A good guitar is a work of art
Axe fanatic Lydon, on what strums his strings
BY MICHAEL LYDON (michaelydon.com) | Guitar players are all a little nuts — I know, I’m one myself. We love our axes, as we call them, and we’re proud of their history that stretches back to the cithara of ancient Greece. We dream of the day when we’ll wow screaming crowds as our guitar heroes have done — Django Reinhardt, Muddy Waters, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and (you fill in the blank). We lug our guitars to gigs, auditions, jam sessions and lessons. We swathe them in softly padded cases, rub them down with soft cloths and make sure the air they breathe is moist — but not too moist!
Much as we love our own guitars, we yearn for the dream axe hiding just around the corner. Vintage — that’s the magic word for guitar nuts. Vintage means a guitar that’s at least 40 years old, most likely a Martin or a Gibson — or, if electric, a Fender with a time-softened finish, worn frets, bent tuning pegs and a few cool scratches that give the axe an “aged in the wood” patina as smooth as a smoky old bourbon whiskey.
White-coated scientists may say a battered 1937 Gibson L-50 sounds no better than a shiny new Taylor, but guitarists will never take a techie’s word over their own experience. Put a few dents on that Taylor, get drunk and write a few country weepers on it, cross the country with it above your head in a Greyhound luggage rack, then, maybe, it’ll have the sweet-souled sound of an axe that Hank Williams might have played.
Downtown guitarists, whether veterans shopping for a vintage treasure, beginners looking for a first instrument or in-betweeners who need a new set of strings, are lucky folk — the East and West Villages are home to a dozen of the best guitar shops anywhere in the Northeast. Give yourself three hours for a Saturday afternoon stroll and you’ll be able to visit them all. Note: these shops stock steel-string folk and electric guitars. You’ll only find a few classical, nylon-string guitars on your stroll. For good classical stores, go to Google.
Since Guitar Center is on the north side of 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, it’s not a true Village store, but it’s the guitar Home Depot, so a good place to start. Guitar Center has guitars aplenty — new and vintage, electric and acoustic, cheap and through-the-roof expensive. It’s also got keyboards, drums, amps, PAs, recorders, computer programs — everything an ambitious rocker needs to set out on the yellow brick road to stardom. Guitar Center prices are competitive, and if you sign onto their mailing list, you’ll get discount cards and notices for upcoming sales. The helpful clerks know their business (but watch out for the hard sell lurking beneath the smiles).
Head southeast to First Avenue, and when you see a airplane propeller spinning in a second story window between 10th and 11th Streets, you’ve found First Flight Music — a homey neighborhood shop with no Guitar Center glitz. “Guitars are our core item,” says owner Dan Wollock, who opened First Flight 18 years ago. “But we sell anything our customers need — amps and amp repairs, drum sticks, saxophone reeds. We sold a bassoon a few weeks ago!” Attached to the store is a small music school with about 20 students signed up for guitar, piano and voice lessons. First Flight stocks a variety of medium-priced new guitars ($200 to $600). In August three road-scarred Fender Telecasters were on sale in the $4,000-$5,000 range; a lovely old Martin had just sold for $8,000. First Flight is my local shop, and I’m in there every week for strings and picks, a chat with Dan and the friendly clerks and to drool over those Tele’s — sadly too rich for my pocketbook.
A few blocks south, among the tiny theaters on East Fourth Street between Second and Third Avenues, you’ll see the guitar-filled windows of “NYC’s Best Little Guitar Store” — Howie Statland’s Rivington Guitars (73 E. Fourth St.). There, you’ll find strings and tuners, plus one or two beginner guitars (the cheapest a steal at $149), but at Rivington, vintage is king. “Vintage guitars are better than new, no question,” says Howie. “Made better in the first place, and time enriches a guitar’s tone.” The stock that he finds on trips to Nashville, Memphis and Austin is half acoustic, half electric — and it’s gorgeous: mellow old flat-tops, delicate jazz arch-tops and rock ‘n’ roll Stratocasters raring to go on the road. Rivington also has fine vintage amps, including a sweet Fender Princeton for $1,000 — and even vintage effects pedals, including a Maestro Fuzztone Jimi Hendrix might have wailed on. Buy your axe at Rivington and you’ll be in good company: rock guitarist Joe Walsh recently snapped up a ’57 Stratocaster. How much did he pay? Howie’s not telling.
Continue another block south to East Third between Avenues A and B, and you’ll come to TR Crandall, the Village’s newest high-end vintage store. For years Tom Crandall, a quiet guy with a Midwestern drawl, headed the repair department at Matt Umanov’s Guitars (more on them in a bit). Repairing guitars led to buying and selling them, and he’s now a connoisseur who don’t need no stinkin’ serial numbers to date, almost to the month, any fine American guitar. This past April, Crandall and partner Alex Whitman opened their neat-as-a-pin shop (at 179 E. Third St.) with a few dozen superb acoustic and electric vintage instruments drawn from his own collection hanging warmly framed against the red brick walls. “Yes, we’re vintage only,” said Crandall. “Well, we sell strings but we keep them behind the counter!” The store’s prices would make anybody gulp — the cheapest guitar currently sells for $1,300 and a pristine Gibson J-50 has an $8,000 tag — but the prices are backed up by Crandall’s expertise and by the repair shop he’s built in the basement.
