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'Archtop Guitars': An Ode to Legendary Craftsmen

Photographer Vincent Ricardel and Rudy's Music founder Rudy Pensa traveled five years to create “Archtop Guitars: The Journey from Cremona to New York."

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Emmylou Harris

Photo By Vincent Ricardel

Steve Miller

Photo By Vincent Ricardel

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Vincent Ricardel has photographed presidents, first ladies, movie stars and socialites. But he reserves his greatest care for an American idol that looks great in any light: the classical archtop guitar.

Together with collector Rudy Pensa, founder of Rudy’s Music, in Manhattan, Ricardel spent the last five years traveling across the country and in Europe photographing musicians and their instruments. The result is the book “Archtop Guitars: The Journey from Cremona to New York,” self-published through Graphis and currently on sale for $220 at Rudy’s Music and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With 400 photographs of 100 instruments, the book chronicles and celebrates a tradition of collectors and musicians. It also helped to inspire the Met’s current exhibition, on display through Monday, that borrows not only the book’s title but also 16 of Ricardel’s photographs and six guitars from Pensa’s personal collection.

“The project was Rudy’s idea,’’ says Ricardel, an amateur rock musician and son of the late Palm Beach society bandleader Joe Ricardel, who got his start at the Rainbow Room of the RCA Building back when musicians performed with full orchestras and the archtop guitar was at its peak.

“These guitars are now one of many instruments in the arsenal of musicians who both play and collect them,” says the Washington, D.C.-based photographer. Among the performers he photographed are George Benson in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, in Los Angeles; Mark Knopfler in London; Johnny Smith in Colorado Springs; Steve Miller in Ketchum, Idaho; Paul Simon and Pat Martino in New York, and the late Les Paul in Midtown at The Iridium, just before his regular Monday night show.

Curators and collectors alike value archtop guitars as works of art reflecting a 400-year-old tradition that dates back to the stringed lute makers of Venice and the mandolin and violin makers at the end of the 18th century in Cermona and Naples. But for professional musicians, even the most valuable archtop can become a workhorse to be refitted and retooled to meet the demands of the road tour.

Back in 2007 when a devastating snowstorm left planes trapped on runways up and down the East Coast, Emmylou Harris waited five hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville for Ricardel to photograph her. When he and Pensa finally arrived, she posed for photos and played the instrument of her late close friend Chet Atkins. Designed for Atkins by legendary archtop maker John D’Angelico, the instrument is worth several hundred thousand dollars.

What surprised Ricardel was the way Atkins tinkered with the design. “He customized the guitar to his own specs. What you see in the book is a close-up of how he personalized it. He put a vibrato bar and two pickups on the soundboard beneath the strings,” says Ricardel. “He put a selector switch with an ugly faceplate right on the sound hole to switch the two pickups back and forth. He also added a volume knob and tone control knob to make it into a work horse.”

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