Much of my work has been influenced by the work of Italian immigrant luthiers who worked at the early part of the 20th Century. Initially I was drawn to the work of the Italians who worked at the Oscar Schmidt factory who built Stellas, Sovereigns and other brands. Later I became fascinated by the Italians who worked in small shops, either by themselves or with a few other people, at times with their family. These men came from Naples, Sicily, Campania and Tuscany, some had been trained as instrument makers while others were cabinet makers. They set up shops in New York’s Little Italy, Italian Harlem, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Their work has been largely overlooked by collectors and historians. These luthiers and their instruments were the synthesis of Italian traditions and American progress. They largely built steel string flat tops and mandolins. A few who were active into the 1930’s built arch top guitars and violins. They were the men who preceded John D’Angelico, and some of them were very instrumental in his development.
Over the years I have collected as many of these Italian-American instruments as is possible. I have done restorations and repairs on quite a few, and I have done a fair amount of research on the history of the builders, looking through historic documents, and at times contacting their families.
This summer I built three guitars which were reminiscent of the higher end work of these builders. From fairly straight copies, to combining elements from different builders, to my own designs based on their work. All of the guitars were built in a similar manner to the originals, with hide glue and varnish finish. All parts are made by hand, in house, including the purflings and pickguard materials. All of the inlays are hand cut.
#1. Fenezia six string– This guitar is based on the work of Raphael Ciani and Antonio Cerrito. It is similar to the Galiano guitars played by Ernest Stoneman, Nick Lucas and Andy Sanella. For the most part I borrowed elements from different guitars of Ciani and Cerrito, the body shape, bridge, pickguard, purfling and inlay patterns. For a while I’ve wanted to make a headstock with a finial, something which was often used on Neapolitan mandolins, and which D’Angelico used on his archtops. I had never seen something similar on a flat top guitar and figured it was overdue. I have a Ciani mandolin in my collection with an ivory finial, so I modified the shape of the mandolin headstock for a slotted guitar peghead. I carved a finial on my lathe out of cow bone rather than ivory.
The top is a very tight grained spruce, the back and sides are Indian rosewood. Ebony fingerboard and mustache bridge. The guitar is ladder braced with a 26 1/2″ scale. It is tuned down a full step from a regular guitar with light gauge strings. The guitar has a tremendous sound. It’s very powerful and resonant.
#2. Fenezia 12 string– This instrument was a collaborative work with my customer. It was influenced by Ciani and Cerrito and also by Giovanni Favilla among others. It is a big bodied 12 string with a 26 1/2″ scale, tuned down to B. The top is very old German spruce, the back and sides are Tasmanian blackwood, the fingerboard and robust mustache bridge are ebony. It has a very warm and rich tone and is a joy to play. I also made a hardshell case for the guitar.
I just LOVED the latest blog entry …the Lonnie Johnson guitar…like all of your stories here it is so well written and told, great detective work, intuitive leaps and of course the excellent craftsmanship , the sound of that Lonnie guitar is so close to the original thanks to Ari’s playing.! Thanks Todd!
Thanks Kevin. This was a fantastic project for me. I’m glad I had the opportunity to do the research and make it. Now I’m out of mysteries. At least none come to mind at the moment.
Hi Todd, Thanks for this reply…I’m writing because i just read your story about making the Decalcomania guitars…i just LOVED it!! I like also your discussion of woods…i learn a lot from you about the woods on guitars I’ve had and loved. And I looked closely at those decals…amazing job on this…congratulations…one other thing…since Ive seen your fine guitars Ive wished that they had the gold script on headstock like Stella or sovereign …and of course ,now they do…the PERFECT finishing touch! BTW, you mentioned you thought Poplar was used on the Blind Blake guitar…interesting…I always thought it was Koa…Anyhow, thanks for this great work in a guitar making world that has clearly gone in a far different direction . I so value non- conformists in the art world following paths less traveled , ones that are so interesting like yours. Oh, as to that next project…Id suggest the RA Mango guitar that Matt M. owns!
Thanks Kevin. I feel fortunate to explore the minutia of this corner of the guitar world. The decal guitars were a real pleasure to bring together. As for Blake’s guitar, it’s impossible to say because all we have is a picture. To me, no wood grain is visible in the photo and the guitar looks to be painted black, or a very dark brown. Koa Stellas were much rarer than birch and poplar ones. Also, the koa ones I’ve seen have had pickguards or checkered binding, more upscale. His looks like a pretty plain guitar.
I look forward to seeing Matt’s Mango at some point. It used to belong to a friend of mine, who purchased it from the original owner. He reluctantly parted with it.
The bridge in the last photo is a tour de force – it has amazing lines and is relieved in such a way as to allow it to function acoustically while being aesthetically striking. The amount of detail and care you put into the work really shines though in the finished instruments.
Thank you. I was really happy with that bridge. I was trying to capture a transition from old world to modern, that occurred in the mid to late 30s, with that whole instrument, but with the bridge as well. You have a sharp eye to have noticed.
I’ve been drooling over this site for the past few years and I am considering trying to actually build somethings in this style. I don’t have access to any original old Galianos or similar, and haven’t been able to locate any plans, except a minimal drawing of Stefan Grossman’s Stella 12 string. I guess I’m not committed to building an exact replica, but I have a few questions about the construction of them. Hopefully you can answer without giving up any trade secrets!
Are the tops of the originals radiused, or are these true flat tops? I would assume anything built for a tailpiece could go concave without it, which doesn’t sound ideal. Also Do you have an idea what kind of varnish was used on the originals? From reading on your site you use mostly spirit varnish which I’m somewhat familiar with. I guess thats it. I would love to see more workshop pictures of the main building processes. Im curious what kind of tooling you use, I see lots of hand tools. Keep up your amazing and rare talent!!
All the tops are true flat tops. I’ve built with radiuses, but they never sounded as good. I use spirit varnishes, generally that is what the old ones have. It’s possible that some of them used an oil based product, as there were many formulations back in the day, but these days it is very difficult to find an oil based varnish that is not a polyuerethane. I’ve used oil based varnishes in the past, Pratt and Lambert #38, and Cabot used to make a good one. I’ve also cooked my own oil based varnishes. I found that there is not much advantage to them. They take too long to dry and cure and in that time dust becomes an issue. I use mostly hand tools. I have a belt sander and a band saw, that’s about it. I try to build them like the old guys.