Rudy Pensa Seeks a New Home for His Collection of Revered Archtops

December 17th, 2015

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.


IN PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE: Over the last four decades, Rudy Pensa has acquired an impressive collection of the world’s finest archtop guitars. Now he’s searching for someone to give those guitars a new home.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Rayon Richards

About 38 years ago, Rudy Pensa opened a guitar shop on Manhattan’s 48th Street called Rudy’s Music Stop, which soon became a world-famous destination for guitarists seeking the finest vintage and new guitars. Pensa has also had a great sideline career as a guitar builder, crafting axes for the likes of
Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, Lou Reed and Lenny Kravitz.

Step inside Pensa’s seven-bedroom home on a leafy residential street in Westchester County, a half-hour’s train ride north of Manhattan, and you’ll be left with no doubt that the business has treated him well. On the ground floor, the house is airy and comfortable, with views of a lush green lawn, a luxurious in-ground swimming pool, and a whimsical white garden shed/child’s playhouse. But we’re not lingering here. The jovial Pensa beckons us further, down to the basement, into a large windowless room that’s all leather and dark wood. “This is my man cave,” he says in a thick Argentinian accent, “where I go to watch my soccer, smoke my cigars, and drink my single malt. You need a place to go to do all the bad things.”

Across from a massive home theater setup anchored by a Cronus tube amplifier, empty vintage Bordeaux and Quintarelli Cabernet Franc magnum bottles loom on the top shelves of a handsome wooden breakfront as reminders of good times past. Pensa comments that he’s altered his wine purchasing habits in recent years. “I can’t buy wine to save now,” he says. “I’m not waiting 20 years to drink something. In five years, my doctor will probably tell me not to drink anymore.” Slight pause. “I’ll need to change my doctor then.” Big laugh.


Pensa’s man cave is a lovely spot, but it’s still not quite our final destination. Just down the hall and around a corner is his true inner sanctum: a walk-in closet lined with cabinets, each one containing dozens of guitars. The delights found here are many, including stunning designs by the Viennese luthier Michael Spalt and a bizarre electric model made out of a BMW exhaust manifold by Anibal Mistorni (better known simply as AM).

At the heart of Pensa’s collection, though, are about four dozen archtops, the peak product of nearly a century’s worth of work by the revered New York luthiers John D’Angelico, Jimmy D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone. Each of these guitars is a lovingly handmade masterpiece, a true one-of-a-kind. It has taken Pensa more than three decades to gather this unique collection of instruments. He featured much of it in a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book called Archtop Guitars, then allowed several key pieces to be displayed as part of the memorable 2011 Guitar Heroes exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And now he’s just about ready to let it all go.

“You’ve heard people say, ‘This is coming with me to the grave,’ right?” Pensa says. “Not me. I’m not taking any guitars to the grave, because I want these guitars to be played. It’s getting close to time for me to find someone with the same passion that I have to share the collection. That’s my mission right now, to find that person. I’d like to keep the guitars together, though. I’m not going to sell them one by one. The advantage of that to anyone who’s interested is, what took me 35 years to put together you can have in one day.”

That Pensa is serious about selling his prized archtops is yet another sign of changing times, much like his earlier crack about wine or, for that matter, his decision to close the original midtown location of Rudy’s this past August. (The gorgeous new SoHo store, which he opened in 2009, is still going strong.) When he first opened his store in the late Seventies, it was just one part of the celebrated Music Row of instrument shops and a handful of recording studios that took up most of West 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Now every one of those stores are history, or soon to be, pushed out by madly rising Manhattan real-estate prices. The sole survivor on the block, accordion specialist Alex Music, recently announced it would shut its doors for good in fall 2015.

For Pensa, this latest news has personal impact. Shortly after immigrating to the U.S. from his native Argentina in 1974, he got his first job on 48th Street at Alex Music. He worked there for nearly three years with Fran, the woman who would soon become, and still is, his wife (they got married on a lunch break). The couple then established Rudy’s in 1978.

