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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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George Benson

Photo By Vincent Ricardel

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter

Photo By Vincent Ricardel

Photographing Paul Simon, another archtop fan, was easier to schedule. A regular at Rudy’s Music in Manhattan’s Midtown, where he and his wife have been coming for the past 10 years, Simon brought the guitar he had specially designed in 1970 by the late James D’Aquisto. Simon turned to D’Aquisto at a time when most musicians were switching to electric. “He has his name carved in the headstock,” says Pensa. “He and Jimmy D’Aquisto were working together long before I ever knew about these guitars.”

More than the musicians or the collectors, the real heroes of both the book and the Met exhibition are three Italian-American craftsmen — John D’Angelico (1905-1964), his apprentice James D’Aquisto (1935-1995) and John Monteleone, current heir to the tradition. Like Renaissance craftsmen, they passed the secrets of their craft one to the other during the highs and lows of archtop’s popularity.

To demonstrate the breadth of the tradition they represent, Jayson Kerr Dobney, associate curator and administrator in the Met’s department of musical instruments, set 50 works by these makers along with 16 of Ricardel’s photographs against the backdrop of the museum’s extensive collection of priceless Medieval and Renaissance instruments. “Vince’s photographs are so beautiful,” says Dobney. “He provided us with the images we needed.”

The longevity of the archtop tradition, Dobney explains, reflects the growing influence of guitar collectors, many of whom are musicians, on the elite cadre of specialty instrument makers. The tradition began with D’Angelico, who early in the 1900s switched from making mandolins to one-of-a-kind custom guitars designed in the style of the guitars used in big band orchestras. The art that connects mandolins to modern guitars might well have ended in 1964, when D’Angelico died just as The Beatles hit Manhattan, were it not for a handful of musicians and collectors who kept the tradition alive.

“The electric guitar was king, and the market for acoustic guitars of all sorts dropped dramatically,” says Dobney. But by the end of the Eighties and with the birth of MTV, the acoustic guitar was back. “Changing musical styles corresponded with new collectors, who influenced modern makers to look to traditions of the past — to instruments built before World War II by makers such as Martin, Gibson and the classic 1950s Fender,” Dobney explains.

Among the foremost of these collectors was the late Scott Chinery, who came up with a challenge for D’Acquisto, the D’Angelico apprentice who carried on the craft. His idea harked back to 1957, when D’Angelico created a bold new design with a completely new look for musician Pete Girardi. D’Angelico called it the Teardrop guitar in honor of Girardi’s band The Teardrops. That guitar is now worth an estimated $500,000. Chinery asked D’Acquisto to create his own interpretation of his teacher’s design.

When Chinery died, his collection was bought by a German collector who allowed Ricardel and Pensa to include it in their book and also agreed anonymously to lend the instrument, valued at $250,000, to the show at the Metropolitan. In 2007, a New York collector followed suit, challenging John Monteleone, the current heir to the D’Angelico legacy, to update the form. All three Teardrops are included in the book. And at the Met, curator Dobney brings the three instruments together for first time in one display to show how three personal interpretations of the original Art Deco form create their own visual harmony.

Collectors aren’t the only ones to celebrate these artisans. Musicians also sing their praise, as Ricardel explains. In London, he photographed John Monteleone with Mark Freude and Knopfler, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for the British rock band Dire Straits. Ranked as one of the most respected finger-style guitarists of modern rock, Knopfler wrote a song for Monteleone to celebrate his craft.

“Knopfler talked with us about how he was inspired to write the song when he watched Monteleone at work,” says Ricardel, who, after five years photographing the book and another two years trying to find a publisher, knows firsthand the toil that goes into any piece of art. “When you hear his song, you hear him talk about the chisels and the sawdust. Knopfler sings about how he saw the chisels and the sawdust on the floor, and how that inspired him to keep on making music, about how the sawdust calls out to make more sawdust.”

 

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