Jon Haber Pursues His Rock and Roll Dream with DEC3

April 8th, 2015

Haber_FeatureImage-web
This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, the 50th anniversary of Martin’s D-35 guitar, Dean Gordon Guitars and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

SHIFTING GEAR: After running a musical instrument retail empire for several decades, Jon Haber has finally pursued his rock and roll dreams with DEC3.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Rayon Richards

Just off Route 211 in Middletown, NY, a small city nestled in the Hudson Valley about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan, is the flagship store of a mini-chain called Alto Music. If you play an instrument of any sort and have never visited this store, here’s some advice you’ll want to follow when you first step through its doors: Remain calm. Exercise restraint. Resist the temptation to run around the place whooping with delight. And pace yourself, because you may not want to leave anytime soon. Alto bills itself as “The Most Complete Music Store in the World,” and though that’s a hard claim to verify, the place is packed from floor to ceiling with drool-worthy gear: sparkly drum kits, shiny brass, sumptuous keyboards, slick DJ equipment, and, of course, lots of guitars.

On the crisp, sunny December day that Guitar Aficionado comes to visit, we’re greeted in the entryway by Jon Haber, the man who’s owned Alto for 25 years and turned it into one of the 10 largest music retailers in the United States, respected throughout the industry for its quality and customer service. Shaven headed and down to earth, Haber is an enthusiastic conversationalist, his face rarely without the hint of a grin, as if he knows the funniest joke in the world and is just waiting for the right moment to spring it on you.

“Let me give you the grand tour,” he says, and we’re off, taking extra time to survey the electric guitar room (a clubhouse within a clubhouse, complete with comfy couches), the acoustic guitar room (a quiet, relaxing inner sanctum), and the effect-pedal counter (the player’s equivalent of a well-stocked candy store).

Toward the end of our tour, Haber ducks into Alto’s pro-audio section. He opens the door to a tiny control room, complete with Pro Tools rig, Neumann U87 microphones, Manley mic preamps, and Neve-style console modules by Heritage Audio. “This,” he notes, “is where we did most of the vocal tracks for the album.” He’s talking about the self-titled first disc by his band, DEC3 (pronounced “Deck Three”), an impressive compendium of catchy, radio-ready tunes that draws from a host of classic-rock influences: Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Foreigner, and the Police, to name a few. Haber wrote and produced all 12 songs on the album, played nearly all the guitar parts, and released it in the fall of 2014 on his own Raddist Records label.

DEC3 marks Haber’s official debut as a recording artist at age 49, the culmination of a dream long deferred. When he took over Alto Music in 1989, he’d been playing in a local rock band for years. At one point, they’d had management and interest from record labels, and it seemed as if they were on the cusp of serious fame. But that promise didn’t last. “By ’89, the band was fizzling,” Haber remembers. “We had some good moments, but we were more interested in having a good time than actually getting anywhere. I needed to make a change.”

In the end, Haber didn’t have to look far to accomplish that. He already had a strong connection to Alto, which originally opened at a different location in 1967. “My first job was working there,” he says. “It was 1981, I was still in high school, and I swept the floors, cleaned the MXR Distortion + pedals, and dusted off the one Simmons drum kit that sat there for years. I finally sold that thing one day, and man, I’d never gotten accolades in my life like what I got from the boss after selling that hunk of crap! I kept the job all through high school and college, just a day or two a week, and then I kept at it afterward. I was a musician, and it seemed like the thing to do.”

In the wake of his band’s demise, Haber saw an opportunity to remake the business, moving the main store to Middletown and devoting himself to its success. “I knew I was good at selling stuff,” he says. “Hey, I sold that Simmons kit, right?” The store has remained his priority ever since (its current flagship location has been open since 2002), but over the passing years, he never gave up playing guitar or writing songs.

