Have you ever wondered what it would be like to own an awesome guitar store? Well look no further! We recently got together with Tommy Colletti, Owner of The Music Zoo in Roslyn, New York, and let’s just say it’s certainly no zoo! This guy knows his stuff, and his shop is living proof of it. Recently celebrating their 20 Year Anniversary, The Music Zoo aims to continue the tradition of familiarity set by the famous 48th Street walk in New York, where every musician traditionally went to get their fix on everything guitar-related. Tommy has grown from being a private guitar tutor, to now owning a major music store that even has its own commercial in the New York Tri-State area! He was gracious enough to let us in on what made The Music Zoo the success that it is today.
Jeremy: Tell us a little about the history of your shop. What inspired you to create The Music Zoo?
Tommy: At the time in New York, there was a pretty good rock n’ roll scene. I was playing around and also teaching a lot, which is how I made my living. I used to teach at people’s houses so I was constantly in a train, or in a car somewhere heading to somebody’s house, and/or music stores, or schools. Back then it was the only way I could make a living so I taught at one music school for one day a week, then another for a couple days a week and it just sort of evolved around the Tri-State area to about 6 days a week. The store actually started because I wanted one central location where I could do all of my guitar lessons because I was running around with a chicken without a head most of the time. *laughs It seemed like most of the lessons were in general proximity to each other so I thought it would be great if I could get everyone to just come to me instead of me go to them. In essence, this is how the store had started.
It didn’t really start as an idea to open a retail, or an online store. It kind of unfolded because of my love for guitar. Being that I was passionate about guitar, I’d try to buy, sell, and order guitars that my friends and customers wanted, because in the early days, people would say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Gibson did this?” or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Fender made one of those?” I was a big fan of Charvel, Hamer, or BC Rich or something.. pointy, you know. I had an old Charvel that I loved, and kept, and I had several students over the years who had Charvels. At one point when Fender took over Charvel, they released a 25th Anniversary Guitar. Well, I got the guitar and I was like, “Man this is all wrong!” I called them up and I told them “This guitar is all wrong!” and they said “What do you mean it’s all wrong?! How could it be wrong?” and I mentioned, “You never made a Charvel with abalone inlays, or this neck dimension. Wouldn’t it be cool to do what you originally did?…and here’s what you did!” It was to the point where I was sort of reminding them of traditions that Charvel did back in the day. They had the information, but the people building them (at the time) really just weren’t paying attention to the history.
Jeremy: Sounds like they lost their roots a bit?
Tommy: Yeah, so it’s just because I’m really a fan of those guitars, not because I’m a retailer, (well I guess I am now), so I said, “I have a Charvel. Why don’t I send you the neck from my guitar so you can make some shapes out of it.” That’s how the store sort of got going.
Jeremy: What do you like about owning your own shop now that some time has gone by and you’re pretty well established?
Tommy: The good is that you get to work for yourself, and that I do something that I love. I think most of us are players and, actually, we stepped into a little bit of luck recently. We have Optimum, which is a popular cable provider here for the Tri-State area; they own Madison Square Garden, and are a publicly traded company etc. In January, they asked us to be in a TV commercial, and the commercial has been playing here for the last couple months on the East Coast which has been huge for us. The people doing the commercial were like, “You’re doing your dream job!” and I was like, “Not really, I’m a guitar player and I really wanted to play in Ozzy’s band!” So that was my dream job and that never happened so I guess I’m doing my choice B. Plus, I get to come to work in t shirt and jeans everyday. Andy: So the commercial that Optimum gave you, that probably boosted your online sales too?
Tommy: It boosted them a bit, it’s definitely helped. It’s helped more with like, it’s funny, Facebook friends and people would call in and say, “Hey! I just saw you on TV!” I guess the point I was trying to make: Is it my dream gig? Eh, it’s second place probably to being in Van Halen or something.
Andy: Well at least that commercial definitely helped out with your exposure out in that area, that’s always something that’s really hard to get and that exposure helps to brand name yourself too. With that now people think you’re one of the music authorities in that area, that’s cool man.
Jeremy: In terms of the guitars that you carry, what would you say is the most underrated guitar that you would recommend to everyone? Would it still be Charvel?
