Whenever I’m on a job in New York City, I always stay at the Plaza Hotel. Hey, if it was good enough for Fitzgerald, it’s good enough for me. So, on that particularly lovely fall day, I rolled out of my canopied bed, showered (after my girlfriend, Daisy), had some Kona coffee with her and, finally, hit the streets. As much as I could’ve lazed around all day with this beautiful blonde from the fancy family, I had a job to do. Call me a hunter, an agent or just address me by my three-digit code, but I look for guitars, from the Empire State to the Golden Gate. This time out, I was on the prowl for mid-priced electrics…something a teenager or a grown-up could play, if he or she was a novice player and wanted something fine, but within a price range of, say, $250 to $600. And, oh yeah, the service at the guitar shop had to meet my standards, too. I wasn’t going to be happy if I wandered into a store that would remind me of that REM song. You know the one: “Ignoreland.”
I buttoned up my Burberry trench coat, put on my aviator shades and off I went. Into the city where I was looking for a certain, special kind of axe. You know, the kind that dreams are made of.
Sam Ash was my first stop. And a really good way to start the day it was. Warm…bustling…friendly.
Although, I must say, I remember a time when guitars didn’t have to be chained to the wall. What goes on in this burg, anyway?
Within one minute of wandering surreptitiously into Sam Ash, I was approached—all right, nearly clotheslined—by a salesman.
“You look a little confused,” he said. “Anything I can help you with?”
I told him, yeah, he could help me and point me toward some nice mid-priced electric guitars. I said that I was looking for something for my nephew for Christmas. However, I explained, the “confused” part was pretty much my permanent state and, thus, probably unfixable.
This long-haired 20-something walked me over to the Epiphone section, suggesting that from “the beauty of the guitar, to the price, to the fretboard action,” he was really into this Gibson imprint these days. He took out a key, unlocked an Epiphone VE0780147 (which goes for $349) and handed it to me. It was a cherry red deal, with a classic orange sunburst pattern. I took the axe and, by instinct, immediately began to play “Mississippi Queen,” a rock song from my youth. The VE0780147 did indeed play well, and required hardly a touch to fret the strings. I told him I was going to look around and I’d shout “Hey Rube,” if I needed him.
He patted my shoulder and walked off laughing.
Although I needed the keymaster to come and unlock a guitar each time I wanted to play one, I have no other complaints about Sam Ash. From attentive service to a rainbow-wide variety of axes, the place is solid as a rock.
In the same price range, I also took a look at a Gibson Melody Maker ($229, on sale), a beautiful Ibanez RG73217 (for $399), a B.C. Rich “Masterpiece” ($299) and an Affinity Strat with a sunburst that went for $179. If I looked at any guitar for long, a salesman was right on the case, asking me if I wanted to play it. The place was bustling, friendly and tightly run. If the guys in Washington could be half as efficient and thoughtful as the salesclerks at Sam Ash, we’d be out of this recession in no time!
As I was leaving, the salesman actually stopped me and gave me his card. It had the days he worked circled, his phone number and the line “I can help you!” embossed on it. It was like the old days in New York, when people held the door for each other and you could find a bookstore on every other corner. It’s a good thing I’m so hardboiled. Otherwise, I would’ve started bawling.
After this fine beginning, I took out my cell and called Daisy. Within minutes, looking like she stepped off the cover of a magazine and not a minute over 17, she alighted from a cab and hugged me. We ate lunch, sharing a perfect piece of salmon at Le Bernardin, had some wine and off I went to continue my search: both for the perfect, mid-priced electric guitar and for a salesman who made me glad I’d come to his store in search of one.
169 W. 48th St.
New York, NY 10036
The next place I visited was called Rudy’s Music on W. 48th St. The name was promising. “Rudy’s” sounds like a rough-and-tumble bar, with a spittoon in the corner and a tough little dog who hangs out underneath the beer tap and makes sure customers pay their tabs. There was, however, no warmth or welcoming at Rudy’s. You can walk in, looking as confused as an amnesiac, and I still don’t think they’d help you.
That’s the main thing about this store: It’s as cold as San Francisco in August. The place is about as big as a Manhattan studio apartment, nicely appointed, carpeted and quiet. But you walk in, and no one so much as even says hello. You stare at a Gretsch Country Gentleman or an Eastwood ’59, but no one asks if you’d like to play it. The guitars are all bolted to the wall, so you can’t just take one down and play. It’s so silent and whispery and chilly in there that it’s like being in a guitar museum. What would Keith Richards think of such a place?
