Friends of the Bear Q&A – James’ Home of Tone

Only a few months into our journey as Loaded for Bear, we discovered the Home of Tone and it just made sense that we should get in touch to see if owner James would be interested in representing our new brand. He offered to take a range of our guitar cables to The Guitar Show in 2019 and after spending a little more time getting to know the product and familiarising himself with our ethos, he decided we’d be a great fit right for his catalogue.

It’s an absolute pleasure to be represented by James and even more to be able to throw a load of questions his way to find out more about his fascination with the guitar and how he built the boutique up from a life long passion. Read on…

James' Home of Tone

Q: Can you please introduce yourself, the Home of Tone and the kind of products and services that you offer?

A: Hello! My name is James Gascoigne, and the Home of Tone is an online retail store and by appointment office based in Stourbridge, West Midlands, for guitars, parts and accessories. I have grown to offer guitars, custom guitar ordering services, replacement and upgrade parts, guitar related accessories from pedals, to cables, cleaning items and much more, as well as offering guitar setup work here at my office too.

Q: How would you describe the Home of Tone?

A: I think I could best describe the Home of Tone as a specialist, curated collection of guitar items that have been chosen for their quality, unique factor and brand ethos. At the core the Home of Tone is a retail store, but I guess it could be seen as a guitar based resource too. I have always tried to share experience and findings from over the years on the blog, across articles and product listings that might help visitors confirm details on their own research path, or learn about various aspects of guitars too.

Q: Can you give us a little bit of history? How and when did the Home of Tone come about? Do you have a background in retail/e-commerce or running a business/brand?

A: It has felt like a bit of a unique, long winded journey to be honest! So I’ll do my best to represent it here, my apologies in advance if I ramble too much!

I’ve always loved guitar shops, most of my weekends as a young kid chaperoned by my Dad then later as a teenager with all of my pals, were spent travelling into Birmingham and admiring every nook and cranny of the cities many stores at the time. Even doing my school work experience at around 14/15 years old in one of my particular favourite stores which blew my mind! Thought I’d hit the big time haha. So guitar shops have always been a part of my life I think.

Fast forward to my early 20s I found myself feeling stuck in a rut working within the motor trade. Knowing I had to try and do something about that, I rather naively figured I’d give the world of eCommerce a go and set-up my own online guitar store. The desire was certainly there, but the fact of the matter was that I had zero eCommerce knowledge and zero guitar industry/supplier experience either (a good start eh!) so it was a rough and ready attempt for sure. I figured out from scratch about building a super basic website, hosting it, setting up an eBay store alongside that and diving into the depths of guitar magazines to spot any distributor names at the bottom of adverts to find out where I could obtain some stock!

Online retail in general was still feeling pretty new to most consumers at that time, and I think as a result I was shot down by most of the distributors as they simply wouldn’t work with online only retailers. Although that is still fairly common today with big brand distributors, it truly felt like an impossible hurdle back then. Luckily though I managed to find a few companies that would have me on board and I gave it my best shot for a  little over year I think. Selling accessories predominantly, along with a selection of parts. I was only funding it with a little spare wage each month, but due to the lack of experience and likely many other reasons too, I waved the white flag and knew it wasn’t the right time for me to do this.

I definitely didn’t want to give up on the idea, but I needed to grow as a person and certainly needed to gain more knowledge in the field before I could seriously do it justice. No doubt that year of naively throwing myself into it was a learning experience though so don’t regret trying it out. I continued on with my regular job in the motor trade, but thankfully a friend’s business hired me for a role in their incredibly successful online motorsport parts business. I adored that job, great, inspiring people and I guess because I was enjoying my time there I kind of took for granted that I was also becoming more and more used to the world of eCommerce.

I was the logistics manager, so handled all of the order processing, dispatch, warehouse management and courier accounts rather than website development, social media management etc, but being in the thick of it nonetheless, in a small team, all run by two inspiring friends building up their business, found me absorbing it all really. This was all around a time in life where I was struggling mentally though, and was a particularly rough patch which thankfully the friends there supported me through. So it wasn’t until my mind cleared a little and I’d grown as a person that I came to realise what an amazing position I was in and what I was learning there.

Thankfully the owners there were very supportive of me when I approached them about my desire to re-address my online guitar store and pursue that again. I established the Home of Tone in the middle of 2015 and it was very much a slow growth, gradual thing from there out. A similar pattern to the first attempt, just trying to find suppliers that would have me on board, but this time my personal guitar interests were a little different and I was thinking outside of the box more, which lead me towards the boutique side of the market.