Tommy: It probably still is Charvel, I still love these guitars. I think that Gibson and Fender now with their Custom Shop guitars… they both make wonderful guitars, we’re dealers for both, and they’re probably as close to the real ’59s that I’ve played. They’re getting better and better at them and I’ve heard pickups that Fender is producing that are every bit as good as a single coil pickup from the ’60s, but for some reason, Charvel still has remained, for instance, like, for the dollar amount that you pay for the guitars, it still has that custom feel, like one person made this in his little shop, and I hope it continues. Any time a small company is under a big company umbrella like Fender, I hope they realize that this is important. I still feel like (Charvel) has their own vibe and serve their own purpose. So those are cool. I know a lot of people like the Duesenberg guitars these days too.
Jeremy: So it looks like you deal with a lot of trades, consignments and things like that too, is that a big part of what you do at the Zoo?
Tommy: It seems like these days everybody has something to trade. You get people that are like, “I want that guitar but have this that I need to trade,” because an R9 ’59 reissue is like $6500 bucks now no matter how you slice it. How many people have $6500 lying around, burning a hole in their pocket? So a lot of times you have to trade into something, and because we love guitars so much, you never really know what you’re going to get in. So there is a lot of cool, used guitars that have come in here.
Jeremy: Sounds like it’s good in the sense that it varies up your selection. People come in a see a smorgasbord of guitars on the wall now.
Tommy: It does definitely, and in New York 20 or 30 years ago, 48th Street in Manhattan was known as, Music Row. It was a really interesting place to be a guitar player and shop for guitars because in a one-block radius there were 18 shops, maybe something like that, and you could just go and walk from one store to the other. Each of them had a completely diverse selection of guitars, from used guitars, to new guitars, and each store because of the way our industry works, Gibson might only want one Gibson dealer on 48th Street since their stores are right next to each other. One store would have Gibson, one store would have a great Fender selection, then you’d walk into one store and they’d have the most amazing collection of vintage guitars you’ve ever seen in your life! All touchable. You could just grab, and pick up a ’59 Les Paul, and play it without somebody coming over to you with like, a shotgun *laughs, and then the store next to it would be all BC Rich and Hamers, and at that time as a kid when I was shopping on 48th Street, they looked so “far-out,” because you were just so used to seeing a Les Paul shape or a Strat shape. So, to see something like a Mockingbird, and these guitars that look like weapons was just so cool. Then you’d see another shop with used gear and stuff just lying on top of each other, and you can go in and find all this stuff. So if anything, with The Music Zoo, I tried to sort of create that, in one spot, because the internet has changed everything. Now 48th Street is basically gone. There are just a couple stores there now, so that trip you can’t do anymore. You won’t have that experience. I wanted to have that experience at The Music Zoo, so if you go on our site, there’s a cool BC Rich and, there’s a cool guitar that looks like a machine gun, and you know, it just has all this great diversity.
Andy: Is that where you got the name? You wanted to kind of, put it together where people have all these different categories etc.? Tommy: Yeah, well it was 20 years ago. I don’t know if my thinking was that aligned back then, but it was sort of like when you write a song and you try to figure out what you meant afterwards.
Jeremy: It’s kind of revolutionary, like bringing back the Music Row experience.
Tommy: At least online that’s the way I saw it. It was when I was a kid where I really remember the experience the most. There was always a point where there was a rock star there, like Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley or Paul Stanley, because they all lived in New York at the time. So one of the three of those guys were always poking around 48th Street or “you-name-it” rock star would just be walking in and out of those stores. So it was not only a place to go to see all of these great guitars, but there would always be some sort of, like, “sighting.” That even more-so told me, “I’m in the right place, this is the place I need to be” If they say Van Halen was here pokin’ around at Manny’s, then I should be here too,” *laughs and really, people from all over the world came to 48th Street to shop because there just wasn’t access to that kind of musical gear anywhere else. So, if you were from South America or from Europe or wherever, in order to find a vintage Les Paul or some kind of a wacky Charvel, or BC Rich, you really had to come here. You really couldn’t find it (anywhere else). It wasn’t like you could just “Google” it.
Jeremy: There’s probably like a charm about the place too right? Seems like it was one of those things where if you were a musician you kind of had to go there at least once.
Tommy: Absolutely, and everybody did. From The Beatles, to Hendrix, to you know, whoever, were just all visiting 48th Street at some point. There probably isn’t a name in the Music Industry, at least back several years ago who hasn’t been to 48th Street, because they literally can’t stay away, like, how could you not go? So you’re familiar with Sunset Blvd where there’s a Guitar Center, Sam Ash, etc. Multiply that by like, a thousand! Though, it was all in a very close proximity because like in Manhattan, the stores are very small, so each store might only be like 20 feet wide by 68 feet deep or so. A couple of stores would even be smaller than that. There was one store called Stuyvesant guitars that couldn’t have been more than 15 feet wide by 15 or 18 feet deep. He had everything pressed up against the window. The guitars were literally on top of each other, they weren’t just close. They would literally hang them from lamp cords on the tuning pegs from the ceiling and the guitars would just bang against each other. I remember ’59 Les Pauls banging together! Of course the pricing back then was much different like a ’59 Les Paul would be $4500 bucks, and you’d see 3 pickup Les Paul Customs for $1500 bucks.
