Remembering Ed Vadas

The Pioneer Valley music community has just lost one of its giants, both figuratively and literally: bluesman Vast Ed Vadas.

Countless young guitarists of our generation fell in love with the blues during the folk boom of the 1960’s.  We learned the 12-bar pattern, and memorized the words of the blues icons, but when one listened, it was never as interesting of vital as the original version.  But with Ed, it was different.  One could really tell that he had listened long and hard, and absorbed the tradition.  He took that and carried it forward in his own unique way.  He was often loud, crude and obnoxious, and many people couldn’t get past that.  But the blues was never supposed to be a polite genre; its practitioners played in raunchy bars and sang about men and women who lived hard lives.  The music and the lyrics reflected that, and Ed channeled it in his own hard driving and often hilarious way.

My first memory of Ed is not a pleasant one: he came into Downtown Sounds looking for a couple of connectors for a microphone cable and I was out of stock.  He went into a blistering and obscene tirade about my incompetence as a music retailer.  Later visits were more pleasant, and I have fond memories of him sitting in “his” spot on the ledge near the counter pontificating about music and musicians.  His opinions were always interesting and worthy of consideration.

When I was in college I used to read a magazine called the Saturday Review.  They had an interesting feature which imagined the meeting of two historical characters who could not have known each other.  I had to opportunity to create such a meeting when Seymour Duncan, maker of pickups for electric guitars and basses, came through town to promote his company, offering to do a public show where he would accompany a local blues band.  I fixed him up with Ed and Junior at the Basement, and they put on an entertaining show.  Unfortunately, I think Mr. Duncan was more interested in flirting with a young woman who worked for me at the time than paying attention to the band he was playing with.

The final memory I want to share involved a dinner at my house; through a peculiar set of circumstances he and a friend spent an evening with me, my wife, and my mother.  My mother was 88 years old at the time; she was brought up in a very proper British household, and was always shy and reserved.  For me, who knew both of them, it was amazing to watch Ed put on the charm–he was polite and very attentive and they got along very well.  Before he left, he picked up a really crappy guitar I had lying around and sang “Trouble in Mind” for her; even on a junk guitar it was a beautiful moment–he just put everything into that song that was ever supposed to be there.

Rest in peace, Ed, and may you live long in the memories of all those you touched with your outsized personality and your heartfelt music!


News from the NAMM show

Every January I am fortunate enough to get away to sunny and warm Southern California, partly to escape winter and partly to attend our industry’s big trade show in Anaheim–NAMM.  As usual, I spent lots of money to bring interesting things back to the store.  Keep your eyes on the what’s new page over the next month or so to see all the interesting things coming in.  We’ll be getting some nice new electric guitars from Dan Electro and Reverend; Martin has come out with some really lovely retro-looking guitars in their 17-series; Seagull has a very nice new mandolin and a really gorgeous sunburst finish on some new models; we’ll be filling out our line of Mackie gear with their popular SR-450 speakers and some new portable PAs plus a cool mixer that works on your smart phone; we’re taking on a new line of effects pedals called “Earthquaker”, in addition to some new models from Boss, Electro Harminix and TC; in the world of drums, Pearl has some nice new snare drums and cajons, a new line of flat-base stands, and a new small drum kit called the Midtown, and Roland has a very cool cajon which plugs in so you can get their great drum sounds through your PA system.  So stay tuned!

Happy New Year

I’d like to thank all my customers for shopping at Downtown Sounds this year.  We had a very busy Christmas season.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!


Have a good Christmas

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season, and get to celebrate it with family and friends.
This may sound funny coming from a retailer, but it’s that celebration, whether it be religious or secular, that makes Christmas great. It’s not the gifts. Of course we all like to get presents, and buying gifts is one way of showing love and affection to those we care about. But being “present” is much more important than buying presents. Over the years I’ve seen many people spend money they didn’t have so their kids could have a “good Christmas”, and it always saddens me. So don’t feel bad if you can’t buy everything on the list; feel good about sharing the day and a meal with those you love.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Are you on our email list?

In 2016, Downtown Sounds will celebrate its 40th anniversary of selling musical instruments on Pleasant Street in Northampton. As we move forward, we will make a number of exciting and interesting changes in the store.  If you want to be among the very first to know about all of them, please sign up to receive emails from us; we won’t send many, but you’ll definitely want to stay tuned.  Just scroll down and type in your email address at the bottom of the page. Thanks.
Joe Blumenthal and the Downtown Sounds staff/crew

New at Downtown Sounds: Ampeg and Mackie

The final chapter in my transition away from being a Fender dealer was to take on a line of bass amps that would be competitive with those I lost.  I think that Ampeg will fill that niche quite nicely.  They make an excellent series of combo (self-contained) amps called the BA which goes from practice to  professional.  There is also the cool Portaflex, which has a head that turns upside down to be stored in the cabinet when travelling, and the professional SVT series.  They sound great–please stop by and check them out.

