“The plan was to open the garage door and film it right there.”
He points at the door behind him. The air is thick with cigarette smoke. The walls have absorbed so much that it oozes from the wood, even after the cigarette is put out.
“Jack White and Jimmy Page were going to be in Austin at the same time. Everything was lined up, but it fell through at the last minute.”
I’m listening to Tom Oatley describe the scene from It Might Get Loud that was almost filmed in his backyard workshop. He’s matter-of-fact about it; there’s no ego in the tale or regret in its conclusion. Actually, everything about Tom and his workshop is matter-of-fact.
My son’s electric guitar needed its action adjusted and a new set of strings. When you start playing the guitar, the action is generally set on the low side, with the string tension somewhat relaxed. After you put in a lot of time, you’re ready for more demanding action. It’s like keys becoming harder to press the more you type.
Tom doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t have hours, so it’s best to call his cell before you show up. I heard about him the same way everyone does, by asking a local musician if he knew a good guitar tech. In Austin, the answer is usually Tom.
My first visit was a series of This can’t be right moments. When my phone reported that my destination was on the left, I laughed. All I saw was a nondescript one-story house. I walked toward it carrying the guitar case, each step more unsure than the last until I saw a gate on the side with a sign: Oatley’s Guitar Garage.
I swung it opened, hoping I wouldn't be held responsible for the cat that escaped by me into the front yard. There was a path that led to a building in the back. I started down it, curious if I was getting closer to the shop or closer to being charged with trespassing. The tiny shed had windows along the side and a screen door that looked incapable of closing completely. I tapped on it. “Tom?”
I stepped inside. He was sitting at a workbench covered with tools, strings, and parts. The walls were lined with guitars and cases.
It was during that first visit that I realized it’s always worthwhile to ask Tom a question. The man has stories. He’s worked with a string of notable musicians, some for multiple decades. He’s gone on tour and, I found out on my latest visit, nearly hosted two amazing guitar players for a documentary.
I love listening to Tom and his work is second-to-none, but that’s not what makes Oatley’s Guitar Garage an unforgettable place for me. It’s how Tom treats me and my son. When we first stepped into the shed, we were as far from his typical customer as we could be; a father and son with an entry-level guitar and little idea what we were doing, and not a van or tattoo in sight.
What became clear in those first few moments, though, is that every customer is equal in Tom’s eyes, every guitar a worthy challenge. He patiently answered our questions. He talked up the sound of this beginner guitar, telling us it was good enough to play on any of Austin’s stages. More importantly, he spoke to my son like an equal, someone who was now part of a never-ending line of people under the spell of the instrument. There was no shame in starting out, just an emphatic sense of how much fun there was to come.
He couldn't charge us enough.