“I’m not a good salesman, I’ll never be a good salesman,” Baltimore Music Company co-founder Steve Blake said, despite the dozens of impressive guitars for sale adorning the walls of his new business. “I needed to come up with a place that just makes sense, where no one has to lie, and I think we’ll be okay. That was kind of my ultimate goal.”
Blake, 37, has spent most of his life surrounding himself with music, playing in bands, repairing guitars as a professional luthier and giving lessons to novice musicians. Baltimore Music Company, which is housed in the Union Collective building alongside UNION Craft Brewing and Vent Coffee Roasters, is a culmination of his dreams and aspirations for a business of his own, even if Blake speaks of it softly, with self-deprecating humor.
Blake said he worked at many mom and pop and brick-and-mortar stores, “and then I worked at Guitar Center, which is a big chain. So I was seeing sort of all the elements — not methodically, I certainly don’t wanna mislead you into thinking that I’m smart.” Touring in bands, Blake would visit stores in music hubs like Nashville and New York and get more ideas, taking particular inspiration from Levon Helm Studios, the famed barn that the late drummer of The Band converted into a venue and studio in Woodstock, New York.
Baltimore Music Company officially opened on April 15, doing business five days a week (Tuesday through Saturday). But the concept started taking shape back in late 2020 after Blake had a fortuitous conversation with a fellow local guitar teacher. “A good friend of mine, Christie Macdonald, reached out, and she said ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing a business, I have an idea. I know I want to do lessons and you do repairs; do you have any ideas?’” he remembered. “So we started putting our heads together, and she essentially had the means to finance it.”
The result, about two years and more than $1 million later, is a 6,700-square-foot space that includes hundreds of guitars, amps and pedals; private rehearsal rooms; a stage for performances (or casual jam sessions); and a guitar repair shop with state-of-the-art tech.
Luthiery is an old, old profession that requires skilled hands, but Blake isn’t afraid to embrace the cutting edge. The most impressive piece of hardware on the premises is the Plek machine, a giant glass and metal box that sort of functions as both a CAT scan and a surgeon to diagnose and fix whatever ails a guitar. There are about 83 of them in the world, and Baltimore Music Company’s Plek has the number 82 marked on its door. “It’s made in Germany, it’s a six-figure machine, but it does the most accurate fretwork and guitar work down to a hundredth of a millimeter,” Blake said. A musician who’d spent years trying to fix a buzzing E string on his favorite guitar recently brought it in, and the machine found and remedied the problem in about 15 minutes.
Having worked in guitar shops, Blake already knew that he was far less interested in selling instruments than helping musicians maintain and repair the instruments they already have. But having made connections in the retail business, inevitably Baltimore Music Company began lining its walls with hundreds of guitars and basses from respected brands including Taylor Guitars, VOX and Paul Reed Smith Guitars, which is based an hour away in Stevensville, Maryland. “PRS is right off the Eastern Shore. They make guitars for everyone from Santana to John Mayer. They’re one of the biggest companies around, and we didn’t feel like they were represented in Baltimore, so they jumped on board. Then I said, ‘Well OK, now it’s a retail space,’” he said.
“Having that all under one roof is pretty unique, I don’t know any other place that has that,” said Chris Scholtes, a guitarist in the Baltimore bands Several Species and Words of the Prophets. Blake spent the last two years amassing gear in a Towson office space until it could be moved into the Hampden storefront, and Scholtes recalls being blown away by their collection of vintage guitar pedals. “He had like three or four Echoplexes from the early ‘70s. I don’t think I’d ever seen one in person, like wow, this is so impressive.”
Jeff Gorman, who grew up in Towson and now fronts the Virginia-based band Illiterate Light, has retained Blake’s luthier services for years, and stopped by Baltimore Music Company before the band’s current tour. “Steve fixed four of my guitars, I sold him one, and I bought one, and now I’m out on the road for a month,” Gorman said on the phone from Indianapolis, where he was about to play his new guitar onstage for the first time. “I bought a Fender Stratocaster that Steve had hand-customed.”
The day after Gorman’s visit, the store prominently displayed Illiterate Light’s vinyl and T-shirts. Blake hopes to use the space’s stage to host album release parties and intimate shows for the bands that have already started to flock there, giving the space more organic ties to the local music scene than the average instrument store.
Gorman knew Baltimore Music Company could become a major gearhead destination when he laid his eyes on a particular famous Italian machine. “These Binson tape echo units, they’re impossible to find, and there’s one at Baltimore Music Company right now,” he said. At a time when musicians and collectors can and do often connect on the internet, Blake sees a value in being able to go see the product in person and try it out instead of simply looking at pictures on eBay.
“Music stores in Baltimore are just … we have Guitar Center and that’s almost it, with the way the world has gone and what people are doing,” he said. “That physical space, that sense of place, is still a big deal when everything is going into online forums and Zoom calls.”
That sense of place is reflected in the name of the store, and Blake is proud to keep Baltimore front and center in their branding: “We all are from here and grew up here and we live here and we’re staying here, until we get kicked out, I guess.”
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.