The Cohn Connection: Inside Chicago’s Best-Kept Secret

COMING SOON! My new responsive blog switchover is not quite yet ready; this will look even better on all your devices shortly! PS: Comments are down, but will back up in the new format. – G

Those who follow my Facebook feed will have seen a single image from this story – an adventure that took place last month when my wife and I visited my home city to attend my niece’s wedding celebration, see family, and get the Architecture River Tour of Chicago. Everything was great, but this additional short adventure was (to put it simply) mind-boggling.

Our story actually begins a dozen years ago in the spring of 2009, when the above image appeared in a Fretboard Journal piece on Chicago music stores. I’d never heard of Andy’s Music (and I’m from the Windy City), and noting a couple harp guitars hidden behind the text, I knew I’d have to someday pay him a visit!

My friend Nate Blaustein (fellow FJ subscriber and harp guitar fan) managed to beat me to it, visiting the off-the-radar store some 10 years ago. (Here, he’s holding a Knutsen hollow-arm “harp-mandolin.”) Nate subsequently sent me an email introducing me to owner Andy, who shares with me an interest in old and unusual plucked strings. I finagled an invite, but never managed to find the time during my short Chicago visits over the years.

But for this week-long trip in August 2021, I was determined to track Andy down and make sure we could connect. It wasn’t easy! First, I couldn’t find his email or store. “Vintage guitars” in Chicago yielded nothing. At the last minute, I tried “antique musical instruments/Chicago” and found him through images that could only be him! At the moment, I can’t find that link (I believe he’s now re-doing the website) – it was a simple listing that included incredible brand-new Google 360 degree views inside every music room. What I saw didn’t seem to be possible; it was like some special effect or magic trick! But no, it was all real, and what I would soon see in person was exactly as I had seen it in the dozen 360 views inside his wonderland.

Andy had moved five years prior. This is outside his new one-story brick warehouse in the north side of Chicago. The unassuming brick building would prove to be just like Doctor Who’s Tardis – somehow larger on the inside than the outside.

Walking in the corner front door I was immediately assaulted by plucked strings. I knew he had some 200-year-old harp-lutes; he had five, all in decent condition.

The room was a hodgepodge like I’ve never seen. New Indian and similar instruments from the old Mideast Wholesale Co. next to valuable antiquities. Here, for example, are three 200-year-old lyre guitars; a typical French, Spanish, and the bizarre Paris “armless” form. The historic keyboards are various reproductions.

A collection of Borneo sape (dig the two in anthropomorphic form) and assorted antique (a Clark) and newer harps.

Down a sort of zither/cittern/lyre hallway, I turned right into a ukulele/mandolin room. There was the Knutsen harp-mando next to modern import and a Calace mandolyra much like my own.

OK, so you’ve seen some hanging tags…what exactly is Andy’s Music? A museum? A store?

Well, turns out…neither, really. But let’s move on and keep exploring, or you’ll never believe me!

Though once a more traditional “store,” Andy is now open by appointment only and deals just in Paiste gongs and crystal bowls (like those you see in his main performance area above). Indeed, that is how I happened to catch him there, as he had a delivery of giant 4×4 foot boxes out back. He’d be shipping one and delivering another later that day. (You ask how much of a demand is there for gongs? Apparently, it’s a popular collectible, and he averages several a week!) Of the tens – hundreds? – of thousands of other instruments of every description, it turned out that virtually nothing was for sale (believe me, I tried!). I was beginning to feel like those who walk into my own back museum room whose eyes glaze over in disbelief…times 1000. Yet just as I consider my own little hobby perfectly “normal,” so Andy does his.

Indeed, he became confused when I asked him about the seemingly endless amount of “inventory” he had in back. He said “What do you mean inventory? It’s all part of my collection…” And it was. I was mistaken above what looked like hundreds of brand new “priced” kalimbas (above). Those stickers were the individual pitch and tuning of each – no two were the same! Andy was in the process of feeding all this data into a monumental spreadsheet. We’ll get to why in a minute.

One can stand in the middle of his giant open main room and find unbelievable vistas with every turn. Layer upon layer of instruments carefully hung and organized by general type. Here we look upon a keyboard display/performance area.

Collectors and ethnomusicologists will know much more about this than I do. Bizarre and wonderful inventions from other centuries and the occasional modern electronic invention.

Here, the floor and shelves were filled with every size and shape and pitch of a modern invention called the “monochord” – a simple resonating rectangular wooden box strung with a couple dozen strings all of the same gauge, tuned to the same pitch. (Yes, the marketing name is improper; a “monochord” is a one-string instrument by any definition; these are instead multichord “single-note” instruments.) The ones lower right are standing upright on the floor, almost 4’ high. Imagine your guitar’s low E string, but times 50. Now strum it. Yes, it was really cool, and no, I have no idea how Andy can possibly keep this stuff in tune, but it was! Note that Andy has a flashlight and is now beckoning me to follow him.

