30th Anniversary – A Look Back at GAK’s Origins

Our famous GAK emporium has become a hot destination for visitors to Brighton.

GAK’s 30th Anniversary

You read the title right – we are turning 30 this year! To celebrate GAK’s 30th anniversary and our fresh look, we’re going to delve into our history and how we grew into one of the top music retailers in the UK.

An original business card from the early Guitar and Amp Shop days.

Humble Beginnings

It’s been a long journey from very humble beginnings to getting to where we are today. And it all started with one man and a market stall.

Let’s rewind back to 1992. “Wayne’s World” was in the cinema. The Shamen hit number one with their hit “Ebeneezer Goode”. The ABBA revival was in full swing. Princess Diana separated from her husband Prince Charles after the media exposed his secret affair. The Atkins Diet was spreading like wildfire. But, most significantly, a man named Gary Marshall started a business in Brighton.

Before it was called GAK, the store was named the Guitar and Amp Shop. It began as a small market stall inside a Kensington Gardens arcade, around the corner from where the store is now. Initially, it was a simple, one-man operation. All Gary needed was a bunch of instruments, a bumbag and a book on vintage guitars to get started.

“When I came in I didn’t know anything. I came straight off a building site, I was a ragamuffin”. – Gary Marshall

Setting The Tone

Right from the beginning, Gary wanted to cultivate a relaxed, warm atmosphere that he felt was not on offer from stores he had visited. Many guitar shops at the time focused on expensive and high-end instruments, required an appointment and often wouldn’t let you touch anything. They were incredibly strict. As a result, many customers found shopping in guitar stores to be a slightly cold, unwelcoming and generally off-putting experience. Conversely, the Guitar and Amp Store was a down-to-earth and unpretentious place to buy your music gear. Everyone was welcome and they were free to try out whatever they wanted.

Because Gary had made his shop such a welcoming place, it eventually became a popular place to shop for local musicians who weren’t rolling in cash. It was a thriving hub with a strong community vibe. Another quality that set our store apart was the focus on second-hand instruments and doing a deal with customers. If you wanted to haggle, that was all good with us.

To this day, our store carries on the inviting, no-pressure ethos that Gary started. Our second-hand department harkens back to our roots. From the beginning, musicians were encouraged to trade in their old instruments or trade up for brand-new ones. Whilst we don’t operate from a market stall anymore, we are now able to provide the same friendly service to more customers across the globe.

The market stall would move to a store on North Road, where it remains today.

Britpop Explosion

1994 marked a big shift for the store. Following the release of Oasis’ landmark debut album Definitely Maybe, the Britpop era was at its peak. Britpop bands like Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp were all electric guitar-based, markedly increasing the demand for the instrument. As the popularity of the guitar flourished, so did the business. Eventually, Gary would outgrow his market stall and move over to larger premises on North Road – where our store resides today.

By this time, the store was no longer running a one-man operation and had built up a loyal team of music gear experts. The store had also changed its name from the Guitar and Amp Shop to the Guitar Amp and Keyboard Centre, which coincided with the introduction of the Pro Audio shop. By expanding the store further, we could create a space that specialised in synths, DJ gear, studio outboard and other professional audio equipment.

In addition to guitars, synthesizers, samplers and studio outboard gear were also hot sellers for GAK at the time. Electronic dance music fever was in full force, with many emerging producers looking to kit out their home studios. Nowadays, you can access an entire studio’s worth of effects, synths and processors within your laptop via software plug-ins. However, back in the nineties, you had to buy physical hardware if you wanted a particular sound. In its early days, the GAK store had all kinds of synths and keyboards literally stacked to the ceiling. Such was the demand for professional audio gear.

Beyond The Store

Following the transition to the North Road store, a Mail Order department was set up to reach even more customers. GAK was one of the first music retailers to offer this service and it wouldn’t be the last time the store would be an industry leader. Whilst it would become a successful avenue for the company and continues to be a key department for us today, it was very ramshackle at the beginning. A flat above the store had its kitchen and bathroom converted to a mail-order room and office respectively. To spread the word about GAK’s Mail Order service, print ads would be run in popular magazines such as Guitarist and Sound On Sound.

One of our magazine print ads from back in the day, there’s no doubt that they stood out!

Fresh Expansion

Today, we have our own warehouse where we dispatch thousands of items every day. When the North Road store opened, however, deliveries came straight through the front door. A big delivery would require the attention of all available staff, as it would block the store’s corridors until it was sorted. Pretty inconvenient if you’ve just been talking to a customer! Something had to change and change it did. It was time to expand again.

First, a warehouse on Vine Street (a short walk from the North Road store) was opened but this was soon outgrown. Operations were eventually shifted over to a larger local warehouse. These new premises were three times the size of the one on Vine Street – a sign of how much things were growing.

The shift to the internet began in 2001, as an early stock system was also built. A far cry from the tape gun-based approach of the early years! A common theme in our history is venturing into a previously unexplored avenue… and managing to land on our feet.

