If you’re coming from The Chief’s hidden base, surreptitiously nestled in Port Washington NY, and you want to head out east to Suffolk County, your best bet is I-495, also known as the Long Island Expressway or “LIE.” That’s where this mission picks up. The car I liberated for the day had a cracked windshield; it might have been a problem for a normal would-be shopper driving a good distance, but, for me, it wasn’t. The cops wouldn’t even see me. I was certain of it. Unafraid, I gunned past several exits on my way to Farmingdale. (The trip was easy on a Tuesday afternoon around lunchtime.)
I was on the hunt for an electric guitar costing around $1,000. My story was that my brother had an old, Mexican-made Strat, and I wanted to buy him an upgrade.
Farmingdale Music Center
135 Main St.
Farmingdale NY 11735
Driving down Quaker Meeting House Rd. is just as quaint as the name would suggest. I could easily imagine a small family of Quakers in a horse-drawn carriage: wooden wheels and cabin held together with homemade flat nails and the sweat of a hard day’s work. I pulled onto Main St. and saw a very real train-track crossing at the end of the road, as well as a 7/11 just before it on my right. On the other side of the tracks, I could see a decent offering of stores and cars parked along the road. My side of the tracks seemed not to belong to Main St. but, rather, it was its own small, separate area. I parked in the large parking lot of 7/11 and walked down the narrow, two-lane road.
Farmingdale Music Center protrudes from a white house in a row of seemingly residential homes. Its large glass window attracted me to it. I studied the layout of guitars, books and other accessories arranged for window shoppers. Although I was tasked with going in for the sake of the mission, I did, in fact, feel enticed to go inside and see the place.
I took a second to make absolutely sure that the door to the right of the window wasn’t someone’s home. It was the only entrance, so I stepped inside. A door to my left had a sign, marking that room as the shop. I could see a young man behind a desk through the glass in the door. The store isn’t very large—just one room—so, when I entered, the young man immediately noticed me. He politely asked how he could help. I gave him my spiel about my brother and my interest in an electric guitar for around a grand.
An older gentleman—perhaps the store’s Owner—spoke up to my right. He said to check out his vintage guitars. The younger man moved out from behind his desk to answer the phone. I noticed that the electric guitar section was right above where he had been sitting. The store’s range of Fender guitars encompassed two or three entry-level Strats in the $100 ballpark, which didn’t interest me, and two guitars at a higher price. The eye-catching instruments looked to be the vintage guitars the man had mentioned. I motioned to take one down, but stopped as my spy-dee sense tingled at movement behind me. The older gentleman walked past me to the guitars and offered to take them down for me. I was handed a 1980s Fender Bullet (model number E114433): red, hard tail, three standard pickups. It was priced at $649.95. The man immediately procured a cable for me. I plugged into the nearest amp, which was a small Danville. I held the strapless guitar for a second. Then, I found a small, two-year-old chair (as in the age of butts it could fit, not the age of the wood) and I sat down to play. Soon, I was lost in playing that fine instrument.
My fictional brother might not have liked the guitar, as I’d imagined him with large and overly masculine features…a lumberjack of sorts. This guitar, meanwhile, was slightly smaller than your average electric. I could feel the size difference instantly when strumming a few bar chords down the neck, as well as when walking through a blues scale that I’d memorized as a youth. I looked up from my trance and saw the man paying attention. We strummed up some small talk.
I commented on the feel of the guitar. He agreed that it was definitely a petite instrument. He proudly stated that all the guitars sold there were made in the U.S.A. I got the sense that my fictional brother’s Mexican-made Strat had lost a few points because of its place of birth. (A shame, really, because I had always thought of them as well-constructed guitars for the price.) I mentioned that I could really feel the Bullet sing in my lap. He nodded, pointing out that the strings came in the back and through the body to the bridge.
The phone rang and the (possible?) Owner excused himself. I switched out the Bullet for the other used guitar: a 2004 Fender Fat Strat…black, with two humbuckers. It was labeled at $599.95. I liked the feel and playability of the Bullet more than the Fat Strat, but, of course, the Fat Strat had a larger body and it was more imposing to pick up and play. I thanked the two gentlemen, having exhausted my electric guitar options in the small store. With that, I headed to my second destination.
