Resurrecting the Artistry, and the Name, of a Singular Guitar Craftsman
When John D’Angelico died in 1964, at the age of 59, he left behind a line of guitars that he had made by hand, one by one, in his shop below his apartment on Kenmare Street on the Lower East Side. His archtop guitars produced a stirring sound that could stand up to horns and percussion in big bands, and became some of the most coveted instruments in the world.
Half a century later, four stories above Manhattan’s flower district, Mr. D’Angelico’s instruments have been reborn. Rows and rows of guitars bearing his name — smooth and shiny, with curves and arches, in rich tones and with taut strings — adorn the walls of D’Angelico Guitars.
“They’re works of art,” said Steve Pisani, one of the store’s owners, standing in a denlike showroom decorated with big leather furniture and animal prints. Mr. Pisani, 56, has played guitar since he was a teenager and, until recently, worked at Sam Ash Music on a faded strip of West 48th Street that generations of New Yorkers remember as Music Row.
Mr. Pisani and the brand’s two other owners, Brenden Cohen, 30, and John Ferolito Jr., 27, have spent the past few years researching Mr. D’Angelico’s craftsmanship to resurrect his artistry. They have reproduced two of Mr. D’Angelico’s original guitars, following his exacting design: a 1943 Excel and a 1942 Style B. They have also produced a line of guitars under the D’Angelico name with a more contemporary influence, basically “our take if D’Angelico was still alive,” Mr. Cohen said.
Mr. D’Angelico made about 1,160 guitars, mostly for jazz musicians. According to the book “D’Angelico, Master Guitar Builder: What’s in a Name?” by Frank W. M. Green, Mr. D’Angelico once said: “I want to build guitars under my own name, for my own customers, the way I do it! For me that’s a good life!” His guitars are cherished by collectors and musicians and are so highly regarded that 11 of them were part of a 2011 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Among the visitors to the exhibition were Lawrence D’Angelico, the guitar maker’s great-nephew, and his young daughter, who plays the instrument. He said he appreciated the continuing brand, “especially in an era not as dedicated to craftsmanship as my great-uncle was.”
After past efforts foundered, the current resurrection of the D’Angelico name began with a 1943 Excel and Mr. Ferolito’s father, John Ferolito Sr., a businessman, guitar player and guitar collector. The older Mr. Ferolito, who had bought the rights to the D’Angelico brand from a guitar string company in 1999, sold it several years later to the current owners. He also owned a 1943 D’Angelico Excel.
Then, at a 2012 trade show of music merchants, Mr. Pisani ran into Gene Baker, a master luthier who had worked at Fender Music on Music Row, and told him: “Man, have I got a job for you.”
“I had been waiting for this all my life,” Mr. Baker recalled in an interview.
Mr. Cohen, John Ferolito Jr. and his father’s Excel guitar flew to visit Mr. Baker at his office in Arroyo Grande, Calif. There, Mr. Baker placed the vintage guitar on a flatbed scanner, then had it put into a surface model scanner, gathering details about what made a D’Angelico guitar a D’Angelico guitar.
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With images of its shapes and measurements, including the thickness of the wood and the bracing inside, Mr. Baker had the information converted into a hollow-body guitar. He used computer-aided drafting and re-engineering to duplicate the Excel, with most of the building done by hand, “to get it as authentic as it can be,” he said.
It was difficult to find the precut shapes of maple and spruce, as well as the plastics, that Mr. D’Angelico used. “The way you have to cut archtop lumber,” Mr. Baker said, “is basically a dying art.”
It typically takes about four luthiers to build a D’Angelico replica guitar. The process from raw wood to finely crafted instrument can take up to two years.
When asked about the possibility of offending purists with their replicas, Mr. Cohen said: “It’s not like we’re destroying anything. We’re just allowing people to play a guitar that they wouldn’t be allowed to play.”
The owners of the showroom also recreated a 1942 D’Angelico Style B first for Eric Clapton. Mr. Clapton wanted a D’Angelico to take on tour, Mr. Pisani said, and keeps his original D’Angelico in his living room next to his piano.
Next up for the brand: Mr. D’Angelico’s classic New Yorker model, whose big body and grand Art Deco design evoked the heyday of jazz in New York. The owners of the D’Angelico brand found a New Yorker model at Rudy’s Music in SoHo.
When he worked at Sam Ash and a customer brought in a D’Angelico guitar, Mr. Pisani said, everyone would crowd around. “It was a thrill to get that thing on my lap,” he said.
Original D’Angelico guitars, which the company does not sell, are rarely on the market, but some have sold for over six figures. The replicas start at around $10,000 and can sell for as much as $11,500, though the company does make less expensive versions.
The demand for a D’Angelico guitar, it seems, has never waned; the company will turn its first profit this year, the owners said. One afternoon in the showroom, which features a stage and black-and-white photos of the master builder, Fabrizio Sotti, a jazz guitar virtuoso who has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Whitney Houston and Tupac Shakur, among others, walked in. He had come to see Mr. Pisani and to try out some of the guitars.
Jay Jay French of the heavy metal band Twisted Sister soon joined them. Mr. French used to buy guitar strings from Mr. Pisani on Music Row.
“I have known him longer than most of my wives,” Mr. French said, eliciting laughs. Mr. French, who lives in Manhattan, recently bought a new model D’Angelico guitar, a single cutaway with a spruce top and mother-of-pearl inlay.
The three men reminisced about the fervor of Music Row, and its demise to clear the way for high-rise development. They talked about the legacy of Mr. D’Angelico and his guitars. “You try to respect the history,” Mr. Sotti said. Then they grabbed three guitars off the wall, from the nascent acoustic line, and started to play.
Correction: November 14, 2014
Because of an editing error, a description of John D’Angelico’s shop misstated its location. The shop was located below his apartment, not above.
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