I think all of that really helped me find my feet and my own personality with the store and brand, rather than just stocking the generic stuff all the other shops did at the time. You simply did not see boutique brands in the main stores even then, so it all felt really new and fresh and that was quite exciting. I think the meaning of boutique has changed a lot in more recent years, it’s common to walk into a high street guitar shop and see smaller brands alongside the big mainstream brands. But I do think I was incredibly lucky timing wise to just about catch the interest and ‘boom’ I guess you could say of the boutique style market as those brands gave me the chance to reflect my interests and passions in my own store.

Now I think I’m at a point where I can find a happy medium between some more well known brands, and smaller brands and it still all fits together nicely. Trying to keep an eye out for the unique products now though has been incredibly tough, with the bigger chain guitar shops showing a lot more interest in smaller brands and boutique products. But it shows how much of a dynamic industry the guitar world is, even in a short 5/6 years I’ve seen some big changes so it’s quite an exciting thing to be part of and hopefully the Home of Tone can continue to grow with it and retain the personality. It’s all certainly been a learn as I go through the process though, only grabbing from little things I’ve picked up along the way in my previous job and hobbies.

Q: You have a fantastic catalogue of great quality components and accessories and from what I can tell, really enjoy upgrading and repairing guitars. I never messed around with my guitars much as a youth, and am still slightly terrified by the idea. How did you learn? I somehow imagine this is something that you’ve been doing for a long time, even before you made it professional?

A: Ah man I love tinkering with guitars almost as much as playing them, honestly! My interest in how they work and maintaining them started really early on. I’d be really intrigued on how to change strings, and watch my Dad do it over his shoulder. I was always a pain in the ass for him too I imagine, as I got interested in different string gauges, how they all felt so different. What well known players used and wanted to give it a try for myself.

Downside of course is that it would affect the guitar quite a bit, meaning he’d have to tweak the set-up on my Squier guitar regularly! So I’d see the little tweaks to the truss rod for example, which although I did admittedly feel scared by initially, somehow felt drawn to it too. I just got stuck into things like the guitar owners booklets that would come with new guitars, touching on set-up measurements and adjustments and found it all really interesting. We ended up doing a few mods to my old Squier in my early teens and I think that was the spark for sure, changing the tuners, swapping the body, changing pickups etc. Although some tasks even my Dad wasn’t keen to do and it would go to a tech, I would still want to have a go and ask questions.

I guess it just developed over the years to the point where carrying out a set-up on my own guitars was second nature, then I had a go at more partscaster type builds and learnt by getting stuck in really. I do remember wiring up my first guitar from scratch though and I absolutely loved that for some reason! So certainly all things I loved to do before attempting it professionally, and despite it now being a job which definitely adds stresses due to it being customer instruments, I feel my love for the instrument keeps it fun and interesting as it did before.

Q: Your wiring harnesses are very popular these days, which is understandable given your expert knowledge and craft in assembling them. Do you think folk are becoming more confident in performing their own upgrades these days now that access to information is so readily available?

A: Ah absolutely, I have noticed a massive difference in customer interest, confidence and knowledge in the components and methods even since I first made an official ‘Home of Tone’ wiring kit product way back in 2015. I’m open to being proven wrong here, but I felt that replacement wiring harness kits just weren’t common place then, I certainly didn’t see them on parts websites, displayed in shops or for sale at guitar shows etc. In the US it might have been different, as I know companies like Emerson for example were doing their great work already, but over hear it felt very different. If you needed your guitar re-wiring, you either bought the pots and did it yourself from scratch, or the most common choice was to just take it to a tech to do it for you.

But I do think the growth in popularity of things like partscasters helped grow the interest in details like wiring too. Harnesses are as commonly seen now as replacement pickups are I think, it’s a viable and worthwhile product, but player knowledge and confidence has definitely been the driving force behind their popularity. Players know more about each component, the effect they have, how you can install them. For those players that perhaps don’t know quite as much detail, they can opt for a drop-in harness where the bulk of the work is done for them but the bonus of installing one is that you can learn a little more about how your guitar works as a result. The wealth of information out there online now is unreal though, so it certainly has to have helped.

Q: Can you give us an overview of your values? I know that you put a lot of consideration and care into the brands and products that you stock and work with a lot of smaller businesses. How did that come about? Was it a conscious decision based on experience or did that just come about in another way? Like, had you identified the need for a high-end guitar boutique in the UK or did it come from more of a personal mission?