Murphy’s Music Shop
447 Walt Whitman Rd.
Melville NY 11747
Passing a Target and multiple retail chains, I thought of my earlier-described Quaker family musing and that the family would never have a home on Walt Whitman Rd. Murphy’s Music Shop, however, does. It lives in a small strip mall…one of many on Long Island. I parked in the only spot available at the far end, away from Murphy’s. Next to a bagel store, an adult video shop caught my eye, causing my expectations to shift gears. The next window over was a Chinese restaurant with a single diner, who sat by the window. With both hands on his head, he was wallowing in his wonton soup or, perhaps, nodding off in his noodles.
Murphy’s front has a very humble sign that you can see clearly from the road, listing such things as “violin shop,” “lessons” and “repairs.” On foot, the neon lights and posters in the window marked a contrast with the main sign, promising more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel than a lessons vibe. When I walked inside, I saw that the store was much larger than Farmingdale Music Center. The main room had a mountain of amps, like you would expect to see at Guitar Center. Then, I found a hallway that led back to a section with sheet music and private lesson rooms. A very nice layout, I thought. The idiosyncratic signage out front made sense with the two separate rooms.
In the main room, a man in a New York Rangers hoodie made eye contact. So, I walked over to him and said hello. By his manner, I guessed that he was a sales associate; therefore, I told him about my brother and his need for an upgrade. He pointed me to a section right above the cash register. There, he quickly ran through each guitar, listing different attributes and specifying which ones were close to my price range. Most, if not all, of the store’s offerings were G&L guitars (or so it seemed to me). I played it cool and inquired about the brand. The salesman gave me a quick rundown on its history with Fender, which I found very interesting.
One guitar caught my interest. I asked him if he could take it down; he obliged. It was a G&L Legacy HH Honeyburst with an ash body, ebony fingerboard and two alnico humbuckers. It listed at $1,599, which included a G&G hard case. I ogled the guitar for a moment, but it was too close to the $2,000 mark to fit logically into my cover story. I asked if he had anything closer to $1,000. In response, he pointed out a less-beautiful G&L SC-2 in Antique White. It was within my price range, but I wasn’t interested enough to have him take it down. The last guitar I had him show me was a G&L Fallout with maple neck, one P90 pickup and one humbucker. The list price was $1,650. Once again, it was out of my price range; the name had me hooked, though, reminding me there was another type of mission to finish on my big-screen TV when I got home.
As I was daydreaming about an irradiated, post-apocalyptic wasteland, the salesman had noticed another customer walk in and asked if he could help him out. He put the Fallout away and walked over to the other man, leaving me to look around. I saw some cool amps and decided to add some more depth to the story. The salesman was alone again at the counter, so I walked up and told him that my brother was playing on a Roland…. He said they didn’t sell Roland. I finished my thought, explaining that he plays on a Roland Micro Cube and asking if any amps might pair well with an in-stock guitar. I was subtly hinting at wanting to try out one of the guitars. That Legacy was calling my name! Maybe I was a bit too subtle, though. The salesman seemed to sigh internally, and he told me that if my brother’s the musician then he should really come in. He couldn’t do much with me in the store.
My back-story had backfired! I was the only one in the store at that point, and the salesman didn’t seem like he wanted to chat anymore. So, I left. The Chinese food restaurant was also empty when I walked back to my car. I couldn’t tell if the adult video shop had anyone in it, but I stopped my imagination before it got away from me.
269 Old Walt Whitman Rd.
Huntington Station NY 11746
After my last experience, I was ready to cool down with a large retail chain with which I’m well familiar. I didn’t expect much to differ from my expectations, as Sam Ash always feels the same every time I go in. And, sure enough, even though it wasn’t my usual Sam Ash locale, I walked straight to the guitar section without thinking. As soon as I breached the invisible doors, an employee with a Sam Ash shirt greeted me and asked if I needed help with anything. I ran through my story very quickly, evincing practiced finesse. The salesman latched onto the idea of Fender with my mention of a Mexican-made Strat. He led me to a particular section and pointed out a row of guitars, first pulling out a Jimi Hendrix Strat in Olympic White for $899. He showed me the signature and mentioned that it might be a collector’s item someday. A memory came back to me: a purchased Guitar Research Eddie Durham 100th Anniversary Hollow Body and my disappointment with that purchase. I said it wasn’t something my brother would be interested in. The salesman quickly went to the next guitar: a Fender American Special Strat; it was Sonic Blue, with rosewood fingerboard. He hit the nail on the head with the $999.99 price tag. “But my brother’s Mexican-made Strat is powder blue, and this guitar is way too similar,” I explained. I added, “I think I’m interested in looking at something that’s not Fender.”
