partner, your mother and I will consider finding a way to loan you the money.’”
Listug convinced Taylor and a childhood friend, Steve Schimmer, to partner with him. On October 15, 1974, they bought the American Dream Musical Manufacturing Company.
“We didn’t know how to run a business or make money. We didn’t even really know how to make guitars or how to sell them. But we had a dream. We started with that. No know-how, just a dream.”
Listug believes that their youth had a lot to do with them sticking with the business through countless lean years.
“We didn’t have families to support. None of us owned anything other than a used car. We could live cheaply. Bob even slept in his van for a while. He lived with his sister and his brother-in-law or with different friends. I lived with my folks. We just figured out how to get by.”
The threesome barely scraped by for over a decade, says Listug.
“We would try to pay ourselves a little bit every week, just to have gas money and stuff. We got to a point where we weren’t paying ourselves anything because we couldn’t afford it. I said, ‘We have to pay ourselves something. Let’s find some level we know we can pay ourselves every week.’
“We decided on $15 a week each. We increased our pay by $5 a week until we got to $85 a week and that was it. We broke the bank! We couldn’t handle that. It took 12 years until we had a regular flow of making and selling guitars where each week we could actually cash our meager check. Unbelievable isn’t it?!” Listug lets out a laugh over the memory.
Over the years there were times where Listug and Taylor became discouraged but something would happen to lift their spirits. They would see a famous musician on TV playing a Taylor or they would catch up on past-due bills.
“What we were doing was too exciting to give up on. Bob wanted to spend his life building guitars and I wanted my own business. We never wanted to give up on that dream.”
Taylor and Listug bought Schimmer’s share of the company in 1983. Three years later, Taylor Guitars began making money. Now they have 700 employees and operations in the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Africa. Taylor and Listug own the largest market share in acoustic guitars. Taylor Guitars is completely self-financed. The pair are 50/50 partners. They have never sold shares of the company.
“We both want to do this as long as we can. Neither one of us are interested in selling the business. We could sell and walk away with a big pile of money, but trading something you love doing for money, I don’t think that makes sense to either one of us. We have reached a point where we’re happy with what we have. We love the business.”
Before hanging up, Listug adds, “The 21-year-old me never would’ve guessed in a million years we could be as successful as we’ve been. I never would’ve believed we’d figure the business out to the degree that we have. I never, ever, would have guessed that.”
Sam shares the process of creating a Go Guitar
Sam shares the process of creating his Go Guitar and the story of how the guitar and business came to be.
Sam & zebrawood
Sam Radding talks zebrawood for his guitars.
Back at Sam Radding’s workshop, an alarm goes off.
“I need to empty water out of the humidifier,” he explains, disappearing into a dry room located in the back of the shop.
Since selling American Dream, Radding found success with a small dulcimer-building company. Later he tried his hand at marine carpentry. He spent 15 successful years in that field before giving it up for amateur gold-prospecting. He has since published four books on the subject. But now, Radding has come full circle. Currently, he runs Go Guitars.
“I do things that interest me,” Radding explains. “If they interest me, I become a fairly knowledgeable amateur pretty quick. Everything I have done as a hobby ends up as a career. I know it’s not usual; most people tend to get to a certain level and give up, but not me.”
His Go Guitar business spawned out of an experience he had while doing guitar-repair work at the La Mesa–based Moze Guitar Shop. Owner Bob Moze had a bench at American Dream in the ’70s.
“One day at Moze, we decided to do a taste test on the guitars in the shop. One person would play a guitar and we would all give our individual critiques on the instrument. Someone picked up a little Martin Backpacker. When it got to me, I said, ‘I could build a better version of this.’ Half the people said, ‘No way,’ because they didn’t know who I was. The other half said, ‘He can do it!’”
Not one to resist a challenge, Radding built a prototype. Three days later he brought it into the guitar shop.
“Moze played it and said, ‘Make these and I can sell them. Those were my Go Guitars. He used to sell them in his shop. I sell direct now. The business ramped up fairly quickly. I opened a shop and had seven full-time people. We were making roughly 80 instruments a month and ready to double that. Then 9/11 happened. No one bought a travel guitar for three months. That just killed the business.”
Radding lost his shop and is now down to four employees. He went from making 80 guitars a month to around 15. When asked if he regrets selling American Dream after the success of Deering Banjo and Taylor Guitars, Radding’s answer is an adamant no.
“It was the right choice for me. I was doing what I wanted to do, but over time [American Dream Musical Manufacturing] was holding me back. I wasn’t happy at all. My two partners were gone. One of them started using the contacts from the shop to sell drugs and the other lost interest and left, too. So, I told the guys in the shop if you can come up with $2400 you can have the shop. It turned out that Bob Taylor, Kurt Listug, and Steve Shimmer all got a loan from their folks to buy the shop. You know, Kurt was one of the people I didn’t really get along with at the shop. I was willing to accommodate him, knowing that Bob Huff thought he was worthy enough for a bench. As it turns out, yeah, he was worthy; I mean, he is half of Taylor Guitars now.”
Radding says the initial sale was not without a little bit of drama. “After the sale, there seemed to be some animosity there between them and me and I don’t know why. It was like that for a while. After I sold them the shop, right away they stopped doing all the things I taught them and they ran into problems. They had a hard time getting going.”
Radding says he wasn’t surprised by Taylor Guitars’ success.
“I knew how good Bob was. He is a natural guitar-builder. I always wanted him to do well, but I wasn’t sitting around thinking, I really hope these guys make it. I always knew there was potential for success. I always thought Kurt would be a drawback, but it turned out he was exactly what they needed.”
Radding says he recognizes his part in the lives of the luthiers he trained.
“What it comes down to is, I gave people a chance to do what they really wanted to do and that does not happen very often. That chance, the knowledge, and the point of view on how to do it, those are the things that I tried to give everyone that worked at American Dream. It worked: you’ve got Deering Banjo, Bob Taylor, and Goodall. I haven’t benefited from it, but I can still point at it and say, ‘I did that.’”