Guitar Heroes: Yale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrate legendary guitar makers

A new book which accompanies an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrates legendary Italian-American guitar makers, tracing the transformation of a centuries-old craft from 16th century Italy to contemporary New York.

The guitar is one of the most popular (and fun) instruments to play. With an increasing number of inexpensive, mass produced guitars available in music shops across the world, it is easy to forget that the very best guitars are still made by hand, in workshops, by experienced craftsmen. Accompanying an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York by Jayson Kerr Dobney investigates these craftsmen (or luthiers), looking in particular at John D’Angelico (1905-1964), James D’Aquisto (1935-1995), and John Monteleone, three of the most respected masters.

John Monteleone

Looking at the influences of these craftsmen, Guitar Heroes looks at the Italian-American communities in New York, where a remarkable tradition of stringed instrument making has evolved, with local craftsmen building traditional violins, mandolins, and guitars as well as American instruments such as banjos and archtop mandolins and guitars. Since the 1930s New York City has been a centre for archtop guitar manufacturing, and the guitars of John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto and John Monteleone stand out for their quality of sound and design. The work of these three legendary artisans is firmly rooted in the long history of Italian, particularly Neapolitan, stringed instrument making. Guitar Heroes examines their archtop guitars against the backdrop of the extensive collection of Italian and Italian-American stringed instruments in the Metropolitan Museum, thus tracing the evolution of the craft to meet the ever-changing demands of musicians and markets.

The exhibition which this book accompanies examines the work of D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, and Monteleone, their place in the extended context of Italian and Italian American instrument making, and the inspiration of the sights and sounds of New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website has a wealth of video resources which include performances and interviews from the top musicians and luthiers, including John Monteleone and Mark Knopfler.

Take a look below at a small selection of guitars included in both the book and the Metropolitan’s exhibition (click on the thumbnails to view larger versions). These really are beautiful instruments, and you can see how the precision of Italian instrument makers in 16th-19th centuries has been utilised and developed by modern luthiers in New York.

Guitar, late 17th century
Giacomo (Jacob) Ertel (German, ca. 1646–1711)

The back and sides of this guitar are decorated with checkerboard patterns of bone, ebony, and fruitwood that continue up the back of the neck. The peghead, fingerboard, and top are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Formerly converted to a six-string guitar, this instrument was later restored to its original five-course configuration.

Mandolin, 1781
Antonio Vinaccia (Italian, active 1754–1781)

In the mid-eighteenth century, several regional variations of the mandolin developed in Italy, the most important being the one from Naples. The Neapolitan mandolin, probably designed by a member of the Vinaccia family, has a cant (bend) below the bridge that gives the instrument greater strength. The four pairs of strings are tuned to the pitches of a violin and the instrument is played with a plectrum. It became an indispensable part of nineteenth-century Neapolitan culture. In the late nineteenth century, a mandolin craze swept the United States, and to fill the market thousands of instruments were imported from mandolin makers in southern Italy. This early Neapolitan mandolin is among the most decorated examples of its kind.

Guitar, ca. 1800

This highly decorated guitar is unusual for the time it was built and recalls more decorated Baroque instruments, yet it was originally constructed with six strings, which dates it about 1800. The back bears an image of the Neapolitan composer Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816), whose operatic works were a favorite of nineteenth-century guitarists. A second guitar, now in the Yale University Collection, bears nearly the identical decoration of the Metropolitan example, except in reverse coloration. The valuable materials used to decorate these instruments, ebony and ivory, were stacked in sheets and the decoration cut at the same time through both. This allowed the builder to fit together the opposing colored pieces to create the intricate decoration while efficiently doubling the output.

Chitarra-Lyra, or Harp Guitar, ca. 1915
Luigi Mozzani (Italian, 1869–1943)

The chitarra-lyra was a type built by the luthier Luigi Mozzani in Cento in the early twentieth century. Mozzani, a noted guitarist, copied the form from the earlier builder Friedrich Schenk, who made similar instruments as early as the 1830s. This remarkable instrument has six strings over a fretted fingerboard with three open bass strings. The floating fingerboard can be adjusted with screws that are accessible from the back of the instrument. Mozzani was the instructor of the luthier Mario Maccaferri, who would later own this guitar.

Archtop Guitar, “Teardrop”
John Monteleone (American, b. 1947)

In 1957 the musician Pete Girardi, who played in a group called The Teardrops, commissioned John D’Angelico to build a guitar that would be unique to his act. The resulting “Teardrop” has all the decorative appointments of a New Yorker model guitar plus a large protruding fin on the lower right corner. The one-of-a-kind instrument became a much sought-after collector’s piece and an icon of guitar building. The collector Scott Chinery acquired the instrument and in 1993 challenged James D’Aquisto to do his own interpretation of the famous form. D’Aquisto’s instrument has all the features of his Solo model along with the protruding fin. In 2007 Monteleone was presented with a commission to build his own interpretation of the “Teardrop.” His instrument has his signature scroll body, balancing the fin of the guitar. This exhibition is the only time that all three “Teardrops” have been together.

Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York by Jayson Kerr Dobney is available from Yale University Press.

Related Links

Metropolitan Museum’s Official Exhibition Page

Official Guitar Heroes book page

International Guitar Foundation

Guitarkadia guitar blog

A Luthier’s Blog

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