Mike Adams is one of the two Mikes who co-own Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar, a cool Seattle-based music boutique. I was excited to finally get the chance to chat with him about under-appreciated guitars, seeing ghosts, and Johnny B. Goode (as played by Michael J. Fox) in Back To The Future.
Cordtangler: Tell me about your background?
Mike: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, and started playing guitar when I was eleven. I loved taking things apart—and anything that I could take apart and put back together to look like a robot was really attractive to me. I wanted to be an Artificial Intelligence engineer, but I didn’t have the grades.
The first guitar that I ever had was an Ibanez Silver Cadet. It broke all the time. I think I had to rewire it six or seven times when I was in high school. That’s how I got into guitar repair and modifications—because I was working on my stuff all the time. Where everyone else was afraid of breaking their guitars, I was like—“Well, mine is already broken.”
I played in bands and did the touring thing, which I truly miss. I love being crammed in a van with sweaty people for 18 hours and then playing for half an hour—and then driving 10 more hours. It was the most attractive part of it for some reason. I couldn’t tell you why (laughs).
CT: Have you ever been in a life-threatening situation?
M: Other than being mercilessly beaten for most of my formative years—not really. I was overweight, a redhead, and loved Star Trek—and those things did not go well in the school system. Nobody told me (laughs).
CT: How did you end up starting a guitar store in Seattle with another guy named Mike?
M: I met the other Mike through my wife, right when I moved to Seattle. We hit it off based on our love of cool, quirky vintage instruments. I remember the first time we went down to his practice place to play music together. We started talking about Back to the Future and our love of ES-345s and 355s. Then we got talking about Nels Cline. And after playing the solo from “Impossible Germany” for like three hours, we had become lifelong friends. We ended up working in a shop together—and realized the more we worked for someone else, the more we’d like to work for ourselves… three years later, it’s still working. And we are really proud of it.
CT: So as a music store owner, what is the riff that people come in and play that makes you the most crazy?
M: Well, for six months I worked at this big-box store that will remain nameless. I heard “Smoke on the Water” more than any human being should have to. I heard countless time signature–challenged versions of Metallica songs. Having played in a Weezer cover band in Seattle, something else that sticks out is hearing the opening of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” in a myriad of different ways. They are all beautiful in their own right. Some are played correctly and some are not.
I don’t want to give people the impression that they shouldn’t play in the shop. It goes with the territory. I do feel like it’s interesting when people go off the normal path and play something they’ve written or decide to make weird noises with a Fuzz Factory or something. I’m okay with that.
CT: Who was a musician that really inspired you when you were coming up?
M: Well Marty McFly is the reason I play guitar and the reason I went for a semi-hollow Gibson when I could finally afford one. I learned “Johnny B. Goode” from the watching the movie [Back to the Future].
CT: How many guitars do you own?
M: Hmm, I think I’m in the eight range. It’s not very many and one is ornamental and another one is incidental. I’m not playing in a band right now, so I don’t need a bunch.
CT: Have you guys had any famous customers?
M: When we first opened the store, Father John Misty and Fleet Foxes were really supportive. When we started, they bought a bunch of stuff—and they sold a bunch of stuff through us. They are good people.
Bill Frisell has been such a great customer, and I would call him a friend. He usually comes by the shop when he is in town. He also does consignments with us, and jokes about how it’s the only shop that pays him when he walks in. He is a blast to be around—there is no ego or machismo with him. He’s absolutely a great person, and we enjoy getting to hear him play. He came in one day when I was doing a fret job for him and he asked what jazz I liked. The first thing that came to mind was Thelonious Monk, and he just launched into the most amazing rendition of “Monk’s Mood.” I couldn’t believe he was making those sounds on six strings—doing those piano parts. It was life altering! I will never forget that.
We’ve had a lot of cool customers. Oh, a Jaguar of mine that I absolutely loved is now owned by Win Butler of Arcade Fire. We haven’t sold anything to Joe Bonamassa or Eric Clapton yet (laughs), but we’ll get there.
CT: Can you name some other cool or like-minded stores that come to mind?
M: We are really good friends with Reverb.com and the Chicago Music Exchange. They are nice folks. Also, in Seattle there is a store called Thunder Road Guitars that is owned by a friend of ours named Frank. He has always been supportive of us. In Seattle overall, I feel like music stores have all been about camaraderie versus competition. Frank used to bring a bunch of stuff to me for repairs and that helped us.
Main Drag in New York—they are really like-minded and just good folks. I think we became friends due to our mutual love of Star Trek.
CT: So I understand that you moved down to Southern California?