Now, the quality of instrument is top-notch here. No question. They have some beautiful axes. Unless you’re trying to go mid-price, that is. Then you’re in the wrong spot. That new Eastwood ’59 Town and Country model (featuring a five-way adjustable roller bridge and three volume controls) will set you back $1,499. That gorgeous blonde Gretsch (a guitar version of the girl I left back at the Plaza) will cost you $2,449 (for the G6122-1962), and they have Ibanez models and Fender Stratocasters priced in a similarly stratospheric realm. OK, so, yeah, I did finally see something that almost fit my needs and my wallet. It was a Gibson SG Custom, a little like the guitar that Pete Townshend used to play in the days when he wore that white jump suit and Doc Martens. This beautiful piece of solid mahogany, with its sensual double-cutaway and humbucking pick-ups, was “only” about $799.
And it might have been worth talking about, if one of the cool, long-haired salesmen had decided not to treat me like I had mono and it was in their best interest to keep their distance. After looking right and left and even asking for help (to no avail), I left.
I think I know why they named the place “Rudy’s”: It rhymes with “snooty.”
It was about 2pm at this time and I was feeling a need for a pick-me-up. I went into one of those glossy chain stores and had a cinnamon dolce latte and some sort of over-sized brownie. That set me back about half a week’s wages. Then, remembering a tip that another agent once gave me when we were on the Stamboul Express, I went downtown to Guitar Center.
25 W. 14th St.
New York, NY 10011
My private car left me off on W. 14th St. and I walked in with the same casual intensity as a guy who’s about to pull off a bank job.
It turns out it didn’t matter how I entered this warehouse of a store. I could’ve gone in wearing my Jimmy Page mask and no one would’ve blinked an eye. Or, for that matter, come over to help. A bad sign when you’ve just arrived.
The Guitar Center, it seems, despite its ubiquitous presence on TV, also doesn’t seem to have a lot of guitars in the mid-price range. Plus, it’s harder to get help here than in the middle of the Sahara. (I know.) I looked around for several minutes with my clueless look and no salespeople came to my rescue. I even raised my hand like I was ready to order. And nothing. So I decided this was a do-it-yourself kind of spot.
I did find a few nice possibilities, though, starting with the new Jackson Series. I was particularly taken with the RRXT Rhoads X Series Electric Guitar ($599). It’s named, I’m thinking, for fallen guitar hero Randy Rhoads. It has humbucking pickups, a compound-radius fingerboard and, according to the booklet on the wall, gives you “ultra-fast playability.” I think that means when you play it, but maybe it’s so futuristic that it plays itself.
The Guitar Center seems to cater to rich guitarists. Most of its Gibsons and Fenders start at about a grand. But, snooping around, I did find a nice new Fender Standard Stratocaster Electric in the price range within which I was looking. The Strat was $499.99 and featured a tinted neck, parchment pickguard and a 21-fret, one-piece maple neck. It was a beauty, and had a good price to boot. I sat down and began to play Hendrix’s intro to “Little Wing.” Sliding into the Curtis Mayfield-influenced soul licks, ironically, that’s when a salesman came by. He told me I wasn’t playing it correctly. That’s when I smiled and put the axe back. I figured it was much more socially acceptable than swinging it and knocking off the guy’s baseball hat.
I looked around at this bustling place, where it was some kind of Darwinian, survivalist scene. Only the fittest would be able to thrive here. Don’t expect much help. I left for another latte.
I added an Arturo Fuente cigar. I figured that, after my ordeal at Guitar Center, I needed a little “me” time. I stopped into a place on 5th Ave. and had my nails buffed, too. Then, I smoked the cigar while I figured out my next move. When I had my plan, I took out my cell, told Daisy I’d meet her for dinner and hailed a cab. I had the cabbie leave me off at Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker St. to check out my final venue.
Matt Umanov Guitars
273 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
After the anonymous places in which I felt completely invisible, it was nice to visit a place where they had great product and warm, informed help. I think their name is sort of a pun. The joint makes you feel really “uman.”
As I sauntered in a bit further to continue my investigation, a long-haired kid with a ponytail asked if I needed any help. All it took was a slightly searching look on my part and he was right there with me, like Virgil, guiding me through this unknown terrain.
Now, although M.U.’s has a pretty wide selection of guitars, it is a little deficient in the mid-range price items. It’s top heavy with Fenders and Gretsches. It also has a lot of Paul Reed Smiths. Beautiful guitars, each and every one. But they don’t make one that’s less than about $1,400. Still, a lovely shopping experience is to be had here.