Cross Houston Street (carefully, please!) at Ludlow Street, and halfway down the first block you’ll see the gleaming windows of Ludlow Street Guitars. Step inside and be dazzled by the hundred or more guitars of every shape, color, and brand hanging on the high-ceilinged walls. Ludlow Street, you could say, is the Guitar Center stripped down to its guitar and guitar amp basics. The stock mixes new and vintage, electric and acoustic guitars (with an emphasis on new electrics) and covers a wide price range. TR Crandall is for the rarefied top-of-the-guitar market. Ludlow Street has a good guitar at a good price for anybody.
Turn your steps back across Houston, and a few blocks into the numbered streets you’ll find two stores close on the map but at far ends of the guitar spectrum. At 76 E. Seventh St., Warwick is a glossy New York showcase for the German maker of Framus Guitars and Warwick basses. At 21 E. Third St., the East Village Music Store is a jumbled hole-in-the-wall shop crammed with dusty guitars, amps, keyboard, pint-size violins, trombones, even a glockenspiel — “any and everything musical,” says owner Claude Campbell, “except acoustic pianos.” Prices of the two shops also contrast: Warwick’s version of a Gibson-335 costs $6,500, the Stratocaster version $3,775. At East Village Music, you can find a $100 beginner guitar and a funky old Telecaster for $550. East Village Music suits my wallet and my style better than Warwick — but I’ll admit, the Warwick axes look and sound gorgeous.
Now’s the time to hoof crosstown to the West Village. Stop first at peaceful Carmine Street Guitars, just below the Bleecker-Sixth Avenue intersection. Carmine Street is the home of Kelly Guitars, and you’re likely to find Rick Kelly himself either at the front of the shop repairing an old Martin or back in the sawdusty workshop turning century-old beams salvaged from demolished buildings into brand new Kelly solid body guitars. Carmine Street stocks a wide range of vintage acoustic guitars — recently two spick and span Gibson L-48s hung inconspicuously in a dark corner — and an attractive line of beginner and intermediate Blue Ridge guitars, their prices ranging from $250 to $1,000. An added plus: a good collection of classical guitars. “Most stores don’t bother with classical,” says Kelly, “but I’ve always loved that nylon string sound.”
Go up to Bleecker, turn left for half a block and you’ll have found your way to Matt Umanov Guitars, the oldest guitar store in the Village — “You mean the oldest in the world!” says owner Umanov — with perhaps the Village’s most complete and widest ranging stock. Beside acoustic, classical and electric guitars, Umanov’s carries basses and banjos, mandolins and harmonicas, books, straps, and strings, amps and accessories of all kinds — and you’ll be helped by a helpful sales staff of fine guitarists (including Umanov himself). Umanov’s has new Takamine guitars in the $400 range, Taylors $600 and up, and even Martins well under a thousand. For the star items in the store’s vintage collection, the prices soar: a 1947 flat-top Gibson J-45 for $8,000, a jazzy Gibson-175 for about $6,000. Recently a glistening new Martin held the store’s top price, $10,000, and when Umanov strummed a booming chord for a customer, the rich sound proved the axe was worth every penny. Umanov’s also has a repair shop with a national reputation.
Walk up Jones Street (stopping perhaps at Caffé Vivaldi for a restorative latte) and at 169 W. Fourth St., you’ll see the jumbled windows of The Music Inn, the oddest of all the shops we’ve visited. You’ll find guitars at the Inn, including one made in the shop basement whose polished body resembles a horseshoe crab. You’ll also find autoharps, lutes, sitars, ukuleles, cymbals, xylophones, ram’s horn shofars, a stringed rebab from Borneo with a neck made from a thigh bone — “every instrument you never heard of,” said a bearded clerk, “from Adodo bells from Ghana to Zarb goblet drums from Persia.”
The Music Inn’s exotic jumble is as good a place as any to halt our caravan. I hope you’ve enjoyed this downtown guitar hegira as much as I have. You’ll return on your own to those shops that suit your fancy and your budget.
Guitar shops worth visiting exist, of course, beyond the East and West Village limits. Chelsea Guitars has moved from the east to the west side of the fabled Chelsea Hotel’s entrance on W. 23rd St. (btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.) — but the funky hangout still has a Warholian cool that dates back to the punk ’70s. Rudy’s Music (at 461 Broom St. in Soho) displays a museum-worthy collection of handmade 1940s and 50s D’Angelico and D’Aquisto archtop jazz guitars in polished glass cases, as well as lovely new guitars by boutique luthiers I’d never heard of: Eastman, Collings and Knaggs. At Guitartech, a neat fourth floor space on the north side of West 14th, Paul Nieto turns out pristine solid body guitars popular among R&B guitarists and, when requested, the occasional jazz archtop.
“Sure,” said a clerk at one shop, a wide grin on his face, “we can drive ourselves crazy hunting for the perfect guitar, but I say: a good guitar is just a work of art you can have fun with — big fun!”