We also have started carrying a few PA products from Mackie, and that selection will grow over time.

From Fender to Supro

When Fender notified me a year and a half ago that I would no longer be a dealer, one of the most upsetting things about it was that I would no longer have access to what I consider the ultimate amp for the electric guitar:  the Fender Deluxe Reverb.  To me, there’s nothing quite as gorgeous as that classic rich, clean sound with luscious reverb behind it.  Actually, I still have one Fender Supersonic 22, which is sort of like a Deluxe with channel switching and sounds really great.

So today a rep came into my store with a Supro Tremo-verb amp; with a single 10″ speaker, it’s more like a Princeton Reverb but with a little more power.  But the important thing is that it had that classic clean electric guitar sound!  So I ordered two different models.  They’ll be in soon, and when they get here, they’ll show up in the what’s new section of the website.  I’m pretty sure you’ll like them as much as I do.

If anyone from Fender is reading this (I know it’s unlikely), you’ll know that when kids in Hampshire County Massachusetts come into their local music store looking for the iconic electric guitar and amplifier, they’ll get to see a G & L ASAT instead of a Tele, a G & L Legacy instead of a Strat, and a Supro Tremo-verb instead of a Princeton.  In terms of quality and value, they are all VERY competitive.

Rise Again — Back to health

It’s been about 8 weeks since I’ve made a blog post, thanks to the need for a second hip replacement over the summer.  Thankfully my recovery is going well, and I’m back to work part time.

So you could say that it’s time for me to “Rise Again”, and that is very appropriate because there is a new songbook which we’ll be getting in the next few days which goes by that title.

This isn’t just any songbook; it’s the sequel to the great “Rise Up Singing”, which we have been selling for years.  “Rise Up Singing” has a truly great selection of songs, with words and chords printed out.  It’s the kind of book every musician should have, especially if you like to participate in sing-along parties and jams.  Its authors, Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, who live in this area, have now published “Rise Again”, the sequel.  This book features many great pop songs which didn’t make it into “Rise Up Singing”, and many other wonderful tunes as well.  So this will be a must-have for a new generation of sing-alongs.

Here’s a link to the web page of the new book:

I’ll be away for a while

You may have noticed that I haven’t made a blog post in a while.  I’m going to blame my health problems for this, and for the fact that I won’t be able to resume writing anything else for a while.  For the second time in two years, I’m in need of a hip replacement.  The new one on my left side is working great, but now my right hip needs it.  And the pain medication that enabled me to function before the first operation isn’t working now, so I have been away from the store, and won’t be back in the swing of things until late September when my recovery will be well along.

In the meantime, the store runs well with my capable staff.  I am in touch by phone and email, but you won’t be seeing me for a while.  This getting old business is not easy!

Thanks for your patience, and I’ll see you in September.


A musical experience

	I’ve decided that my blog needn’t always be about musical instruments or
the business of musical instruments.  This one is about a musical
	This spring for the second time I sang with Mary Cay Brass’ Greenfield
Harmony chorus.  My association with the group goes back some years, as
I’ve often accompanied the chorus as a bass player.  Her programs are
made up of village music from around the world, especially the Balkans (I
play in a Balkan folk dance band); I really like her choices of tunes,
and she gets a great sound from the group.
	This spring she brought in her friend Kathy Bullock, a music professor
from Kentucky whose specialty is gospel music, to teach five gospel tunes
to the group which would be part of the spring concert.  I had worked
with her before as a bass player in accompanying her tunes, so I knew a
little of what to expect.
	The chorus of 70 or 80 members met in a hot church social hall in
Greenfield, sitting in rows in a semi-circle around Kathy and her piano. 
Rich sounding chords and a strong groove came from the piano as she sang
a line, “After all”; we repeated it, she called and we responded, then
“after everything I’ve seen, thank God I still—still have joy”.  First
with the sopranos, then the altos, tenors, and basses, never losing the
beat as she went along; after ten minutes we became the church choir. 
And if I do say so myself, we sounded good enough to be a church choir. 
Imagine, a bunch of stiff white New Englanders becoming an African
American church choir!  Suddenly it ws Sunday morning and we were lifted
up out of our everyday selves and became one joyous community in song. 
And when we performed the next weekend at a church, the audience rose up,
swayed and clapped along with us.
	This is the power of music: it reaches something deep inside us and
allows us to be one despite our differences.  And as enjoyable as it is
to witness it as part of the audience, it’s even greater to be a member
of the choir!

