Reporting Bill Hudson
ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – On a quiet St. Paul street corner, the sweet sounds of guitar chords ring simple and true. Willy’s American Guitars is a music magnet, attracting players from across the spectrum. Rock to country, beginners to legends.
Nate Westgor, the store’s owner, says all kinds of music legends have visited Willy’s.
“Neil Young…the list is kind of surprising for a little place in St. Paul,” he said.
Westgor grew up listening to and playing Chicago blues. When he moved to Minnesota, he brought his love for vintage guitars along.
In 1989, he opened his store on Cleveland Avenue South and it quickly became a classic in its own rite.
The store is a popular spot whenever touring bands swing into town. But it’s also a gathering place for many local musicians and bands as they look for instruments that are hard to come by.
“Everybody who works here knows that if you pick up the phone it could be Billy Gibbons or whoever,” Westgor said.
From ZZ Top to the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) himself: for 25 years, Westgor’s been finding, trading or selling guitars to the finest players in the world.
While in his ship, Westgor could pick up an old Martin flattop that was once owned by Cheryl Crowe. Or, he could grab a six-string Kay unlike most others. The cheaply built guitar is the exact same model Springsteen first strummed as a child. Nate says the Boss bought one with S & H green stamps and asked Nate to find one for him for nostalgic reasons. Nate’s planning to surprise Bruce with it next time he’s in town.
“For $125, I’ll probably just give it to the guy,” Westgor said.
The Kay is a far cry from most other guitars on the walls at Willy’s.
Westgor has some real treasures.
“If you can see the serial number, it’s number 0018. It’s only the eighteenth solid body made,” Westgor said.
The store’s walls are lined with Fenders and Gibson’s that fetch thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. He’s currently holding a hard to find Fender guitar for Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty.
“It’s $37,000 and that’s cheap, because it’s been refinished,” he said. “Otherwise it would be $100,000.”
Still, it’s largely the walk-in traffic at Willy’s American Guitars that keeps the doors open. Nate and his staff will find, fix, trade or sell guitars to anybody with an appreciation for the best.
“I’ve had people weep at guitars that they just fall in love with,” Westgor said.
And at Willy’s, you never know who’s dropping by or belting out tunes in the back room.
When WCCO stopped by, it was Phil Solem, whose band, the Rembrandts, wrote the theme for the hit TV series, “Friends” and guitarist Joey Molland, of the ’70s Liverpool group, Badfinger. They come to Willie’s a lot.
“That’s what musicians do when they’re on the road,” Molland said. “They go in places like Willy’s – it’s world famous.”
“I’ve had Lyle Lovett in here and he’s very genial,” Westgor said. “He just talks and mixes.”
But on that day, it was Joey and Phil doing the jamming, creating an irresistible moment for Westgor, with his rare Martin ukulele. They played a rocking rendition of “Sweet Little 16.”
“There’s some kind of thing about the old stuff,” Molland said. “It’s like old furniture, the way people like it. Well, musicians like instruments like that.”
And many listeners love when vintage American strings come alive in the hands of masters.
“I’m very lucky, it’s cool! It’s a great job,” Westgor said.
On a side note, Molland and Solem have formed a duo group called the Driftbenders.
They’ll be performing in concert on May 30 at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. And they will be playing on guitars they picked up at Willy’s.