"I went to staten island, sharon, to buy myself a mandolin." So sings Joni Mitchell in "Song for Sharon," a cut from her 1976 album Hejira. Apparently, Mitchell, who wrote these lines on the Staten Island Ferry during her return trip from Mandolin Brothers (629 Forest Avenue, Staten Island; 718-981-8585), was sufficiently moved by the store's mind-blowing inventory of new and used high-end fretted acoustic instruments to immortalize it in song. Guitarists far and wide call this out-of-the-way establishment (a ten-to-fifteen-minute bus ride from the ferry terminal on the S48) the best place in the world for consignment shopping. One might expect serious touch-it-and-die attitude from the sales staff, what with $25,000 prewar Martin D-28s on the walls, but customers are encouraged to play anything and ask a million questions.
But for some musicians, a day trip to Staten Island is a lot to ask. In the East Village, for more than a decade, owners Chris Cush and Arline Lasberg of Mojo Guitar Shop (102 St. Marks Place; 260-7751) have served as a surrogate family for rockers earning their diplomas at Coney Island High. "I practically stole my first Les Paul from Chris when I was 12," says D Generation guitarist Danny Sage. "They've always been there when I needed them." The inventory of this tiny shop may have seen more brawls than the Garden, but it's still ready to gig. Those looking for a more orthodox selection would do well to check out Matt Umanov Guitars (273 Bleecker Street; 675-2157), which remains one of Bleecker Street's few redeeming assets, or 30th Street Guitars (236 West 30th Street; 868-2660), a relative newcomer whose immense collection of top-shelf vintage electrics and unrivaled selection of used amplifiers never disappoints.
Right across the way from 30th Street Guitars, tucked away on the tenth floor of the "Music Building," is Rogue Music (251 West 30th Street; 629-5073), a chaotic business mainly frequented by hip-hop types seeking reasonably priced secondhand synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines. Recording equipment, too.
If it's Steinways, not synths, that you're after, try Beethoven Pianos (232 West 58th Street; 765-7300), a stable of more than 500 instruments, from $1,500 uprights to $100,000 Bösendorfer grands. All of the pianos are expertly serviced -- this is where Leonard Bernstein had his beloved Steinway overhauled -- and the staff is composed of accomplished (some Juilliard-trained) musicians. Beethoven's vast showroom is austere, but there's no need to be shy: "We'll have people come in and try a piano ten times before they decide if they want it," says P.R. director Celina Gray. "And that's perfectly fine with us." Also in the neighborhood: the well-stocked Piano Piano (158 West 55th Street; 581-8410) and the tiny, friendly Pioneer Piano (934 Eighth Avenue, near 55th Street; 586-3718). Prospective piano buyers also owe themselves a trip to Maximiliaan's House of Grand Pianos (200 Lexington Avenue, near 32nd Street; 689-2177). Their collection of wildly ornate nineteenth-century "art case" pianos could bring Chopin, or at least Liberace, back from the grave.
While used-piano and -guitar stores may abound, it seems that the city's drummers have only one place to shop for secondhand kits -- a place they all speak of with the utmost reverence. Owned and run by Russian expatriate Nodar Rode, a husky man whose love of drums and drum repair is almost at odds with his soothing, yogilike personality, Manhattan Drum Shop (149 West 46th Street; 768-4892) stocks between five and twenty used sets at a time. Much like Mojo's, the inventory is entirely dependent on what customers lug through the door. This strip of West 46th, chockablock with musical-instrument dealers, is also the home of Roberto's (146 West 46th Street; 391-1315), a woodwind store where even Gotham's most perturbed piper can find what he's looking for -- Woody Allen bought a clarinet here.