spymercNot long ago, I was hired by one of the richest men on the eastern seaboard to scope out a superb, high-end ax for his grandson, who was about to turn 16. I’ve been a covert operative for a number of years now. So, when a man tells me, “Price is no object,” I can tell who actually means it. “Mr. Big” (who may or may not have been a member of the rock group with the same moniker) was for real. The silver Rolls in his Hamptons driveway—and the young man in uniform washing it—was right out of a Hollywood set…except real.

Since I was headed to Westchester County NY and my patron had the big Benjamins, I decided to treat my newest female accompanist, Jenna, and myself to the best accommodations we could find. Since I was starting my investigation in White Plains, I decided on a suite at The Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, located at 3 Renaissance Square, just a cab ride or brisk walk from the county’s most famous music stores. After a surf and turf dinner with Jenna and a very restful night, the morning sun indicated it was time to go shopping.

Sam Ash
178 Mamaroneck Ave.
White Plains NY 10601

The next morning, I cabbed it over to Sam Ash and walked in insouciantly, the way they taught me at the academy. I might just as well have been looking to get a pack of smokes. Funnily enough, my search had barely begun when it almost ended. In the main room, my eyes were caught by Gibson’s 2014 Les Paul Supreme electric guitar. It was Caribbean Blue and it had a mahogany foundation, a AAA maple back and AAAA maple front with not one, but two, F-holes. A tatted-up salesman hooked me up to a Marshall stack, and the ax sounded as good playing Neil’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love” as it did Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” The Les Paul lists for a throat-clearing $9,810, but it was on sale for $5,339. Plus, you could pay for it over 18 months. “Boy…” I thought, “would Mr. Big’s grandson like this.” But more for playing in his room than for gigs. I made a mental note of this beautiful blue whale of a guitar and looked at another gem.

I was also intensely impressed by Fender’s 60th Anniversary American Vintage 1954 Stratocaster electric guitar. Listing for $3,099.99, this nod to the original model from 1954, this Sunburst Strat, was going for $2,499.99. From its maple neck, to its truss rod adjustment, to its five-way pickup switch, this guitar looked absolutely sensational. And, plugged in, you could go from Robbie Robertson’s chicken clucking sound to screaming like Jimi Hendrix…anything you want…as long as you have the technique. The guitar was great, but, of course, it couldn’t play itself. The salesmen are a bit brusque at Sam Ash, but they do scuttle by just often enough to see if you need help or to nod approvingly.

At Sam Ash, there’s virtually no brand you want that they don’t have. And if you’re looking to go high end, their Gretsch G7593T Billy Duffy Falcon Signature Hollow Body electric guitar, which lists for $5,050, was selling for $3,549.99. It can get you as distorted as a New York Doll or as clean and country as Chet Atkins. That all depends on you. Your only problem here will be actually choosing something to buy.

I thought a walk would do me good, so this overpaid, underworked operative made the supreme sacrifice of walking the half-mile to The Ritz-Carlton. Jenna was dressed to the nines—I love that phrase and, someday, I’ll learn its etymology—and that meant she was done shopping at the mall and ready for me to take her someplace swanky. I showered and shaved as swiftly as possible—without cutting anything vital—and I put on linen pants and a blue blazer. Then, off we went to P.F. Chang’s. There was a nice, low-key summer crowd there, polite and murmuring about their day.

We started with the Vietnamese lemongrass chicken spring rolls and went from there. Jenna had the shrimp with lobster sauce. I indulged in the coconut curry vegetables. That night, I dreamed they merged with Sam Ash. I liked the idea so much I ended up working there. The next morning, it was time to get serious again.

Guitar Center
214 Market St.
Yonkers NY 10710

I flagged a cab and took it to Guitar Center in Yonkers at Ridge Hill. I’d heard that, several months back, this company had been having some troubles. But I had a good feeling about this particular location.

I was doubly certain of that feeling when, within seconds of walking in, I spied a Gibson B.B. King Lucille electric guitar (in Cherry), which ran for $3,799. It had a laminated maple top, a solid maple center block and an ebony fingerboard. Because it had stereo/mono jacks, it required no special cords. And the TP-6 tailpiece would allow for precise tuning. Played through any amp, if you can wiggle your finger in that special way, you can play the solo to “The Thrill Is Gone” and pretend that you’re B.B., if only for a second.

