15 of the Best Bar Jukeboxes in America

A bar's soundtrack is as much a part of a drinker's experience as the type of whiskey on the shelf. In a time when auto-generated Spotify playlists rule, a few select venues are holding on to that treasured barroom staple of yesteryear: the jukebox. Kenny Herzog rounds up some of best remaining CD- and vinyl-operated bar jukes in the country.

best jukeboxes in america

The greatest scourge to descend on 21st-century bar culture hasn’t been odiously flavored vodkas or hookup apps (though fie to them both), but increasing passivity about the soundtrack for these heady nights. It’s as if owners and customers alike have become so preoccupied with where the wood from their stools were sourced and what time of year the junipers for their gin were farmed that music—the pulse and personality of any dive or speakeasy worth its pours—has somehow become less considered. Thus, discerning patrons are stuck with the tinny, uniform sounds of employees’ subjective iPhone playlists on loop or some algorithm-ized Pandora/Spotify generator of randomly associated acts. It’s no hyperbole to assert that such negligence is a crime against drinking, carousing and everything that comprises a memorable evening out of the house.

OK, perhaps that’s a tad overstated, but the trend is disconcerting, which is why we scoured the country for the best remaining CD- and vinyl-operated bar jukeboxes in the land. So for those about to rock, roll, slow-dance, head-bang or even twerk in earnest, we implore you to corral all that change from under the couch, enter one of these 15 fine institutions, and indulge your sonic whims and preference for spirits the way god and Thomas Edison intended.

wurlitzer bubbler jukebox

Commonwealth | Brooklyn, NY

The Juke: A CD-operated, 2004 Rock-Ola Bubbler supplied with mixes made by owner/bartender Ray Gish himself.
The Genres Spanned: Loads of indie rock, or as Gish describes, “Things that sound like Pavement.” Plus, a smattering of punk, glam, blues, singer-songwriter and soul.
Sample Artists: Guided by Voices, Richard and Linda Thompson, Rodriguez, John Lee Hooker, Green Day
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: 25 cents per song.
Why They Keep It Old School: Gish explains: “If you are sitting at the jukebox and have to turn the pages more than once to find the song you want to play, you’re in the wrong bar.”

Dino’s | Nashville, TN

The Juke: A CD-operated NSM Gemfire
The Genres Spanned: Vintage country and R&B, in addition to classic rock
Sample Artists: Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Ted Nugent, Molly Hatchet, David Bowie, Forrest Gump soundtrack
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: 50 cents per song, three songs for a buck, 17 songs for five dollars. (Note: It only accepts old $5 dollar bills.)
Why They Keep It Old-School: “We’re a small dive bar that specializes in making people feel comfortable and at home,” says bartender Jeremy McAnulty. “When people use the jukebox, it gives people the opportunity to cater to their own vibe and set the tone.”

Bob and Barbara’s | Philadelphia, PA

The Juke: A CD-operated machine that replaced a short-lived Internet model because the latter was not “who we are,” says manager Lucky.
The Genres Spanned: Primarily vintage R&B and jazz, with a “few little pop things on there,” according to Lucky.
Sample Artists: John Coltrane, assorted Stax and Motown
Total Albums: 90-95
Customer Cost: 50 cents per song, three songs for a dollar, six for two and 18 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “If you’ve got a 21-and-older crowd,” reasons Lucky, “the music should also be 21 and older.”

Hotsy Totsy Club | Albany, CA

The Juke: A circa-1960s, vinyl-operated Wurlitzer Americana
The Genres Spanned: Hard-to-find rock, go-go, mambo, surf, ska, punk and soul from the early ’50s-late ’70s, complimenting the old exploitation films on their TV.
Sample Artists: The Trashmen, the Meters, the Ramones, Perez Prado, Toots and the Maytals. “We don’t play anthems,” assures co-owner Michael Valladares.
Total Albums: 100 45s
Customer Cost: Free!
Why They Keep It Old School: “When we took over this bar, there was a digital jukebox,” says Valladares. “And it’s very disconcerting to walk into a bar and hear a Christina Aguilera song in a room that makes no sense with that. Nothing against Ms. Aguilera. It’s just not what we do.”

Jimmy’s Corner | New York, NY

The Juke: A relatively recently acquired, CD-operated Rowe International
The Genres Spanned: Jazz, R&B, soul, pop, vocalists
Sample Artists: Frank Sinatra, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Barry White, Ray Charles
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Two songs for a dollar, five songs for two.
Why They Keep It Old School: Owner and longtime boxing aficionado/trainer Jimmy Glenn is an old-school kind of guy. Go there and ask him yourself. He holds court most nights.

rowe encore jukebox

MAPS | Portland, ME

The Juke: A vinyl-operated, 1959 Seeburg 220
The Genres Spanned: Punk, rock ’n’ roll
Sample Artists: The Replacements, Big Star, Joy Division, Harry Nilsson… “Not your average hit songs,” says co-owner Kyle Tzrinski, who runs MAPS with his wife, Vikki Walker.
Total Albums: 50
Customer Cost: Free!
Why They Keep It Old School: “It takes people back,” offers Tzrinski. “People will get up and dance when they play the jukebox. They feel like it’s their own little party.” (Warning: Tzrinski concedes that, “If we get annoyed with the jukebox, we shut it off.”)

The Righteous Room | Atlanta, GA

The Juke: A CD-operated Rock-Ola Fireball
The Genres Spanned: Rock, punk, soul, R&B, new wave, indie rock
Sample Artists: Marvin Gaye, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Kinks, Devo, Social Distortion, Nina Simone… “The newest thing we probably have is Tame Impala,” clarifies Righteous Room partner Kelly Hart.
Total Albums: 99
Customer Cost: Three songs for a dollar, 18 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “When the jukebox broke down, it was a huge deal,” says Hart. “We plugged in iPods, and it just wasn’t the same. It plays a tremendous part in who we are.”