Summer rock band program at NCMC

One of the great joys of being a musician is getting to play with other people.  But it’s not always easy to find a group to join.  If you’re a teen-age musician, or know a teen-age musician, you should know about the Rock’n’Roll camp at the Northampton Community Music Center.  It offers a great opportunity to meet new musicians, learn fun songs, and find out what it takes to be successful in a band setting.  To find out more, click here:

Remembering the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society

When I started selling musical instruments in Northampton 39 years ago, the town was very different than it is today.  There was lots of live music then, but it was mostly in bars or at the colleges.  There was no Iron Horse or Calvin Theater, bringing important national acts to our town.  One of the catalysts for this change was a group called the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society, of which I was the treasurer for many years. During the late 1970’s, they brought many fine folk performers to the Northampton-Amherst area, including Doc Watson, Mike Seeger, Utah Phillips, Jean Redpath, Robin Williamson, Boys of the Lough, and many others.  We liked to think that the success of our efforts helped convince Jordi Herold that there was a market for live music here and that he might therefore have success when opening the Iron Horse in 1979.

Last week a friend brought an archive of all kinds of things from the Folklore Society into the store, and my wife Barbara created a very nice display of the posters in my window.  If you’d like to take a trip down memory lane, come take a look.



Advice on buying a new guitar for experienced players

I started my blog by offering advice on how to buy a guitar from the point of view of a beginner.  Now I’d like to offer my advice to more experienced players.

Once you’ve been playing for a while, your ears and hands become more attuned to the differences between one guitar and another.  You have probably seen and listened to a large variety of instruments, and had a chance to play guitars belonging to friends, or sample guitars at various stores you might have visited.  You’ve discovered that each one has its own personality.  All of this listening, playing and trying out of instruments brings you closer to finding the right instrument for you.

I’ll tell you about my experience shopping for a new upright bass, which will shed some light on the subject.  I was scheduled to do a recording with my klezmer band, and the engineer told me that he wouldn’t be able to get a good sound from my German plywood bass.  He suggested that I borrow a carved bass from a friend, which would be more resonant and better sounding.  I called my friend and teacher Lynn Lovell, who graciously loaned me her instrument.  Before I went into the studio, I set up both instruments in my music room at home, and was really impressed by how much better Lynn’s bass sounded.  So the decision was made: I needed a better instrument.

Lynn and I made a trip to David Gage’s store in New York City which specializes in basses, and we spent three hours in their showroom with a very knowledgeable salesperson.  I told him how much money I might spend, and he brought out six or eight instruments in my price range, and the two of us played each one and went back and forth until it became apparent which one was for me.  It turned out to be a relatively new bass made in Romania with a flat back.  I pulled out my credit card, and we drove home with my new baby.

So what are the key points here: First, I knew how much I could comfortably spend, and that determined which instruments I looked at.  Second, I took lots of time.  I played each one myself, and Lynn played each one while I listened.  I was really able to hear and feel the differences between the different instruments.  I had a knowledgeable friend with me who could help me make judgments and enable me to hear how the instrument sounded to an audience as well as to myself while playing.  Every bass I played was in tune and properly set up.

The fact that my bass had a flat back, weighed more than some others, and came from Romania didn’t really mean that much.  The most important thing was the sound, then the playability.  Everything else was way down the list.

It was hard for me as a retailer to go to another store and pay full price for a musical instrument.  I could have called one of my suppliers and purchased a carved bass for considerably less money.  But I would have had no idea before seeing and hearing it if it would have been right for me.  So it was worth it to me to travel and to pay retail to get the right instrument.

Downtown Sounds doesn’t have a big selection of string basses for a serious player (though we do have a quality beginner’s instrument).  But if you’re a serious guitar player, you’ll find a really good selection of properly set up instruments at my store in many price ranges.  And we’ll do our best to be sure you have a really positive buying experience and wind up with the right instrument for you.

