New York is home to several superlatives, many of them musical. Once some of the finest studios in the world resided here. Some of the finest places to hear music still do. If you want to hear Jazz, it’s the center of the universe. There is a fantastic talent pool of musicians of all genres, its a very serious place. One controversial member of this list is music stores. Even through economic hard times, NY has managed to maintain a respectable roster of instrument stores. The downside being, like everything else, they are expensive as hell. Blame it on real estate, also like everything else. With the advent of ebay, stores of all kinds took a hit. For a long time, that was the only place to go to pick up some used or boutique gear, it just plain had the widest selection. But I believe in recent times, ebay might have jumped the shark. There are too many people involved, everyone knows (or thinks they know) everything there is to know about equipment, so the prices shoot up right away. Along with this, people try to pass off gear as something its not…undisclosed repairs or damage…its full of holes. So today, we’re going to discuss some of New York’s finest brick and mortar music stores. You will need a Metrocard, an EZ Pass, a packed lunch, and a toothbrush. Here we go.
Back in the day, musicians from all over the world, from Jimmy Hendrix to The Beatles, would flock to Manny’s on 48th street to pick up a guitar. Manny’s is still there, they have the pictures on the wall to prove it, but something has certainly been lost over time. 48th street is really not what it used to be. The block is still lined with a few stores- Manny’s, Sam Ash, and Rudy’s, but it feels like walking into Wal Mart, Target, and Best Buy. Well, Rudy’s is not really Best Buy, lets call them a Mercedes dealership. They certainly have the pompousness. The most characteristic trait of 48th st is the attitude all around. Sam Ash and Manny’s are full of mass produced, average gear. If they do have any vintage or boutique equipment, they’re so far out of anyones price range that it might as well be a museum. Its not uncommon to hear “Well, are you gonna buy it, or do you just wanna play it?” when asking to try something expensive. Seriously, fuck that. I have bought 2 great pieces of drum gear at Manny’s, but that is only because a friend of a friend worked in the department. I once bought a vintage MXR Phaser at Rudy’s, but I don’t remember much of the experience, I was like 12. But any guitar worth playing is encased in glass, and I cant even imagine asking to play one.
If you venture below 48th street, there are a few gems to investigate. Lets start uptown, go down, then to the outer boroughs. Way at the top of the list, is 30th Street Guitars…on 30th street. In about 1996 I saved up every dollar I had from sweeping floors and painting walls in a warehouse all summer, and strutted into Manhattan to blow it all. (by strutted, I mean driven by my dad) I dont know how he knew about 30th st guitars, I think he parked in a lot across the street once, and told me about it. But I walked in, and my 13 year old mind completely exploded. I didn’t leave for hours. And so much to their credit, the employees put up with me. I must have played 100 guitars. Eventually, I narrowed it down to 2. An original 1971 Telecaster with a factory Bigsby, which was white and beaten completely to hell….and an early 90’s Les Paul classic in a dark sunburst. They were both about $1200, which do you think I picked? This was the biggest mistake of my life. I can’t believe I bought the generic ass les paul. I have no idea why. I think the tele had a buzz or something, as is common in single coil pickups, and it looked too beat up. God damnit, I cant even continue to talk about it, it hurts too much. The moral is, consistently, 30th street has the best selection of vintage guitars in the city, hands down.
A little further downtown on the west side, is Dan’s Chelsea Guitars on 23rd street. Like 30th st, the staff is very cool, not much attitude. This place may have the coolest window display of any store in manhattan (not just music stores, ANY store). Since it’s so small, that’s where most of its inventory resides. Amazing old Fenders and Gibsons taunt you next to the Chelsea Hotel, you wonder who went in there and sold some gear after being strung out. One of those musicians was Ryan Adams. I went on an annual guitar store tour with my friend Dave a few years back, looking for an old Gibson Acoustic- no easy task anywhere. We wandered into Chelsea Guitars, and checked out their selection behind an old velvet rope, in a broken down wooden corrale type of situation. I asked about a 60’s Square Shoulder Gibson Country-Western, and the owner said “yeah, we got that from Ryan Adams” I picked it up, and the thing just sang. Even with the old strings on it, it sounded perfect, big full sound. I believe Adams used it in the New York New York video, which I can no longer watch, since I passed on the guitar. It was $3500. I just couldn’t pull it off, I didn’t even want to go visit it, because I knew after a few times, I would sell a kidney or something to obtain it.
