By JOHN BRINSLEY

Staff Reporter

A broken guitar led Bob Riskin into McCabe's Guitar Shop on Pico Boulevard 40 years ago. He's been there ever since.

Since becoming primary owner in 1970, Riskin now runs an operation that sells almost 3,000 instruments a year and features about the widest variety of stringed instruments anywhere.

Along with guitars and their myriad musical cousins, McCabe's sells ukuleles which Riskin says are making a big comeback banjos, fiddles, lutes, ethnic drums, and even Australian didgeradoos, a long uneven tube that produces some very strange sounds.

The Santa Monica shop offers classes in playing all of the above and stages more than 100 concerts a year in its 150-seat back room. Since the late 1960s, McCabe's has hosted the likes of Doc and Merle Watson, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Chet Atkins, Liz Phair and John Hammond.

All of which astonishes Riskin, who remembers a time when the acoustic guitar was a minor, almost inconsequential instrument, and who has a hard time pinning down just why it is more popular than ever.

"The six-string Spanish guitar went from being an extremely obscure instrument, on par with the (Russian) balalaika, when I was in high school, to something else," he said. "When I came here, there was a hobby boom in do-it-yourself mosaics, and I suspected that would be a more stable and long-lived business to be in. There was little interest in the acoustic guitar, and I thought it would be over in a few months."

But the folk generation that at first bought cheap guitars evolved into the boomer generation that now buys expensive ones. While the cheapest guitar in McCabe's sells for around $150, its prized Martin guitars go for $3,000 or more.

All this makes the store "reasonably successful," which is the way Riskin likes it. McCabe's generated almost $2.5 million in revenue in the fiscal year ended June 30, 1998. Its owner expects that amount to basically stay the same this year.

That pales in comparison with giant Guitar Center Inc., the 52-store chain based in Agoura Hills. Riskin says he has had to lower his price on some guitars to compete, but McCabe's carries models that Guitar Center doesn't, including Gibson.

"I have no compunction about sending customers to Guitar Center, because they usually come right back," Riskin said.

McCabe's was founded in 1958 by custom furniture maker Gerald L. McCabe, who had become interested in the nascent folk-music scene in L.A. and started repairing instruments for some of his musician friends.

He opened his first small store half a block from the current 6,000-square-foot location on Pico Blvd., and it was there in 1959 that Riskin walked in with the busted guitar and got hooked.

"I came to this as a part-timer," Riskin recalled. "I covered lunches, was a broom-pusher. I went full-time in 1960."

McCabe soon tired of the business and turned it over to friend Walter Camp, who himself relinquished management to Riskin. He has run the store as primary owner since 1970.

The shop was incorporated into McCabe & Camp in 1969, but Camp retains only a small interest in the business. McCabe now has no involvement and continues to make and design furniture.

The ambience of the place is decidedly, almost determinedly, low-key. Unlike some of the large guitar chains, none of McCabe's staff is on commission, and no one pushes products. Customers are encouraged to stay as long as they like and fiddle around.

"We want to make (customers) understand why one guitar is different from another," says John Zehnder, who after Riskin is McCabe's longest-serving staff member and certainly its most recognizable. "Even if they don't buy it here, that's fine."

Zehnder, who sports a long white beard, presides over the repair shop that sits in the center of store and is the director of McCabe's teaching program. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he fixes most of the acoustic guitars and banjos while teaching ukulele and mandolin, which he plays the same way he does all his string instruments left-handed.

Both he and Riskin say they get calls from all over the world asking for advice on guitars or information on performers scheduled to play the back room.

The concerts consume the majority of McCabe's advertising budget and aren't money makers. In fact, Riskin said the store lost about $147,000 last year by staging the shows. He insists he doesn't mind losing the money because he believes they generate customer loyalty and name recognition.

Musician Brian Dobson now lives in London, but was an L.A. resident in the early 1980s and visits McCabe's whenever he is back in town. He's been there at least a dozen times since he left.

"If there comes a time when I've got to have an instrument, it's more liable to be here than any other place I can think of, and that includes pawn shops," Dobson said.

It's the kind of statement that heartens Riskin.

"There aren't too many warm and fuzzy places left, but we're hanging in there," he said.

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