I'm not a musician, but some of my best friends are. I was having lunch with one of them at my favorite Brooklyn Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, and he mentioned we were just a few blocks north of Retrofret, an amazing vintage fretted instrument shop.
We head up a flight of stairs, across a rooftop walkway, and the place was everything my friend Rip said it was. Retrofret was filled to the brim with rare acoustic and electric guitars, basses, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and a smattering of other instruments. Take for example, the Theremin right near the front door: It was the world's very first all electronic instrument; this one was made in 1938! As you enter, the vista of Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars are a sight to behold.
Retrofret's Peter Kohman was my guide, and he was more than happy to play and talk about whatever instrument struck my fancy. He's a lifelong instrument maven and his knowledge of music runs deep, "I think American popular music is one of the two or three greatest cultural contributions of the twentieth century, music is where it all came together." Referring to the instruments that surrounded us he added, "These are the hammers, nails and tools that music was made on."
Of course, a lot of famous musicians are customers, but Kohman respects their privacy so he didn't want to drop any names. Most customers aren't famous, they just love these instruments and their sound. He told me that most of the younger players who come to Retrofret have never played a great acoustic guitar like a 50- or 60-year-old Martin, so they may not know they wanted a Martin, until they play one. Then the question is, what does the instrument bring to you, and you to the guitar?
Kohman readily admits a good modern guitar like a Collings might be better made, but the old Martin has the edge in terms of warmth, depth and character of sound. In the end it's a personal choice, whichever one is the right one for the player. The Retrofret showroom's friendly vibe encourages browsing and playing the wide and unusual selection of guitars, basses, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles and amps. They're not locked up in cases, they're there to play.
When we turned our attention to guitar amps, Kohman seemed especially fond of Premiers for their dark and jazzy tone. The store has a lot of small amps, including a nice selection of Fenders that can be used to record at home. Kohman favors tweed Fenders; he thinks there's nothing better. He also likes Fender Princeton and Fender Champ amps from the 1950s and 1960s. All of the Retrofret amps are tube amps, which are fully checked out and tested. Most amps are in the $1,000/£788/AU$1,303 to $2,000/£1,575/AU$2,607 price range.
When I asked Kohman for his favorite electric guitar, without hesitation he pointed to a 1951 Fender Telecaster Esquire and said, "I could take that guitar anywhere tonight and it would sound better than any other guitar in the world." Another one of my musician friends who was in the room with us agreed, maybe because he owns a 1951 Telecaster. Kohman quickly added that there are lots of other terrific guitars, but if you just want a guitar that does it all -- for jazz, rock, metal or country music -- you can't beat a Tele. Or maybe you've lusted after a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster solid body electric guitar for ages: Get it while you can.
John Lennon may have played a Rickenbacker guitar when he was in the Beatles, but Kohman sees them as cult guitars. Although, if you love Rickenbackers they're the coolest thing on earth. If you're a Beatles collector, getting the same model Lennon played, the 325, is pretty hard; same for Paul McCartney's Hofner bass. Kohman searched for exactly the right Hofner for 35 years before he found it.
Retrofret ships worldwide, but most customers -- locals and tourists -- visit the store to play the instruments and amps for themselves. If you're not in New York, check out their website. Guitar prices start around $500/£394/AU$652, and there are lots of much more expensive models to choose from.
Retrofret's in-house techs also repair instruments.
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