“We picked the right moment to open that store,” Pensa says. “The city was just starting to come out of recession, and 48th Street was an absolute jewel. In those days, of course, there was no Internet, so if you wanted to see the guitars, you had to come to the stores. And the people who came were players. Over time, they became collectors, and the street lost its appeal to musicians. What happened with Manny’s was the beginning of the end. [A linchpin of the block, Manny’s Music was bought by rival Sam Ash in 1999, then closed 10 years later.] I’m not disappointed that I’m gone from 48th, but I am disappointed that New York City failed to protect that block. I’m an immigrant who came to America so I could see 48th Street. To me, that was America.”

It was also where Pensa first discovered the archtop guitar. “Silver & Horland, one of the stores across the street from Alex Music, had bought a tremendous amount of D’Angelicos before they moved from Park Row to 48th,” he remembers. “I saw this big, blonde guitar there that reminded me of my father’s cello. I was in my twenties, and I’d never seen an archtop in my life. I asked Richie Silver, the owner of the store, ‘Who made this?’ And he said to me, ‘Ohhhh, that’s the Stradivarius of the guitar.’ Then he told me that D’Angelico had died in the Sixties, and if I had questions about his guitars I should call this phone number and talk to the guy who’d been his assistant, Jimmy D’Aquisto.” Pensa did, and the two quickly became friends.

Over time, various D’Angelico guitars found their way to Pensa. “They all came through the store,” he explains, “but I couldn’t bring myself to sell them. I love them all too much.” He now owns 30. Principal among them is a striking 1940 white Special, one of only three made in this color; the whereabouts of the second are unknown, and D’Angelico later refinished the third in sunburst on orders of its owner, Bucky Pizzarelli. Nearby is a 1957 New Yorker that may look familiar to anyone who’s ever used a Mel Bay instructional book. “Yes, that’s one of Mel Bay’s guitars,” Pensa confirms, “and it was pictured on a lot of his instructional book covers.”

Then there’s a 1937 New Yorker, the fourth one D’Angelico built and one of the rare examples from this era that’s still 100 percent original—even the pickguard (usually among the first items to be replaced). “Look at this maple,” Pensa sighs, ogling the luscious wood grain. “D’Aquisto said to me when he was alive, ‘Never use wood that’s less than 20 or 30 years old.’ This is old wood. You can’t find maple like this anymore.”

D’Aquisto is well represented in Pensa’s collection too, including various New Yorkers and Classics, as well as what may be the centerpiece of his collection: the last two guitars D’Aquisto made, a pair of Centura archtops found in the luthier’s spray booth after his death in 1995, serial numbers 1256 and 1257. Pensa smiles as he recalls a day when he had them in his store and jazz great Pat Martino stopped by. “Pat said he had half an hour to spare before an appointment, and he wanted to know what had come in that was good. I told him I had the guitars that Jimmy D’Aquisto never got the chance to hear. He didn’t know what I meant at first. Then he realized. He canceled his appointment and spent three hours in the store playing them.”

After D’Aquisto’s death, another New York–based builder, John Monteleone, became the keeper of the archtop flame, making incredibly gorgeous creations out of his Long Island workshop. Pensa owns several Monteleones: an outrageously beautiful Grand Artist Deluxe; a trio of art deco-inspired “radio” guitars, the Radio City, Radio Wave, and Radio Flyer; a Super Chief, one in a line of classic train-themed instruments; and a Mezzanine, with outer architecture inspired by the elegant second floor of Pensa’s SoHo store.

Pensa plays all his archtops at least once a month, making adjustments and doing cleanup as necessary. Only one gets daily attention, a 1940 D’Angelico Excel. “I don’t call myself a musician,” he says as he picks up his chosen everyday instrument. “To me, that word means something very special. I love music, I love instruments, but I’m not a musician.” Hearing him play a tender solo arrangement of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” one may suspect he’s being a little self-deprecating.

As Pensa gradually became better acquainted with the treasures of American luthiery that grace his home, he gained a new perspective on the abiding collectors’ fascination with, say, Fifties Gibsons or pre-CBS Fenders. “Those kinds of guitars can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they’re great,” he acknowledges, “but they were all assembled in a factory, and they can be faked. These guitars were handmade by artists, and they can’t be faked. And the supply is small: D’Angelico built 1,164. D’Aquisto built 257. When they’re gone, they’re gone; you can’t get another one. In the next 10 years, I think we’re going to see just how valuable these instruments are.”

Parties interested in finding out more about Pensa’s archtop collection should contact him at

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.


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