Untitled-2John Sebastian wasn’t wrong. New York City is one hot town in the summer. Still, when you’re a covert operative, like me, with a rich client, you’re not just intrinsically cool…you’re actually cool, too. I had my lightweight seersucker suit on. My girl, The Princess, was showering in our big bathroom at The Plaza. And I was getting ready to do something that, this time, didn’t involve guns or dames. I was going amplifier shopping. What was the worst thing I could encounter? A salesperson with an attitude problem? Considering that, on a previous mission, I was shot at, I knew I could handle that. I was going to be spending the next few days looking for a good-quality amp, which, with any luck, wouldn’t break the bank. I was also interested in seeing how the salespeople handled the deal. Would they see my suit and push me right toward the most expensive merchandise? Or, would they realize these are post-recession days? Everybody would like to save a few bucks.

I leaned into the bathroom. The Princess was drying herself with a fluffy towel. I kissed her and told her I’d be around for lunch…that I had some investigating to do.

The kiss she gave back made me want to stay. But first…work.

Since my client was paying, I decided to beat the heat and took a cab to my first stop for amp exploration.

Sam Ash
333 W. 34th St.
New York NY 10001

Sam Ash is as much of a New York institution as Nathan’s or The Empire State Building. And, as for the latter, it dovetails nicely with my mission. Whether it’s amplifiers or stories, it’s all about how high you want to go. And what works for you.

Lately, Sam Ash has developed one problem. When I walk into a guitar shop, I don’t want to be clothesline tackled. But I also don’t want to look around furtively for five minutes like I’m casing the joint, either. You walk in and, after a minute, a salesperson should be asking you how he or she can help. That didn’t happen this time. Still, I finally corralled a lanky blonde-haired kid and said I was looking for an amplifier. Once it was established that I was shopping, things improved tremendously. I told the salesman I wanted a good amp. Funny guy he was, he asked, “Johnny Ramone good or Jason Newsted good?”

“What’s the difference?” I wondered aloud.

“Couple grand,” said the kid.

He walked off and got me a Les Paul and a cord. Then, he took me to a part of the store where stood seemingly hundreds of amps, which, no doubt, represented only a portion of the available product. Then, he said to “Play away” and he’d be back if I needed him.

Now, here’s the thing about Sam Ash. They were always good. But now that they’ve become a “super store,” their amplifier selection is as varied and mouth-wateringly exciting to a player as Jimmy Choo’s is to a shoe fetishist. But, if you’re not careful, you can walk out of there having spent a few hundred bucks more than you had intended to. Still, nobody will have forced you. The “good” amps start at about five bills.

I got a particularly good sound, from clean to raunchy, on a Marshall DSL5C, which that very day was on sale for $499. In fact, it was $200 off. I discovered that was the secret surprise of having a super store; it affords the seller the ability to put stuff on sale—constantly. If you’re a Fender sort of person, the Mustang IV was also priced at $499 and was $200 off the list price. They also had Crowns, Peaveys and Hartke amps at that price. All had their good qualities. If you wanted to spend about a grand, the Fender Eric Clapton Vibro Champ would run you about that much. And, if you play “Crossroads” through it with a Gibson, you can almost sound like Eric. If, to you, “good” means “Mo-Good,” then the VOX AC30 Hand-Wired Amp costs north of a grand and it goes up or down from there. Amps start at about $200 and go up to the mid-thousands. Various Blackstar models were also looking good; several hovered around $2,000.

The nice thing about Sam Ash, as any guitar-playing secret agent would tell you, is you get just enough freedom to play, well, Jimi’s “Freedom” to your salesperson, who comes over from time to time to ask you, “How you doing? You find anything you like?” Truth be told, I’ve been a Sam Ash guy since I was a kid. And there’s a reason why they’re still flourishing. The sheer variety of amplifiers will blow your mind. The salespeople, although sometimes a bit snooty, are ready when you are. A player could hardly ask for more. The place was packed and it was a Tuesday.

