Sunday, August 12, 2007

Plinkety plunk ... a 45th birthday impulse buy

I just visited the famous Mandolin Bros fretted instrument shop on Staten Island, NY.



Mandolin Bros, owner Stan May (left), the Gal with a Guild, and ever patient sales expert Dennis Ryan.


And came out with something a transglobal telecommuter can neither store, stash or carry terribly easily - a brand new guitar! A bit like when I bought a giant framed Paul Alan Bennett picture for my birthday last year, which is now freeloading in a friend's dining in Oregon. As you will read there, I almost dropped $750 on a blanket too.

"Paintings and blankets, you're settling," quipped a friend.

I've never heard of Mandolin Bros until I happened to jump onto the tail of the New York Cycle Club Ride to the Staten Island Bluegrass Festival, led by a bluegrass aficionado, Mark Gelles. Take a look at Straight Drive playing on stage here.

It was a fairly long pedal, at an atypically slow NYCC pace of 12 mph, which had Hal, one of the party, champing at the cleat. For a non-NYer, Staten Island is like a frontier land, strange sprawl with impatient drivers and houses sporting odd shingle work.

It's definitely car country. Against the advice of Raoul, a Staten Island resident and the sweep on the ride, my friend and I went up Richmond Hill. This is a twisty, potholey little two-laned goat trail choked with traffic.

"Cars won't expect to see a bike there," he advised. "Go the long way round."

Aw, how bad could it be, I thought, after remembering some hairy moments in Cuba and Mexico. Besides, we wanted to get to the store before it closed.

Well, he was right.

Not only was it narrow, it really was steep - and like a Lays Ruffle along the edge only not as smooth. My poor friend Dave was on his new Bachetta Recumbent. You ever tried starting one of those on a potholey, narrow hill?

I slogged up at 4 mph, trying to keep a straight line, while my friend walked up to the honking of SUV drivers trying desperately to squeeze past rather than waste 15 seconds of their lives they're not going to get back.

Moral? Take advice about road safety from a resident, and even more so when they're also a cyclist.

Incidentally, recumbents are the biggest growth area in bicycles, I'm told. And for once, everyone asked about his recumbent and not my Bike Friday.


"Ahhhh, is that comfortable?" Does a chicken have hard lips?


"Is it comfortable?" they shouted at Dave from cars.

At least it was a change from "Don't you have to pedal more?" I've even started saying, in jest, "Oh yeah, I have to pedal more." The problem is people believe me, so I better stop it and go back to rabbiting on about my gearing.

Back to the guitar.

"You gotta go there, best shop in New York," said Mark. "By the way, did you know guitarists break their 4th finger with a hammer so they can reach certain notes better?"

For those contemplating a visit, it's more toward the eastern end of Forest Ave. We rode right past the little mustard colored vault of a building; it resembles a Mexican taqueria without windows.

Once past the owner's office, you're in a kind of rambling burrow with several little chambers, each packed with guitars, mandolins lining the walls like wallpaper.


Stan the man


The cherub-faced owner Stan May prides himself with the line "Anyone can play any instrument and ask 1000 questions." I'm embarrassed to say I did just that, wearing poor Dennis Ryan, a salesperson and performer, right out. But if he felt like Keith Richards' pick guard when I left, he never showed any signs of it. I don't know what it is about the attitude you cop in some guitar shops, bike shops, jewelry shops, open house showings, where sales people act like they're rock stars. Little do they know that even if I'm a fabulous nobody, just who might *I* know? My best friend might just be Mick Jagger who's sent me along to check out their offerings on the way to get a pizza.

And this was on a Saturday, when the store is packed with the guitar equivalent of tire kickers (string strummers?) at closing time!


Is he a plant or just someone who can't stay away from this magical shop?

There were a few guys in there who acted like part of the furniture, who come in just to play and hang out. One particularly fine player was a real estate agent in his shiny suit, making magic with some $10,000 Chuck Berry cast off (I made that up but you get the idea). Perhaps guitar stores realize that by having Mark Knopfler wannabe's you actually entice people to buy. Maybe that's what happened. I was sucked in big time. The store has quite a few celebs wander in to tire-kick; it's worldwide reputation is such that if Elvis decides to exhume himself it'll probably be in the store's GGG room or somewhere (Guild, Gibson and ... what was the other one, Stan?).

I've already owned a few guitars in my time, despite being a rank amateur noodler.

The first was a glossy black Gibson Les Paul copy, because Red Symons, my favorite guitarist of the Aussie 70's band Skyhooks, played one. My dad bought it for my 10th birthday. 30 years or so ago it was $A125 at the local music shop. The fact that you can buy similar guitars for that price, new, today, unfortunately thanks to sweatshops staffed by people who look like me, meant it was very expensive at the time.