Lets skip over Guitar Center on 14th st, their Vintage selection will just piss you off…its so completely amazing and so preposterously overpriced, that you will want to burn the store to the ground just so the ibankers (who are the only people who could afford the gear) will never get a chance to play it. Lets travel south east to Ludlow St Guitars on….Ludlow st. Although their selection is not as immense as 30th st, and not nearly as vintage, this one may be my current favorite Manhattan guitar store. The place where Ludlow really shines, is Boutique Amplifiers. Ludlow really tears it up in this department, and its not just because David Lee Roth used to have an apartment in the building above it. I was looking for a Swart 6v6 Spacetone amp for a long time, and finally Ludlow became the only dealer in NY. This is a badass little fender champ reproduction. They had 1 left in stock on a sunday, and I rushed from work in the afternoon to check it out. As I walked in, another guy walked in directly behind me, also asking to check it out, but I was in fact there first. The amp was fantastic, it lit the store on fire. Being the nice guy I am, I let the other patron try it out, but said I was buying it. He proceeded to act like a dick, and play it for way too long. The dude behind the counter quietly said to me “just give me the sign when you need to go, and I’ll put an end to it.” I have felt a kinship ever since. They’ve got some badass Carr and Victoria gear, and where else in NY are you going to find that? NOWHERE that’s where.
At this point, lets take a break from guitars, and move to the world of percussion. There is one hidden gem, which I am amazed has not become legendary among drummers of all kinds. On West 4th st, right by 6th avenue, there is a broken down little store called “The Music Inn” It looks like it’s never open, and the windows are piled with ancient sitars and various unidentifiable instruments. Its been there forever, I found an ad for it in a Fillmore East program from the mid 60’s belonging to my dad. I think my mom and I discovered it many years back, when she took my around the city one day in my early childhood. You sometimes knock on the door, sometimes it’s open, they sometimes ask you “What Do You Want?” they sometimes just let you explore. I hadn’t been in years, but recently I was on the hunt for a channuka present for my sister, and the Music Inn came to mind. I hate to ask to take pictures in a store, so luckily there was no one in there when i opened the door, I think the guy was downstairs teaching a music lesson. The place is PACKED with amazing stuff, not really organized, more piled up. You need a brazilian bird call? They probably have it. A brass bell from an ancient Himalayan temple? I’m sure I saw several. Sitar? Pandiero? Metal National Ukulele? Udu? They were all there, packed into a space no bigger than 20×20. I sifted through various shelves and piles, to find a weird rusted block of sleigh bells, a Brazilian Caxixi shaker, and some weird African poly rhythmic contraption which is basically 2 shakers tied together with string. Their stuff is by no means cheap, but it is very authentic, and the place as a whole is just an amazing experience.
To get really crazy now, you have to cross some type of river. There is Main Drag in Brooklyn, which may be the best kept secret in the entire world. Their prices are not bad at all (to make up for my terrible tele mistake of 96, I bought a chopped to hell 1973 Tele Deluxe with a p90 drilled into the bridge for a reasonable price) and they have a great selection of amps as well, their inventory is nearly all vintage. You won’t find a pristine 1959 Les Paul which you will never afford, but you can get some modified 70’s fender or Gibson which you will likely be able to play without fear of being kidnapped and having the guitar demanded as ransom. I also got a great little 1950’s Danelectro amp, with purple tolex, which sounds like an old Silvertone, it’s now my main squeeze.
Now, we’ve covered a good amount of Manhattan, even taken a subway or two. Are you ready to just get fucking whacky? ARE YOU SURE???! Ok, get in the car, we’re going to Staten Island. “WHAT? STATEN ISLAND!?” you say? Oh yes, Staten Island. Home of the world renown Mandolin Bros. No, thats not “Bro” Like you hear on The Jersey Shore, but brothers. Its home to the finest acoustic instrument selection on earth, and the finest repair facility in the universe. Paul McCartney sends his Beatle Bass here when it needs a fixin. I’ve seen their repair work firsthand on a 1930’s D’Angelico, and it was stunning. They brought it back to life in such detail I could never imagine. The head repair luthier Leroy, re-etched the original inlays by hand based on drawings he found in a historical book. You seriously do not find dedication like that anywhere. Their policy with playing instruments is “just play it!” you don’t even have to ask. There is one room where you do have to ask…but that is full of the actual 1959 Les Paul’s and 1930’s Martins. While they were taking a look at the D’angelico, I had to kill an hour or two…very difficult task. I played a Koa J-45, several SJ 200’s, a B-25, a Santa Cruz, several Martins, I completely lost track. They crew there was so nice, you feel like you’re at someones house, just kickin it, with a few million dollars in guitars surrounding you.
Well, we’ve taken quite a journey together, I’ve gotta get back to Jersey City, it’s getting late. This could easily turn into a several volume list, we missed Southside guitars in williamsburg, Matt Umanov, Steve Maxwell Drums, Drummers World, Lark Street in Teaneck NJ, can anyone think of any others? I’m open to suggestions.