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Charlotte Pop-Rock Veteran Steve Stoeckel Loves His Day Job 

The Dude Downstairs

Here in the Creative Loafing office, we've been calling him the dude downstairs.

All we know about him is that he plays electric guitar throughout the day — short rock riffs from 1970s and 1980s songs — and he plays them often enough that we've grown used to guitar pop and rock coming up from under the floorboards. When visitors drop by, the inevitable flurry of questions follows: "Where is that noise coming from?" "Is that a person playing a guitar?" and "Is that 'My Sharona?'" The answers are: "Downstairs," "yes," and "I hope not." But the mystery remains: Who is this guy and what's he doing down there?

Finally, we're in a meeting, and our editor Mark points to the floor and says, "We're looking for a Music Maker and there's one right down there!"

So I head downstairs and look for our neighbor. It's not as easy as it sounds. There's no suite number or business sign displayed that says, "Dude Downstars --->," but I find a door marked Maintenance at the end of the hall. I push through it and enter a room filled with all the treasures from Raiders of the Lost Ark — if Indiana Jones was looking for amplifiers instead of crystal skulls. Toy figures of Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr and a Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine grace a tiny stage. Next to it is the case for a Hofner bass guitar — the kind Paul McCartney plays. Seated at workbench, the Dude Downstairs is tinkering with a Fender amplifier.

"Somebody spilled a beer in it," he tells me. It turns out the Dude is veteran musician Steve Stoeckel, founder of long-running pop-rock outfit the Spongetones. "That group just took off," he says. "There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when we could put 1,000 people in a nightclub. It was amazing. We played in Japan, New York and Los Angeles, and we've released 12-plus CDs with the Spongetones."

Steve Stoeckel
  • Steve Stoeckel

Obviously, Stoeckel is pleased with his accomplishments with that band, but he's just as proud of his day job as a rock 'n' roll repairman.

Creative Loafing: You seem to have three or four favorite riffs. One is the Knack's "My Sharona," another is Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."

Stoeckel: Oh, "Pretty Woman," I love that one! I had no idea that you guys could hear me that well.

I swear I've heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

I was playing "Werewolves of London," which is essentially the same song, in the same key. I practice stuff. I'm primarily a bass player, but I know enough guitar to be dangerous. I also play Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," just messing around.

What exactly are you're doing in here?

The short answer is: If you make music with it, chances are I fix it. I fix keyboards. There's also an Otari reel-to-reel tape machine over there, where I do analog tape repair for people who are archiving stuff. There's one brand of turntable that DJs use, the Technics 1200. I also fix that. I mostly deal with the tools musicians use to make music, but the main thing I fix is amplifiers — primarily guitar amplifiers. When I fix an amp, I get the pleasure of playing through it. That's part of why I love this job. I get to play through hundreds of different amps, and I need to know what they sound like.

(Points to an oscilloscope and several other instruments that look like the controls of a nuclear submarine) After I check these scopes, I'll play three or four rock licks, which you've heard hundreds of time. That gives me a kind of boilerplate — I know what these riffs should sound like through this amp. It helps that I'm not just an amp tech, but a guitar player, a bass player and a keyboard player.

How long have you been doing this?

I started doing this in 1973. Back then, there was a place called Trend Music. One of the owners had been doing repair for a living, and I would watch what he was doing. He hired me as a salesman, and I was an awful salesman. He took me aside one day and said, "You know you're a terrible salesman. I see you looking at me (repairing gear). Take some classes, and if you have an aptitude for this, we'll talk." So I took some classes at Central Piedmont Community College. Then he started teaching me, and eventually he turned repairs over to me.

(Points to the amp he's repairing) It's rewarding to work on this, because it's not a toaster. This is a work of art. Musicians play this. It puts music out there. I know the guy who owns this amp. When he comes to me, he's entrusting me with his baby. People are attached to these things. He'll be so grateful. He'll pay me money, and I'll have the satisfaction of making a living. I get to do this day and night. I'm the luckiest man in the world.

Do you get most of your business through referrals?

When I first started doing this, I was working for a music store and was paid a salary. So that's how I got business. When I went out on my own, I sent out 20 emails. Word of mouth and reputation was such that after a month I had more work than I could handle. That was 10 years ago. A typical call is, "I hear you fix amplifiers. So and So told me to give you a call." It's so gratifying that people trust me and refer me. That's golden.

Check out this classic from the Dude's band the Spongetones, circa 1983 (the Dude is the dude in the middle, playing that Paul McCartney bass):
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