Although the salesman didn’t hover, he stood just near enough to me so that, when I needed a guitar unlocked, he was right there with the key. I first decided I wanted to look at a Strat. And, before I could even point, my guide was there taking this beautiful guitar off the wall and handing it to me. In the price range I was looking for, the Stratocaster Standard seemed like a perfect choice. It went for $499, and came with a “gig bag.” The store carries the left-handed version of this lovely guitar. I was able to sit there as long as I wished, playing “Bell Bottom Blues” (even with Eric’s back-picking, harmonics-tinged solo) and nobody acted as if I was on the clock or planning to make off with the instrument.
Next up were Matt Umanov’s fine collection of Gretsch solid-body guitars. I went over to where they were and, almost telepathically, my spirit-guide took one off the wall and handed it to me. This smoking-looking black G5265 Jet Baritone was also a contender for the guitar I wanted to buy. It ran $499, featured an alder body, a bolt-on maple neck, rosewood fretboard and Bigsby vibrato. Oh yeah…and it sounded real good when you actually played it. You probably have to be Stephen Stills to make it sound like Stephen Stills, but at least you work on his licks when you’re Gretsching-out!
Matt’s also has a nice selection of Telecasters, for anyone looking to get a good electric axe but not break the bank. The Tele I played was a Candy Apple Red deal ($699). It’s a solid-body, with a maple neck and fingerboard and two single-coil pick-ups. Plugged in, you can pretend you’re Robbie Robertson playing “Jemima Surrender,” if you know it, of course. Hell, you can play anything you want at Matt Umanov and the sales staff will smile at you. It’s just that kind of place. Plus, it’s more intimate and guitar-y than Sam Ash is, even if Sam has a better selection of mid-priced guitars.
Hungry enough to eat at a fast-food store that Chrissie Hynde might be protesting, I called it a day and went back to the Plaza. Daisy and I had room service delivered after a long, hot shower, and then watched some pay-per-view. Of course, what we caught was “The Buddy Holly Story.” All those guitars (though the wrong vintage for the ’50s), made me resolve to take a look at one more NYC store the following day. Let’s call it a little secret weapon of a place in lower Manhattan.
73 E. 4th St.
New York, NY 10003
Rivington Guitars on E. 4th St. calls itself NYC’s Best Little Guitar Store. And even though it conferred this title onto itself, it’s a little like Muhammed Ali calling himself “The Greatest.” It just might be true.
I walked in and got a few friendly nods, respectful even. Like a gunslinger coming into a small western town who’s thinking of applying for the job of sheriff or something. The young, longish-hair guy behind the counter asked if I needed any help. A point for Rivington. “I think I’ll just look around for a bit, if that’s OK,” I replied, partly to see what sort of response that Shane-like attitude emotion brought out in folks here.
“No problem,” said the young clerk.
And so, I moved on.
Now, Rivington favors vintage guitars as far as I could see, as I wandered and strummed. For example, there was the Epiphone Coronet that ran more than $3,000. But, for the mid-priced shopper (or is that spy?), the store is pretty well-appointed, too.
One of the first axes I took down and played was a 1998 Danelectro U-2 for $399. It’s a two pick-up solid-body with a baby blue hue and excellent fret action. You can even sit there (as I once saw Jimmy Page do) and pick “Stairway To Heaven,” and it sounds good. If you need an amp, someone from the staff will walk briskly and get you one. Then, just as thoughtfully, he or she will walk away and let you play and make your mistakes on Jimmy’s solo.
I next asked to see a 1963 Egmond three pick-up electric ($495). For this guitar, a salesman floated by, a heavy-set middle-aged guy, who told me it was a “three pick-up electric and gets a nice, clean, early ’60s sort of sound. Great for a lot of things, but especially if you like early rock ‘n’ roll.” I played a bit of “Peggy Sue” on it, and it did have a nice, clean, sort of chunky sound to it. If I hadn’t been window shopping, I might’ve bought this guitar, then and there.
As I was leaving, I picked up and played a $4,000 Les Paul Deluxe, just for fun. It was a bit like dating Susan Sarandon or something. Beautiful, stimulating, but, ultimately, out of your league. The sales staff waved goodbye and told me to drop in anytime.
And as for my league? Daisy was still waiting uptown. She answered the hotel room phone on the first ring. She told me, if I hurried, I could just make it for lunch. And, with luck? Maybe a little Newlywed-style “whoopee” after, now that the job was done.
It would unquestionably be Sam Ash, with Rivington a reasonably close second. Both stores have excellent, knowledgeable salespeople, but, in terms of mid-priced selections, Sam Ash is the clear winner. It has more, and more varied, guitars from $299 to $599 than virtually every place in New York City. Plus, it has the guys who will help you find the intermediate axe you most desire. Sam Ash might be the most famous, but there’s a reason for that. It is still very customer-friendly, and has guitars up the wazoo.