State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Chris Jensen is giving me a tour of his palace—a lamplit, lived-in, wood-colored grotto that would be a little more expansive but for the guitars that cover every wall and draw the rooms in around you. Spacious enough to allow thoughtful wandering, Jensen’s three salons (so to speak) are not so roomy as to inspire twirling with your arms outstretched—Julie Andrews in an alpine meadow, say. There are music rooms and lessons, pictures all over the walls, posters, gig announcements—sort of a Grand Central Station with mother-of-pearl inlays.
Underfoot, the worn avocado-green carpet dates to 1973—the year Jensen Guitar and Music Co. opened its doors. That year, Charlie Rich had a hit with “The Most Beautiful Girl”, Bowie publicly retired his Ziggy Stardust character in front of a stunned audience at Hammersmith Odeon, and the Roxy opened in West Hollywood. It was a while ago.
“Now, this room back here is where I lived.” Chris is a quiet guy with light red hair and an easy half-smile. Once upon a time he was an analyst at Title Insurance and Trust Company in Los Angeles, but that’s been some time ago. “I had my van in the back,” he says. He looks around, then fans out his hand, gesturing. “I had a little couch right here.” We’re standing in the black-painted, closet-sized vestibule near Jensen’s back door. All around us, timeworn guitar cases dangle work tickets, leaning against the walls and each other like spent bandmates after a show.
“When we turned this into a lesson room I built this loft. I built a stairway.” Another gesture. Now he seems to be remembering aloud. “There was a clock in the corner back here. It chimed on the hour,” he says thoughtfully. “And I lived up there.” He nods his head to indicate some mysterious place above the ceiling. “This was before the fire department told me I couldn’t do that.” Chris obliged the fire department by moving into his van, parked in the alleyway behind the shop, just above an occasionally roaring Mission Creek.
“Then I got a twelve foot travel trailer and lived in that for a while.” He says this with an air of amused resignation. He eventually bought a 24’ Airstream and lived in a quaint little trailer village a couple blocks away. “Had one of those Airstream spots right up front.” He grins to himself. “So walking distance. Yeah.”
These were the gilded early days—a wing and a prayer whose unlikely genesis nearly 50 years ago (at this writing) has evolved into Santa Barbara’s three-chambered musical heart.
The shop’s physical deets tell their own story of time coursing through—every interior corner and surface darkened and buffed shiny with wear through decades of that happy communal erosion that smooths the edges of our beloved places. Jensen Guitar and Music Co. has the warm, organic feel of a home that has always been here. But it hasn’t always been here. Chris Jensen invented the place. In freaking 1973.
Box of Bobbins
The Jensen Guitar and Music Co. we see today is not the Jensen’s that opened in ‘73, which was for a time a single room. Some five years after the Grand Opening, Chris acquired another space. Not exactly adjacent. We’re standing in there as he speaks. “It was a stereo shop at the time. When they left, we took it over, hauled our electric stuff into this room to separate the merchandise that way. You know, acoustic and electric.” For about 5 more years the acoustic and electric sections of Jensen’s shop were separated by a chiropractor.
Possibly there is a metaphor in there somewhere. “You had to go out and around to go to each part of the store, “ Chris says without irony. Ultimately the besieged chiropractor heard the handwriting on the wall—on both walls—and split. Took about 5 years. But soon after Jensen opened the electronics section an interesting visitor had arrived.
“One day this guy walks in with a box full of wires and bobbins. He wanted a space to start to build something up.” Seymour Duncan’s arrival at Jensen’s followed several years he’d spent in London—where he’d gone to play music but instead found himself chilling with the day’s pantheon of rock gods—Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Hendrix, Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck et al—guitarists following word of mouth on an avid young American guy who could work tonal magic with customized guitar pickups he wound himself.
Having made his way back to the states and Santa Barbara with a dream and a plan, Duncan secured a work bench at a music store on lower State St. but had been asked by the owner to take a hike. He’d headed up to Jensen’s with his raggedy little box. “He knew his stuff, and he was a good player. Cool guy, too. We had a lot of fun,” Chris says. “Anyway, we gave him that back corner, gave him a desk. He clamped an electric drill to it, connected it to a foot switch and would put the bobbin in the drill and hold the wire…” Chris laughs. “It was pretty primitive.” In ‘78 Duncan would found Seymour Duncan Company and conquer the world. Lots of stuff has happened at Jensen’s over the decades. None of this was inevitable.
“I was born in Denver in 1944,” Chris says, “We moved shortly to Waco, Texas where my dad was training as a bombardier in B-17s. Then…well, one of my earliest memories is ‘war’s over and dads’ back’.” Chris’ family moved from state to state, following his dad’s work as an educational administrator and school principal.
Always, there was music – family singalongs around his mom’s piano playing, and later a sort of yearly musical talent show the six sibs would perform for and with each other, their instruments at the ready. Young Chris took piano and violin lessons. “I didn’t like the violin,” he says. “But many years later I heard Papa John Creach play ‘Orange Blossom Special’. I went out and bought a violin.”
