What does Adele have in common with Johnny Depp? They both purchased guitars this spring at Lakeview’s Chicago Music Exchange (3316 N. Lincoln Ave).
This guitar mecca, which probably also qualifies as a museum thanks to its wide selection of vintage pieces, has been around for 20 years. Walking in can inspire the least musically inclined person to take up guitar, much less someone with an actual passion for the instrument.
Owner David Kalt is one with this passion, which is why he abandoned his life in the corporate world and purchased the store in 2010. A dedicated customer, he approached the previous owner with an offer that man couldn’t refuse.
“If you go to most guitar stores in this country, they’re usually dusty, with a grumpy guy behind the counter,” he said. “This place is alive every day.”
Kalt’s took ownership with an aggressive improvement plan in mind. First, he revamped the Web site, started a blog and established a social media presence. Kalt is also building a drum shop next door to accommodate other musical passions — but the main business is exchanging guitars.
“It’s a lifetime of trading,” he said. “The typical guitarist owns five or six at a time.”
Who else loves Chicago Music Exchange? The store has become a destination of sorts for musicians and guitar-loving celebs traveling through town. Johnny Depp was there in April to buy a vintage Les Paul, and Adele stopped by this week to purchase expensive vintage electrics, along with $60 guitar straps.
Luke Tobias, 30, is a guitarist in a local band and loves coming into the store but has never bought anything. He says he just likes looking at things he can’t afford.
“It’s fairly pricey,” he said. “They have a wild collection of things you can’t find anywhere else.”
But if buying a guitar is something you’ve been putting off, here are some tips from Chicago’s guitar heaven.
1. Electric or acoustic?
If you’re just starting out, Kalt says acoustic is more versatile and practical, especially for apartment living. It’s also ideal if you’re on a budget, since you don’t need an amp to go with it. But if you’re moved by an electric guitar, Kalt says just go with it.
“You have to start with a tangible task,” he said. “Play something you love, something that’s going to inspire you because that’s what’s going to keep you motivated.”
2. Vintage or new?
The Holy Grails of guitars are the Les Paul editions made by Gibson from 1958 to 1960. Designed by the legendary musician for Gibson in the early 1950s, a Les Paul guitar has a distinct shape and produces a distinct sound called a humbucker pickup. The worth of these holy grails: $500,000.
All of the vintage guitars in CME are priced lower than that, but they still can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, a new electric Fender starts as low as $600, and a new acoustic from Taylor starts at $500.
3. Buy American
This is what Kalt calls the most important component to buying your first guitar: look for American.
He says international travelers love American products and come into the store regularly to add to their collections.
“The ones that are mass-produced don’t even come close,” he said.
Fender and Gibson are the dominant players in the world of electric guitars. Gibson still has most of its factories in Memphis and Nashville. As for acoustic, look for Taylor or Gibson.
4. Guitars are like shoes — you have to try them on
Since playing guitar can be frustrating and difficult, Kalt recommends spending some time with your potential purchase to make sure you’re enthralled with the instrument.
“Try different woods, finishes, manufacturers — and find something that you love,” he said. “If you just buy a piece of wood, you’re not going to play it.”