The MI Spy loves musical instruments, be they common or obscure. But you already knew that. Why else would I risk life and limb going deep undercover to report on the music retail scene for your reading enjoyment?
What you may not know is that your MI Spy also loves sports. So when the opportunity came to visit Pittsburgh, with its rich sports history and passionate fan culture, it sounded like a fun adventure. Unfortunately, the pencil pushers back at MI Spy HQ failed to secure me a 50-yard-line ticket to see the Steelers, so I had to head to a local sports bar to watch the game. But on my way, I did at least pass by two murals of the great Pittsburgh legend and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, and I got to hang out among some jubilant Steelers fans. And, although I may have drawn more unwanted attention to myself than usual once I got a few beers deep, at least none of the locals saw fit to channel Myles Garrett vs. Mason Rudolph and smash me in the head with my own helmet. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet at the time. Do not question a master of disguise.)
In addition to enjoying some football, I visited four really good MI stores in the Steel City. Reader, I’ll be honest: There have been many missions in which I’ve visited the music shops in a town or region and noticed quickly that one or two stores were standouts while one or two stood out as not nearly as good as the others. But to Pittsburgh’s credit, the four stores I visited were all impressive, featuring solid customer service, interesting inventory and good music playing over the PA. And there were a few other music stores besides the four I was able to visit, which is a healthy sign for music makers in this city.
Now, while your MI Spy was familiar with Pittsburgh’s rich musical history, I admit I didn’t realize just how many notable musical personalities have come from here — jazz greats such as Billy Eckstine and Art Blakey, or Ray Brown and Roy Eldridge; rappers like Wiz Khalifa; vocal groups such as the Marcels, the Skyliners and the Del Vikings; punk and alternative outfits such as Anti-Flag and the Rave-Ups; rockers like Rusted Root, Iron City Houserockers and the Jaggerz; electronic music artists like Girl Talk; and pop stars such as Christina Aguilera. All these musicians and many more must have patronized musical instrument stores throughout Pittsburgh. And I really enjoyed the city, even though the locals call soda “pop” here ….
But enough about the local flavor. My mission this month: To gather intel on acoustic stringed instruments, from banjos to ukuleles.
Acoustic Music Works
2142 Murray Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
Squirrel Hill is a hilly neighborhood. Acoustic Music Works, on the corner of a particularly steep street, was a definite treat for those who cherish acoustic stringed instruments. Acoustic Music Works even has a slogan of sorts: “Guitars, Banjos, Mandolins and Good Company.” Your MI Spy can vouch for all these things and more being present at this store.
Perhaps because it was toward the end of the day on a sunny Monday, the store worker I dealt with was one of the most genuinely friendly and informative music store people I’ve ever encountered. And by being patient, I earned an informal lesson on the ins and outs of banjos (playing, production and more). I began the conversation by asking if acoustic guitar players come in and ask for effects pedals. He mentioned some, such as loops, flangers, chorus pedals and the like, but then he conspiratorially invited me to “Come over to acoustic!”
I’ve often been curious about banjos, but have only tried them a few times. There is a whole wall of banjos at Acoustic Music Works, and the store owner explained to me the differences between the white and clear banjo skins, and the plastic or goatskin types. The store also stocked a few four-string banjos, not just the typical five-string types. The prices varied greatly, with some under $200, while others were in the $400 and even $900 range.
Looking for acoustic guitars, autoharps or dobros? They have them here. There are new and used guitars, and you can get your repairs done here as well. And of course, ukuleles are in stock, because every music store these days has its share of ukes (see the rest of the Pittsburgh stores in this report). Mandolins, upright basses, dulcimers and other instruments rounded out the selection here. I had a very enjoyable time at this store, discussing banjos and all things stringed. The worker and I even had a lengthy chat about the times we each had met the late great Pete Seeger; he informed me that Seeger used an extra-long-necked banjo with three additional frets to suit his vocal range. I also got to discuss repairs to banjos and other acoustic instruments, and learned how the repair guy uses a laundry room iron to help fix the bridge of a guitar or other instrument if it has warped.
Acoustic Music Works also carries a lot of music books, sheet music and other accessories. It was a comfy but orderly place, with a few award plaques to show the accolades it has received over the years. The store is composed primarily of two lengthy rooms, and while it doesn’t seem like a big store, the space is used well and there is a lot to see. This store is geared toward various tastes and budgets, but there are quite a few expensive models, collector and vintage pieces, and the like. It stocks big-name acoustic brands such as Martin, Eastman and Gibson, and carries many lesser-known brands such as Iris, Baleno, Waterloo, Pleinview and more. It was an impressive inventory, indeed.
