In a creative town like Missoula, it’s no surprise that Electronic Sound and Percussion has had steady business for 40 years on the Hip Strip.
Started in 1979 by musicians Checkers Barker and Dave McIntosh, ESP has been a go-to for anyone in need of a guitar, drum lessons, public address system or a pack of strings.
Each guitar or drum kit purchase was for decades commemorated by an instant Polaroid, which would be pasted to the wall with a name and date written on the bottom. That practice petered out in the 2000s, when Polaroid quit making instant film.
“We have stacks of photos that I can’t put up,” Barker said. “Polaroid or product.
“Now we just take pictures and post on our Facebook page.”
McIntosh had the seed of an idea after working for another local music shop, whose owner wasn’t quite as on top of the business as McIntosh thought he could be.
“When he pulled out of Missoula, I thought, well here’s a spot,” McIntosh said. “I never thought it would last 40 years.”
They joined other music stores like Dickinson, the Music Center and Preite’s Music, with a starting inventory of a banjo and a pack of strings, Barker joked.
“Everybody had their own niche going,” McIntosh remembered. He and Barker, as active musicians, focused on their needs — PAs, drums, guitars and amps.
Electronic Sound and Percussion opened in a storefront across the street from its current location at 819 S. Higgins Ave., but moved within six months and saw a noticeable uptick in business.
Even then, “it took a number of years to get things really rolling,” McIntosh said.
Barker started offering drum lessons (by his math he’s nearing 49,000 lessons) and McIntosh focused on repairing used PA systems and guitars.
The public address system was their bread and butter for decades, McIntosh said. Every band, even touring bands who would hole up in clubs for week-long residencies, needed their own PA back then.
They supplemented that by picking up the occasional manufacturer contract from instrument makers like Gibson or Tama when they became available, as well as stocking used instruments, though McIntosh said that’s not as reliable.
“It’s real sporadic,” he said. “It’s just kind of a gamble.”
The two have collected quite a bit of vintage gear throughout the years, though Barker wasn’t sure that anything in the shop had been there the entire 40 years. His drum kits, lined up on high shelves above the shop floor, weren’t collected until the '80s and '90s.
Even the row of guitars hanging above the counter — a mix of '60s mod Danelectros, metallic Teiscos with way too many buttons and several unmarked guitars, all of strange shape and vintage — are more for show.
“We call them ‘the hangers,’” Barker said. “Some of them really aren’t playable.”
They’re also not for sale, though people try.
“We get a lot of people — fairly big touring musicians — stopping in the shop,” Barker said.
A musician with the Robert Cray band has stopped in multiple times to ask after one of McIntosh’s guitars, a 1980’s-era Fender with a flowery design covering its blue body.
“It’s cool, but it’s not an original or anything,” McIntosh said, although he hasn’t yet taken the man up on his offer.
But it’s the local musicians who have made ESP what it is, and kept it thriving for decades. Some of this, surely, is attributable to Barker and McIntosh’s musicianship: The two played in longtime Missoula band the Bop-A-Dips most recently, and other groups before that.
“We’re all players and we know what it’s like to be out in the trenches,” Barker said. “We couldn’t survive without them.”