The Internet Age

This dramatic growth was in large part due to GAK going online in 2002. We were one of the first music retailers in the country to go online and have an e-commerce store. The website was a rapid success thanks to its huge variety of high-quality music equipment, user-friendly design and next-day delivery. Finally, customers could buy their dream piece of gear and have it brought straight to their house. Best of all, you could call up and receive that same friendly, welcoming service that you’d get if you came into the store.

Like the Mail Order service and the print ads that ran in magazines, the website was an extension of that endearing market stall mentality that’s been present from day one. Bold, energetic and frequent reminders that a deal could be made or a price could be beaten were the order of the day.

The website’s URL was pretty long-winded at first – “www.guitarampkeyboard.com”. Whilst this was a perfectly functional name, it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Eventually, it was shortened to the more concise “www.gak.co.uk”. GAK had officially become GAK, as it’s known today.

The GAK homepage whilst the first version of the site was still being made.

Brave New World

The Internet was a lot like the Wild West back in its early days. It was a mysterious entity that hadn’t been explored to the extent it has today. Nowadays, we probably take for granted how easy it is to access the internet. With a device that fits in our pocket, we can stream a high-definition movie, video chat with our friends and order something straight to our door. Before, using the internet like this was a pipe dream. By having the foresight and the initiative to delve into this new frontier of sales, we were able to get ahead of the curve and grow alongside the Internet boom. Although, it’s fair to say that we did a lot of learning as we went. As Gary himself said, “It just happened. I didn’t play anything
out, it happened organically. Other people around me made it happen”.

Destination Hub

As GAK’s popularity flourished, so did the North Road store and its individual departments. Pro Audio gear, Drums, Pianos and Acoustic Guitars would each be given their own department to demonstrate the wealth of equipment in stock. By this point, GAK had established a firm reputation across the UK as a top-notch music store. With help from the eye-catching print ads and the enormous success of the website, word spread about what an exciting place the GAK store is to visit. You can walk in and discover something new around each corner. There’s something for everyone, from complete beginners looking for their first instrument or seasoned professionals. It’s why we call our flagship store the GAK Emporium.

On our 30th anniversary, the GAK Emporium remains a firm destination in Brighton’s bustling North Laine district, with plenty of visitors travelling across the country to see it in person. Even passersby who aren’t musicians are captivated and drawn in.

Making Tea to Managing Director

Before we round out this look at our history, we’re going to take a look at a person whose inspiring story is closely tied to GAK’s roots – Max McKellar.

Back in the Day

At the tender age of 15, Max first became involved with GAK as part of his work experience. At the time, it was still called the Guitar and Amp Shop and based where our Second-Hand department is today. Whilst his fellow students trudged along, Max relished the opportunity and went above and beyond with his duties. This young man’s gumption was quickly noticed by Gary, who paid him a tenner for his efforts. He was also offered a Saturday job as a Guitar Sales Assistant. If Max didn’t have school, Gary probably would’ve hired him full-time! Initially, some of Max’s duties consisted of odd jobs like hoovering, keeping the guitars clean and making tea. Any odd tasks that needed doing, Max was on it. The more time Max spent on the job, the deeper his understanding of music gear and running a store became.

Store Manager

After a couple of years, Max had earned his stripes with the team and was promoted to Guitar Department Manager. At this stage, we didn’t have the digitised stock system that we rely on today. Everyone was running around with tape guns at the ready. As GAK steered into the Millenium and dove headfirst into the Internet Age, Max was entrusted with the role of Store Manager. Max would helm the shop for two years before becoming the purchaser. Today, we have more than one purchaser to look after the different brands we stock. Back in 2002, Max was looking after all of them on his own.

Developing the Brand

Max’s contributions would eventually go beyond leading the shop and purchasing stock. He set up our Marketing Department in 2005, refining and promoting the GAK brand as its e-commerce began to take off. As the Marketing and Systems Developer, Max would play a key role in assisting with the website’s design and developing the bespoke stock system we use to this day.

Top Dog

In 2016, over twenty years after he was a Sale Assistant that dusted guitars and made tea, Max was appointed the Co-Managing Director. By GAK’s 30th year in business, he became the Managing Director. Max’s enduring loyalty, passion and drive helped GAK to thrive from its early days and he remains a fundamental part of the company.

30 Years and Beyond

A constant in GAK’s journey is the regular emergence of new challenges and opportunities. It seems like almost on the year, there’s been a new horizon to pursue or a new hurdle to overcome. All of it is a crucial part of our history and shaped our evolution as a music store. What will the next chapter be and what does the future hold for us?

As we reach the major milestone that is our 30th birthday, we are beyond excited to unveil the brand new look and feel of the GAK brand. Our revitalised design and website mark the beginning of an exciting era for us. We’re looking forward to what the next thirty years and beyond have in store for us. As we move headlong into the future, we’ll continue to do what we do best – offer passionate, expert knowledge and a huge range of music gear at a great price.

Still the Ultimate Hagglers to this day!