Also on this block is Jerry’s Fine Used Records, which is a fun shop to stop by as well.
1305 E. Carson St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
Those hepped-up Steelers fans were eager for a big night of football when your MI Spy rolled into town and onto the rather lively East Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s historic South Side. Restaurants, bars and other commercial establishments featured signs and other Steelers memorabilia. And among those shops and eateries was Pittsburgh Guitars, with its cool and kitschy window displays.
One of the first things that I noticed when I slipped inside this store was that there was a Mister Rogers songbook for ukulele on display. Now, I was not exactly searching for this, but with the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on lots of minds, it was a definite charmer.
Pittsburgh Guitars, which opened in 1979, has a wide selection of new and used effects pedals for sale. One of the two workers pulled out a few chorus pedals — spanning a range of prices from under $100 to the high $100s — for me to compare, and he was jovial at every turn, explaining the ins and outs of each of them. The store stocked pedals by Boss, Dunlop, Electro-Harmonix and several more. There was also a curious item called the Plimsoul Overdrive pedal, which spurred a bit of nostalgic conversation between your MI Spy and the salesman as we reminisced about the band the Plimsouls (best known for its way-catchy song “A Million Miles Away”); it was a good bonding moment. The other worker who was in the store was discussing used electric guitars with two other customers. Both members of the store crew were laid back and knowledgeable guys.
Pittsburgh Guitars definitely has a kitsch factor in its layout and display. And collectors, be forewarned: the store’s stock features the legendary Silvertone guitar with the cabinet amp, and there were other vintage guitars (new and used) to check out. The store also showcased a few smaller-sized guitars that looked intriguing, not just the typical child-sized, scaled-down models. Price tags are clear and prominent on the majority of instruments and accessories displayed throughout the space, with guitars starting in the mid-$100 range to the low thousands, so you can find one for just about every budget. Pittsburgh Guitars also carries its fair share of ukuleles. “Just about everyone likes them,” one of the salespeople told me. “They’ve taken off in the past few years. If you know the guitar, you can easily play the uke. And the portability factor is a plus.” The least expensive of these ukes were under $40, but there was a wide range of prices available.
Pittsburgh Guitars also has its civic-minded side: It participates in an educational guitar initiative called Strum Together, which offers lessons for kids and teens. The store also boasted a good-sized section in the back for repairs. Although Pittsburgh Guitars does not have a parking lot, I found curbside parking without much trouble, and there is a bus stop right in front of the store.
Brighton Music Center
2110 Babcock Blvd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
Brighton Music Center was the only musical instrument store in Pittsburgh that I visited that had a parking lot which was a definite plus (and it had at least 20 parking spaces to boot). This was an advantage over the other music stores I visited in Pittsburgh, where I had to find curb parking, and in two cases, had to scrounge for change for the parking meters. (Don’t scoff, folks. Convenient parking isn’t always an easy thing to find. My life is full of parking woes. It’s the truth.) The parking lot also features a large sign that is lit up at night; when I visited, it advertised an upcoming Marching Band Festival.
Brighton Music Center began in 1958 and has undergone a few name changes since then. Interestingly, it was the only shop I visited in Pittsburgh that had any female staff, with two young women working the sales desk. I also liked how the sales desk was located in a central section of this store (rather than packed into a corner or off to the side). At this central desk was an assortment of compact discs by independent artists (a few were for cash sale only).
I chatted with one of the young women at the sales desk about a curious “heavy-metal-style” ukulele with a shiny black finish that the store sells, and she gushed about it: “People really like that one!” she told me. But do musicians take it seriously? “Oh, yeah!” she responded. “We get great raves about it. Kids, teens, adults, so many people want to play it.” In addition to the heavy-metal uke, there was a good selection of other ukes for sale.
Brighton Music Center is a big store, and while most of it is open space, there were also some lofts and back rooms, and a few tucked-away spots, so that it seemed to be even bigger than I thought at first. There were even a few balcony areas, including one that had lots of orchestral and brass instruments, and another with mostly acoustic guitars. One of the upper walls served as a kind of tribute area, with various instruments arranged in a circle around an American flag.