A Bright Golden Haze on the Meadow
Chris was a h.s. freshman in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, amiably singing in the chorus of his school’s production of “Oklahoma” when who should gyrate onto the scene like a roof-removing force of nature? Hint: rhymes with “pelvis”. Chris quickly picked up a guitar at a local flea market and joined the rising army of ne’er-do-wells whose collective tsunami would make of the Eisenhower era a subaqueous ruin on the cultural seabed. It was around this time the Jensens moved to California.
The die seemed all but cast. Still, even as the stars began vaguely to align, Chris double-majored in Business and Psych at San Jose State, then nabbed his MBA from USC—his geetar an increasingly constant companion but not yet a divining rod. Post-college, Chris landed a great gig at Title Insurance and Trust Company in L.A. and began making a mark.
In a moment of giddy madness, he and a guitar-playing office pal decided to open up a music store on Sunset Boulevard; but then his would-be partner up and headed back to school to complete his Psychology degree—another victim of common sense. Chris began fitfully moving in the other direction.
Pencil and Paper and Destiny
“I looked up the ladder and the higher you got the more boring it got. You know—two guys smoking behind their desks with a bottle of scotch. It just didn’t look good.” One night Chris was with a group of friends watching a Super-8 film he’d made of a canoe trip they’d been on. For reasons known only to the Fates, clarity came like a thunderclap. “In the middle of watching this movie I said, ‘Hey! Heeey!’” Heads turned in the dark. “Can I have a pencil and piece of paper, please?!’ And I went into the next room and I wrote down every step I needed to take to leave the Title Company and open up a music store in Santa Barbara. A list this long.” He’d earlier visited a friend who’d moved to SB, and had been smitten—as sometimes happens.
Luthier and Luthier
Chris had all but completed his mad slide along the Title Insurance/T Rex continuum. He quit Corporate and divested in earnest. “I sold my Jaguar, I sold my Porsche, I sold my Triumph motorcycle. I sold my Beaulieu Super-8 camera, and I took all the money out of my retirement account. I bought a fully set-up camper van.”
Chris’ transfiguration from Establishment sentry to bohemian scene-maker was afoot. His landlord in L.A., whom Chris had long since befriended, also worked opening California storefronts for a company that sold wine-making supplies. “He helped me find this place,” Chris says, gesturing at the store around us. “It had been a shop called AstroNut, an astrology place.” Of course. More stars aligning.
“The space was $225 a month. Seemed like a lot then.” He bought a redwood display counter from Mike’s Furniture and Fixtures Warehouse in L.A. and that’s the one in the front of the store today. But…how did he even know how to start and run a business? Chris looks at me with an amused expression. “You gotta have a counter, you gotta have a display of the merchandise, and you gotta have a phone. I dove in.”
Roy, Dale, Chet, Doc. The Long Strange Trip
Chris chose wisely, fleeing a well-heeled suit-and-tie gig in L.A. for the vagaries of taut strings, black leather vests—and the danceable pulmonary thump of a life given over to music. He’s seen all kinds of people come through the shop, many of whom have signed his in-store Brick Column of Fame (my term) just to show they were there—from Burning Spear to John Sebastian to dynastic guitar scion Chris Martin IV. How many hangouts can boast that range?
Chris has rubbed shoulders with Chet Atkins, shot the breeze with bluegrass legend Doc Watson, and hobnobbed backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner—this last on his first wedding anniversary.
“I met her here in the store, by the way,” Chris had said earlier of his wife. “She bought a guitar first. She plays beautiful piano. We had coffee…” The guy still sounds bashful talking about her. “She loves all the guys who work here and the bands and everything. She loves music! She’s been my working partner for over 30 years.”
For ten years as fiddler (thx Mr. Creach), lead singer and guitar player, Chris fronted the eponymous Chris Jensen Country Band—one of whose gigs was playing at a Republic Pictures reunion—the classic Westerns and Serials studio shuttered in ‘67 that birthed us Gene Autry, John Wayne, and a guy named Roy Rogers.
There’s a picture from the gig on the Jensen Guitar and Music Co. wall. Chris is standing next to Roy’s wife Dale Evans; as American an icon as ever sang Happy Trails by the peaceable glow of a prairie campfire. In the pic Jensen is grinning like the happiest former Title Insurance turncoat ever. Has he looked back? Nope. Grateful? Yep.
“If you’ve ever stayed in the theater after a major movie is over and the credits start to roll? That’s my movie. Family, friends, employees, instructors, customers, musicians, bands, live music venues, City of Santa Barbara, tourists, agents, schools, luthiers, suppliers, media, shippers, lenders, landlords, cleaning ladies…and more. The list is endless. I am so grateful to everyone.” He pauses. “You know what else? Since opening, I’ve never had a day I dreaded going to work.”