Lots of guitar history in the city.
New York City. Whether on business or leisure, travelers often like to waste hours in their room fiddling through TV channels for a movie or the next riveting episode of “The Voice”. However, as the most unique, iconic and happening city in the world, New York is a terrible place to do so if you’re there only for a short while.
There are countless shows, landmarks, tours and sights to see in the Big Apple, but this blog post will focus on what visiting guitar players should check out. Needless to say, New York City is not only home to awesome guitar shops and multiple national acts on stage any given night, but also home to some of the world’s best local talent.
Guitar Shops. Spending an afternoon visiting NYC’s local guitar shops is one of the most relaxing ways to enjoy your trip to New York. As expected, you’ll find flagship Sam Ash and Guitar Center locations, but of course the goodies are the more low-key indie-ish guitar shops.
48th St. Historically, the center of the NYC guitar universe has lived on 48th St between 6th and 7th, a few blocks north of the most touristy spot in Manhattan, Times Square. Here used to lie Manny’s Music, where scores of famous rock stars would stop by for gear during rock’s heyday. Unfortunately the area isn’t what it used to be—Manny’s was since bought out by Sam Ash, who pretty much monopolized the whole block with big business attitude, and then closed down Manny’s. It’s still a cool place to visit for the nostalgia, but there is one hidden gem on the block: the Rudy’s Music amp room. For years it was hidden in the 3rd or 4th floor of a building next to a strip club around the corner with a buzzer at the door, but has recently moved to the more logically located 4th floor above Rudy’s Music. The amp room has one of the coolest collections of Mesa Boogie, Bogner and other modern-type amps I’ve ever seen. Much more importantly, because there are usually only one or two other people tops in the room, the spot is probably the city’s coolest place to be able to crank up an amp to gig volume and really hear those tubes sing.
Near Penn Station. A short walk south, Sam Ash in the past 12 months just opened a new superstore location a few blocks west of Penn Station on 34th St. between 8th and 9th. With the way the MI (Musical Instrument) business has been trending down earnings-wise over the past few years, I’m not sure how Sam Ash was able to pull it off, but the location is pristine with a very impressive inventory of new guitars and some good used ones as well, and should give the brand the increased exposure it was looking for in relocating.
Matt Brewster at 30th St. Guitars, Best Tech in New York
From there, you can walk downtown to 30th St and turn left to find my personal favorite guitar spot in the world, 30th Street Guitars between 7th and 8th. Here you will find an impressive assortment of used guitars, a room to crank up cool used amps with the door closed, and one the city’s most diverse collection of effects, both new, used and boutique. The shop is owned and run by a cool guy named Matt Brewster, who in the back room repairs, upgrades and sets up guitars, amps and effects. After years of disappointment with other guitar techs, I haven’t bothered going anywhere else with my guitar needs since he literally does everything, and very knowledgably and proficiently too. Ask the guys in the front if he’s in, and go introduce yourself—I’m sure he’d love it. And if you’re lucky, you may spot a celebrity in there, since famous people walk in and out of there all time to say hey to their favorite repairman.
Union Square. Next, either take the train or a relaxing 25 minute walk downtown to Union Square to see Guitar Center on 14th St. Yes, you’ll find Guitar Center anywhere, but there’s a solid inventory of insanely highly priced custom shop and vintage gear here to ogle at. Just try to avoid the staff, many of whom will give you dirty looks and annoyingly bitch at you if they don’t think you’re going to buy anything. Well, if they kick you out, you know you can just walk to Union Square and chill out on the steps.
The Village. Then head south to Greenwich Village, and on the way be sure to walk through Washington Square Park, which is incredibly vibrant when the weather is nice. (Bonus points if you set yourself up with a guitar for donations, stand in the fountain with your shoes off, or hit on a stranger who is very possibly also from out of town.) Go to Bleecker Street and check out Matt Umanov Guitars. Here is another cool guitar spot with some really cool gear, often with talented guitar players jamming out in front of the store.
While you’re in the village, if you have an interest in hip vinyl record stores, there are cool record shops in the area like Generation Records with tons of records, CDs, T-shirts and poster. My favorite part of these shops is the metal selection—there is so much metal that it adds an authentic, unique flavor to the store.
Walking east on Houston to Ludlow will take you to Ludlow Guitars, but first, do yourself a favor and take an empty stomach to Katz’s on the corner. I don’t care how much of an “institution” or whatever Katz’s is, it is world-renowned because the pastrami sandwiches are damn good and worth the hefty price tag. Ahh!
Ludlow Guitars is a classy and impressive guitar shop with a very, very sweet inventory of guitars and amps. It may be odd, but I’ve always been most impressed by their selection of guitar pickups, which seems to be more robust than any other location in New York.
