Having recently been placed on desk duty for The Organization, I was happy to be able to spruce up my spy clothes and hit the road again. After my layoff, I was ready to start searching for stores in Connecticut that sell high-end and lower-end vintage guitars. Then, I was to report to The Chief, summarizing not only the stock in the stores I scoped out, but also how attentive and customer-friendly the service was. Driving a high-class American car (important these days), I brought along Elsbeth, a suitably high-class companion from a well heeled family in Southampton. Wearing our finest threads and listening to our favorite songs, we drove along 95 until we hit our first destination on the trip. The whole thing was very educational.
The Omni Hotel, in New Haven, was just as lovely in person as the pictures had been. After we got settled into our suite there, I had just enough time to make my first secretive foray, looking for vintage axes and the people who sold them. Elsbeth—she of the tanned skin, naturally blonde hair and limpid blue eyes—looked rather sad to see me leave. But, I had a job to do. So, I set out to see if I could learn a little something so that, by extension, you, my dear reader, can learn something, too.
95 Amity Rd.
New Haven CT 06515
I pulled into the Sam Ash store about an hour later. It was something of a surprise. After having been in a few of their superstores, it was nice to find one that not only had plenty of free parking, but also was smaller and more personal than the others had been. I looked around somewhat helplessly, befitting my spy disguise. (Although, according to Elsbeth, I seem to use that look in lots of other situations, as well.) A bearded man asked if he could help me. I said I had a very fussy girlfriend (that’ll show Elsbeth!) who was interested in a vintage guitar. And the salesman—he was a warm and helpful sort—swung into action. I didn’t have to wait forever, either.
The first guitar I tried out was a Gibson ES 335 Custom (which went for $2,499.99). It was cherry red, like Noel Gallagher’s, and it had a beautiful figured top and a couple of light scratches on the back, which the salesman was kind enough to point out. It had a maple body, a rosewood fretboard and a bound neck. It had been lovingly restored and it had very good action. Speaking of action, the salesman offered to plug it in for me, if I wanted to see how the guitar sounded cranked. I never had to ask him for anything.
After I had some fun with the Gibson, the man brought me to a Gretsch Setzer 6120SSU (also $2,999.99). It was Country Orange with a mahogany neck, chrome pickups and thumbnail inlays. This time, I did plug in. I can’t play like the former Stray Cat, but, then, I’m a spy, not a rock god. The guitar was in showroom condition and sounded like Duane Eddy or Stephen Stills, depending on what buttons you pushed.
Finally, the salesman asked me if I was “into Fenders.” Before I could nod, he brought over a Fender ’52 Reissue Telecaster that cost $1,499.99. It had been so lovingly worked on that you couldn’t tell it wasn’t new, except for that old-fashioned ’50s or ’60s rock sound. It was butterscotch colored, and it had a maple, bolt-on neck and an alder body. The salesman drifted off to help another guitar lover, but he had impressed me. There’s a warm, welcoming vibe at Sam Ash. They have a large amount of stock, and there are all sorts of guarantees of service if you buy there. It was a great way to start my day, and this mission.
I returned to the Omni and found Elsbeth, draped in a slinky black dress, freshly scrubbed and smelling of lavender. I showered, put an Uncle Jesse quantity of mousse in my hair and took her to Maya’s Sushi (also in New Haven). We drank sake, and I told her about my mission. Then, we split the Sushi Special, with 12 different varieties of the delicious delicacy. We went back to the hotel right after, at which point the scene fades out to a sultry sax riff.
3000 Whitney Ave., Suite 5,
Hamden CT 06518
The next morning, I set out for Brian’s Guitars in Hamden. I’d been hearing about the store for a while…that it was one of those great little secrets for the vintage guitar lover. I just had to see it for myself. Well, the place was not over-touted.
Brian’s is a smallish shop in a lovely, tony little town. A few people were milling around when I walked in. After a brief period when I stood around looking confused (my disguise!), the Owner came over and asked me if I needed help. I told him I was looking for a classic ax for my rocker girlfriend. And, man, did this upbeat young fellow bring out the artillery.
The first guitar he brought out was a Gibson Custom Shop 1959 Reissue. It was in mint condition, and it had Tom Murphy aging and finish checking. The gentleman relayed all that information to me, which I pretended I completely understood. The sunburst guitar went for $8,499. I tried not to yelp. The man saw that it was a bit out of my (mythical) range, so, without glaring, he immediately showed me something else. That was a more affordable, used Ibanez Andy Timmons Signature Prestige AT100CLSB, which cost a manageable $1,899. It showed a little wear and tear. (The man kindly showed me the light swirl marks on the dark part of the finish.) The maple neck had an AT Prestige (bolt-on) neck type, and it had DiMarzio Cruiser Bridge pickups.
My host was patient in describing all of the features, as if I were plunking down $50,000 for a new car. Very impressive! As a reminder that the store had some wonderfully left-field choices, the man also let me play around with a used Rickenbacker 330/12W for $1,779. It had a gorgeous walnut body (double cutaway, semi-hollow); a maple, dual-truss-rod neck; and a maple, 10-inch-radius fretboard, along with Rickenbacker hi-gain pickups. Before I could even wonder what that brown beauty would sound like through an amp, the man walked me (and the guitar) over to one, letting me sit down and wail. He even said that he’d be over helping another customer, were I to need him. I hated to see him go. We’d grown so close in such a short time.
