New York’s vintage guitar shops can feel like a portal to a bygone era in which guitar-making was still an art form.
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Savvy collectors in search of instruments that have history and character know that New York has some of the best vintage guitar shops anywhere, with a constantly updated inventory of painstakingly restored rarities culled from collectors and pawn shops around the country. In these shops, guitars from the golden age of the late ’50s, before the Beatles ushered in an era of mass-produced six-strings, are as legendary as the musicians who have played them—and as well they should be. And be aware of your surroundings while you’re ogling the instruments: Chances are good that one of your fellow customers will be a world-famous musician.
Rivington Guitars, in the East Village, is owned by Howie Statland, the former guitarist for the ’90s alternative rock band Thin Lizard Dawn, whose 1996 eponymous album was released on RCA records and landed the band on tour with the likes of Lenny Kravitz and the Lemonheads. Thin Lizard Dawn fell apart, but Statland’s love of guitars led to a gig managing a friend’s small vintage guitar shop in the East Village. By 2003, he owned it.
Since then, Statland has traversed the United States countless times in search of the most interesting and unique stringed instruments, effects, and amplifiers, seeking out items that continue to appreciate in value while remaining perfectly playable. His passion has earned him devoted clients including Paul Simon, Peter Frampton, the Black Keys, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy, in fact, quietly walked in as I spoke to Statland and began strumming a dazzling see-through red ultra-rare 1961 Fender Esquire.
In the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sits Southside Guitars, whose background is as humble and organically grown as the neighborhood’s music scene. When owners Sam and Ben Taylor first opened the shop, they paid themselves almost nothing and used the proceeds from one guitar sale to pay for another instrument, building their business piece by piece. The brothers’ eye for quality and singularity quickly gave them a reputation that has won them high-profile buyers such as Marc Ribot and TV on the Radio.
The shop is a treasure trove, harboring a collection that includes a Martin D-18E from 1959. Very few were made, and it’s the model Kurt Cobain used in his celebrated MTV Unplugged performance. Other notable pieces include a rare 1944 acoustic Gibson J-45 Banner produced at the height of World War II, as well as an intriguing Gibson LG-2 Banner that features an interesting John Denver homage and scratches marking a soldier’s posts during the 1940s.
What truly makes these vintage guitars so special? It’s hard to define. “After a certain amount of time, after guitars have been played for 20 or 30 years, they are just different,” says Sam Taylor. “You pick up an old guitar and get a new sound you didn’t know was possible.”