A few years ago a wealthy Swiss guitar collector decided to visit the shop where some of his finest guitars were customized. He didn’t fly to Los Angeles or Nashville or Austin. He hopped a plane to Kalispell where, at Music One Workshop, the Miletich brothers were waiting with yet another finished guitar.
Larry and George Miletich love guitars. They love playing them, tuning them, feeling them and, most of all, fashioning them into the exact guitars their customers want. The brothers’ desire for perfection, taught to them by their father, is the main reason, they say, that Music One Workshop is the only gold level-certified Fender music store in Montana and one of a few in the Northwest.
The elder brother, Larry, said it’s all about keeping music personal. Without intimacy, an instrument is just another product, he said, instead of someone’s cherished baby.
“Big corporate minds want to take our industry and turn it into a canned goods industry,” he said. “We’re into the artist – the musician thing – and we do it for the love.”
“We’re definitely not in it for the money,” he added. “You could make a lot more money being miserable all day.”
Music One started in 1981 as a family business and is the valley’s longest-running music store. It’s still a family business, though the brothers have taken on the bulk of day-to-day responsibilities to give their 73-year-old father well-deserved rest. George Sr. still comes in a few days a week and only recently quit giving bass lessons at the shop, which today features five music teachers and a thorough retail selection of instruments, accessories and electronics.
Several other professional guitar technicians help out at the shop, but Larry and George Jr. run the show. Between them, George Jr. said, they restore 100-to-200 guitars a year and customize a guitar about every week. They build from scratch only six or so guitars a year, though they used to do a lot more.
Refining, restoring and customizing are much trickier operations than building from scratch, George Jr. said.
“A lot of times you can’t just bolt a new part on,” he said.
Their work is manual, a testament to their hands and creativity, and a little help from tools. The shop has two workrooms full of sanders, drills, screwdrivers and other hardware necessities.
A musician, Larry said, can tell the difference between each guitar hanging on the wall. The wood’s texture, the tone’s resonance, how the neck fits in the hand – it all matters.
Even people not experienced enough to make those distinctions still deserve something better than a boxed guitar from Best Buy if they’re making such a long-term investment, he said.
“You want to feel it, to hold it, before you buy it,” he said. “You don’t want to just take it out of a box and plug it in.”
Gary Grafe has played bass and guitar with different bands for the past 19 years. He bought his first bass at Music One and he said he has bought so many there since he can’t count them. The care Larry takes with each instrument, Grafe said, gives them great sound and playability in a way that a new, untouched guitar doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t go to anybody else,” he said. “Larry’s knowledge and advice has been invaluable to me over the years.”
Much of the shop’s enduring success is due to family closeness, George Jr. said.
“With a corporation, there’s a lot of me, me, me,” he said. “People think about promotions and things like that. With your family, there aren’t any promotions here. This is it.”
But a family business is still a family matter.
“(My brother and I) have literally been downstairs with each other in head locks years ago,” Larry said. “Dad would have to come break it up.”
The family tradition goes back to pre-World War II Serbia where the Miletichs’ grandfather built mandolins out of turtle shells. After immigrating to Massachusetts, he passed on his secrets to George Sr.
The Miletichs have been making and fixing instruments ever since.
Between father and both sons, the Miletichs’ customized guitars have been sent out to businessmen in Hong Kong, construction workers in Great Britain, country music stars in Australia and all sorts of people throughout Europe and Japan. Billy Bob Thornton recently commissioned Larry to build a guitar for his friend.
Larry was featured in Guitar Player magazine in 1996 for his innovative work with a former member of The Byrds, Gene Parsons. Larry installs Parsons-designed “stringbenders” in the backs of electric guitars that create a steel guitar sound.
Music One, in addition to its gold-level Fender status, is also certified by Gibson and Martin, the two other guitar powerhouses. Certification is an honor, with some benefits, that makes customers feel they are in good hands, George Jr. said.
The brothers keep a guitar in the shop, he said, that was ruined by a poor restoration job at another shop to remind people of the importance of certification.
“If they’re not certified,” he said. “You don’t know who they are.”