In any event, the vibe at Brian’s Guitars could not have been more warm and welcoming. It’s got a great stock of axes for the very rich player, or for the dude with more talent than money.
I was on a roll. So, instead of ducking back to the hotel, I called Elsbeth and said I’d take her somewhere grand for dinner but that, for now, I was still very much on a mission.
1070 N. Colony Rd.
Wallingford CT 06492
I hit the trail and headed for Joe’s Guitars. It’s a nice, smallish, homey place, where you get a friendly nod at the door…even if you’re trying to look like a seen-it-all, world-weary agency operative.
After I wandered around for a few minutes, a youngish man approached me. I couldn’t hear his name over the longhair next to me, who was playing the power chords from “All Right Now.” Still, the dude was very friendly. I told him my girlfriend was sitting at the hotel waiting for me to get her a guitar for her Riot Grrrl-style music. I asked him what he recommended. The fellow immediately squired me over to a black Les Paul that looked like Neil Young’s. It was breathtaking. The guitar was in very good condition, with just a few small dings and a little bit of finish checking. It had factory Gotoh tuners, it was 10 pounds and five ounces, and it had a neck as slender and attractive as Audrey Hepburn’s. Also, it had the classic pancake body with a mahogany neck. Just playing it—even without plugging in—made me feel like I should call up Crazy Horse and book a tour. It was going for a mere $7,650.
In case you’re a Fender kind of guy or gal, no worries…Joe’s has your back. The next ax I played was a 1983 AVRI ’57 Stratocaster Fullerton. For a mere $4,750, you could walk out with a guitar that’s one of the legendary “Fullertons,” which were only made for three years in the original factory. It featured the thinnest neck Fender ever made and it was a lovely seven pounds and 12 ounces. Resonant when it’s plugged in, the ax has a wonderful, chiming sound when played. Clapton would love it.
Just to switch things up a little, I asked my new pal about acoustic guitars. Promptly, he brought out a 1967 Martin D-35. At $9,900, it was a steal. (It might, in fact, have been the best-sounding Martin this secret agent has ever played.) It was much louder than most acoustic guitars are. It featured book-matched Brazilian rosewood back and sides, along with an aged spruce top. And, it’s never had a strap installed! The instrument came in the original case, which looked almost like new. I played a few Ry Cooder licks and carefully handed the man back the gorgeous guitar. I never felt rushed in this place, which was well lit and friendly. There were several other customers being treated as well as I was. Suddenly, Joe’s Guitar Shop was a serious contender.
By now, the twin guilts of leaving my companion alone in a hotel room and…uhhh…starvation had me barreling toward the Omni to address both problems. I found Elsbeth sitting rather edgily on the king-sized bed. She offered to take me out for pizza (New Haven makes the best), but only if I could be ready in 15 minutes. I made it in 10.
We headed to Sally’s Apizza and got ourselves a Garden Special (fresh tomato, mozzarella, onion and zucchini) and a couple of Cokes. We devoured all of it before we ever spoke a word. Once sated, we discussed desserts…both literal and metaphorical.
The next morning, after a big, healthy breakfast, I got in my car to take a last look at vintage guitars.
276 Main St.
Danbury CT 06810
Sometimes, a secret agent has to travel to find what he’s looking for. So, I got on 95 and drove about an hour to get to the legendary Music Guild store in Danbury CT. The place has been in the same location since 1967. That has to mean something good, right? Right.
Upon entering, I talked to the Owner, to whom I told my spy lie about getting a vintage ax for my guitar-playing girlfriend. This kind, older fellow went right into action. He showed me a cream-colored custom Les Paul, which was going for $2,500. It had virtually no scratches and a great neck, and it sounded hellacious through an amp. With patience and ease, the man then showed me a couple of Strats. An Eric Johnson model was going for $1,400 and an Eric Clapton model was going for $1,800. They both were in mint condition and they had that chunky, woody Fender sound. The man said that both guitars were great investments, as those guitars were always going up in value. The store also had a wide range of Martin acoustics. The store, the Owner told me, was where a high school-aged Tracy Chapman got her first acoustic. So, you know the joint is jumpin’! And, no matter how busy Music Guild got, the smallish staff didn’t let any shopper flail around alone for long. That probably explains why the store has been rocking for nearly 50 years.
I thanked the guy and drove back to the Omni. I made some notes about where I should take Elsbeth for dinner. After all, she’d been so kind and patient as I indulged in my spy game. Pizza is all well and good, I thought, but this night has to be special. I put the hammer down and headed north, where my beautiful reward for all this hard work awaited me.
This is not an easy choice. All the stores were first rate. However, Music Guild wins by a nose. It had as much good stock as the others did, but it also had the special warmth and concern for its customers that only can come from being around for 49 years. They all were good. But Music Guild? It was the best.