I saw a glint in the salesman’s eye. He hopped to his left to another wall, where a row of Guild guitars was displayed. Unfamiliar with Guild, I asked what the brand’s history was. The salesman said the instruments were made in the same factory as Gretsch in Korea. I’m a major fan of Gretsch, so that hooked me. He took down a Guild M-75 Aristocrat (model number KSG1401851) in Antique Burst; it had a chambered body, two P90 pickups and individual pickup control. The MSRP was $1,425, but it listed at $1,049.99. Another salesman, who was behind me, saw that I was admiring the white pickups. He said in a smoky rasp, “All your favorite songs were recorded on P90 pickups.” Man…the magic was there. I sat down and played that guitar for at least a half hour. It was light because of the chambered body, and it was very versatile with the fine control available. When I handed it back to the salesman, he traded me his business card. I left with my hand in my pocket to force my wallet closed.
764B Park Ave.
Huntington NY 11743
I still had that Guild Aristocrat on my mind when I drove to Briggs Music. I was so distracted, in fact, that I pulled into the wrong parking lot. Suddenly, I was surrounded by zombie-grade fences with barbed wire. I guessed that that must have been parking for the train. So, I turned on my Spy GPS to locate my next target. Briggs was hidden somewhere in the strip mall next door. I walked left, then right and then left again, but I had no clue where to go. I noticed the “B” in the address and took a wild guess: that the “B” stood for “basement.” Sure enough, a sign high up on the wall told me where to enter.
Upon doing so, the door slammed behind me. Zeppelin and other classic rock posters were pasted thick onto the stairwell’s walls. At the bottom, I stared out at the far end of a long hallway with metal doors and no windows. The first door on my right was open and marked “Lessons.” Inside was a small space (about the same size as the Farmingdale store) with guitars and guitar accessories. In the room, another door was marked “Guitar Lounge.” That sounded interesting, so I went to check it out. The walls were lined with music equipment and one wall of guitars; on the far end was a stage, set up and ready for jamming. I got a friendly greeting from one of the three guys sitting down on the couch in the middle of the room. They were chilling out and talking about one guy’s recent purchase. I think he might have been selling it to Briggs.
I returned to the first room. A man poked his head out from the back office, behind the counter. Then, he stood at the counter, in silence. I asked, “What’s the difference between the guitars in the two rooms? Why are they separated?” The lounge had a lot of stock Fenders that I’d already seen in the previous stores; this room, however, had more variety. The man told me that some of them were used. When I picked up a Hamer, he told me about the brand’s history of customized, one-off guitars in the ’90s. Before I could really respond, he had disappeared back into the office. The Hamer I was looking at was a ’90s Mirage in Cherry Red. At $999, it was perfectly in my price range. I wasn’t sure where I could plug in, so I didn’t get a chance to play it. Left alone, I did some more exploring of my own, finding a Gretsch Electromatic (model number G5135-CVT) with Bigsby, finished in Cherry and marked at $624. Again, I wandered around to find a cable, but it was a no go. I headed back up the stairs to the parking lot.
On my way home, the main road was swarming with cops. Was my cover blown? I took a hard right into a neighborhood, meeting the eyes of an officer through my cracked windshield as I turned. His car shifted into drive, but I was already well into the neighborhood, zigzagging from street to street. I found a hidden driveway to give me cover. I took a second to breathe and then left for home.
Most of the stores for this mission were very hands-off. It was interesting to see how each operated during an off-peak time like a Tuesday afternoon. Retail stores can often fall into a slow pace early in the week, following a busy weekend of lessons and sales. Everything considered, Sam Ash wins this round, if only for its attention paid when things were slow. Plus, I might have to go back for that Guild Aristocrat some day.