Feb 11, 2014

D’Angelico and D’Aquisto: Masters of the Handmade Archtop Guitar

Handmade stringed musical instruments are seldom average. They are usually found at the extremes of quality: they are either gawdawful or sublime.

The “worst of the worst” are poorly assembled, using woods with mismatched tonal qualities. I’ve seen some fretted instruments—guitars, banjos, mandolins and dulcimers—that were absolutely beautiful and a delight to hold but couldn’t be played in tune because the frets were not installed parallel to each other. I’ve also seen and played very plain instruments that made me tingle with delight.

Unlike handmade instruments, mass-produced stringed instruments are manufactured with relative consistency. Within each price range, all the instruments from a particular manufacturer are of similar quality. You’ll seldom find a Yamaha guitar that’s a lemon. But, you won’t find one with the sublime tone of a handmade D’Angelico archtop, either.

What gives a D’Angelico archtop guitar its magnificent tone? You might as well ask why are violins by Stradivari and Guarneri so sought after. Is it the wood? The craftsmanship? The design? Pundits have argued these points for more than a century. Ask a craftsman how it’s done and the answer you’ll get is always something like, “I don’t know, I just kind of sense it.”

A craftsman’s sensibilities certainly play a part in turning out a quality handmade stringed instrument. But sensibilities alone won’t do the trick; there is also a considerable amount of skill involved. Skill can be taught and acquired by practice. Sensibilities—common sense or knack—can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Craftsmen can waste a lot of time training apprentices who don’t have a knack for what they’re doing, so they’re very careful about who they choose to follow in their footsteps. Read More...

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