Andy: So you’re saying that experience doesn’t exist anymore. Do you find that rock stars or people doing music, touring and stuff, they come to your shop now? Or where would they go now?
Tommy: They do, and without “name dropping,” a lot of celebrities either came through here and are shopping with us (now). We sold guitars to Joe Walsh, to Joe Satriani, to The Black Crowes, to John Mayer… the list is pretty deep of people that have either stopped in, or shopped online. Steve Miller has been here several times too.
Andy: Sweet. Do you have any pictures of those guys on your website?
Tommy: I think we have Steve Miller when he was here. He’s actually visited the store a few times. One time he pulled up to the store in his tour bus which we thought was unbelievably hilarious back at the old location. So you can imagine like, a New York City street with a tour bus parked right out front. Though like 48th Street (did), we like to try to keep it kind of covert, because I’ve seen other stores where people publicly have pictures with the owners arm in arm. We try not to do that too much because what I’m afraid of is having those people never come in again. Andy: That’s a cool point to keep it low key and make it feel like it’s a place where they can come and not feel like everybody is going to get their camera, start taking pictures and posting, “Look who came into our store today,” and putting it up on Facebook etc.
Tommy: Though yeah, I’m still a fan overall and that’s what got me into this whole thing so I’ve still done it a little
Andy: Yeah but you’re keeping it tasteful.
Jeremy: Do you have any big plans for the future of the shop, or anything in particular you want people to know about?
Tommy: I don’t know, just keep doing what we’re doing and just try to get as interesting of a mix of what-you-need-to-know-about guitars straight here in the store. Whether it be the latest, greatest electric guitar being made, or new Custom Shops that we’re really into, or pedals that people might be in to… and again, be that window for people to look into. There is always going to be somebody who, like, I do it all the time…I try to find something that I had at one point that I sold and I’m thinking, “I can’t believe I sold that, I have to have it again.” So, I want to keep it diverse enough to where we have enough guitars to keep people interested. I have one of those personalities where I get bored with stuff pretty easily, and if we were just selling the same thing over and over and over, it sort of becomes really monotonous. As you guys know, the guitar business is really competitive, and there’s probably not as much money in it as we all thought there would be.
Andy: So what do you think about the technology and where it’s going? Such as with the new Gibsons, where you can’t get them without the automatic tuners etc.?
Tommy: Well I certainly always looked at the guitar as an organic instrument, and when you start attaching stuff to it like that, it makes me question it. I understand where Gibson’s vision is going (though) and I get it. You have to keep moving forward, you can’t just keep selling the same thing over and over again. Gibson certainty can’t rest on their laurels and say, “Well, we have the Les Paul, we’re just going to keep selling the ebony, the sunburst, the cherry, from now until eternity. They have to keep making it interesting. So, I see what they’re doing, and even projects like the Firebird X, I got it. You know, a lot of people were like, “This is crazy,” but the technology on-board that guitar was really cutting edge. It might have been too much for some people to digest, but in little tastes here and there I think it’s really brilliant. You’d be surprised in a guitar store of how many people don’t know how to tune a guitar. So even professionals that are coming in to play and check out a guitar, you’ll hear them play at the store and we’re like, “Dude!…” So it’s (kind of) like living in a society where everything has to be done for us. Like now, the guitars are tuning themselves while we’re playing. So I would certainly like the choice, whether to put it on the guitar, or not put it on the guitar. I would hate to have it “force-fed” to me, but I like the fact that they’re thinking. I’m open to that. I wish there was more of that, where they keep redesigning stuff and trying to make it better.
Jeremy: Anything else you’d like to add?
Tommy: We love the strings here, and speaking of new and cutting-edge and forward-thinking approach, you guys are on to it! So, kudos to your continued success. ¶
There is nowhere else to get that 48th Street vibe than to check out The Music Zoo. That being said, if you’re a musician, you have to come here at least once! They’re located in Roslyn, New York, in The Waterfront at Roslyn building. Please be sure to check out their amazing selection of guitars on their website at www.themusiczoo.com
Check out The Music Zoo’s commercial below!