Robert Bramley isn’t exactly sure how many instruments he has in stock at The Guitar Lounge, at the Town Hall-end of Clarence Street in Sydney’s CBD. Probably 120, he reckons, although the numbers changed on the morning Hunter & Bligh met him, when a new shipment of 29 instruments arrived.
The Guitar lounge is a tucked away up a short flight of stairs from street level. Inside, its narrow walls are lined with guitars – solid bodied, acoustic, semi-acoustic, six-string, basses, ukuleles. A framed instrument hangs on the wall, autographed by the Rolling Stones. There’s amplifiers and accessories – plectrums, leads, strings, straps, pedals, pickups … everything, in short, the guitar tragic could possible need. And a mirror. Of course a mirror – a guitar must look good, not only sound good, in a player’s hands.
Bramley specialises in guitars made by the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, the current iteration of a business started in the US in 1946 by electronics engineer Leo Fender. But he also stocks Gretsch and the Australian-made Maton, whose acoustic instruments are renowned the world over.
Fender’s first guitar was the Telecaster, released in 1950, but its most famous product is undoubtedly the Stratocaster, released four years later coincidentally in Bramley’s year of birth, and famously rocked by such luminaries as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Mark Knopfler and Pete Townsend.
The full list of renowned players is lengthy and impressive (and does not include the author, owner of a Classic Series 50s Stratocaster, in Fiesta Red, purchased from Bramley). It was The Shadows frontman Hank Marvin who first turned Bramley onto guitars in general and Fender in particular, when he appeared on UK television in 1961.
“As a kid I remember seeing a Strat on black and white TV,” he says, and so began an affinity with the instruments that has resulted in a 42-year career in music retailing, including the past nine years in his current business.
Strats are “are absolutely amazing guitars”, Bramley says, and perhaps unparalleled in allowing individual expression.
“You hear all the great Strat players and you know who they are, you know exactly who’s playing, even though they’re all playing the same instrument,” he says.
Bramley says guitarists – players and collectors alike – share common ground, and it appeals to a diverse range of customers. Guitars speak a language of their own, with many players unable clearly able to articulate exactly why they favour a particular colour or setup or style, beyond it simply being the one for them. Love for the instrument cuts across society in many ways: socio-economic, gender, culture, religion, you name it.
“It is just such a broad cross-section, in every respect,” Bramley says.
“You can have a bus driver talking to a judge, and if they are talking guitars then it’s a universal language. People buy them just because they can afford them; and there are people who buy them who struggle to get the bucks together.”
Bramley says it is not unusual for people arriving from overseas to make a guitar shop an early stop after getting off the plane. He’s had customers from Mexico and Iceland drop in while visiting Sydney to pick up Maton instruments; and he’s had a 12-year-old girl walk in unannounced and lay down $5000 cash for a Gibson Les Paul, another icon of the guitar firmament.
Bramley’s website is a good guide to what’s available, but most sales are conducted on the premises.
“I don’t have the infrastructure to do it [online],” he says.
“I do have a website that generates a lot of sales, but you can’t actually ‘buy now’.”
If you want to find the exact instrument to suit your style and your taste, there’s no substitute for tapping into Bramley’s experience.
“There’s a lot of loyalty you develop in this business,” he says.
“People get to trust your judgement. The most common thing I get when people walk in here is, ‘I know nothing about guitars’. I say, ‘Well, I do. I will help you’.”
The Guitar Lounge
275 Clarence Street, Sydney 2000
(02) 9264 1978