M: Yes, I moved down to Long Beach, but the store is running fine. It’s still the other Mike and a guy name Matt—as well as James, who does stuff on the floor. Our buddy Ben has taken over the repairs from me.
I came down to CA with my extremely, talented actor wife, Charissa. I’ve been exploring other things as well—things like doing narration on a podcast called Seriocity. I want to be a touring musician again, so I’m seeing where I might fit in. I’m also doing the social media for the shop and writing. I get more questions than ever from people looking for consultations about their guitars. I recently did some stuff for Blake Mills, but overall I’m not doing as much stuff as a luthier right now.
CT: Have you ever seen a ghost?
M: I love the paranormal; I love the supernatural and ghost stories. The answer is yes. I’m pretty sure when I was 11—I always felt like I was never alone in our house—in my bunk bed, I remember waking up at 3 a.m. one night and seeing on the wall across from me, clear as day, a white figure hovering from one side of the room to the other. I was transfixed and terrified. I was too shaken to even lay back down and put my head under the covers. It finally vanished near my closet door. When it was gone, I asked, “Is anybody there?”—and my guitar strings started plucking on their own. In the morning, I saw my guitar pick in the middle of the floor. That was the most terrifying experience that I’ve ever had.
CT: So have you ever been doing a repair and completely screwed up?
M: Murphy’s Law means there are times when things go wrong. I haven’t met a tech or luthier who hasn’t had things happen. Years ago, I was working on a relatively new Taylor acoustic. The guy wanted a big chip in the finish repaired. You can do that several different ways, whether it’s doing a bunch of layers of nitro finish or—if it’s really small—you can sometimes use super glue, which will polish right out. I decided go with super glue and found the seal was glued shut. So when I squeezed the tube, the cap shot off and hit me in the face. I got the glue in my eyes and all over my glasses. Once I recovered, I noticed that there were miniature globs of glue across the finish of the guitar. That was horrible. I was able to scrape the areas flush, and it worked out in the end—but that sucked. I’m happy to report I was okay, but you just don’t want to make that phone call: “Oh hey, guess what?”
Hey, thanks a lot for making me relive that! (laughs).
CT: Anytime! I’m sorry I had to ask. I won’t touch a [guitar] neck. I’ve been doing electronics and little stuff for years, and I always screw up. Last week, when installing some new keys, I hard ran a screwdriver across the back of a headstock.
M: You just have to take a deep breath. I sometimes feel like it helps to say out loud to myself what I’m about to do—just be deliberate and know that stuff happens. But the good thing is that most things are repairable.
CT: So I’ve noticed that you are a big offset fan. What is your holy grail guitar?
M: Mike and I used to take these little day trips down to Portland because we found that we could get slightly better deals than in the saturated Seattle market. We met this guy at his house and were buying his amazing old tweed Champ. As we always do, we asked if he had anything else for sale. So he went down to his basement and came back with a long brown Fender case that was caked in cigarette smoke. Before he opened, I knew in my heart that it was going to be great guitar. It ended up being a 1961 sunburst Fender Jazzmaster. It had been played to hell and was super dirty. The neck pickup didn’t work, but it was 100% original. I felt like I heard the angels singing! I plugged it in and got whatever sound I could and asked him what he wanted. The owner then said he wanted five grand. I pointed out the condition and tried to work out a more reasonable deal. I think we got it down a little—but I’m not a rich guy. I finally offered what I thought was reasonable. I think it was $2,250 (which three years ago and the condition it was in, didn’t seem that bad).
When he refused, I said no pressure but we are going to be on our way. If you change your mind before we leave Portland, give me a call and we’ll come back. So we go out to eat—and then as we are getting on the highway, I get a call from the guy. He says, “Okay, this is my final deal. I have this old original green Big Muff, so I’ll throw that in with the guitar and we do $2,500.” I was like, “Yeah!!” (laughs). I called my wife and said I was clearing out the bank account. She said okay. She knew (and I cannot thank her enough).
I put a ton of work into that guitar. I’ve never seen a guitar that dirty. I luckily didn’t have to get the pickup rewound. The neck shape—the feel of the body—I’ve never played a better guitar. I call it Pancake due to the strap that Paul Frank made for it. Paul did this strap that is made out of vinyl with a wood grain pattern. When he was making it, he emailed me and asked what my favorite word was—and Pancake is what I thought of. It fits.
CT: Outside of the main brand guitars everyone knows, whether it be ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s, what are some the more underrated guitars?
M: I’m glad that Tiesco guitars are being given the attention they deserve. They have their own sound; they have a different feel than the guitars from the U.S. I think they are fantastic instruments.