He wanted to make sure I saw the harp guitars hung in the shadows. There were a couple of garden variety German kontragitarres and the common German and Swedish basslauten. A Gibson harp guitar was hanging from the rafters elsewhere.

Needing a quick bathroom break, he pointed me to turn right at the African drums…

…and another corner full of perfectly placed wind instruments…

…past an open door hung with more flutes…

…the room another repository of tuned sets of chimes, bells, cymbals and glasses of every description. Hotel desk bells of every size and an old Grand Harmonicon…

…another set of tuned glasses. You now hopefully understand that if an object can be construed as making any kind of musical tone or sound, Andy owns one.

Naturally, he has a full Javanese gamelan. The largest portion (red and yellow) came from the Chicago gamelan “orchestra.” I almost missed this entire corner, hidden behind other racks of hanging sets of pitched objects of every description.

Andy is quiet, modest, unassuming; not one to share his life story (as I do!) – it took me some time to pull bits of it out of him (I was insanely curious). This is my take (not his own words): For ages, he owned Chicago’s Andy’s Rentals. Locals and musicians and shows passing through would rent his vast inventory of guitars, amps, keyboards, drums – the whole professional showbiz enchilada. While he amassed instruments, equipment and made his living off all that, he similarly amassed any musical instruments that appealed to him, old, new, rare, you-name-it. As a dealer, he could and would order entire catalogs worth of ethnic instruments from eBay and importers all over the world. Much of this he used to sell at the original Andy’s Music location. At some point, he decided not to sell anything he couldn’t easily replace. He also eliminated the more “hard to play” instruments (horns and reeds, for example) and relegated the guitars and other strings to the background, concentrating on those things that a non-musician might enjoy exploring and getting an attractive sound out of. I’m certainly appreciative of anything that has a unique musical sound, from a one-of-a-kind harp guitar to the simplest bamboo or wooden chunk of “primitive” music making. Andy has taken that to its most extreme and dedicated conclusion. Beyond the things I at least knew existed, he showed me endless new inventions I’d never heard of. And they sounded gorgeous. Something as simple as “Koshi chimes,” which you hang on your porch as beautiful tuned wind chimes (with various pitches and tuned scales)…to the wonderful “RAV” drum made in Russia (a cross between a steel drum-type handpan and a tongue drum). He had these in every size and thus pitch.

The idea behind all this new focus with his vast collection is “modality.” Fixed pitch instruments are analyzed and separated into keys and other “in-between” pitches to +/-5 cents. Others (like the kalimbas or monochords) are tuned to match these pitches or scales. Hundred of instruments of all types and sounds can then be grouped together into a sort of “modal super orchestra” (again, my term, Andy doesn’t put labels on any of this). Now just imagine Andy and friends jamming away while an audience lies back on his vast Persian rug arena, surrounded by what I can only imagine would be best described as “a musical orgy of sound.” Just the small tastes I got while tapping and prodding the variety of objects I stumbled across assures me that there will be nothing quite like this anywhere on earth!

Andy mentioned that he was soon meeting to determine requirements for city licenses for the musical concerts and adventures he has been imagining and is now fully prepared for, after working his butt off through the years of pandemic.

As I was clearly interested and starting to vaguely “get” what he’s about, he shared this extreme example, which demonstrates what kind of serious technical musician he is alongside the spectacular modal experiences he is after. Above: This grand piano has been completely re-tuned to a “10 tone scale.” Don’t ask me to explain (I see that there are many variants of a 10-note scale…but the 10-fret custom guitar he had sitting here seemed to have equidistant frets?) Surrounding the piano are ten of those large multi-strung “monochords” with each tuned to one of the 10 notes. Next to it (below) were ten giant crystal bowls, pitched – guess how? Yes. He’d placed a huge order, painstakingly went through them and found ten that matched the exact same ten pitches! (those not passing the audition were sold).

I see it as a sort of esoteric jazz “gamelan orchestra” that Andy will write/improvise music for, with I suppose a minimum 20 other musicians playing their part.

To demonstrate, he had me hit this gong while he rang this perfectly-matched-in-pitch giant bowl. I tried to quickly record this video, but the phone and speakers can’t capture or reproduce how low it was (approaching or beyond the piano’s lowest note? I couldn’t quite tell).

I’ve been to a lot of amazing museums and collections and have met my share of passionate and obsessive individuals in my lifetime. But so far, Andy takes the cake. Watch for his new website and when he finally opens his doors to the public, get your ticket!

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