I, if anything, was even more impressed with their Gibson 2014 Les Paul Standard Premium Quilt electric guitar, which lists for $7,348 but which, here, was going for $4,249. It was made to honor Gibson’s 120th anniversary, and they’ve made a birthday gift worth owning. There was something about its mahogany neck that was extremely playable and, aesthetically, this explosive ax was really the bomb. It had a mahogany body, too, with a gorgeous AAA figured quilted maple in a gloss finish, max speed knobs and locking Grover tuners. And, it happened to sport a 120th anniversary banner at the 12th fret. I found myself wishing that I had a grandpa like Mr. Big. Man…how I wanted that guitar!

Just to shake things up, I moseyed over to the Ibanez section and tried out the JS1200 Joe Satriani Signature guitar (in Candy Apple), which was selling for $2,199.99. It’s probably best for players who like to play fast solos (which made me think the kid might swoon for it), but its sweet tone won me over, too. The JS1200’s got great high-fret access and, with its DiMarzio humbuckers, it can give you sustain that’ll last into next century.

The vibe at Guitar Center still borders on casual to indifferent. But, unlike in New York City, at least they don’t look at you as if you’re about to grab a guitar and make a run for it. So, yeah, for a laid back guitar-playing super sleuth? It’s pretty close to heaven. (And, considering some of the acts I’ve had to perform for my country—in the name of freedom, of course—I’m not sure I’m headed there.) Still, this store is a great hang for the real guitar lover, and you never feel rushed or hustled.

After a few hours of playing and watching some young boys playing a duet of “Purple Haze” (the future, it seems, is in good hands), I knew the mission had, so far, been successful. I called the cab company I had used and the same driver came and picked me up. We both had a good laugh about that. And, it turned out the guy played guitar, too! He told me to try Music & Arts in Mamaroneck, which is where he bought his Fender Strat.

Because it was company money and the cabbie was a thoughtful cat, I over-tipped him to the tune of a dinner at P.F. Chang’s. Jenna knew I would be tired, so she told me we’d be having room service that night. After enjoying some time with this fabulous, worldly woman, there was a knock on the door. In came a man who was rolling a cart that had everything from sushi to trout almondine. Afterward, I had brandy and a cigar. It made me feel just like my role model: Bond…James Bond.

Music & Arts
604 Mamaroneck Ave.
Mamaroneck NY 10543

The next day, my favorite cabbie was too busy to come and get me, but I took his advice and went to Music & Arts in Mamaroneck, one of the Westchester music scene’s secret weapons. Smaller than Sam Ash and Guitar Center, it was still darn well stocked.

I was asked by a ponytailed kid who was covered in tattoos if I wanted any help. I told him I’d just wander, but I thanked him for being so solicitous. I figured I’d really only scratched the surface so far, and it might be a good idea to dig deeper (especially since I was looking for something for a rich teen). This fine, cozy store had Gibsons, Epiphones, Ibanezes and more.

Calling out to me, like Elvis Costello had dropped it off himself, was an absolutely gorgeous Fender American Vintage ’65 Jaguar electric guitar. It was high end all right ($2,399.99), and it looked and sounded it. It had a lightweight alder body, a mid ’60s C-shaped neck profile, a bound round-laminated rosewood fingerboard and classic dual-circuit wiring. With a Fender amp, you could play “Pump It Up” and everybody would turn their heads, just like they did on that steamy Wednesday.

I was neck-deep in Leo Fender’s great invention. I tried a Vintage Hot Rod ’60s Stratocaster electric guitar ($2,299.99) with an eye-popping maple neck with a mid ’60s “C”-shaped profile, vintage ’59 Strat neck pickup and a five-way blade pickup, as well as a Vintage Hot Rod ’50s Telecaster (also $2,299.99). It was a work of art, what with its ash body with gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish, maple neck with “D”-shaped profile and the famous Fender Wide Range Humbucker guitar pickup. I picked out a few tunes by The Band on it, and I could play the solo from “Jawbone” in a fashion that would’ve made Robbie Robertson smile.

