Sound City: The London Music Shop Where the Fuzz Face Was Born

Brian Jones had a boyish charm that could be irresistible, though sometimes it was more like a manipulative streak. Perhaps his friend Richard Hattrell shifted from one view to the other, because Richard was the one who Brian charmed (or manipulated) into buying Brian his first proper electric guitar in 1962.

One day in October, Brian—founder of a new group called The Rollin’ Stones—walked down Rupert Street in central London, just beyond the edge of Soho, and ducked into a tiny guitar shop called Sound City. He handed over Richard’s money and walked out with a Harmony Stratotone Mars H46, a guitar he used constantly with his band into the following year.

The Sound City shop was owned by Ivor Arbiter, whose interest in music had been sparked by his father, Joe, a saxophonist with the British big-band led by Harry Roy in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The young Ivor began his instrument career working at saxophone repair workshops in and around Soho, and in 1957, he opened his own Paramount woodwind and brass shop on Shaftesbury Avenue—the street that marked the southern boundary of Soho.

Ivor was an ambitious young man, and he saw further opportunities with the rise of pop music as the ‘60s came into view. In 1961, he opened Drum City at 114 Shaftesbury Avenue and the following year Sound City, which specialized in guitars and amps, at 24 Rupert Street.

Sound City, Rupert Street. Photo by Andy Babiuk.

Drum City’s most important sale in the early years was a Ludwig set—the enterprising Ivor had just secured a UK agency for these American drums—that Ringo Starr chose, apparently for the Ludwig oyster black pearl finish on offer. Ivor sketched out a Beatles logo for the bass-drum head, and the Beatles drop-T logo, created with little thought other than to close the deal, became one of the most recognizable music logos of all time.

Another Beatle lured by new American instruments at Ivor’s other shop, Sound City, was George Harrison, who popped into the Rupert Street shop in summer ’63, met the manager Bob Adams, and bought a new Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. A few weeks later, he used it to record “She Loves You.”

So popular did the tiny Sound City shop become that, in March 1964, Ivor moved it to new premises just a few doors along from Drum City. The new Sound City at 124 Shaftesbury Avenue was on a corner site at Gerrard Place, in a building dating from the 1880s—and parts of it still felt distinctly Victorian.

Sound City, Shaftesbury Ave. Photo by Pete Cornish.

A story circulated among staff that the famous escapologist Harry Houdini, during one of his many tours in Britain, had stored some props in the cellar of number 124, and that there they remained, rusting and crumbling, and just about visible for those brave enough to risk a peek in the dank, dark, rat-infested underworld.

Up on the ground floor showroom, things were a little better. Very soon after the move, the new shop was used as the location for a wonderfully-of-its-time Pathé news film featuring Sandra Barry & The Boys. The band, soon to become Mod darlings The Action, took advantage of the Gretsch stock at the shop, with Bam King selecting a lovely double-cut White Falcon.

Ivor’s drive to exploit every aspect of the burgeoning instrument business in Britain led him not only to run retail shops and distribute overseas brands, but also to manufacture his own gear, for sale in his shops and elsewhere. One famous instance was the Fuzz Face.

Jimi Hendrix's 1967 Fuzz Face, sold at auction in 2017.

This simple but effective fuzzbox employed Ivor’s idea to adapt a mic-stand base as a roadworthy casing. Introduced in 1966, the Fuzz Face found instant fame when Jimi Hendrix picked one up at Shaftesbury Avenue and set its distorted abilities to work.

Gordon Hawtin, a.k.a. Sconehead, was a 16-year-old junior salesman at Sound City for a few months in 1967 (and again a little later), but his timing was good. “That February, Jimi Hendrix came in with Noel Redding and Jimi’s personal assistant, Tony Garland,” Gordon says.

“Jimi picked up a Stratocaster, but the strings were the wrong orientation for him, and in a very funny and cheeky way, I commented that I could give Jimi some guitar lessons. In fact, I’d only been playing for 18 months and I was dreadful. But I said Jimi should give me a job in his band as the rhythm guitarist, and at that point Jimi and Noel fell about laughing.”

Gordon’s cheek paid off, though, when Noel asked to try out a Jazz Bass, which he ended up buying. “I sold Noel the bass for 100 guineas without case,” he remembers. “I put it in a cardboard shipping box, took it out to their waiting car, and off they went—but not before they invited me to come and see them at the Roundhouse later that month.”

Next to bolster the manufacturing part of Ivor’s empire was Sound City amplification, notably the One Hundred (or L100) head designed and built by Dave Reeves and introduced in 1967. Pete Townshend was an early and, for a while, committed user. The association with Dave Reeves did not last, however—he soon went off to design Hiwatt amps. Ivor meanwhile continued to produce Sound City amps and cabs with some design input from Dennis Cornell.

Sound City, Shaftesbury Ave. Photo by Pete Cornish.

Another visitor to number 124 in 1967 was Eric Clapton, who bought a secondhand ’56 Strat there in May for £150 (about $350 at the time). It was the guitar later known as Brownie, used for work such as his first solo album and for Layla, both recorded in 1970. He would sell it in 1999 at one of his Crossroads charity auctions for $497,500 (plus buyer’s premium), a record for a guitar at the time and a price Clapton himself described as “astonishing.”

