Subway Guitars in Berkeley: This stomping ground for the greats has activist roots

There’s a corner building in North Berkeley that was once the local haunt for some of the world’s most influential musicians. Today, Subway Guitars is still a stalwart business for the music community, selling second-hand and custom-made instruments, and offering affordable repairs and lessons. 

The owner, Fatdog — yes, that’s his legal name, although he also perks up when endearingly called Fatty — started his business in 1968 and has been making and selling instruments for the past 50 years. 

This humble, brimming space hints at its profound history. If you look closely you’ll find old, curled photos tacked to the wall showing Fatdog with his good friend Taj Mahal, or a young Michael Franti up at Fatdog’s property in Sonoma, leaning against a vintage car, flashing the peace sign. That barely scratches the surface of the well-known people rotating in Fatdog’s musical sphere, but he doesn’t seem to care much for the fame. 

Electric guitars at Subway. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

A dyed-in-the-wool Luddite, Fatdog lives a life free of phones and computers. He reads the New York Times’ print edition every morning and enlists confidants to help him book his flights. He loves being with his instruments, often using them to bring attention to the countless social issues taking place around the world. 

Raised in Philadelphia by unionist parents who were involved in the artist community (Pete Seeger would perform in their living room), Fatty began playing music at an early age. Spurred on by the patriotic encouragement of John F. Kennedy, Fatty initially moved to the Bay to become a doctor and join the Peace Corps. He took to fixing up guitars he found at pawn shops in his free time. When he realized he wasn’t cut out for college, he focused on the instruments to create the change he was seeking.

In the 1960s “we felt that music was the weapon,” he said recently. “By creating a bunch of instruments for musicians to use that were cheap we were really doing a service in part of what we thought was a cultural revolution happening here.”

After opening shop, Subway became the regular stomping ground for the ’60s and ’70s counter-culture folks like the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, as well as broke musicians who sought out castoff instruments for their distinct sounds. Then, in the ’80s, the punk and New Wave period ushered in some of their most dedicated customers — musicians including Nirvana, Green Day and Primus. 

“Some people could have a store and just be making guitars for little dorks like Mick Jagger or Green Day, and that was a great thing, but making concerts for Nelson Mandela or César Chávez was 100 times more important.”
— Fatdog

“This was the center, the barber shop, where everyone would hang out,” says Fatdog.  “It was a great honor that they would come here (…) Whoever’s still left alive still comes in.”

With this growing notoriety, Fatdog took on a central role in organizing benefit concerts for Rock Against Racism, an activist initiative that sprouted in the 1970s as a response to growing white nationalist sentiment in the music world. They raised money for anti-apartheid efforts, women’s and labor rights, and also registered hundreds of thousands of young adults to vote.

“Some people could have a store and just be making guitars for little dorks like Mick Jagger or Green Day – and that was a great thing,” says Fatdog. “But making concerts for Nelson Mandela or César Chávez (…) was 100 times more important.”

Rock Against Racism no longer exists, but Subway Guitars still donates musical instruments to local schools and offers affordable instrument repairs and lessons. 

“We’ve always offered sliding scale rates for our repairs and lessons to customers in need, but plan to codify this into a system based on music as a right, such that no one will be turned away for lack of funds,” said Ethan Lee, a longtime employee who is heading the renovation of the lessons department. 

Currently, they offer guitar, ukelele, and bass lessons but Lee hopes to include brass, woodwinds, classical strings, drums, keyboards, singing and recording. The website is under construction, so, for now, a phone call or an in-person visit to Subway would be the best method to inquire about their lessons or custom guitars.

Ethan Lee at Subway Guitars. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
A photo of Hound Dog Taylor tucked behind the instruments at Subway. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Acoustic guitars at Subway. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Fatdog and his employees make their custom guitars on his property in Sonoma which was damaged by the fires last October. They often make replicas of old instruments that can’t be found anywhere else, or out of reclaimed materials, like a tree from around the corner, a piece of old gymnasium flooring, or leftover parts from instrument factories that have since moved overseas. 

“We fix up guitars and give them a second life. We have some of everything,” said Fatdog.

Subway offers a good range of “workhorse” guitars between $150 and $250, but can make essentially any type of instrument. Custom guitars start at around $300 but they can, of course, make more expensive, perfectly tailored instruments for those who desire them.

If someone gives them an instrument, Fatty will often resell it and use the money to make several guitars to donate. For him, getting as many instruments into the hands of young folks is vital.

“Now I think it’s time for people your age to be doing this,” said Fatdog, addressing this reporter. “Wait till they start messing with Roe vs Wade. It’s your turn now.”