I took a cab back to The Plaza. The Princess had played it smart. Although she was freshly showered, she hadn’t anything on but red underwear. It was an invitation to an afternoon of passion. And, after playing Clapton licks, all I could hum was, “I’m So Glad.” After our two-hour love match, I bought my soul mate Lobster Newberg. I figured I’d look at one more store later that afternoon.

After a quick shower and a change into my rock ‘n’ roll clothes (jeans, Chuck Taylors and a New York Dolls T-shirt), I cabbed it down to my next store.


Guitar Center Union Square
25 W. 14th St.
New York NY 10011

Having shopped at GC before, I consider them a friendly nemesis: a well-stocked store that, from my perspective, seems to have put their money into merchandise and not into help. Not only can you walk into any Guitar Center and not get a greeting, but you also could practically walk out of one, with equipment, without being tackled. So, I knew this visit would be totally DIY. I took a Fender Strat down from the wall, commandeered a cord and was able to try out some good-sounding, pretty expensive amps without a soul asking me what I was doing, whether I needed help or if was a member of a nefarious underworld organization. This works reasonably well. However, GC could stand to be a little more customer-friendly.

I hit pay dirt quickly with two Fender amps, one reasonably priced and the other a bit high. Could I tell the difference or figure out why I should get the Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb (normally $1,299.99, “blemished” $1,143.99) as opposed to the Fender Mustang IV V.2 for $499.99, all without help? They both had good clean sounds and it took me 15 minutes to find a salesperson who could show me the benefits of the Twin Reverb. Not good, guys….

Also impressive were the relatively unknown 3rd Power Amps: the Switchback 2×12 Guitar Cabinet ($849) and the Switchback Seris SB112 ($899). Both gave me a nice, loud, crunchy sound. And GC also carries Orange Amps, which sound as nice as they look. (Yes, they’re bright orange.) If you have a mind to pay more than a grand, the Orange TH30C will run you $1,379.99. It’s not just good-looking and easy to tote to gigs, but also has a bright, widescreen sound that Jimmy Page (a user) would be happy to play “Rain Song” on. From the Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb 15-watt 1×10 Tube Guitar Combo Amp ($949.99) to the VOX Custom AC30C2X 30-watt 2×12 Tube Guitar Combo Amp ($1, 249.99), there’s no question that, if you’re looking for a top-shelf amp, you can get one at Guitar Center Union Square. However, be prepared to know how to play SOS on your guitar…or look mean or desperate. At GC, great selection and good sales are even more plentiful than hysterical remarks from Ted Nugent. It is not, however, a service-oriented store. And if you’ve followed their financial woes these past years, that may be a contributing factor.

I played the opening chords to The Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day” on my Strat through the Orange TH30C and then split. My departure caused absolutely no salesperson to stop me and ask if I might…you know…be interested in buying something.

I called The Princess and she joined me at a sushi place I know in The Village. It was a great relief to have my girl with me, as well as to have people in a place of business ask if there was anything they could do for me. It underscored my disappointing afternoon even more. The Princess and I eventually made it back to The Plaza. Did we work off the sushi? Yes…yes, we did.

Guitarists and spies get up late. Considering that I’m both, I didn’t stir until 11 the next morning.


Rudy’s Music
169 W. 48th St.
New York NY 10036

I knew I was headed to Rudy’s Music and, if my Spy Memory served, it was the Tiffany’s of music shops. That is a mixed compliment. Just in case they’d instituted a dress code, I asked the folks at The Plaza to press my suit, toot de suite, while The Princess and I fed each other forkfuls of eggs Benedict. When I was finished showering, my suit was ready. I gave The Princess a C-Note and told her to treat herself to something nice. Then, I went outside and the doorman hailed a cab for me on 59th Street. It was walking weather. But, hey, I wasn’t paying.