If you toss in accessories like the BOSS TU-3 Chromatic Pedal Tuner, Levy’s Soft Suede Strap and a Dunlop System 65 Guitar Maintenance Kit, you’re all set. Music & Arts has a friendly, knowledgeable staff, and they stock everything from Gibsons to a nice bunch of Ibanezes (that seven-string Steve Vai Universe ax for $1,500 was tempting). It’s a store that could appeal to someone who wants to play like Buddy Holly right up to the fleetest-fingered metal-head in Mamaroneck. That made it a real contender in the high-end electric guitar sweepstakes for Westchester County. A teenage boy, like Mr. Big’s grandson, might go in and never come out! I thanked everyone and returned to the hotel.

Jenna was out shopping, so I made some notes—most of them about what I’d seen…some simply musical—and prepared for my last spy game of the mission.

Toys From The Attic
203 Mamaroneck Ave. #2
White Plains NY 10601

After eggs Florentine the next morning and some pillow talk with Jenna, I took myself to Westchester’s best-kept guitar store secret: Toys From The Attic. The staff there’s friendly and low-key, but that’s just part of the allure. The freakin’ place had a Limited Edition Warrior Isabella ’59 electric guitar for a mere $5,499.99. It sported a sweet Teaburst finish on a flamed maple top and it was as original as a guitar could get, what with its serial number on the back of the headstock. The fretboard was Makassar ebony, and it had bass and treble bella pickups and vintage hand-wound buckers. I think anyone from 17 to 70 would’ve sounded magnificent on that instrument, played through a Mesa Boogie amp. If, that is, they had $5,500 to drop.

Want to save a few bucks but not lose much in sound quality? Toys also had an electric ax that this seen-it-all agent had never seen: a Paul Reed Smith Korina McCarty 2008 electric guitar, which would only set you back $1,749.99. That vintage ax had a few minor dings on it, but, overall, it was extremely clean. And, hey, the dings gave it character! It also had a wide fat neck and moon inlays. It came with the original paperwork and had a hang-tag and truss-rod key. It sounded like it’d been played by Chet Atkins or Scotty Moore, and looked as well preserved and experienced as Susan Sarandon.

They only have a few guitars at a time at Toys. But, if you’re a collector or a true lover of obscure, gorgeous-sounding axes, you don’t want to avoid going into this Attic. After hanging around and nearly buying the Isabella, I decided to head back to the Ritz. After all, my job is simply to seek out and find…not to purchase. But, let me tell you, I was close.

Jenna and I had dinner at The Cheesecake Factory that evening. I had to keep apologizing to her for asking, “What?” every time she said something. I guess it’s because I was thinking about the guitars in Westchester, Mr. Big and his grandson. I wanted to get this right. I was sure of one thing, however: New York City and Los Angeles do not have it all. You’d better get your guitar-playing butt out to Westchester County, and other non-metropolises, soon. There’s plenty of parking, more stores than you ever knew existed and access to every brand. And, it’s especially alluring if price is no object for you.

I took Jenna back to the hotel and made up for my being distracted by work. We both slept well. After having caviar in the morning, we took a cab to Kennedy Airport a few hours later. Was the trip to Westchester a success? The answer didn’t take much thought. It was an unqualified yes!

The Sale
This is a toughie. However, Sam Ash wins by the margin of a light gauge string. Props to all the stores in Westchester: good service and tons of great, high-end axes. Toys From The Attic is a must-visit destination (you might just never leave). Still, in the end, Sam Ash had the widest variety among expensive guitars. And there’s just enough salesmanship and alone time to match the wide range of instruments.

But, to repeat: make sure that, sometime, you travel 25 miles north of New York City. You can walk into any of the stores detailed above and you won’t walk out with anything other than a smile (and, possibly, a great electric ax under your arm).

Mr. Big never told me what he bought his grandson. I like to think it was the Les Paul Supreme.

But that part? Well, that was up to him.


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