Guitar Man

A peek inside the specialty guitar store where rock legends—past and present—shop.

From afar, the electric guitars hanging in neat rows on the walls of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana don’t seem extraordinary. And to the untrained eye, they might easily be mistaken for standard guitar shop stock. But these guitars are far from mundane; they’re little slices of rock history.

Norman Harris, who’s earned the title “The Godfather of Vintage Guitars” from his loyal customer base, specializes in rare and vintage guitars, ranging from mid-century lap steel guitars and mandolins to one-of-a-kind Fender Stratocasters. Harris began selling guitars in the late ‘60s as a side project to his musical career with Bobby Caldwell’s band Katmandu while living in Miami. “While the rest of the band was sleeping,” says Norman, “I was up at 5 a.m. chasing guitars.”

In 1970, he and his family moved to LA with the band to record an album, and business began to pick up as word eventually got around that Norman was the go-to guy for unique instruments.

At first, selling guitars from his apartment, Norman was able to land clients like George Harrison, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

“It got to the point where there was just guitar after guitar,” recalls Jordan Harris, Norman’s son and shop co-owner. “All of a sudden, there was no space. It was just all guitars.”

Norman opened his first store in the San Fernando Valley in 1975, and a steady stream of musicians, artists and TV and film stars began to seek him out for his eclectic collection of specialty guitars.

“If you’re here from open to closing, you’re gonna see at least seven to eight stars,” says Jordan, who notes that Beck, Tom Petty and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters are regulars.

Each guitar in the store is hand-selected and unique—even the standard acoustic guitars meant for novices are high quality and designed to last. “We really are dealing with art,” says Norman.

While some of the specialty guitars in the front of the store carry tags that boast prices well more than $10,000, the real treasures are in the back—in the aptly named “Norman’s Secret Stash.” That’s where guitar connoisseurs can browse through hundreds of rare treats, from Gibsons to Fenders.

Sweat-inducing price tags aside, Norman’s shop is a something of a museum for music aficionados, where garage band rockers and movie stars alike can browse through remarkable selections of rock history. “We like to make everybody feel at home,” says Jordan. “Everybody is treated the same.”