“There is only one thing better than getting something you’ve always wanted in life and that is getting it 30 years later.”
Jeff Richard laughed, summing up a journey that began when he was a boy and ended in a south Baton Rouge backyard some three decades later. Dubbed The Fret Shack, this little guitar repair shop is the fruit of a passion planted when Richard was in high school.
“I started playing guitar somewhere around 15 or 16. I was one of those kinda guys that when I got my guitar, I was completely infatuated with the instrument. That is pretty much all I did outside of school and sleep,” Richard recalled. “In addition to playing the guitar, I was a tinkerer. I liked noodling with it. I was trying to figure out what made it work, how did it work, why did it work. ... is there a way to make it better?”
Thumbing his way through dog-eared copies of guitar magazines, Richard compared his own humble guitar with the axes wielded by his rock 'n' roll heroes.
“They were hot-rodded, they were tooled for performance, they were like muscle cars compared to my economy sedan," he said. "Being a kid that didn’t really have a lot of money, I would just try to tinker. It started very simple. I wanted my guitars to do what my idols’ guitars did but I couldn’t really afford to pay a tech. I couldn’t afford to get those guitars, much less turn my guitars into them.”
As his playing proficiency grew, so did Richard’s interest and skill in working on guitars.
“I was bitten by that bug. I really wanted to learn how to work on guitars for real," he said.
With no such schools close by, Richard accepted an academic scholarship to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, where he studied journalism and continued to play music and work on guitars.
“As I was working on my own, guys would play them and say 'Man, I wish mine played like yours,' and so I would work on other people’s guitars just as a friendly thing,” Richard said. “There was one local music shop, and I taught guitar out of there to make ends meet, and I did a few guitar repairs in there. I learned this is how guitar repair works when people are paying for it. It never went on the back burner. It was always there. It’s literally been a decades-long passion.”
After graduation, Richard did an eight-year stint in the newspaper business in Shreveport before taking a media relations job with the Louisiana Office of Tourism. It would become his professional home for the next 17 years, and, in part, The Fret Shack owes its beginnings to that long and successful tenure.
In 2015, with the encouragement of wife Vonnie, Richard took early retirement to open his own little guitar repair shop.
“I was scared as hell!" he said of that giant leap of faith. "I actually had a contingency plan. If the shop made enough money to justify keeping the doors open but not enough to support the family, I was going to get a job at a local home improvement store so that maybe I would not only make a couple of bucks, but I might get a discount on wood and tooling!”
His concern proved unfounded.
“To my absolute surprise — and subsequent delight — this little shop took off," he said. "I had no clue there was so much of a demand for what I do."
While the work can be hard and the pace rapid, Richard is thrilled with the steady stream of fretted delights that comes his way.
“Being a guy who loves guitars, and really, truly appreciates them, I had no clue how many interesting instruments are right in our backyard. … I’ve had old Martins come through, old Gibsons come through, Fenders from the Leo Fender era — a lot of interesting stuff," he said.
But Richard isn't just in it for the vintage or cool collectibles.
"It’s about everything that walks in that door. If someone cares enough to bring it in, it doesn’t matter if it’s a $30,000 Fullerton-era Fender or a $30 pawn shop score that some kid is trying to keep in tune so he can learn how to play the guitar. Everything that comes in is here for a good reason, and dollar values kind of go out the door.”