Plinkety plunk ... a 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! Just like the time I schlepped home a giant framed Paul Alan Bennett picture for my birthday last year, and which is now freeloading in a friend's dining room in Eugene, Oregon. (As you will read, I almost dropped $750 on a blanket too…)

"Paintings and blankets, you're settling," quipped my sage friend, Jerry Norquist.

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.

"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, severely testing the patience of Dennis Ryan, a salesperson and performer. But if he felt like Keith Richards' pick guard when I left, he never let on. And this was on a Saturday, when the store is packed with the guitar equivalent of tire kickers at closing time!

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

There were a few guys who seemed they came 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.  Perhaps guitar stores realize that by indulging Mark Knopfler wannabe's you actually entice people to buy. Maybe that's what happened: I was sucked in big time.

I've already owned a few guitars in my time.

The first was a glossy black Aria copy of a Gibson Les Paul, the choice of Red Symons, my favorite guitarist in the Aussie 70's band, Skyhooks. My dad bought it for my 10th birthday, for $125 Aussie dollars at the local music shop - pricey at the time. I eventually sold it to travel.

I also owne a Baby Taylor travel guitar which my songwriting friend Greg Macainsh brought back from the USA, thinking that it would suit 5'0" me. Unfortunately, I've never been able to keep the thing in tune for more than 5 minutes.

A killer Luis Johnson "Learn Slap Bass" video, together with my bassplaying pal Rodd Chant inspired me to buy a Fender medium scale bass.

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

My workhorse guitar is a $70 Gutierrez Bros plywood I bought while living in Costa Rica. Despite its clunky woody sound, it produced a slew of sad travel songs.

The biggest mistake of my life was selling my Aussie-made Maton EM-525C semi acoustic. 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.  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! A guitar is a tremendous companion when you're on your own. Forget the ipod, a personal musical instrument embraces you, and you become entranced with the sounds you can make, no matter how bad it sounds to someone else.

After playing practically everything in the shop including a $3000 Martin Eric Clapton, I settled on made-in-China Guild, 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, costs double.

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.

I called up the brothers took 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. Or if even 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. I 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.

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