Moving beyond Fender

Part of moving beyond the loss of Fender is bringing in new products that are competitive.  As of yesterday, we have a selection of G & L guitars on display.  G & L was the second of two companies founded by Leo Fender after CBS bought his company in 1965 (the other is Music Man).  The instruments they make are worthy successors to the Strat and the Tele.  So far we have received two USA made guitars: an ASAT (similar to a Tele) and a Legacy (similar to a Strat), and both are superb instruments.  We also received a selection of their Tribute series, made in Indonesia: 3 ASAT guitars, 2 Legacy guitars, 1 S-500 (also similar to a Strat), and two basses.  These are exceptionally well made instruments for the money, and very competitive with the models Fender brings in from Mexico.  I hope you’ll come in and check them out.

We have also received two high-end tube amps from Blackstar which are very competitive with the Fender Hot Rod series of amps.

More about Fender

As far as I was concerned, losing my Fender dealership was the big Fender event of 2014, but there were actually more momentous developments from the standpoint of the greater musical instrument industry.  I was not alone: about 20% of their dealers were discontinued.  Things also went the other way: many dealers dropped their dealership after Fender started making it possible for consumers to buy guitars and amps directly using their website.

The biggest development, though, is that Fender spun off most of its instrument businesses in order to concentrate on its core Fender guitar, amp and PA brands.  The first thing they did was to close the Guild factory in the Hartford area.  This was a real shame, in my opinion, because the guitars made there were just superb.  I have about five of them left.  I’m convinced that they will be collector’s items some day, as there weren’t that many made and they sound so good.  They felt that they couldn’t make the guitars profitably there, but if they could have made a go of it, they would have been in the acoustic guitar business in a very serious way.  Using the Guild name, they could have been very competitive with Gibson in set neck solid body and arch-top guitars too.  Instead, they sold the business to Cordoba, which is a major importer of classical guitars based in California.  Cordoba continues to import the Guild GAD series, which we are still stocking.  Later this year, they will start selling American made Guilds from their Santa Monica factory.  It’s too early to tell how they will compare with the ones made in Connecticut.

Fender also owned KMC music, a large distributor based in Bloomfield, CT.  This was formerly Kaman Music, which also made Ovation guitars.  Kaman aerospace spun off the company after founder Charles Kaman retired in order to concentrate on their main aerospace business.  KMC also owned Latin Percussion, Toca drums, Gibralter hardware, and the rights to distribute Gretsch drums and KAT electric drums.   At the end of last year, Fender also decided to sell off KMC.  In a very sudden move in December, Fender sold all of KMC’s major brands (including Ovation) to California drum maker Drum Workshop.  They did it with no allowance for transition; one day KMC was selling LP, then next day they couldn’t sell anything.  As a result, I was unable to get anything from LP, Toca or Gibralter for almost three months.  DW was unprepared and overwhelmed by the new distribution responsibilities.  I couldn’t even talk them until the January trade show; it was another three weeks before I could place an order and another three weeks after that before they finally shipped something to me.  It’s kind of hard to imagine how Fender could have done a worse job with the transition.  In the long run, however, I believe that DW will be an excellent steward of the old KMC brands, as they have always put out an excellent product.  As a result of the change, we may start seeing some DW hardware before long at Downtown Sounds.

Fender’s final move was to sell what was left of KMC to JAM Industries, a huge Canadian distributor which also distributes many other brands sold in the US.  I believe that all this change is due to some changes in ownership at Fender.  The investors who rescued Fender from CBS (many of whom were now retired employees) were looking to sell their stake in the company.  Several years ago they hired Larry Thomas, who took Guitar Center public, with the hope that he could do the same for Fender.  However, it didn’t work out, and they found other investors whose idea of how to make Fender prosper involved selling assets that didn’t directly contribute to its core guitar and amp business.

Downtown Sounds and Fender

Last year saw a significant change at Downtown Sounds, though it may not have been very noticeable before now. In March I received a form letter from an executive in Fender’s sales department informing that my dealership had been terminated. Needless to say, after 38 years as a loyal dealer who showed a very large inventory and paid my bills on time, it was quite a shock. The explanation, when I finally spoke to him, involved a fair amount of MBA school marketing jargon, along with disappointment that my sales had been down the year before and that I wasn’t interested in carrying their acoustic guitars. Because I had such a large inventory, few of you noticed the change for a while, but my amp and lower priced electric guitars from Fender are mostly depleted.

Since then I have made several adjustments to compensate for the loss of Fender. I have taken on Blackstar amps. This company was founded a few years ago by folks who used to work for Marshall. Their ID core amps are very competitive with the Fender Mustang series, and their HT series amps are great for those looking for the classic tube sound. I have gotten in a number of Yamaha Pacifica guitars which compare favorably to the Squier Classic Vibe series from Fender. And next month we will be taking on G & L guitars. G & L was founded by Leo Fender after the CBS buyout, and they make very fine instruments. They have an import series called “Tribute” that will replace the Fender standard series, and their USA ASAT and Legacy guitars are great for fans of the Telecaster and Stratocaster.