“I’d been coming up with ideas and making demos for a long time,” he says. “In February 2013, I finally decided I had to do something with them. My initial goal was just to turn some of those old demos into album-worthy recordings. But then, as we got further into that process, I started writing new songs, and we recorded them too. In the end, most of the songs on the album are brand new, although a few go back more than 15 years. I’d been in the studio before with my old band, but this was just not on the same level. Things got a lot more complicated. On one session, we had 170 tracks going!”

You can hear that complexity at its peak on “Red Line,” one of DEC3’s standout tracks. Haber’s angry lyrics were prompted by the civil war in Syria and the United States’ reluctance to get involved. The music resembles prime Queen, especially in the middle of the song, where a brief switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time is highlighted by wildly interweaving vocal harmonies. “That’s all Chris,” Haber says, referring to DEC3’s singer, Chris Saulpaugh. “This music wouldn’t be what it is without his vocals. And he banged all those harmonies out in about an hour on a lunch break at the store.”

Granted, it may not be all that surprising to learn that the owner of a music store has his own band too. But recording major chunks of the band’s first album in that very same music store? That’s a little more unusual. Still, it was a practical move; Saulpaugh, whom Haber has known for over 15 years, also works at Alto. “Because we’re together all day, it made sense to do it this way,” Haber says. “If we needed to re-record a line for some reason, we could just walk down the hall to the control room in pro audio and do it. It was so much easier than having to book a studio and deal with all the extra logistics that go along with that.”

The use of Alto’s Middletown facilities and property didn’t end there. One of the primary guitars Haber played on DEC3, a one-pickup Fender Esquire reissue, was designed by Phil Keller, the head of the store’s guitar department, in conjunction with the Fender Custom Shop. Keller’s original intention was to create a guitar that he’d sell in the store, but once Haber got hold of it, that idea went out the window. “That guitar’s not coming back,” he acknowledges. “Too good.”

In addition to the Alto pro-audio room, …

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, the 50th anniversary of Martin’s D-35 guitar, Dean Gordon Guitars and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

Just off Route 211 in Middletown, NY, a small city nestled in the Hudson Valley about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan,
is the flagship store of a mini-chain called Alto Music. If you play an instrument of any sort and have never visited this store, here’s some advice you’ll want to follow when you first step through its doors: Remain calm. Exercise restraint. Resist the temptation to run around the place whooping with delight. And pace yourself, because you may not want to leave anytime soon. Alto bills itself as “The Most Complete Music Store in the World,” and though that’s a hard claim to verify, the place is packed from floor to ceiling with drool-worthy gear: sparkly drum kits, shiny brass, sumptuous keyboards, slick DJ equipment, and, of course, lots of guitars.

On the crisp, sunny December day that Guitar Aficionado comes to visit, we’re greeted in the entryway by Jon Haber, the man who’s owned Alto for 25 years and turned it into one of the 10 largest music retailers in the United States, respected throughout the industry for its quality and customer service. Shaven headed and down to earth, Haber is an enthusiastic conversationalist, his face rarely without the hint of a grin, as if he knows the funniest joke in the world and is just waiting for the right moment to spring it on you.

“Let me give you the grand tour,” he says, and we’re off, taking extra time to survey the electric guitar room (a clubhouse within a clubhouse, complete with comfy couches), the acoustic guitar room (a quiet, relaxing inner sanctum), and the effect-pedal counter (the player’s equivalent of a well-stocked candy store).

Toward the end of our tour, Haber ducks into Alto’s pro-audio section. He opens the door to a tiny control room, complete with Pro Tools rig, Neumann U87 microphones, Manley mic preamps, and Neve-style console modules by Heritage Audio. “This,” he notes, “is where we did most of the vocal tracks for the album.” He’s talking about the self-titled first disc by his band, DEC3 (pronounced “Deck Three”), an impressive compendium of catchy, radio-ready tunes that draws from a host of classic-rock influences: Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Foreigner, and the Police, to name a few. Haber wrote and produced all 12 songs on the album, played nearly all the guitar parts, and released it in the fall of 2014 on his own Raddist Records label.