Back in 1968, Drum City received the first deliveries of drums by Hayman, another new Ivor-backed brand, and Hayman guitars followed a couple of years later, designed with help from Jim Burns.

By 1970, Doug Ellis was the new shop manager at Sound City, coming from Selmer, the competitor round the corner in Charing Cross Road. “Ivor was very anxious to push the Hayman guitars, but it was a bit of a challenge to move them,” Doug recalls. “We had a good selection of Fenders and Gibsons, some Gretsch models, too, and I would guess the mix between new and secondhand guitars was around two-thirds new.”

1962 Sound City Tornado Ad

Sound City was among many shops in an area of London teeming with music and musicians. “We were very lucky to be in a perfect location,” Doug says, “and I always surrounded myself with good, enlightened people, like Jack Brand and Steve Sutherland, who regularly came up with suggestions worth getting behind.”

One distinction that set Sound City apart from the rest was the repair department. At first this was in the basement and run by John Marriott, a relative of Small Faces mainman Steve Marriott. When John died, Pete Cornish took over the job, and in order to free more showroom space, the repair shop with Pete in charge was moved to the Drum City basement at number 114.

Pete had to advise the jazz drummer Phil Seamen on a number of occasions that this was no longer Phil’s practice and teaching space. “Every day between one and two o’clock he would appear and ask me why I was there. Was I his pupil? And there I am working away on a bench with amps in bits and so on, and he’d insist he was still teaching there. I had to tell him it wasn’t like that any more, and I’d take him off to the pub and then leave him there.”

Pete’s background was in military electronics, and that proved to be a bonus on a few levels. “It’s debatable which is tougher on the gear, military or rock’n’roll,” Pete says with a smile.

“I’d been working on things that would be dropped out of an aircraft at minus 40 degrees centigrade on to the Sahara desert at plus 50, and it had to survive. So with the military stuff, it has to work when it gets there—but usually only once. With rock’n’roll stuff, it has to work every day.”

The repair shop attracted roadies from all the big and not-so-big bands of the day. “If you fixed an amp and it actually worked, they would come back,” Pete explains.

“There were so many people that purportedly could fix amps but actually made them worse, you know? Again, with my military training, it had to be perfect. And I would improve stuff, because the construction was appalling in a lot of cases. I knew about sealing things and putting lock nuts on, all these things that were quite standard to me but not common in the music area.”

1963 Sound City Clipping

The boss would sometimes appear on Saturdays, up to town for a haircut. “Ivor would arrive in his E-Type Jag,” Doug Ellis says, “and on one occasion he’d left it parked outside, left the keys with me, and asked me to keep an eye on it. I wasn’t paying attention right until the last minute, when a chap was pushing a portable hot-dog stand along Shaftesbury Avenue with his head down.

"I only saw him when he was three feet from the back of Ivor’s Jag. I opened my mouth and the usual slow-motion thing kicked in, and he smacked it right up the chrome bumper. I leapt out there—that E-Type was Ivor’s pride and joy. Luckily, he’d hardly touched it, so nobody ever knew. But Ivor—he was a character. He came up with all sorts of ideas, some of them smarter than others. But he was a real entrepreneur.”

Ivor’s luck ran out with this particular portion of his operation in 1975, when a complicated set of business problems meant his shops—Sound City and Music City (by now in the Drum City location), and Modern Sound in Tottenham Court Road—were swiftly closed.

“We got 15 minutes notice,” Pete Cornish recalls. “Quarter to five, the bailiffs or whoever they were came in, said give us the keys, you’ve got 15 minutes to grab your coat. We all went and stood on the pavement outside going, ‘Wha… What happened?’ As far as we knew, we were taking two million pounds a year.”

And that was that. Today, though, memories linger for those who worked there and bought stuff there and had gear repaired there. “Sound City was a very busy place with a nice friendly atmosphere,” Gordon Hawtin recalls. “Lots of roadies were in and out, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle bought strings, Jack Bruce bought harmonicas. And Saturdays! We had to endure ‘Hey Joe,’ ‘Purple Haze,’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ played badly eight-trillion-million times every Saturday.”

The two City shops in their heyday became something of a social centre for the tech community, Doug Ellis says. “And not always conveniently so, because we were a bit pushed for space in number 124. Nonetheless, they didn’t do any harm, and it was all pretty laidback. It wasn’t the tidiest of shops, but it wasn’t scruffy, and we always did a nice window. It was quite homely and it seemed appropriate for the music business—and a haven for roadies.”

Sandra Barry & The Boys - Really Gonna Shake [Pathe Film 1964]

Pete Cornish remembers piles and piles of seemingly unending repairs, for Queen, Slade, Yes, and many, many more. “All the bands, big and small, were in every week with their amps for regular maintenance. And this was the glory days when a Mullard EL34 valve cost 80p [about $2 at the time]. If only I’d known and laid down a few thousand, like fine wine. Imagine! I used to go to the wholesalers and just pick up a box of a hundred. If only we’d known.”


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Fuzz & Feedback, London Live, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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