More about changes at Fender will be coming up in my next post.

Guitar sculptures

Do you ever wonder what happens to old guitars when they die?  Sometimes they get turned into art projects.

Well, a few weeks ago I was helping Owen clean out the repair shop, and we came across quite a few old guitars which were not worth saving.  I called Peter Smolenski, a former long-time employee who now devotes himself to his art (see more at, and came and took them.  He glued all kinds of things onto them, and now they have a new life as original works of art and they’re on display in our store window.  There is also a violin and ukulele sculpture.  If you’d like to see what they look like, friend us on and you’ll see a post with photos of them.

If you have ideas about how to turn old instruments into art projects, come in and talk to me; maybe you’ll get the next group of them.

Advice on buying your first guitar

We often greet people whose first question is “Do you have any used guitars?”  The assumption is that used guitars will be less expensive, and that it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on a first guitar since one can always trade up if the playing goes well.  But there are other more important things to consider.

The most important thing to keep in mind when buying a first musical instrument is that it needs to be set up to play well.  There are many adjustments that can be made on guitars, and if a guitar isn’t set up well it can be very frustrating to play.  The most common complaint would be that the strings are too high off the neck, which makes them hard to push down and throws the guitar out of tune when you do push them down.  For this reason, we at Downtown Sounds don’t sell new guitars under $150; it usually costs more than they’re worth to get them set up properly.

The first question to ask is what kind of music do you want to play, as there are three types of guitars and they’re used for different types of music.  Nylon string guitars are used to play classical music, or for fingerstyle folk and jazz.  Steel string guitars are the most versatile: almost any style sounds good on them except classical. If you want to play country or bluegrass, you have to have a steel string.  If you want to play rock’n’roll, you’ll want to get an electric guitar.  A beginner can start on any of those; it’s not necessary to play acoustic before you can play electric.  If you’re hearing the kind of sound you want to hear when you play, it will encourage you to practice; the more you practice, the faster you’ll learn.  So that’s why I recommend matching the style of guitar you buy to the kind of music you want to play.  However, I do often recommend nylon string guitars for young children as the strings are easy to press down; steel strings can hurt a little until you develop calluses on your fingers.

Another important factor is the size of the guitar.  The most popular model of steel string is a very large guitar called a dreadnought; they have the most volume and are very strong in the bass register.  But unless you’re 5’10” or taller, they can be awkward to play.  I recommend a grand concert or classical size guitar for most people under 5’10”.   There are also 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 size guitars for kids.

As for price, if you spend $150 or more you should be able to get a quality guitar that sounds good and is properly set up.  If you spend more than that, you’ll get something that sounds better, but I don’t recommend that a beginner spend more than $4-500 on a first guitar.  As you practice and play, your ears will get more sensitive to the sound of different guitars, and your hands will get more sensitive to the feel of different guitars.  After you’ve been playing for a couple of years, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the more expensive instruments, and choose which is best for you.  I’ll talk about buying a step-up guitar in another blog post.

Finally, for today, there’s the question of where to buy the guitar.  Many people shop on line these days.  That’s OK, but consider the following: If you’re a beginner, the difference in sound between one guitar and another won’t make as much difference to you as it will later, but as I said earlier, the setup is very important.  You’ll want to be sure that the guitar is set up properly so it’s easy to play.  If it’s hard to play, it will discourage you from practicing and you’ll be much less likely to get good on it.  Every guitar at Downtown Sounds is guaranteed to be set up properly; if you or your teacher has a problem with it, the problem will be fixed for free. Many people also buy used instruments from a variety of places.  If you go look at a used instrument, take someone who plays along with you so that they can tell whether the guitar is playing well.  The less you know, the harder it is to be sure you’re getting a good value.  If you buy in a store, you know that you’ll have a warranty and that there will be someone to take care of things if there’s a problem.

A new feature of the Downtown Sounds website: my blog

Today we’ll be inaugurating a new feature of the Downtown Sounds website: my blog. I’ll be using this space for a variety of purposes. I’ll offer advice about various aspects of purchasing and caring for musical instruments; I’ll answer common questions about musical instruments and accessories, and I’ll comment on various trends in the music industry. If you have a question you’d like to see addressed here, please email me: