With a dirty white cinder block exterior and a blue awning over the modest front entrance, Eugene’s nationally renowned guitar and instrument shop, Mckenzie River Music, boasts a large selection of vintage and high-end guitars, basses and various string instruments.
Due to the recent snow and ice storm, two humidifiers run in the main room to maintain a humidity level appropriate for the storage of guitars. The main room is lined by four walls of floor-to-ceiling guitar racks. The glass counters on the right side of the store hold a selection of new and used effects pedals, electronics and various other gear and accessories.
McKenzie River Music was founded in 1981 by Bob November, a Southern California transplant. The shop was located across from Max’s Tavern, but has since moved to 11th Ave. Prior to coming to Eugene, he was a musical instrument dealer at Bob’s House Of Guitars, where he had developed a keen sense of knowledge regarding vintage guitars, especially Martins, one of the most valuable guitar brands available.
His knowledge of Martin guitars put him into contact with Charlie Longstreth, a luthier, or a stringed instrument care and repair specialist, who still works at the shop doing custom set-ups for patrons who are looking for that perfect-sounding instrument.
Longstreth met November through the sale of a Martin guitar that a family was fighting over. The owner wanted to sell his guitar rather than give it to either family member that demanded the instrument.
“He was an older guy, and he couldn’t pick someone to give it to and said he was just gonna sell it,” said Longstreth. “I was sorta the broker to put those two together and that’s how I met Bob.”
Longstreth and November’s introduction led to Longstreth eventually being offered a part-time job. Between 1982 and 1990, Longstreth split his time between Light’s Music in Springfield and McKenzie River Music, where he has worked full time since 1990.
“Everything I do is just like what a mechanic does, it’s just a different machine,” Longstreth said. “It doesn’t matter how good a car it is, sooner or later you have to throw some money at it.”
Longstreth rents the upstairs office at McKenzie River Music for his repair shop, but the two businesses have always complemented one another.
“Our customers are sort of the same people, there’s kind of a symbiosis,” said Longstreth. “It has to work that way. I couldn’t have the shop be in a store if we were butting heads … We’d kind of have to see eye-to-eye and be able to work things out if stuff comes up.”
On May, 21, 2012, Bob November lost a battle with cancer. The first guitar he owned still hangs above the shop’s case of trophy guitars, memorializing the way McKenzie River Music is meant to operate.
“He [November] was well-respected and well-known across the country as a knowledge base,” said Mark Schneider, shop employee. “People called him about vintage Martins, Gibsons or Fenders because he was one of the go-to guys and had experience and bought and sold enough of them to really know what he was talking about.”
Schneider was a McKenzie River Music customer when the store opened in 1981, and he has worked at the vintage music store for the last two years. He specializes in accessories and bass guitars.
Although Schneider never worked with November directly, he said the store continues to provide customers with carefully selected instruments and a high level of knowledge.
“A very important part of the store’s philosophy is finding the right guitar for a person — a good fit,” Schneider said. “And Artie [Leider] is the king of the hill when it comes to that sort of stuff.”
As the resident guitar matchmaker and current owner of McKenzie River Music, Artie Leider has had ample practice finding the right guitar tailored to each individual’s needs.
“When you get a guitar you love, you play it until your hands bleed,” Leider said. “It feels right and it plays right. That’s what you want to do: play it.”
When Leider was 11, his older brother brought home a Fender Stratocaster. It was the first instrument that caught his attention and he quickly became fascinated with taking apart and rebuilding the guitar. Leider began scouring New York pawn shops for guitars that he could collect or sell to his friends.
At 18, Leider moved to Berkeley, California, and started working full time at a guitar repair shop. During this time, he would occasionally embark upon cross-country road trips buying and selling guitars across the country.
In the early 1980s, Leider said the vintage guitar business hit a lull, so he took a break to go to culinary school. He paid for school by selling a 1952 Fender Telecaster.
“I had a bit of a dichotomy going on between the two things because I was a better chef than a guitar player,” Leider said. But even while in culinary school, he never stopped buying and selling guitars.
In 2004, Leider moved to Eugene and met Bob November through mutual friends. Their shared interests of guitar and golf spawned a friendship, and in 2006 Leider began working at McKenzie River Music as a guitar buyer and seller.
“Bob built this from the ground up and became a very well-known vintage guitar dealer and specialized in vintage Martin guitars and Fender and Gibsons — really classic vintage guitars,” Leider said.
Next month, a stage will be constructed in the corner of the store where Leider plans to regularly host bands to perform. Likely, many University of Oregon jazz combos will be invited.
“McKenzie River Music has been a part of the musical community of Eugene since 1981, and I believe it has really contributed and supported, and I’d like to see it contribute and support more for a long time to come,” Leider said.
Part of the reason Leider feels music is important is because he views guitars as more than an instrument, but rather, a communication tool.
“If you put two people who are supposed to be mortal enemies in a room with instruments, they wouldn’t be mortal enemies anymore,” Leider said.” They wouldn’t fight. They would communicate.”
Leider said that although many of the guitars in the store are high-priced vintage items, he is always on the lookout for affordable, well-made guitars. But once he has them in stock, they tend to be purchased in a matter of days. Still, he and the McKenzie River Music staff say it’s important to offer an affordable instrument selection alongside the vintage collector’s guitars that the store is recognized for.
“I’m way more interested in helping somebody to go find their first instrument so they can play their first chord than selling somebody their tenth fantastic, expensive guitar that’s just another one in their collection,” Leider said. “That part of nurturing people starting out, especially kids, is super important. That’s what we’re here for.”