Rudy Can't Fail

As Rudy's Music celebrates its 40th anniversary, owner Rudy Pensa remains the last man standing from Manhattan's legendary Guitar Row.
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The 40th Anniversary of Rudy’s Music is a milestone in and of itself. But what truly makes this particular anniversary a cause for both celebration and contemplation is the store’s survival in the increasingly difficult retail environment of New York City. Manhattan’s illustrious guitar shops have quietly vanished in recent years. Manny’s, on 48th Street, went out of business in 2009, a few years before all of the other stores vanished from the legendary Music Row that was once the heart of the city’s musical community. When Matt Umanov Guitars in Greenwich Village closed its doors last December, Rudy’s became the city’s sole remaining independent guitar store that can claim a connection to the instrument’s late-’70s glory days.

“I really miss 48th Street,” says Rudy Pensa, the owner of Rudy’s Music. “I can’t even go near that area anymore, because it makes me cry. I’m disappointed that the city of New York didn’t protect that street. A big piece of history was lost. Everybody came to 48th Street during the ’60s: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix — you name it. The street was famous for music stores since the ’20s, but no one saw the potential of keeping the history alive.”

Pensa closed his fabled 48th Street store in 2015, a decision motivated by excessive rents as well as decreased foot traffic caused by the closures of music stores surrounding him. However, his store in Mahattan’s SoHo district, which opened in December 2009, became a destination in its own right, thanks to its incredible selection of fine vintage, custom and rare instruments, which are displayed in a gorgeous, comfortable and welcoming environment. Like the Rudy’s Music that once stood on 48th Street, the SoHo shop is a gathering place for all fans of the guitar, where famous rock stars seeking a rare vintage axe rub shoulders with young kids buying their first instruments.

Defying the grim nature of today’s retail environment, Rudy’s Music has even managed to grow and expand. Earlier this year, a new Rudy’s location opened in Scarsdale, New York, a suburban town some 25 miles north of SoHo. In addition to offering a similar selection of instruments, the Scarsdale store will host special events, showcases and clinics.

“We’re going to do things, like a flamenco guitar night where we serve Spanish wines from the wine store next to us,” Pensa says. “When I moved to SoHo from midtown, a lot of my customers couldn’t make it to the store anymore. People who used to drop into the midtown location at lunch could no longer take the subway or a cab to my SoHo shop because it took too long to get there. Now they all live in Greenwich, Armonk, Larchmont, and they all come to the Scarsdale store. My old customers really love the new location.”

Another significant factor behind Pensa’s success is that, in addition to selling fi ne guitars, he makes them. In 1982, he built several R Custom guitars that he sold at his 48th Street store, and in 1985 he collaborated with his employee John Suhr on their own line of guitars. That same year, Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler and Pensa worked out the details of a custom MK model that became Knopfler’s main guitar for his group’s massive 1985–’86 tour in support of their best-selling Brothers in Arms album.

Pensa with customers Mark Knopfl er (far left) and Dave Grohl (center right). The headstock of a Rudy’s 40th anniversary model

Pensa with customers Mark Knopfl er (far left) and Dave Grohl (center right). The headstock of a Rudy’s 40th anniversary model

“Mark thanked us in the credits on the album, which gave us a big boost in business,” Pensa says. “We started making guitars for him around that time, and when he went to number one, he was playing my guitars. It was a big compliment, and it helped make our guitars an instant success.”

Dozens of notable guitarists have owned and played Pensa Custom Guitars over the years, including Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Lenny Kravitz, Lou Reed and Pat Thrall. Today, Pensa Custom offers a wide variety of models, including the Mark Knopfler MK-I, MK-II, MKD, MK Jazz, MK-80 and MK-90 models; T Thinline, 62 and RJR guitars; and the J-4 and J-5 basses. In celebration of the store’s 40th anniversary, Pensa Custom is making a limited run of very special “Rudy’s” models.

“This is the masterpiece,” Pensa says. “I had an idea that we should change the Pensa name on the headstock to Rudy’s, only for the 40th anniversary models. The guitars still have the Pensa name, but it’s on the back of the headstock instead of the front. It’s a one-time-only thing, as it’s to celebrate the store’s 40th anniversary going back to 1978 and not the anniversary of Pensa Custom Guitars, which started in 1985.

