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Professional and amateur guitarists alike know that the place to go for an incomparable instrument is the Chicago Music Exchange.

Guitars possess seductive powers. Maybe it’s their curves. Maybe it’s their dazzling array of colors. Perhaps it’s their long, graceful necks. Whatever it is, they beckon to lovers, who become helplessly entranced and hopelessly smitten.

David Kalt is one of the befallen. Guitars plucked at his heartstrings, causing him — with the blessing of his wife and three daughters — to abandon life as a highly successful options trader and take over as owner and CEO of the Chicago Music Exchange. While the ax-challenged may not recognize the name, the Chicago Music Exchange has arguably the largest selection of vintage guitars in the nation. Located on the north side of town, the store — which also sells modern guitars and drums — houses approximately 2,500 electric and acoustic guitars, ranging in price from a few hundred bucks to $250,000 for a 1960 Les Paul Standard.
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Though he originally wanted to create his own online guitar store, Kalt quickly discovered that the market was saturated. “I realized it was really hard to break in, and that you really need to buy an existing dealership,” he says. “I had been shopping at Chicago Music Exchange for 15 years and had probably bought eight to 10 guitars from there myself.”

He purchased the business in 2010, dramatically increased the square footage, and now buys, sells and trades all sorts of guitars. “I had to find the right inventory,” he says. “This store was a mecca for vintage and collectibles and still is. But what was missing was it serving as a destination for folks who couldn’t afford guitars that are $3,000, $5,000, $100,000. I added a lot more in the lower price range — but quality guitars, so people could buy their first guitar here, or drum set.”

Any number of stars in the guitar galaxy have passed through CME’s doors, including Adele, Brad Paisley, Steve Miller, Joe Bonamassa and actor Johnny Depp. Kalt describes himself as “a mediocre guitarist,” but he loves to jam at open-mic nights with co-workers from the shop.

Kalt hasn’t purchased a new ax in some time, but it’s not because he’s lost the love. Instead, he says, “The store is my collection now.”

Brushes with Greatness

David Kalt spills on some of the guitar-loving stars who have visited the store.

MIKE CAMPBELL, guitarist for Tom Petty: “He bought an old parlor. He texted me from the road and said, ‘I’m loving this little guitar.’ ”

STEVE MILLER: “I spent a lot of time with Steve. He was really interested in Les Paul reissues.”

BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG of Green Day: “He’s a really cool guy. It’s great connecting with a new generation of guitarists.”

ADELE: “She was just great. She has such a personality and such a love for instruments and guitars.”

JOHNNY DEPP: “We spent some time talking guitar. He said, ‘This store is totally inspiring.’ ”