Dan Martin's love of guitars put him in contact with rock royalty
By Tim Bryant
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. CHARLES — Dan Martin loved guitars. Not so much playing them as collecting them, especially the vintage Gibsons and Stratocasters he treasured.
Martin's two guitar shops were more labors of love than businesses. But his renown in the rock world came through years as a roadie and his ability to find the perfect instruments for a who's who of guitar slingers.
Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Joe Perry, Joan Jett, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne are among the artists Martin counted as customers. Eddie Van Halen bought 117 of Martin's guitars, said a friend, Keith Morehead.
A memorial gathering for Martin, who died last month, is scheduled for today at Wiliker's restaurant. The three-hour event is set to begin at 4:30 p.m.
Martin, 57, died Dec. 21 after he was found at his home on Turtle Rock Court in St. Charles. A sister, Debbie Martin, said Thursday her brother had suffered from congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and diabetes. He had been hospitalized about two weeks before he died.
Martin's fascination with guitars began when he was in high school. He worked on them in his family's basement in St. Louis County. After graduation, he took off for Woodstock, N.Y., his sister said.
"I think that's when he began being a roadie for groups," she said. "He'd be gone for years at a time. Every time he came home he'd have more stories from the road. He was traveling with all the different bands."
Not just bands. Rock royalty. Martin rolled with the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Band, Foghat, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Stevie Wonder and more. All the while, he bought and sold guitars, making the contacts that led to his first shop, The St. Charles Guitar Exchange. Later he operated Empire Guitars.
Morehead, who owns A.T.D. Guitar Repair, and Martin were friends for decades. He said Martin's shops "always had the coolest stuff in town." Martin had a knack for matching customers with rare guitars.
"The odd stuff that nobody messed with, Dan seemed to find a market for," Morehead said.
Van Halen might have been Martin's biggest customer, but ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, well known as a guitar collector, also was a steady buyer.
The customer list also included Huey Lewis and The News, Fleetwood Mac and Journey. Martin was such an expert on vintage guitars that he could distinguish them merely by their sound, his sister said.
"He played just a little bit," she said. "Not a whole lot, like you'd think."
Guitar lessons as a kid never grabbed him the way the instruments did, he told the Post-Dispatch for a story published in 1989.
"I found out it was much more fun watching and listening to others play," he said.
Even after opening his first St. Charles shop, Martin made frequent business trips to Los Angeles and New York. Sometimes the stars came to Martin.
In 1992, metal band Metallica dropped by Martin's shop and left with $15,000 worth of gear. Seven years later, Dylan walked in to buy a guitar tuner. Others to show up included Petty and Browne.
"Sometimes a limousine will just pull up out front and five long-haired guys will come into the store," Martin said for the story in 1989.
Morehead said he's done all of Martin's guitar repair work for a year but that he has no plans to take over the rest of his friend's business. Empire Guitar's future "is all up in the air," Debbie Martin said.
A.T.D's website is carrying customers' reminisces of Martin. A customer identified as Darryl said the last time he visited Martin's store, the owner gave him a set of strings.
"I have read with some annoyance of him being hard to deal with," Darryl wrote. "I never found him that way, even when returning something."
Debbie Martin and Morehead agreed their brother and friend was intensely private.
"Too ornery" to get married, Martin had dogs, including "Roxy," a golden retriever named for "Roxanne" by The Police, Debbie Martin added.
"He was a mystery to everybody and God love him," she said. "He's just Dan. He just did things his way."