A: I think my representation of smaller brands happened pretty organically in the early days of starting the business. I had begun finding out more about the ’boutique’ market before the Home of Tone came about, I remember going to a guitar show and meeting Jeff from JJ Guitars and being in awe of his instruments. None of which resembled the mainstream designs, but they were beautifully made and seeing those stuck with me. I had also been a long time customer of Diamond Bottlenecks slides too, a one man brand who offers a unique, quality product no one else does, so had some familiarity with smaller boutique type brands even back then.

I guess with social media becoming bigger and bigger, making the industry more and more accessible, it made me realise just how much more there was to the guitar world beyond what the shops stocked at that time. When I did start the Home of Tone, even though my very first stock order was for some electronics parts from well known brands like CTS and Sprague, the first companies I contacted were small, handmade product brands such as McNelly Pickups, my friend Ian at Diamond Bottlenecks slides and Gravity Guitar picks to name a few. Ultimately it was the unique nature of the products that interested me, and the quality too, and I think that all became a subconscious thing and direction for the business.

I was drawn to those brands and products, it all excited me more because I had spent years and years seeing the same brand names in the local shops and shows, this all felt new to me and I quickly realised that most of these companies shared a similar outlook too. I must admit, it becomes incredibly frustrating to have the door slammed in your face by the mainstream brands too, so it’s nice to speak to the actual person behind the business and product and grow a relationship as a result. Most of the time with smaller brands you’re not dealing via a distributor, you’re speaking directly with them and that’s a really cool aspect of it all. Customer care, desire to put out quality, unique products and do so with some personality. It all meant something to me, and it appeared it did to them too.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole boutique thing has taken on another meaning now and is a whole lot more commonplace now, but I still hold onto those early experiences of finding and speaking to smaller, ’boutique’ brands, that was the unique and meaningful experience I loved and still try to capture today. Unfortunately it hasn’t always worked out for the best, working with smaller brands from over the other side of the world doesn’t always quite go as well as I hoped, but it’s all a learning curve and each of those experience helped me grow as a person and business owner which all helps improve my values and service.

Q: I’m aware that The Guitar Show in Birmingham has always been a big one on your calendar, and from what what I understand is a bit of a family affair too. Would you describe Home of Tone as family business in any kind of way and how did you work around the event being cancelled last year?

A: I don’t think I can describe the Home of Tone as a family business, not just yet anyway as it is still just me physically working for the business. My families moral support is unrivalled though which I’m incredibly grateful for and come show weekend, it very very much is a family affair!

The very first show I booked onto was the Guitar Show held in Birmingham, I had next to no stock and no clue what to try and offer the attendees but knew I had to give it a shot regardless. I blew my personal savings booking onto that show, but it was important to me to get out there and throw myself into the deep end so to speak. As it was just me though, my family were quick to offer their help in person and man the stand with me over that weekend. Since then, it has sort of become tradition now I guess! They love helping on the stand and the mere suggestion of getting any one else to do it so they don’t have to is quickly dismissed. I’m a pretty socially anxious person, so to be honest having some family support at those shows is gratefully received, my wife Emma, and mom and dad all do a wicked job helping out at those shows, as well as my friend Ben who kindly also becomes honorary staff/family member for the weekend. It’s a nice vibe to have on the stand and I think people pick up on that who pay a visit to us too.

Missing last years show due to the cancellation felt pretty strange for sure. It’s a big part of my yearly calendar and although I don’t approach the shows as a box shifting ‘profit’ exercise, for me it is incredibly important as a predominantly online brand to be part of the community and show it’s not a faceless brand/shop/business, I am a real person, so being able to chat to everyone is the important part of the show for me. Missing out on that was a real shame last year, so fingers crossed for next year (2022).

Q: Who are your musical influences and have they had much to do with the choices you’ve made through your journey with the Home of Tone?

A: My youth was spent listening to a pretty weird and wonderful mix of music. I think those years definitely formed a foundation for me to build from, whilst always knowing those bands and genres are part of me. I think as an impressionable youth, the guitar heroes of the 60s/70s/80s were of course a massive thing for me, I think the excitement of those players is particularly addictive at that age. Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan for example were particular favourites who I think retained my interest in the guitar through the years.

There will always be a part of me that loves all of that and I think that is reflected in aspects of the Home of Tone too with a respect for vintage sounds and gear etc. Plus I have inadvertently found it all quite helpful to be honest, customers will mention certain players or gear that they hope to capture and for the most part, I’ve developed a good knowledge of that to help them achieve it through the products I offer. But as I began to discover music all on my own journey rather than just the environment influence growing up, although bands like Nirvana, metal bands of the era, and the punk/pop punk bands of the late 90s early 00s too, were all a big influence on me, I can precisely remember hearing bands like Minus The Bear, Explosions in the sky, Sigur Ros for example for the first time. Those all made a massive impression on me. It wasn’t like anything else I heard before and gave a whole new meaning to guitar music.