I like the Greco copies of Gibsons from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Greco, for my money, made a way better Thunderbird bass than you’ll get from a Gibson reissue these days. We had these Greco Thunderbird basses from the ‘90s that just killed. They have the right chrome-covered pickups—the body—those are just fantastic. They also made a great Firebird. I like that the Airlines have been getting their due. Overall, I’ll stick with the Grecos. Go buy them—make the prices go up; I don’t care. I’m playing it fast and loose right now (laughs). What would your answer be?
CT: Hmm, underrated and undervalued. I would say some of the Ovation electrics, like the Preacher, or the Mosrites that are not the Ventures version.
M: That reminds me, I also love the Micro-Frets guitars. Every time I have the chance to work on one of those, I am amazed. I don’t remember the model, but the one with the vibrato to adjust the pitch of each string is amazing. The way those guitars were designed is so cool.
CT: I saw the Fender Marauder mentioned on the Mike & Mike’s site. I don’t think I had ever heard of it.
M: Yeah, I believe it was designed with Leo right before Fender was sold. They had a few prototypes. The first model was just a modified Jaguar with hidden pickups— the original idea was designed with a hidden vibrato arm that was routed through the body. That would have been a nightmare to repair. The main idea was to have these really hot hidden pickups under the [pick] guard with switches similar to a Jag or Fender 6.
There were originally four of them made. On the second prototype, they used a new body shape, including a headstock that we’d associate with a Starcaster. It had a Mustang-looking vibrato and a bevy of controls—but I’m not sure what they did. I can sort of see why it didn’t make it into production, but I wish they had. I think there were only eight made. So if you ever see one out there, you are a lucky person. They also made a later version with a slanted fret option.
CT: Crazy! If you ever start making guitars, you should re-create it.
M: You know, Paul Rhoney has made a Marauder in the past. There is a guy from Russia that made one with the hidden pickups.
CT: Who are some of the smaller builders you’d recommend.
M: As I mentioned, Paul Rhoney. He is a great guy. For his design, he took the Supro look but did an offset design with a full wood body. They used Mastery vibratos and bridge parts. I’m not a rich person—but if I was, I’d totally own one.
Also, the guys from BilT. They are actually making a model based on the second Marauder that never went into production. That guitar is called is called the Relevator. That is an amazing guitar. I used to own one. It has built-in fuzz and delay, tons of pickup options, and comes in any color that you want. They are surprisingly light.
Also, Danocaster. He does great refinishing—classic Fender ‘60s colors all the way. His aging is really tasteful and that is hard to find in the guitar world these days.
Chris Benson from Benson amps is a miracle worker. Whenever I plug into one of his amps, I feel like I’m better than I am.
My buddy Brian from smallsound/bigsound makes some of the most exciting fuzz [boxes] and distortions that I’ve ever played. He has a Fuck Overdrive that is one of the best pedals I’ve ever played. It can do superwide OD to moderate crunch. It can do fuzz, and it even has a setting on it that is supposed to emulate a blown amp. You hit that switch and everything implodes; it’s just glorious.
There are so many exciting builders out there who make me feel excited. I can’t imagine being a kid coming onto the scene and trying to decide what to choose. There are so many options.
I can’t forget my buddy Gabriel from Guadalupe Custom Strings. They hand wind their strings in Los Angeles. They are amazing; they have such enhanced, balanced tension. He graciously made me a custom set of Jazzmaster strings. They are the most balanced strings that I have ever played on an offset guitar. You also never have to change them. I can’t believe how long they last. This summer I did 33 performances that were two hours long (with tons of rehearsals in between), and I didn’t have to change the strings. Everyone should check out Gabriel’s strings!
CT: Who is your favorite comedian of all time?
M: Mitch Hedberg. I really love him. It’s really sad that he is not with us anymore. His career would have just kept going and going. I have to add Robin Williams! His stand-up [comedy] really comforted me when I was a kid, even when I didn’t get it. There was something that was so warm and real about that man. I always remember a performance from the late ‘70s—I think it was filmed at the Roxy—suspenders, a couple of props, and famous icons in the crowd. When he died, the first thing that I did was watch that special. It dawned on me how much Robin I have in me. There are little turns of a phrase that I use that I had no idea that I’d gotten from him. I will miss his stand-up, his movies, and his kindness. Actually, I’m going to switch my answer to Robyn Williams.
CT: I can’t thank you enough Mike and I wish you all the luck in the world in SoCal.
Studio images (gibson with plaid shirt and seafoam jazzmaster) by Audrey Matos of Truemoxie Image.
Accept no imitations, Mike and Cordtangler both officially support and endorse guitar straps from Park La Fun.