Lucky 13 | San Francisco, CA

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe AMI that’s been in place since the bar opened in the early 2000s and features mixes made by the staff and official label compilations.
The Genres Spanned: Metal, punk, alternative, rock ’n’ roll
Sample Artists: Brian Eno, Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath, Jane’s Addiction
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Three songs for a dollar, 25 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “It’s a rock ’n’ roll dive bar with blaring guitars and lots of drinking,” boasts bartender Craig Gray.

Warren’s Inn | Houston, TX

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe AMI Venus that dates back roughly three decades.
The Genres Spanned: Blues, doo-wop, R&B jazz, easy listening, soul, singer-songwriter
Sample Artists: Percy Faith, Johnny Mathis, Fats Domino, Dionne Warwick, Miles Davis, Bobby Blues Band… “The most recent thing we have in there is a Split Enz album from the ’80s,” laughs manager Ainslea Wolfe.
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Four songs for a dollar, nine for two and 25 for five, the latter of which is “what I always do,” says Wolfe.
Why They Keep It Old School: “Controlling what’s on here is really important,” explains Wolfe. “We don’t want anyone to come in and change our vibe. People call and ask if it’s a sports bar, and it’s like. ‘No, we never will be.’”

Gold Star Bar | Chicago, IL

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe Ami Saturn II dating back roughly a decade. (“This is the second or third,” confirms owner Mary Ann Reid. “Eventually, they kinda crap out.”)
The Genres Spanned: Metal, reggae, country, punk
Sample Artists: Stiff Little Fingers, Patsy Cline
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Two songs for a dollar, seven for two and 18 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “The music is very important,” says Reid. “We prefer people come in and enjoy the music rather than just watch television. We’re an old dive bar and have a neighborhood feel. I call it live theater.”

rockola fireball jukebox

Gooski’s | Pittsburgh, PA

The Juke: A relatively recent, wall-mounted, CD-operated Rowe AMI
The Genres Spanned: Punk, alternative, hip-hop
Sample Artists: The Clash, Whodini, the Pixies
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Three songs for a dollar, seven for two and 21 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “It’s heavy here,” says bartender John Winter about their machine’s appeal. “You can hear stuff from your childhood and stuff that’s fairly modern. If you grew up in the punk or alternative scene, this is your jukebox.”

Big Star Bar | Houston, TX

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe AMI Starlight acquired from another venue when Big Star opened in 2008.
The Genres Spanned: Classic rock, pop, country, hip-hop, R&B, soul
Sample Artists: Thin Lizzy, T. Rex, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Lightning Hopkins, Merle Haggard
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Three songs for a dollar, seven for two and 18 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “So we can have some control over our environment,” says owner/partner Arian Owens, adding that, “We try to freshen [the selection] up every couple years with something new. It’s kind of like having a new whiskey behind the bar: You gotta change people’s palates up a little bit.”

The R Bar | New Orleans, LA

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe Storm that dates back roughly 25 years.
The Genres Spanned: Alternative, local, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, world music, vocalists… “I don’t think there’s one genre we haven’t put on there,” asserts R Bar manager Adam Boltuch, whose other managing partners include Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli.

Sample Artists: Irma Thomas, A Tribe Called Quest, Built to Spill, EL-P, ZZ Top, Judas Priest, Django Reinhardt
Total Albums: 100
Customer Cost: Two songs for a dollar, seven for two and 18 for five. Though Boltuch happily shares, “We’ll just throw a bunch of free credits on there sometimes.”
Why They Keep It Old School: “If there’s 99 CDs on there, I think you can find something,” encourages managing partner Bailey Smith. “Greg Dulli and I are both obsessive about music, so we care about it a lot. We can’t help it.”

Charlie’s Kitchen | Boston, MA

The Juke: A CD-operated NSM Sapphire (Disclosure: there is a digital juke on the premises as well.)
The Genres Spanned: Local, classic rock, garage, alternative, singer-songwriter, indie rock
Sample Artists: The Cult, Holly Golightly, Happy Mondays, 13th Floor Elevators, Wooden Shjips
Why They Keep It Old School: “We like to keep things the way they used to be in the old days,” says Charlie’s manager Jaap Overgaag, who’s particularly conscious of holding onto his Sapphire to support area acts. “For local bands that don’t have the money to go digital… it’s important for us to get people a chance to get that exposure.”

Lakewood Landing | Dallas, TX

The Juke: A CD-operated Rowe Encore that bartender Brandy Butler speculates has been at Lakewood for between 20 and 30 years
The Genres Spanned: Classic country, soul, blues, indie rock, punk, jazz, classic rock
Sample Artists: Bob Wells, Billie Holiday, Heartless Bastards, the Stooges, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Howlin’ Wolf
Total Albums: 99
Customer Cost: Two songs for a dollar, seven for two and 18 for five.
Why They Keep It Old School: “Lakewood as a whole has been a neighborhood staple for a lengthy period of time, [and] its music reflects how long it’s been standing here and everything that’s good about classic things,” says Lakewood regular Maddison Craig. “New craft cocktail and beer bars pop up all over the place, but I think the classics are where it’s at.”

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Maureen Demar Hall

    You missed La Carafe while in Houston! Oldest bar, fabulous tunes!

  • Argol

    You missed the Saturn Bar in New Orleans

  • Stump Neckbone

    It’s Bobby Blue Bland, btw… It’s a guy.

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