DEC3 marks Haber’s official debut as a recording artist at age 49, the culmination of a dream long deferred. When he took over Alto Music in 1989, he’d been playing in a local rock band for years. At one point, they’d had management and interest from record labels, and it seemed as if they were on the cusp of serious fame. But that promise didn’t last. “By ’89, the band was fizzling,” Haber remembers. “We had some good moments, but we were more interested in having a good time than actually getting anywhere. I needed to make a change.”

In the end, Haber didn’t have to look far to accomplish that. He already had a strong connection to Alto, which originally opened at a different location in 1967. “My first job was working there,” he says. “It was 1981, I was still in high school, and I swept the floors, cleaned the MXR Distortion + pedals, and dusted off the one Simmons drum kit that sat there for years. I finally sold that thing one day, and man, I’d never gotten accolades in my life like what I got from the boss after selling that hunk of crap! I kept the job all through high school and college, just a day or two a week, and then I kept at it afterward. I was a musician, and it seemed like the thing to do.”

In the wake of his band’s demise, Haber saw an opportunity to remake the business, moving the main store to Middletown and devoting himself to its success. “I knew I was good at selling stuff,” he says. “Hey, I sold that Simmons kit, right?” The store has remained his priority ever since (its current flagship location has been open since 2002), but over the passing years, he never gave up playing guitar or writing songs.

“I’d been coming up with ideas and making demos for a long time,” he says. “In February 2013, I finally decided I had to do something with them. My initial goal was just to turn some of those old demos into album-worthy recordings. But then, as we got further into that process, I started writing new songs, and we recorded them too. In the end, most of the songs on the album are brand new, although a few go back more than 15 years. I’d been in the studio before with my old band, but this was just not on the same level. Things got a lot more complicated. On one session, we had 170 tracks going!”

You can hear that complexity at its peak on “Red Line,” one of DEC3’s standout tracks. Haber’s angry lyrics were prompted by the civil war in Syria and the United States’ reluctance to get involved. The music resembles prime Queen, especially in the middle of the song, where a brief switch from 4/4 to 3/4 time is highlighted by wildly interweaving vocal harmonies. “That’s all Chris,” Haber says, referring to DEC3’s singer, Chris Saulpaugh. “This music wouldn’t be what it is without his vocals. And he banged all those harmonies out in about an hour on a lunch break at the store.”

Granted, it may not be all that surprising to learn that the owner of a music store has his own band too. But recording major chunks of the band’s first album in that very same music store? That’s a little more unusual. Still, it was a practical move; Saulpaugh, whom Haber has known for over 15 years, also works at Alto. “Because we’re together all day, it made sense to do it this way,” Haber says. “If we needed to re-record a line for some reason, we could just walk down the hall to the control room in pro audio and do it. It was so much easier than having to book a studio and deal with all the extra logistics that go along with that.”

The use of Alto’s Middletown facilities and property didn’t end there. One of the primary guitars Haber played on DEC3, a one-pickup Fender Esquire reissue, was designed by Phil Keller, the head of the store’s guitar department, in conjunction with the Fender Custom Shop. Keller’s original intention was to create a guitar that he’d sell in the store, but once Haber got hold of it, that idea went out the window. “That guitar’s not coming back,” he acknowledges. “Too good.”

In addition to the Alto pro-audio room, …

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, the 50th anniversary of Martin’s D-35 guitar, Dean Gordon Guitars and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Wain Ashley on April 9th, 2015, 08:35 [Reply]

    Thank-you for your article about Jon Haber. I met Jon many, many, many moons ago when he worked the counter at the original Alto in Munsey, NY. I had no idea how good a guitarist he was; didn’t even know he played until I took a Tele in to change PUPS. After playing a lick that made my mouth drop and giving me back my guitar, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with these pick-ups”. No Sale! When you consider his honesty in this world of corporate music store chains, his success is like that guitar lick and makes your jaw drop. He has remained that same guy who worked the counter years ago in Munsey. Me, I’m just one the many musicians who Jon has befriended over the years. I personally am happy that he is back leading a band and sharing his talents and himself with the world.

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