“I decided that we should find the most ridiculous, high-quality pieces of wood available,” Pensa continues. “Initially, I wanted to make only 20 guitars, but we sold 12 almost immediately, so I increased the total to 25. Makoto, the number-one guy at my wood supplier, asked me if I wanted mahogany. I told him that I wanted something really beautiful, with a lot of grain, at least for the top. The back could still be mahogany or korina. After a month, Makoto found 10 pieces of ziricote, which is a very rare rosewood that comes from southern Mexico. That was perfect. We also found some Macassar ebony and a few other woods. All of the wood that we got to build these guitars is ridiculous.”

The Rudy’s 40th Anniversary guitars are designed to make exquisite wood the focal point. The body and neck are fully bound, but the fingerboard is completely free of inlays to keep the design simple and elegant while highlighting the beautiful figuring and grain of the Macassar ebony. Features include a semihollow design with a single f-hole on the bass bout, a 25.5- inch scale length, 22 frets and goldplated brass hardware, including the tremolo bridge. Three different pickup configurations are offered: three singlecoils, two P-90s or two humbuckers.

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Martin and Fender are also building special limited-edition models in celebration of the store’s 40th anniversary. Martin is creating a custom OM-style steel-string flattop acoustic in a limited run of only 15 guitars, featuring woods hand-selected by Pensa himself and interior labels signed by Pensa and Martin CEO Chris Martin. Fender is making four different Rudy’s Music 40th Anniversary guitars: a 1962 Telecaster, 1962 Stratocaster, 1962 Jazz Bass and 1958 Precision Bass.

“My all-time favorite Fenders are the models they made in 1962,” Pensa explains. “I think they’re really beautiful, and they have the right features that players really love. The reason why the Precision Bass is based on a 1958 model and not a 1962 is because I have always adored the P-Bass that Nokie Edwards played with the Ventures on the band’s first two albums. When I was growing up, I used to spend hours looking at that bass on their album covers, and dream.”

The fact that two of the biggest guitar companies in the world are paying tribute to the 40th anniversary of Rudy’s Music is a testament to just how important the store has been for the guitar industry over the years. Pensa plans on keeping his shop a vital part of the worldwide guitar community by providing visitors with an experience they can’t get anywhere else, one that will keep customers returning to Rudy’s.

“I’ve invited companies to send representatives to the SoHo store,” he explains. “I’m providing them with free space where they can show customers special guitars, allow them to select woods for custom guitars or just talk with someone from the company about how their guitars are made. If they want to order a custom guitar directly from the company, this will allow them to do just that. We’re bringing the guitar companies directly to the customers. Not everybody has the chance to go to the Martin, Taylor or Fender factories, but more than 50 million people from all over the world visit New York every year. If they play guitar, I want them to come to Rudy’s Music and either find the guitar of their dreams or have it made. I already have five companies onboard, but I hope to have 15 to 17 by the beginning of 2019.”

As a collector who owns one of the world’s finest collections of D’Angelico, D’Aquisto and Monteleone archtop guitars, Pensa has seen many dream guitars pass through his shop. However, the most memorable guitar that truly blew him away was an instrument that was in the shop for only about a day.

“Sean Lennon brought his dad’s Epiphone Casino here in 1990,” Pensa fondly recalls. “I can remember the year very well, because Sean was only five when his father was killed on December 8, 1980 — which I’ll never forget, because December 8 is my mom’s birthday — and he was 15 when he came into the shop. Sean asked me if I could clean and restring a guitar, and when he opened the case, I almost died. It was the Casino that John played the last time all of the Beatles played together. I had to have a photo taken of me holding the guitar. It was by far the most significant guitar I’ve ever held in my hands. My only regret is that I forgot to keep the strings, as John was the last person to touch them.”

Pensa feels that his passion for the guitar has been key to the store’s 40 years of survival. “We’ve always tried to find the right guitar for the right person,” he says. “I’m not looking to sell customers any guitar but rather one that truly works for them. I always tell my salespeople to make sure that the customers have an experience. You have to be extremely nice, and you have to be extremely knowledgeable. But most importantly, you have to love what you do. If you don’t love guitars, I don’t want you to work here. I have a true passion for guitars, and people sense that. When you sense that, it makes the experience more special and meaningful, and that’s something you can’t get when you order a guitar online.”

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