I was late to the party in some respect I guess, but it gave me the chance to delve more into bands like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Shellac, Slint, Glassjaw, all bands that I don’t remember others at School or college ever mentioning. It was a friend Lee, who introduced me to many of these bands when I was about 17/18 and I would say that was perhaps one of the biggest musical moments in my life purely because it re-defined what guitar music was, and feels like a never ending awesome journey of bands like that! I do think all of that has made an impression on the direction of the Home of Tone, it opened my mind about the guitar, to see it in different ways and I think the boutique market can be a reflection of that too.

Q: What’s your musical background? What’s your story with the guitar?

A: I became pretty obsessed with the guitar from an early age, showing a keen interested around the age of 5 resulting in me pestering my folks for a guitar for my 6th birthday! I think it was all partly due to music always being a part of life at home growing up, but also because my dad played classical so there were guitars around in some form. Our close family friend, Frank also had some awesome electric guitars which I remember vividly. Seeing those sparked my interest more than the nylon strung classical guitars I think, I thought they were the coolest looking things!

There was a massive mixture of music at home, from other family members and friends which made a huge impact on me. From my Mom’s love of Elvis meaning I heard a lot of Scotty Moore’s guitar playing early on which I loved even from a young age. To my Dad and Uncle’s musical influence with the likes of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Al Di Meola, Yes, lots of Prog and jazz rock type stuff essentially. I also loved hearing motown and soul, particularly Stevie Wonder for example which would be a common fixture being played at family gatherings I remember.

Mentioning family friend Frank earlier, his music collection and knowledge was invaluable to me too, introducing me to some more roots type music with blues and 60s rock styles I think all played a part in my equal interest in guitar. I’m so glad I was shown early blues and roots R&B, it gave me a lot more respect for the music that followed as a result of learning where it all came from.

I definitely didn’t find guitar playing came easily early on though. I think it was more towards my early teens, hearing what felt like more accessible music and bands, like those I mentioned earlier, Nirvana, punk and pop punk bands etc that rejuvenated the interest in learning guitar. The more technical guitar based music I grew up with, although inspiring to hear, just seemed so alien when trying to translate that to my fingers on the strings. I’d go and watch players like Steve Vai at gigs and although unreal to watch someone with that ability, I felt defeated afterwards with my own learning process. Whereas being able to learn punk type songs in what felt like no time at all and rip along to the hifi was such a revelation, and I felt like I progressed with the instrument so much faster in general after that.

It all clicked into place a bit more as a result, maybe just the confidence boost of finally being able to play along to CDs from start to finish! Got the fingers moving a bit better, and allowed me to attempt harder techniques. Still very much learning and fumbling my way around the fingerboard though!!

Q: Let’s talk Loaded for Bear! I’m very proud to have our cables alongside some really superb brands in your catalogue. Maybe you can explain a little, from your perspective, about why our products sit well with the Home of Tone and alongside those other great brands? What attracted you to Loaded for Bear cables and how do they differ from the alternatives made available to your customers?

A: YES! Would love to chat about that. I have really admired the LFBA approach, each aspect of what you do seems well considered, and I for one really appreciate seeing care and detail like that. It’s inspiring as a business owner.

Although I knew it would be a great fit, being able to work together and showcase your work on my stand at one of the Birmingham Guitar Shows cemented that for me. Seeing the products and branding within and among all of the other products on display, it just fit so well.

But aside from the style and quality of the products, your approach was the major draw for me. I’ve enjoyed the chance to build a working relationship, discuss products before they get released etc, it keeps it exciting and interesting for me. It is all just so much more important than obtaining a product list from a big distributor and placing an order. It has meaning with companies like yourself, wicked products and a cool approach will always be the most interesting.

Home of Tone exclusive instrument cables we recently supplied to James.

Q: What gets you up in the mornings?

A: Haha other than the school run like we both know too well! As cheesy at is may sound, it’s the realisation that I am working for myself with something that I’ve been interested in for almost my entire life. Guitars have always been around, so to do something productive with that lifelong interest is rather humbling I must say.

Here’s a huge thanks to James for taking the time to talk to us about the Home of Tone and for giving us a little insight to the world of running a first class guitar boutique. I highly recommend that you go check out Home of Tone for a stunning range of parts and accessories and head over to James’ YouTube channel where you’ll find a wealth of product demos and quick tips. Enjoy!

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