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.