Despite the abundance of sunshine year round, Los Angeles doesn’t always have the warmest vibes. While it’s easy enough to meet new people in the City of Angels, most everyone—showbiz people, at least—seems to hustling for opportunities at all times. If a new acquaintance sizes you up as someone who can help them reach their goals, you’re their new bestie. If not, you’re yesterday’s news. Every guitarist in L.A. has had a taste of this.
One six-stringer who has made a point of sidestepping this soul-crushing dynamic is Mason Stoops. Despite being plenty busy with rehearsals, recording sessions, tour dates and so on, he regularly makes a point of going out to hear his friends and peers play. And while he primarily features his own activities on his Instagram feed (@masonstoops), he’s just as likely to post stuff that’s not about him—pics and blurbs in praise of a friend’s new record release or an outstanding live show he has just seen. What’s more, Stoops has managed to surround himself with a circle of like-minded local players, fostering a vital sense of community that would be downright refreshing in any city.
Stoops plays a dual-guitar gig most Wednesday mornings at a cafe in Pasadena. (Full disclosure: I’m the other guitarist on this gig.) Over the past year, these gigs have slowly taken shape as a really cool scene. Alongside the murmuring Pasadena coffee klatches that usually inhabit the place, it’s not unusual to spot a handful of Angeleno guitarists who’ve come to really listen. After the gig, Stoops always invites the players to meet for lunch at a favorite Mexican restaurant in nearby Highland Park. Some weeks, there’s nearly enough players to fill the place. Is this a networking event? A hang? Call it whatever you like, just don’t double-dip your chips in the guac.
Stoops has also been curating after-hours shows at the east-side workshop of guitar-string maker Gabriel Tenorio, drawing small crowds of adventurous listeners to enjoy spontaneous multi-player guitar jams with established players such as Blake Mills as well as up-and-comers like Dylan Day and Jacob Evergreen. No tickets are sold for these “Guitaco” meet-ups (so-called because intermissions are always spent eating incredible tacos from Metro Meat Market, the nearby bodega).
Stoops is not a Los Angeles native. Born in Orange County, he moved to L.A. a few years ago. He did feel like an outsider here at first, and worried that the mythology of L.A.’s impenetrability was true. “There was a long time,” he says, “when I thought this city was cold and competitive.”
The turning point was a concert that he attended earlier this year at Mollusk Surf Shop in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. The featured artist that night was a young singer/songwriter named Madison Cunningham. Her band comprised Sean and Sara Watkins, pedal-steel guitarist Rich Hinman, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Tyler Chester, and myself. “I felt like a stranger here until that show,” says Stoops. What changed that night? “I had this big aha moment. All the musicians on stage could be playing with anybody, and they’re here playing with Madi because they’re really stoked on her as an artist. No one gets paid at Mollusk. People are just there for making music. It was the first time that I felt that exciting new music is happening—and L.A. is the place to hear it and embrace it.”
Not long after that night, the Washington Post ran an article on the death of guitar. The very day that story came out, Stoops, Tenorio and Mills happened to be hanging out together. Stoops recalls, “We all thought, What a bizarre thing to say. We know so many guitarists making music and doing things. We’re here. We’re not dead.”
That conversation was the impetus for the first Guitaco night. Tenorio and Stoops wanted to organize a meet-up for local guitar community in a non-traditional location—not a concert venue or guitar store. Just a large industrial space with a small patio. The big idea, says Mason, was to bring all of these different creative types together—folks who are passionate about making strings, about making tacos, about brewing beer. (The brewmaster at Three Weavers is a longtime friend of Stoops.)
Stoops admits that when he first came to L.A., organizing such events was the furthest thing from his mind. But within a few weeks of that first Guitaco night, Jackson Browne told Stoops he’d be interested in hanging at the next one. Joe Bonamassa expressed interest, too. Says Stoops, “If guys like that are excited about it, that shows me that when you’re committed enough to the guitar—or whatever you’re passionate about—everyone wants to hang around with other people who are passionate like that. There’s a drive to embrace this thing and share this thing. That’s what made it special.” Many Guitaco nights have followed since then, and there are more on the horizon.
“This was the year that I had the realization that I don’t want to wait around for things to happen,” says Stoops. “It’s just as easy—and way more exciting—to start things yourself, to create opportunities to bring people together. It’s a new magnetism. I just feel so lucky to even witness it, let alone be a small part.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of the L.A. Files, a series of ongoing postcards from the Southern California guitar scene penned by Adam Levy of Guitar Tips Pro. All photos by Andy Alt.