Creative Manufacturer: Fat Dog’s World Famous Subway Guitars

Pub date April 25, 2006

1800 Cedar, Berk.

(510) 841-4106

For 38 years, a man named Fat Dog has been serving as Berkeley’s own musical Dr. Frankenstein.

As the owner of Fat Dog’s World Famous Subway Guitars, Fat Dog, along with his crew of Igor-like technicians, has been saving dismembered guitar parts from shuttered factories, cobbling them into weird custom instruments, and passing the savings along to you.

The results are "proletarian guitars," as Fat Dog likes to say, favored by first-time players and well-known musicians alike. Over the years the shop has catered to untold numbers of artists, from Les Claypool to Green Day to that fifth grader on the way to her first guitar lesson.

Aside from looking pretty sweet, the critical benefit of playing one of Fat Dog’s custom creations is that even if you’re a broke, struggling, or maybe even terrible musician, you can still get a totally unique instrument at a budget price.

Offering these customized wacky wonders at an average price of about $400, Fat Dog says, "We sort of were more aimed at the working musicians and people that didn’t have that privileged budget to buy those more expensive instruments."

The original intent of Subway Guitars was to operate as a repair shop. In keeping with that tradition, the repair end of the business still operates as a technician’s co-op, in which the people doing the work actually get to keep 100 percent of the cost of labor.

The business’s keen interest in reusability, fair pricing, and fair labor practices resonates in another of the shop’s unexpected retail endeavors: promoting alternative transportation.

Those not in need of gussied-up vintage guitars might nevertheless be interested in a gussied-up vintage bicycle. The shop has recently reinstated its $50 bike sale, garnering inventory from an old barn where Fat Dog has been storing road bikes and cruisers for years.

However long the business stays in its original location in North Berkeley, and however many bicycles are put back on the road, Fat Dog says his focus will always be on guitars.

"We’ll keep going on with the same mission," he says, "which is providing people with good, really high-quality guitars without subscribing to collectors’ absurd prices." (Ivy McNally)