Scott Friedeck was a roof salesman. His girlfriend helped run a wedding venue in Dripping Springs. Her dad owned a recording studio.
On weekends, rather than being recruited to find more chairs and cart around peonies and roses, he’d go with musicians he met at that studio to old honky-tonks and bars and make a few extra bucks selling “merch” — T-shirts, koozies and the like.
Heck, a Texan could do worse than that.
But one day, watching a fan get his acoustic guitar autographed, Friedeck had the kind of flash of insight that separates the merch guy from the merchandiser.
“After he signed that guitar, you couldn’t tell if (the signature) was Merle Haggard or Joe Blow,” Friedeck said in a recent phone interview.
His family had a sign shop in Southeast Texas and he knew about the latest advertising technology. If you could vinyl wrap a car, why not a guitar? The graphics would make it part poster, part instrument. You could brand it with a logo, an album cover, an image.
“That way, if somebody got a guitar autographed and they hung it in their office,” Friedeck said, “people would recognize that must be Willie Nelson’s signature on that Willie-branded guitar.”
That was seven years ago. Friedeck now has a growing business — The Graphic Guitar Guys — and a 15,000-square-foot shop in Dripping Springs. He sold 5,000 wrapped guitars last year. He doesn’t have to discuss composition shingles with anyone.
But it took awhile to get there.
When he sold his first three vinyl-wrapped guitars — bought at Amazon for $30 each — for $225 a pop the first weekend, he knew his flash of insight had legs. But he couldn’t get it off and running.
He made connections in Austin. They liked the guitars. They didn’t buy them. He figured he’d have to sell 100 a month to quit his roofing sales job. He sold maybe 15 guitars that first year.
“I was hanging out in a bar in Nashville, because that’s why you do in Nashville,” Friedeck said. A singer-songwriter friend had urged him to try his luck in Tennessee. He met a guy. Turned out to be the right guy.
“I guess the life-changing moment was George Strait,” Friedeck said — probably not the first time a Texan has said that.
Strait was approaching the end of his “The Cowboy Rides Away” farewell tour in 2014. Strait was already selling guitars with graphics on them that he got from China at his shows. But a strike at the port in California disrupted the supply.
Friedeck’s new connection called and placed an order for 430 guitars for Strait’s big finale in Arlington.
“After that, everybody and their uncle called,” Friedeck said. Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and more. “Once we did ‘em for George, all the people who said they’d give me the time of day, but never really did … they started giving me the time of day,” he said. “That really kind of of legitimized my business, I guess.”
Suddenly, 100 guitars a month was hardly a hurdle. His roof salesman days were done.
Today, he’s got more than 1,200 guitar designs out there of all kinds: They advertise businesses, beers and births. They promote festivals and events and engagements. They show country legends and enough Americana artists to fill a dancehall. (See many of them on the Graphic Guitar Guys Instagram account.)
“They’re all piece of art and they all have their own unique story and their own moment in time,” Friedeck said, wisely refusing to name a favorite.
The way it works for most of the bigger artists, Friedeck says, is he sends them an acoustic guitar template (most of his business is for acoustics, because electric guitars cost so much more). Then the musician’s “art team” will go to work, filling out the template in a way that works for the artist. But Friedeck also has in-house designers because not everybody has an art team at their disposal.
Likewise, not everybody can afford these keepsakes. These guitars aren’t for the concert-goer who has to carefully weigh a Randy Rogers T-shirt against the promise of a couple more rounds of beer.
Most of them sell in the $250 to $500 range, Friedeck said. But sometimes you walk away with more than just a keen souvenir.
“I got a couple of artists that if you come up to the merch booth at the show, and you buy a guitar, they’ll allow you and one other person to come up on the tour bus and get to hang to hang with the artist and they’ll sign your guitar,” Friedeck said. “Well, being on a tour bus is kinda a cool thing to do. And a lot of people in their lifetime never have that opportunity or that experience.”
Since his realization that he could make a business out of vinyl-wrapped guitars, Friedeck is way out ahead of the pack on cool things that most people never have the opportunity to experience.
He doesn’t hesitate to give back. From a silent auction at a local banquet in Dripping Springs to helping with medical bills for a musician who isn’t quite a headliner, Friedeck can step in with an autographed guitar from his stash and raise thousands of dollars.
“By the business I created, I can give back so much more than I would personally have ever been able to do,” he said.
But the business gives back to him, as well.
Shortly after that initial George Strait deal, Friedeck started dealing with Frank Mull, who was the longtime road manager for Merle Haggard. After awhile, they met and Friedeck gave Mull a guitar for Merle to sign so he could put it in his Dripping Springs shop.
“The next day he calls me, ‘Scott, we have a problem,’” Friedeck said.
It turns out that when Haggard saw the guitar, he decided he was going to keep it. Mull said he would pay for it, but Friedeck saw an opportunity for a story.
“So you’re telling me Merle Haggard stole my guitar?” Friedeck asked Mull. “And he said ‘I would tell everyone you talk to that story about Merle Haggard stealing your guitar.’”
The young businessman and the old road manager became friends. When Friedeck is in Nashville, he doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to share a meal with him.
“That Merle Haggard story is probably one of my coolest stories, but … I never thought I would become good friends with a 75-year-old man that was on the road with Merle Haggard,” Friedeck said.
“To hear stories of Johnny Cash or him giving George Jones a ride because he couldn’t drive … to me, that’s almost more valuable than selling 100 guitars a month. He’s just such a good human … I’ve learned a lot of life stories during those breakfasts and lunches with Frank Mull.”