Shop Spotlight: Arbutus Guitars in Nanaimo, BC

Before opening Arbutus Music in Nanaimo, owner Richard Leighton lived in Vancouver. His small repair shop and retail outlet, Guitars West, shared a shop space with renowned luthier Eiichi Ishikawa of Shuriya Guitarcraft, whom he apprenticed under.

Here, he got a chance to work on guitars for some of the biggest names in the music industry, and it's one of the reasons people from all over — not just the island, but in general — still send their guitars to him since he moved back to Nanaimo in 1996 and opened Arbutus Music.

Since then, Leighton has also started a music school at Arbutus that focuses not only on teaching performance, but also offers workshops in composition, history, recording, and music business.

Richard Leighton

We had a chance to talk with Richard and one of his staff members at Arbutus Music, Kai Brown, about the history of the store and some of the crazier pieces in their collection.

Tell me about this history of the shop and how it got its start.

Kai Brown: Richard, the store owner, trained in Vancouver for a number of years as a luthier. He was working in Vancouver for a long time, working on some big records and working with some pretty big clientele over there, but then he moved back to the island in the early '90s and set up Arbutus music in its first location in '96.

He's had Arbutus Music in Nanaimo ever since. He built the building that we're in now in 2001. In 2006, it changed to a Long & McQuade, but then it came back as Arbutus Music about seven years ago.

What made you want to get started in this?

Richard Leighton: I started building guitars at 16. When the collector thing started happening in the '80s, prices started going up. I started buying up some guitars, and then upgrading my collection. I'd sell off six pieces and then buy another good piece.

I've been involved in all of the musical sides of the industry, from recording to playing and gigging to repairing and building guitars to selling them. It's been my whole life.

What's it like running a store on Vancouver Island compared with the mainland?

RL: My shop in Vancouver was pretty specialized because of the larger chain stores. In fact, in our small town here, there's two chain stores — the Long & McQuade and Tom Lee. For us to stand out, we have to carry all the stuff they don't.

Arbutus Guitars

We deal in all the weird, eclectic stuff. I've been collecting guitars since the '80s. I'm a luthier, as well. I worked for Bryan Adams for a few years, KD Lang, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. I've been doing this for a long time, working with a lot of different vintage instruments and restorations.

I was apprenticed out of Shuriya Guitarcraft in Vancouver. All the top musicians from around the world send their guitars to [Eiichi Ishikawa] to repair, so that's where I cut my teeth. We had David Bowie send guitars there, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Scorpions — everybody sent guitars there if they were expensive or needed major restorations.

Are there any challenges or advantages to having a store on the island?

RL: It's a challenge just because we don't have access to a bigger population. I've got a population base here of about 150,000 people, and there are two big chain stores and myself here. However, people drive up and down from the island to come to our shop just because it's such a specialty shop. Plus, our repairs. I did almost 1,400 guitar repairs last year.

How has Arbutus gained the following it has?

RL: Longevity. I've been doing this for 30 years. In 1986, I started my shop in Vancouver. People just know me [laughs]. I think it's mostly word of mouth.

What role do you see your store having in Nanaimo's music community?

RL: Having a store here for 20 years, we've got close to 400 students upstairs and 26 employees — including teachers — so we're quite heavily dug into the community.

Arbutus Guitars

Can you tell me about the Vox Brian Jones Teardrop bass?

KB: I think we actually have the guy in the store who brought it in for us. That's definitely one of the weirder pieces we've seen over the years.

There was an older guy who was a Vox collector here on the island. He collected Vox gear from the '60s and '70s, and Ryan [who brought the bass into Arbutus] managed to scoop some of it when this guy was downsizing and brought some of it in here for us to try and relocate.

We have people who go all up and down the island looking for gear, and they bring it to us to try and sell it and find a new home for it.

Did you have a chance to play it?

KB: Yeah. I haven't picked it up recently. It's a super skinny neck. Like, I think it's one inch wide at the nut. We've had a couple things like that come in here, too. We also had a '56 Gibson Byrdland. That was a tiny little banjo neck on that thing.

1967 Vox Brian Jones Teardrop

1970s Chapman The Stick

I also have ask about the Chapman Stick.

KB: In my almost five years here, I’ve seen a rosewood one and then we had a headless blue Steinberger variation of it. Those are the only two I’ve ever seen. But that one was from another local person here. He actually knew what he was doing and could play it properly, but he was downsizing his collection, so it wound up here.

I'm pretty sure he's got all of the original instructional material from the late '70s or early '80s. I think this one's a '79, so he's got all the original goodies and things like that — how to hold it and a couple of introductory lessons in the way of tapping and things like that. That's definitely another stand–out piece.

How does one play it? Is it all tapping?

KB: It's all strictly tapping. I've had a couple people come in here who know how to play one properly, and it sounds fantastic when they try it out. It's got a special strap on it that hooks around your shoulder, and it also clips in to your belt so you can stand up and play it.

Can you play it?

KB: Not very well, no [laughs].

What's it like trying to play it?

KB: It's an acreage. It's pretty weird trying to get your hands around it. That one's the 10–string model, so it's a mittful for sure.

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