If you need a musical instrument, from stringed to brass to percussion, from beginner to advanced, from novelty to serious, this store seemed to have a huge amount of options. Many products were labeled new, used or consignment. The price tags were smallish in size but clearly written. Accessories galore were also in stock, including a vast selection of sheet music and music books for all levels of experience. There was also a rack of harmonica gift boxes — the Bluesband seven-harmonica set with case.
In terms of in-store character, there was actually a group of ukulele enthusiasts rehearsing some oldies when I visited, and I was amused to hear the uke gang playing spirited versions of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” In another rehearsal room, a jazz band was playing. The presence of these enthusiastic musicians made Brighton Music Store feel like more of a store/community center.
N Stuff Music
468 Freeport Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
A music mansion. That’s how I would describe N Stuff Music (aka Pianos N Stuff). Located down the road from a pretty good pizzeria (hey, I was hungry and needed to grab some lunch and a nice, refreshing bottle of … pop), N Stuff is a literal house with many rooms featuring different musical instruments as well as dedicated repair areas. The store stocks new and used instruments, both common and collectible. For more than 50 years, it’s been a destination for Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs.
When I first walked into the main part of the store, I noticed it had one whole wall featuring Fender guitars, and the opposite wall featured Gibson guitars. There was a small group of customers admiring the guitars, and one was closely examining one of the new models. Although one older worker greeted me with a terse “Can I help you?” and then walked off before I could really answer, I did end up speaking with other floor staff who were friendly and willing to talk at length about various instruments and general store information.
One particularly kitschy but cool detail at N Stuff is that some of the banisters between floors were designed to look like guitar necks, complete with fret markers and such. This seems like such an obvious choice for a musical instrument store, but I haven’t noticed it elsewhere, so kudos to N Stuff. Like a few other stores that I’ve poked around in, it featured some museum-like showcases with collectible guitars and accessories. You can ogle these delightful instruments and ponder the prices … but make sure you don’t touch, just ogle. One such section featured a half-dozen hollow-body guitars, all gorgeous creatures with attached cards that provided extensive background information.
One large room showcased acoustic guitars and ukes, with a small section devoted to mandolins and banjos. In a room devoted to used equipment and instruments, there was even a large glittery disco ball for sale. Another room on the second floor contained accessories and racks of store-logo T-shirts, which were pretty stylish and available in various sizes, plus other assorted shirts. There were at least three or four repairman at work on guitars and drums in a few well-lit and accessible repair sections.
The ultimate conversation piece on display at N Stuff was the curious-looking “ukelin” instrument, which apparently no one actually plays, but everyone stops by and looks at and pays tribute to. This slightly dusty stringed instrument, a hybrid of a ukulele and a violin which dates to the 1920s, stands by itself on the first floor in a small case. I discussed its origin and life at N Stuff with one of the employees, who made it seem more like a mythical creature than a strange mashup musical instrument. I could tell from what the worker said that it’s considered practically a mascot of the store. Apparently, the reason N Stuff even has this ukelin in stock is that “Years ago, a customer left it here for a repair but didn’t return. So, we’ve kept it in that spot. But no one knows how to play it.”
Price tags on the vast majority of new and used instruments were highly visible and clear at N Stuff, and it offers instruments for a wide variety of budgets. One disadvantage to this store was the lack of a parking lot. I had to park at the curb. It wasn’t busy the day I stopped by, but if it was, it would have been a hassle competing for a limited number of spots.
Your MI Spy really was impressed with each and every one of these stores. This is one of the rare missions that left me duly impressed by all the stores on my agenda. Give yourselves a hand, music retailers of Pittsburgh, and keep up the exemplary work! But there must be a winner. And if you want a solid, all-around store that also functions as a sort-of community center for musicians of varying levels and interests, then Brighton Music Center is the real deal.
That being said, you really can’t go wrong with the other stores. If you are an acoustic connoisseur, Acoustic Music Works is a particular treat and a great place to shop and get repairs and learn about these instruments in general. Pittsburgh Guitars and N Stuff Music were also both very good, and honestly, Brighton Music Center only tops them for a few practical reasons (the parking lot comes to mind). The stores aren’t particularly close to one another, so depending on where in Pittsburgh you happen to be, you have at least one solid option within driving distance.
I also have to give a special mention to 101.1 FM WZUM, a really good jazz station I played constantly while driving around Pittsburgh and its suburbs.