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Guitar-repair store owner Gregg Biller said he spends most of his time in his workshop these days, but he still performs around Cottage Grove, with an upcoming date at the Brewstation on July 3. He'll be sitting in with the Huckleberries.
COTTAGE GROVE – Gregg Biller has been in the guitar-repair business for 39 years, so he knew his move from Eugene to Cottage Grove five years ago would be costly – but also something he needed to do.
“(Business) kinda dropped when I moved here,” Biller said. “When you’re in a college town, there’s a lot of young people playing music, and there’s a new batch every year. So I was a little scared about moving to a small town. I lost about half my customers, and my income dropped in about half. It’s picked up, though. Most of my customers are from Eugene, they’re old customers I’ve had for decades.
“Oddly enough, and I think this is true industry-wide, during the pandemic, people are bored. I’ve heard musical instrument sales are up dramatically. I had one of my busiest repair years last year, which is totally counterintuitive, because nobody is playing music anywhere, but everybody was bringing in their instruments.”
RON HARTMAN/THE CHRONICLE
Biller said business actually picked up during the pandemic. He said while many musicians weren't able to perform publicly during COVID-19, they did bring in insturments for repair, creating a brisk business in 2020 and early '21.
Biller said he has made about 75 instruments, but mostly spends his time at the downtown Main Street shop on his work bench, where he fine-tunes his artistry and craftsmanship.
“I always liked playing guitar and I wanted to be a musician, so I went to music school, and played in some bands, but bands break up all the time, not because of me, but it became obvious that music is not gonna be the whole shebang,” Biller said. “So I started looking at things related to that. So I ended up with doing repairs, because you’re always going to need repairs. You could be a builder, but you never recover your costs.”
When he’s not working on guitars, Biller invariably is playing somewhere around Cottage Grove. He’s performing his array of early country, blues and old-time swing at the Village Green on June. 16 from 7-9 p.m., then from 6-9 p.m. on June. 17. He’s also scheduled to sit in with the Huckleberries at the Brewstation on July 3.
“Most places pay the same as they did back in the ’80s – $50,” Biller said. “It doesn’t even cover gas or strings. That’s usually the joke you hear nowadays.”
Biller said he feels privileged to have worked with and learned from some legendary guitarists. While attending a bluegrass school in Texas, Biller had a chance to play with Tom T. Hall. He also took lessons from Ian Buchanan, who taught Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Then there’s Danny Kalb, founder of The Blues Project, and Thomas Burt, an old-time blues player. They’ve all helped influence Biller.
“I kind of lucked out and got to study under some really cool musicians,” Biller said. “Ian Buchanan and Danny Kalb, who worked with Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker. These guys could actually play – nothing against somebody who studied at a community college – it wasn’t like your local teacher thing. It was eye-opener stuff.”