I also own a Baby Taylor travel guitar which my songwriting friend Greg Macainsh brought back from the USA, thinking that it would suit 5'0" me, but have never been able to keep the thing in tune for more than 5 minutes. And a little guitar still sounds littlish.

A killer Luis Johnson Learn Slap Bass video, together with my bassplaying pal Rodd Chant inspired me to buy a Fender medium scale bass. Again, you can't beat the sound that comes out of a full scale anything (except a Bike Friday of course). Except the strings on a bass are about the same width as my fingers.


My old $70 faithful, used to record a number of my sad travel songs


My workhorse guitar is a $70 Gutierrez Bros plywood guitar I bought while living in Costa Rica. Despite its clunky woody sound, it produced a slew of 'swinging hormone' (as someone put it) sad travel songs. Why on earth then, do I need an expensive new guitar? I am sure David Knopfler (amazing brother of Mark - listen to his 'Lips Against the Steel') could knock out a Grammy award winner on it, just like Lance could win the Tour de France on my little Bike Friday ...

The biggest mistake of my life was selling my Aussie-made Maton EM-525C semi acoustic. I bought it the way I like to buy things of value - pre-loved, used but not abused. It was 8 years old at the time, had a slim neck, the proportions and feel of an electric guitar, and a big, rich sound. It was full size yet had a thin body, thinner than any acoustic guitar I have seen, comfy for a small person with small hands - I could can get my hands round the neck and hug it close to me without wiping someone out as they came round the corner. It had carved wooden volume controls, something I have not seen since on any guitar. I cost me $A1200 about 10 years ago, and I sold it for same, just two years later, to fund my travels.

Did I say, what a mistake? Never sell something you love unless you haven't eaten for a year and even then!

At Mandolin Bros I was looking for that Maton memory. A sub $3000 Martin Eric Clapton model comes close. I was first introduced to this guitar in Australia last year. The price tag down there was $A7000, but hey, people gotta live. It's the kind of guitar that sounds great when you pick it up and noodle with it softly. That's the kind of guitar I want.

I should point out at this stage I am by no means an accomplished player, I know about 3 or 4 chords and have somehow managed to cobble together a few sad travel songs of my own. A guitar is a tremendous companion when you're on your own. Forget the ipod, a personal musical instrument embraces you, you become one-to-one-and-into (that's a math joke), and the world feels exactly the way it should in that moment, no matter how bad it sounds to someone else.

After playing practically everything in the shop including the Eric Clapton, which Stan knowingly plonked down next to me, I put on my Eric De Bono sensible hat and settled on a very nice guitar, a Guild, Made in China, for around $800. As you can see from numerous reviews I found on the web, it's a very nice guitar, 'a lot of guitar for the price'. The exact same thing made in the USA, is double the price. Being a modestly paid evangelist in one of the lowest paid industries around (bicycles) I thought about my uncertain future and opted for the cheaper Guild.

I schlepped it home on my back, forgoing the nice hard case it came in, all the way from the store, onto the Staten Island Ferry, and up the Hudson Bike path to Manhatten.



How to carry a precious guitar when you don't have a car - main road, ferry, bike path - anything's possible!). Best with the body of the guitar up near your head.

It's an object of utter beauty. Rosewood, Sitka spruce, inlay and more. I can't fault it.

But somehow, it just didn't jazz me the way my old Maton did. I think the action (the height of the strings from the fretboard) is a bit high. But there's something else. It's just too ... new.

There's something in a guitar that's been pre-loved. Unlike a bicycle, it just gets better with age. Bit like a good and trusted friend. Or a spouse who's lasted the distance.

A new and shiny guitar is something you feel you have to be really careful with. Careful, rather than just playing the thing. Besides, shiny shows up fingerprints.

I called up the brothers and am taking it back for a store credit. Unfortunately, if you buy in store, all sales are final. If, however, you want to try out that $20K John Denver cast off in their online catalog sight unseen, you pay for it, they'll ship it to you, and you have three days to decide or a full refund.

I guess I'll stumble on the right guitar one day. I'm not sure if I can or should spring for the Eric Clapton. I'm not even sure if having the signature 'Eric Clapton' painted on the fretboard isn't just a little precious and goofy. But now I've been swept into the Mandolin Bros lair as a result of a bike ride, am now $800 poorer, but already, many more times that, richer.

I actually woke up singing today, something I haven't done in a long time.

The Gal

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