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Store points the way to music

Compass Music's owner can help most anyone pick out a song.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2008


MADEIRA BEACH - Chris Rooney picks up the small, stringed instrument and deftly picks out a complicated melody with his big fingers. Then he switches to simply strumming chords and sings along to the same tune, Yesterday.

"Beatles songs translate real well on the ukulele," says Rooney, 55, owner and operator of Compass Music. "With three chords, you can play thousands of songs."

Rooney has a couple of dozen ukuleles on the wall along with an array of other instruments in his store that all share one basic idea: They're easy to play. An accomplished musician himself, Rooney's goal in creating the business is to open music to the masses.

"A lot of people have a misconception that learning music is hard," he said. "It's either from playing in a school band or being forced to take piano lessons instead of playing baseball. A lot of those teachers don't realize that most kids just want to have fun at it."

Rooney wants people to have fun right away, which is why he stresses instruments like the ukulele. Although it will be necessary to practice and learn, if a beginner doesn't start having fun early, Rooney said, they'll never go any further.

A customer walks in off the street and starts asking about the instruments on the wall. Rooney walks over and gives the man a rundown on ukuleles in a range of prices. He hands one to the customer and gives him some basic instruction. In about five minutes, Rooney has the man playing a halting, but recognizable, Brown EyedGirl. The man smiles at his accomplishment.

The way Rooney sees it, that simple lesson could create a customer for life. That man now believes he can play music, a feeling that can lead to sales of Rooney's drums, guitars, maracas, wooden flutes or other instruments.

The ukulele is the perfect foil. With a comic reputation, the instrument inspires mirth right away, Rooney said. And although easy to learn, an accomplished player can do a lot with the simple four-stringed Hawaiian instrument.

But Rooney knows more than the hula, as he quickly demonstrates to a couple of young surfer dudes who wander in looking for a tambourine. They admire one of his electric guitars, and Rooney plugs it in to show how it works. He rips off a searing lick that has the dudes wide-eyed. They rap about drum kits and foot pedals until a gray-haired man walks in. Rooney switches gears fast and shows the octogenarian beginner how to tune a guitar.

Rooney came to music in a roundabout way. As a high-schooler in Sacramento, Calif., he hurt his shoulder and couldn't play baseball. He picked up a guitar and found he had a propensity for song. He played in bands for about 10 years before getting married and settling down in Dayton, Ohio.

After a stint in a music store, Rooney was hired as a manufacturer's representative with Korg, the maker of electronic keyboards. He traveled to stores and taught salespeople how to use the equipment so they could pitch it to customers. Fed up with decades of travel and hassle, he quit and moved to Florida.

Along the way, he had invented Safe Sound personal speakers, a headphone you clip to your clothes, not your ears, to prevent damaging your hearing. His aim was to sell Safe Sound online, but he craved retail interaction, so he opened Compass to complement his online business.

"This here, when you help somebody grow, it gives you a real sense of satisfaction," he said.

He still plays, but now just for the fun of it. He jumps into open-mike nights at beach bars but doesn't want to return to the smoky-bar, drunken-customer scene he left long ago.

Rooney said he uses music as meditation, but he's also armed with research about how musical understanding helps children develop and senior citizens stay mentally agile. He says technology, like the Web and DVDs, has made learning music easier, but it still requires motivation.

After being around the music business his whole life, he's finally able to embrace just the aspects that make him smile.

"The whole thing is spreading the joy of making music," he said. "This is the good part."

Paul Swider can be reached at or 892-2271.


Compass Music

200 150th Ave. Suite D, Madeira Beach

Safe Sound

[Last modified January 5, 2008, 20:41:12]

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