Leaving Manhattan. OK, you’ve covered the major guitar stops in Manhattan, and at this point you may only have time for one of the following 2 choices, but should by all means do both if possible:
1) Do you love acoustic guitar? If so, take the ferry to Staten Island and check out Mandolin Brothers, which has the city’s coolest collection of acoustics. The ferry ride is very relaxing and soothing and should be done anyway, but it’s worth the bus ride to Mandolin Brothers just to see their nice sounding acoustics. The staff is really friendly and down to earth, and there are plenty of really crisp acoustic amps to test the sound with. Also, if I remember correctly, every guitar will have 2 prices, one for credit card payment, and a cheaper one for cash/debit card.
2) Do you love jazz guitar? Then go east to Long Island City in Queens and check out Sadowsky Guitars. Sadowsky makes the signature models for jazz legends Jim Hall and Jimmy Bruno, although they are insanely highly priced. Of course, there are non-archtops, but the real awesomeness is in the high-end jazz boxes. Apparently Sadowsky Guitars used to be a go-to repair shop as well, but I’ve heard that it’s not quite what it used to be in the old times.
Bargain. Remember, if you intend on buying a guitar at any of these guitar shops and bringing it home snugly in the overhead compartment above your plane seat, always bargain! Just bringing up the topic by saying something like “Can we do something about the price?” will get you a lower price 80% of the time. Discounts are built into the sales systems even at Guitar Center and Sam Ash, and the smaller local shops will definitely be willing to drop the price so you walk out of there with the guitar of your dreams.
World Famous Venues. In the evening, any guitar player visitor should check out as much live guitar as possible. On any given night, the New Yorker is able to select from a bevy of international-tier talent at the doorstep. One idea would be to just go to Ticketmaster or a site like Killertours to see who’s playing, or browse the websites for the major famous venues like BB King’s, Beacon Theater, Webster Hall, Nokia Theater Times Square, Irving Plaza, Terminal 5, Bowery Ballroom, and Radio City Music Hall. Strangely enough, I’ve always liked concertjoe.com, which is really lo-fi but has once in a while given cool ideas for what to check out at night.
Local Rock. However, you’re going to want to see something more uniquely and distinctly local New York. If you like rock, Piano’s and Arlene’s Grocery usually has some cool local rock acts cranking it up. I’ve never been heavily into indie, but I’ve always enjoyed visits to places like Cake Shop next to Piano’s. Needless to say there is a ton of indie to check out in New York, especially in Brooklyn.
Jazz. If you like jazz, you are in luck because you are in the jazz capital of the world. Village Vanguard is a must see, especially when guys like Bill Frisell, Jim Hall or Kurt Rosenwinkel are in town. Make a reservation, get a discount if you have a student ID, and hit up Two Boots down the block, where my favorite funky pizza slice in the world is. Iridium one stop north of Times Square on the 1 train is also an excellent venue, with guys like Allan Holdsworth and Paul Gilbert taking the stage. The Blue Note by the W 4th St. stop is also an iconic place to check out. The selection also includes The Jazz Standard on 27th and Smoke way uptown in Morningside Heights, which would be a good opportunity to see the Columbia campus.
However, maybe because the price is right, my favorite jazz spot is the 55 Bar on Christopher St. The other jazz venues cost a ton and often require you to buy drinks or dinner, but the 55 Bar has awesome local talent melting the walls in an intimate setting while the rest of the city has no idea of the epicness that’s going on inside. If possible, going on a night where Mike Stern or Wayne Krantz is playing would guarantee a face-melting experience.
Bleecker St is like a mini-Austin.
Bleecker St. Lastly, a good place to see live music is Bleecker St., which I call “Little Austin”. At The Bitter End you’ll find local as well as travelling talent every night, and once in a while you’ll get a stud like Oz Noy who will blow you away. The Red Lion does a good job vetting the talent because every night I’m there the quality of the musicians is very high. If you get there early enough before the DJ music kicks in, Wicked Willy’s constantly has bands playing and is a really fun place to hang out, especially when cover bands are playing. Back Fence has a small stage for singer/songwriter types. Village Lantern is a fun hangout with bands playing all the time, but probably not on the same caliber talent-wise as a place like The Bitter End or Red Lion. It used to have a cover band with an incredible drummer every Wednesday but they are no longer there, and last I heard, they for some reason phased out the bartenders that made the place cool. You’ll also find historically significant venues like Café Wha around the corner on MacDougal, and at the end of the block is La Laterna, a tiny room where you’ll find some of the best local jazz guitarists. All in all, the area is one of the city’s most vibrant on weekends and worth checking out.
Improve Your Guitar Playing Big Time. Hopefully you’ll find everything you need to give you an awesome experience in New York as a guitar player here. I don’t see any equal anywhere else in the world in terms of a “guitar city”, other than maybe Austin, Texas, if you like blues and bluesy rock. If you like it enough and you’re passionate about the guitar, it’s a great reason to move to New York City if you can pull it off. I guarantee your guitar playing will improve significantly as you immerse yourself in the incredible selection of talent on any given night.