Caravan Guitars: Putting A Modern Spin On An Old Art

By Jason Kreke | Monday, November 7, 2011

The wall of guitars at Caravan Guitars. Credit: Jason Kreke

A newly opened music store dedicated to gypsy jazz is aiming to bring a bit of 1930s Paris to Lincoln Square. Long-time Lincoln Square resident Joshua Zirko wants his newly opened Caravan Guitars, 4754 N. Rockwell Ave., to be more than just a place to pick out an instrument. “The goal is to give off the feeling of early 20th century Paris,” he said. “It’s putting a modern spin on an old art.”

What started out as nothing more than a concrete floor with no walls and an open ceiling has been transformed into an intimate space that feels more like communal spot than a music store. “When someone comes in, I like to tell everyone to have an open mind,” he said. Gypsy jazz is more of a feeling. It is very high spirited type of music. A lot of people can relate to it.”

Zirko, who owns Caravan Guitars with his wife Tracy Patterson, originally started an online store about a year and a half ago, and because sales were doing so well, he wanted to open a physical store to let people feel and try the guitars. It just might be the only store in the U.S. devoted only to gypsy jazz guitars. “As far as I know, I’m the only one,” Zirko said. “I wanted people to see the new models. People can’t go and try these guitars anywhere else.”

At Caravan Guitars, guitars range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. The guitars are similar to the usual acoustic guitars that folk musicians use. However, there are some key differences: the hole is generally larger and more oval shape and the neck and stock are more reminiscent of a classical guitar. In addition to instruments, the store carries the typical musician cache: songbooks for gypsy, swing and classical; special picks from the Netherlands; tailpieces; and pickups that provide a different sound than usual guitars.

Zirko said he sees his store becoming more than just a place to buy guitars. There are plans for a jam session on Tuesday as well as guitar lessons. It’ll be a place where people can come and hangout while meeting other gypsy jazz and music enthusiasts. Zirko has purchased an Italian espresso machine and has plans to open the front door during the summer to let music spill onto the sidewalk during weekly jam sessions. “People can come in and see the music, have a coffee and listen,” he said.

The shop has a decidedly cozy feel. Credit: Jason Kreke

The store also features a guitar repairman, Dan Koentopp, who does customized work such as fixing the action, replacing bridges or doing fret work. The two met through a mutual friend and have been working together for a few months.

It’s impossible to talk about gypsy jazz without talking about Django Reinhardt. The sound and style of gypsy jazz is rooted in the time of its genesis as well as Django’s background. He was a gypsy and spent much of his youth near Paris in encampments playing banjo, guitar and violin. In Caravan Guitars, his image is found in photos, album covers and festival posters. For the musician and listener of gypsy jazz, he is inescapable. “He is the god of gypsy jazz,” Zirko said. “He was so far ahead of his time. For years, people have been trying to get his sound.” The freestyle, up-tempo music became popular in the 1930s and resulted in Europe’s great contribution to jazz.

For Zirko, he grew up surrounded by music. Even though his parents didn’t play any instruments, his upbringing instilled a love of music and early 20th century music, including gypsy jazz. “I like the style of music and the art deco style,” he said. “I enjoy the time period when it was made. I love the music. I’m an old soul. Django opened my eyes and made me want to play guitar like him.”

With the boom in gypsy jazz, Zirko saw a growing opportunity to expand. Guitars that used to sell for only a few thousand dollars in the 1970s and 1980s, now can go anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000. Zirko sells a range of guitars but knows that true gypsy jazz depends as much on the instrument as the style. “Buying these types of guitars in the late 1990s was difficult,” he said. “If you’re playing this type of music, a traditional guitar just won’t cut it. To get the real sound, you need to have a gypsy jazz guitar.”

A near life-long resident of Lincoln Square, Zirko sees the area once dotted with German delis and shops turning into more of an arts community. With the addition of his store and the expansion of the Old Town School of Folk Music, there is evidence that Lincoln Square is turning into a musicians haunt. For Zirko, he sees the city as a whole becoming an epicenter of gypsy jazz in the U.S.

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