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Special Exhibition: Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York
February 9, 2011–July 4, 2011
John D’Angelico (American, 1905–1964), renowned for his handcrafted archtop guitars that have been used by generations of musicians in a wide variety of genres, is the first of three master craftsmen profiled by exhibition curator Jayson Dobney.


[Guitarist Bob Grillo plays Estrellita]

Jayson Dobney: Hello. I’m Jayson Kerr Dobney, associate curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I’m also curator of the exhibition Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. For years, I’ve been fascinated by the topic of Italian American craftsmen who built guitars here in New York City, or as I like to call them, “guitar heroes.” These are master makers who have often inspired players of every genre of music to do their best work. And these makers have been focused in the Italian American community in and around New York City for much of the last century.

The first of these makers was John D’Angelico. He was born in 1905 in Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And as a young child, he started working in his uncle’s mandolin workshop. His uncle was Raphael Ciani, who worked on Kenmare Street. And they made traditional Neapolitan bowl-back-style mandolins. And when Raphael Ciani died in 1923, the young John D’Angelico, who was eighteen at the time, took over the workshop.

Now, by this time in the 1920s, the market for mandolins was in steep decline. And so John D’Angelico needed to find a different way to make a living as a musical instrument maker. So he began experimenting with building a new American type of instrument called an archtop guitar, and he copied the archtop guitars of the Gibson Guitar company, specifically the L-5 model. Gibson was a famous company based in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

An archtop guitar has a carved arched top and back like the violin, and it also has f holes and a floating bridge and tailpiece, which are all aspects of violins. And by applying it to a guitar, it makes for a much stronger, louder, percussive instrument that was very useful in the jazz ensembles of the time. This is before the age of amplification. So these archtop guitars could cut through the horn sections and were perfect for the rhythm-guitar playing that was popular. Here’s jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli.

Bucky Pizzarelli:D’Angelico made a great rhythm guitar. That’s what we called them. And this is one of them right here. This is probably 1932. And it was used in a big band just to play chords.

[strums chordson guitar]

The bass would play a note on the first beat. The second beat would be accented on a guitar like this. And that’s what the people danced to, and they never realized that it was the rhythm section that they were dancing to, more so than a band.

Jayson Dobney: John D’Angelico here in New York City quickly established himself as one of the great guitar makers. And the city’s great jazz players—like Bucky Pizzarelli, Tony Mottola, Benny Mortel—all quickly gravitated towards his instruments. But being in New York, he also benefited from traveling musicians who would stop in whenever they were in the city. So, soon, guitarists of other genres, like Chet Atkins and Les Paul, were ordering instruments from John D’Angelico.

Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli talked to me about what it was like to visit the workshop of John D’Angelico.

Bucky Pizzarelli: It was small. There’s just a lot of wood and all you do is smell sawdust, you know? They’re carving out tops and they’re making all kinds of different angles and they’re shaping up a neck. And the master, D’Angelico, was at work. And that’s the way he worked.

Jayson Dobney: Now, his instruments were originally copies of Gibson guitars. But he went in his own direction as he became more well known. And he really liked the Art Deco styles of New York City. In fact, his highest-end guitar was called the “New Yorker,” which was based on the Art Deco styles of the New Yorker Hotel—the headstock has an outline of the New Yorker Hotel on it. And these instruments—they had gold-plated hardware and multiple layers of plastic bindings. They were just beautiful Art Deco pieces. And this was really what John D’Angelico was known for—these beautiful guitars. Here is Jeffrey Mironov.

Jeffrey Mironov: In a pawn shop window on Eighth Avenue were two D’Angelico New Yorkers. Just stunning instruments that were hanging there with "For Sale" signs on them. So for like $600 and my Fender Jaguar, which I was no longer playing, I became the owner of this blonde D’Angelico New Yorker. The instrument just—oh, my God, it was—you played one note on it and it was so alive and vibrant and so filled with musical promise. And that became a powerful vein of introduction and receptivity for me to go deeper into music than I ever had before. Somehow as I played this instrument, what it gave in return was irresistible.

Jayson Dobney: Over the generations, guitarists of many genres have gravitated towards John D’Angelico’s instruments, from Pete Townshend to John Fogerty, George Benson, Eric Clapton, and many, many others.

As John D’Angelico got older, he took on apprentices, and the most famous of them was James D’Aquisto, who began working with him in the early 1950s. John D’Angelico’s health was failing by the late 1950s, and he actually died in 1964 at the age of fifty-nine, leaving a wonderful legacy—twelve hundred instruments, and inspiration to many musicians and other guitar builders who followed.

[Guitarist Bob Grillo plays Estrellita]

That was Bob Grillo playing Estrellita on his D’Angelico guitar.

The exhibition is made possible in part by Mr. and Mrs. Richard L. Chilton, Jr.

It is on view at the Met from February 9 through July 4, 2011.

For more about the exhibition, I encourage you to download an App that provides a multimedia guide to the exhibition, with more musical performances, artist interviews, and rarely seen archival video footage. You can download it free from iTunes or rent it on an iTouch device in the Museum’s galleries. An extensive Guitar Heroes feature can also be found on the Museum’s website at metmuseum.org.

The multimedia tour is made possible by The Jonathan & Faye Kellerman Foundation.

The Audio Guide program is made possible by Bloomberg.

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