Up until a decade ago, the cluster of shops huddled around Deira’s Fish Roundabout was one of the only spots where you could buy a guitar in Dubai.
You couldn’t be picky, either. The collections were limited to a handful of entry-level models, most of which were poorly stocked and set up. The guitars had rusted strings, poor intonation and, in some unfortunate cases, nicks and scratches.
Patient and knowledgeable luthiers were needed to bring the guitars to playable form and they were hard to come across.
Thankfully, times have changed. Reputable resellers of brands such as Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, PRS and Martin have popped up all over the city.
You can walk away from most of Dubai’s malls with a hypnotically chimey Stratocaster or a Les Paul set up to sustain for days. Even the shops around Fish Roundabout have refined their inventory and are stocking their instruments in a more conscientious manner.
But there is a glaring absence in the vintage and high-end guitar market – guitars off an assembly line, but handmade by master builders, who have been perfecting their craft for decades.
This is the gap in the regional market that Art of Guitar is aiming to fill. Situated in Al Quoz’s Courtyard, the shop has taken over the space left behind by an art gallery. Its founder, Rick Vlemmiks, says the space continues to fulfil that function, in a way, by presenting instruments as works of art.
“I’ve collected guitars all my life and I'm an avid guitarist,” he says. “Coming to Dubai seven years ago, I noticed it was possible to get some high-end instruments, but the selection was very limited and they weren’t stored and presented as they should be.”
One issue is the high temperatures in the UAE. Humidity indicators are fitted around Vlemmiks's shop – most noticeably on the guitar stands in the centre, as well as on the walls decked out with colourful solid, hollow-body, acoustic and arch-top guitars.
“The humidity is set the same as the Martin custom shop workshop,” Vlemmiks says, referring to the famous American guitar manufacturer. “Because with acoustic guitar, the top [wood] is what creates the sound and if you store a guitar in poor humid conditions – very dry conditions, which you tend to get in a mall – you would be amazed by how quickly that destroys the sound of a guitar.”
Among the shop's most high-end offerings is a Greenfield G2.2, which is priced at Dh69,000. The acoustic guitar is made with alpine spruce and East Indian rosewood. It features fanned frets for more precise intonation as well as a beautiful bevelled accent on its side.
“The guitar is made by a luthier called Michael Greenfield,” Vlemmiks says. “He makes 10 guitars a year. There’s a five-year waiting list, and you have to pay $10,000 just to get on the waiting list. It has a moon spruce top, which is harvested during a full moon because it gives it this resonance.”
Another showpiece at Art of Guitar is a Les Paul Custom that is a handmade recreation of the 1979 axe used by Adam Jones, guitarist in American rock band Tool.
Featuring a warm antique silver burst, the guitar is made using a remarkably dense piece of mahogany and offers no weight relief. The characteristics are what makes Jones' unique pronounced low sounds and clenched mid-range. The guitar is also fitted with a maple top that gives its highs enough kick to cut through the mix. It costs Dh50,000.
An arsenal of Fender Custom Shop guitars crowd the store’s right-hand alcove, from Eric Clapton’s “Black” Stratocaster built by master builder Todd Krause to a heavily reliced Telecaster that recreates the famous 1962 model with the rosewood fingerboard. Then there are true vintage pieces, such as a 1968 Jaguar with a glossy candy red finish, on sale for Dh30,000.
You’d be hard-pressed to find some of these guitars anywhere else in the world, let alone the Middle East, and most of Art of Guitar’s offerings come with a certificate of authenticity, so you know it's the real deal.
“With the vintage stuff, we take pictures of the neck, the body, the parts, the wiring, and we’ll have experts certify it for us,” Vlemmiks says. “So this guitar, for example, will come with a certificate saying that it is an authentic 1968 Fender Jaguar.”
Memorabilia from some of rock music’s most historical moments can also be bought at the store, including old posters of The Doors and the Grateful Dead as well as original photographs of The Beatles in recording sessions. Signed portraits of Def Leppard, Albert Lee, George Harrison, Liam Gallagher and Eric Clapton are also up for grabs.
Vlemmiks says that Art of Guitar is trying to be more than simply another guitar shop, but instead a meeting point for the city’s musicians.
The venue also offers guitar classes in several genres in its practice space, as well as guitar-building workshops led by in-house luthier Basil Azizoghly. He is renowned for his uniquely shaped handmade Howlin' Rooster guitars, which decorate the workshop area of the store. Some of his most eye-catching creations are the guitars made from reclaimed Syrian mosaic Jewellery boxes, tin and cigar boxes.
During the cooler months, Art of Guitar also intends to become a venue for local artists to perform, setting up an ad-hoc outdoor stage in the Courtyard.
“Part of the reason why we picked this place is because of the atmosphere,” Vlemmiks says. “It’s kind of like the New Orleans of Dubai. When it cools down again, around September, we’ll have live sessions out the front here. It’s a way of supporting the local talent.”