Rudy’s hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d been there to look at some guitars. On that trip, I’d found that the collective warmth of the salespeople makes you wish you were wearing a heavier-weight suit…even in the summer. They might feel their attitude is low-pressure. It felt like indifference to this covert operative. Plus, there’s another problem there, and it’s as hard to ignore as an elephant playing a Strat in your living room: Rudy’s doesn’t exactly have a wide variety of amps. In fact, they are so Mesa Boogie-heavy, it’s a little ridiculous. Sure, the Mesa Boogie 2×12 Roadster Compact ($599) makes a good racket for a decent price. And, if your wallet is reasonably fat, you might want to think about the Mesa Boogie Stiletto Ace 1×12 Combo ($1,829). And, they had a gorgeous Orange AD30C 2×12 Combo. However, you probably won’t find any Fender amps, VOX models or anything else you might want to test out. Certainly, I didn’t. And if they were hiding them, how would you know? The only real way to get a salesman interested in you is to pull out a wad of bills or act like you’re making off with some product. Rudy’s seems to pride itself on its chilled-out, hipster atmosphere. But if you’re laying out some of your hard-earned money on an amp? You want people to realize that it’s not coming from your trust fund. After half an hour, I split. My leaving caused as much of a sensation as my arrival had. Meaning, nada.
I cabbed it up to The Plaza. The Princess returned after I did. She found me, desolate, staring into space. I just kept mumbling, “Rudy’s… Rudy’s…,” as though I’d been hit by a speeding bicyclist. She grabbed a washcloth and cooled off my face. I snapped out of my funk and, once I realized this lovely woman was here, I thought about two things: food and sex (not necessarily in that order). Ultimately, I settled for both.

The lowdown? We needed comfort food. So, we went to John’s in The Village and had a pie with everything on it but coconut. I knew I’d be down in The Village again the next morning to check out amps in my final store. But that’s OK, especially when the pizza is that good.

The following morning, hoping to thaw the frostbite I received at Rudy’s, I took a cab down to Ludlow Guitars and hoped for the best.

Ludlow Guitars
172 Ludlow St.
New York NY 10002

What a change of pace! I was immediately taken in hand by a tattooed kid. I told him I was looking for a good amp, and decided to let him decide for me what that meant. It went well. And, no offense intended, but it was great not to be barraged by a battalion of Mesa Boogies.

Ludlow is New York’s secret weapon for amplifiers. They have a good-sized, nicely diverse group of them, too. They, too, had the VOX Custom AC30C2X, which was actually on sale. Wielding a Gibson SG Custom, I sounded like Pete Townshend at Leeds when I plugged in. Maybe the great sale price gave me that feel of omnipotence. They also had maybe the best amp I’d played in months: a Fender Vintage Reissue ’65 Deluxe Reverb Guitar Combo Amp with two channels, tube spring reverb and tube vibrato. It was also on sale ($1,100).

The salesman struck just the right chord, as well. He stayed within earshot to see if I had any questions, but he didn’t hover. I got lost playing that Fender. Thirty minutes went by like five. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but they also had several amps by Tone King, which I’d never even heard of. My favorite of those was very possibly The Imperial Combo, which was built, as the whole line is, individually by designer Mark Bartel. The amp was new, but it had a vintage sound…a raw tone that any rock player would love. It was $2,000, but you could hear that money and craftsmanship in every power chord.

After an hour or so (I was never rushed at Ludlow), I split. I thanked everyone. I said I would be back. And, as I hailed a cab and looked back wistfully, this secret agent knew that statement wasn’t just a cover story. In fact, if you ever need to find me and I’m not at home, just come down to Ludlow Guitars. That’s where I’ll be.

The Sale
Sam Ash is always worth your time. But, if you’re looking for a less-frenzied, friendlier atmosphere with good help and a great variety, the winner is Ludlow Guitars. Great service, great variety and surprisingly good prices. And as far as that Tone King? Yes, my birthday’s just passed. But, dear readers, when it comes to great amps, it’s never too late to send a gift.

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