By RICK WATSON
What’s the difference between a banjo and a Harley Davidson Motorcycle? Answer: You can tune a Harley. Herb Trotman, who is a banjo picker extraordinaire, knows a million banjo jokes. He’s also the owner of the independent music store Fretted Instruments on Linden Avenue.
Fretted Instruments came to Homewood in 1974, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. David Walberg and Ricky Stone were both partners for a time, but Trotman is now the sole owner of the iconic music store.
As its name implies, the store sells guitars, banjos and mandolins. The prices range from entry level guitars for beginners to high-end instruments played by the people you see on stage and on TV. The folks at Fretted Instruments offer music lessons and do some basic setup and repairs of stringed instruments.
When Trotman reflects on why he got into the business, he adjusts his porkpie hat and looks off into the distance before saying that he loves the sound of the instruments and watching people learn to play music. “Music is a great stress-releasing hobby and a very creative outlet,” he said.
It seems that Trotman was destined for a career in music because, he said, everybody in his family played something. He started playing the banjo while still in high school, 55 years ago. “I love playing music in bands,” he said, “and I was blessed by being inducted into the Alabama Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2010.”
When asked what distinguishes Fretted Instruments from other larger music chains, Trotman is quick to say, “Our honesty is only surpassed by our incompetence.” Another motto at Fretted Instruments is, “The customer isn’t always right, but their mother is,” and their business plan states, “We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on our way.”
Jilda Phillips Watson has purchased several instruments from Fretted Instruments. “I just love Herb and all the folks there,” she said. “They have always treated me right.” She pointed out two times when Trotman went above and beyond for the community.
Several years ago, a local home for disadvantaged youths wanted to start a program to offer basic guitar lessons for the kids. Watson approached several music stores to see if they’d consider donating a used guitar for the cause, but none of the businesses were willing to help. Trotman looked back through his inventory and found a guitar that had been scratched slightly during shipment.
He donated the guitar, and the music program at the home became a reality.
“This simple gesture on Herb’s part changed the lives of kids,” Watson said.
On another occasion, Trotman was in the audience at City Stages in Birmingham, where the famous folk artist Odetta, was scheduled to perform. Odetta made it to Birmingham, but inclement weather kept her guitarist grounded in New York.
An urgent call went out to find a guitar for Odetta to play herself. Watson, who was the assistant stage manger for the Alabama Sampler stage, realized that Herb Trotman was in the audience and asked if he’d consider loaning a guitar to Odetta for the performance.
Trotman agreed and retrieved a folk guitar from Fretted Instruments in time for Odetta. The show went on without a hitch. “We were so grateful that Herb was in the audience,” Watson said. “He helped us when we were in a real bind…but that’s Herb.” Odetta called Trotman afterwards and thanked him personally for loaning her the guitar.
When asked what distinguishes small businesses from the larger chain stores, Trotman says that it’s the relationships. He greets customers, be they regulars or first -timers, like an old friend.
Many people seem to agree that small independent businesses like Fretted Instruments are what make Homewood so special. They add character and a sense of home. Anyone who spends a while with Herb and the folks at Fretted Instruments would probably agree.