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Special Exhibition: Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York
John Monteleone (American, b. 1947), who established his reputation building high-quality mandolins and today is a renowned innovator and builder of archtop guitars, is the third and final master craftsman profiled by exhibition curator Jayson Dobney.


[“Circle Interludes” by Anthony Wilson. Performed by Anthony Wilson on John Monteleone's Four Seasons guitars via multi-track recording, 2010.]

Jayson Dobney: Hello. My name is Jayson Kerr Dobney, and I’m an associate curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I’m also curator for the exhibition Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. And for many years I’ve been fascinated by a school of New York guitar making that’s centered in the Italian American community. The exhibition focuses on three master craftsmen—or “guitar heroes,” as I like to call them—who have really built many of the finest instruments for great players across genres throughout much of the last century. This podcast is about the third of these makers, John Monteleone, who lives in Islip, Long Island.

John Monteleone built an instrument for Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, in 2008. Knopfler was so inspired by this instrument that he actually wrote a song about John Monteleone, which was on his last album, Get Lucky.

Mark Knopfler: There’s a tradition of great violin makers in Italy—from Stradivarius and Guarneri and Amato, in Cremona, in Italy—and there’s a tradition of making these f-hole guitars in New York City by Italians and it’s a sort of a strange parallel: D’Angelico and D’Aquisto, and now a man called John Monteleone. And I met John Monteleone and it was like meeting … it was like meeting Stradivari, I’m sure it was like that. He’s like Leonardo da Vinci in a way. And he set about building me a guitar, which is an archtop guitar with f-holes like a violin, like John’s violin. I don’t have it here; it’s a beautiful thing. But when he was making it for me, he’d send me little emails, and he’d say things like: “The chisels are calling.” You know, “It’s time to make sawdust.” And I realized of course that he had this compulsion to be with his chisels and his work. And it was inspiring. So I wrote this song and it’s called "Monteleone."

Jayson Dobney: John Monteleone was born in Manhattan in 1947 into a family of Italian Americans who were all craftsmen. His father was a sculptor who worked with his uncle, doing many of the ornamental sculptural pieces on many of the great buildings of Manhattan. The family moved to Islip, in Long Island, when John Monteleone was a child, where his father started a business creating industrial pattern designs for the aviation industry.

John Monteleone grew up as a musician, especially a classically trained pianist and also guitarist. But he was always intrigued by how musical instruments worked. And he began tearing instruments apart, trying to repair things. He fell in love with the idea of building instruments at a time when he didn’t know he could even make it as a builder, so he began teaching himself the skills necessary to make musical instruments.

John Monteleone described to me how he began to build musical instruments.

John Monteleone: I wasn’t aware that you could become a guitar maker at that point. So I was on my own. I was learning what I could, when I could, where I could, and just building up that body of experience. While I was in college I would let people know that if they had something they needed to be fixed, I could probably work on it and fix it, which I did. I got to work on several instruments while I was there. And word would get around that, you know, I could do some things. I still had no training at all, professional training or otherwise. There was no access to information. There was no access to luthiers. I didn’t even know what a luthier was. The term wasn’t there. I didn’t even know that I was a luthier until years later, when somebody said, “Hey, you’re a luthier.” I said, “Okay. I thought I was a guitar maker."

Jayson Dobney: He got a job working for a new business in Staten Island called Mandolin Brothers and he repaired instruments of all types that came into the shop. And this gave him access to many of the great vintage American instruments. He studied and learned from these guitars, mandolins, banjos that came through the shop. As he built his skills as a repairman and builder in the New York area, he was still able to become friends with many of the active luthiers of the time, especially James D’Aquisto, who had a shop on Long Island. The two became great friends, and John Monteleone would often go over to ask questions and to watch D’Aquisto work. He also befriended the great luthier Mario Maccaferri who was in the Bronx, who specialized especially in plastic and plastic-made instruments. And John worked with him for many of the last years of his life.

Now, when John Monteleone started his career, it was in the middle of the 1970s and the acoustic guitar market was in severe decline. Most people were playing electric guitars. But John Monteleone was active in the folk music revival that was taking place in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. And he realized that there was a real need for mandolins—high-quality, luthier-made mandolins. So he began to build archtop mandolins, which, like archtop guitars, have carved tops and backs, floating bridges, and f-holes, all aspects that came from the violin tradition, and he began building a model that was based, again, on a Gibson archtop mandolin.

But soon, he realized there were many improvements that he wanted to make to the instrument. So, for example, he hollowed out the scroll. He abbreviated the pickguard. And he introduced a radial fingerboard. His improvements were very popular with major players, including the great mandolinist David Grisman, and soon John Monteleone was well known as a craftsman within the mandolin world.

Here is a mandolin and a guitar, both built by John Monteleone, played by Barry Mitterhoff and Woody Mann.

[Barry Mitterhoff and Woody Mann play “Panhandle Rag,” by Leon McAuliffe (1949) on the Radio City mandolin (Mitterhoff) and guitar (Mann) by John Monteleone.]

As the guitar market began to rebound in the 1980s, John Monteleone turned his attention to building guitars, which was really his first love. And in the decades since then, he has introduced many new ideas and new concepts to acoustic guitars. One of his most famous is the idea of side sound holes. And these are holes on the ribs of a guitar nearest to the player. And this allows the performer to hear the sound of the guitar much as a person sitting in front of the guitar would hear it. This was a great innovation that many of the guitar collectors and players that were customers of John Monteleone appreciated.

Woody Mann talks about the experience of playing a custom-made Monteleone guitar.

Woody Mann: For most gigs you can kind of get by with any guitar. But with John now I’m really feeling very privileged to be able to like, you know, sit and really, like, listen to the tones and where it, you know, where it explodes on the guitar, and the intonation. And that’s the one thing about John’s guitars that just floors me all the time—it’s just the intonation, the perfectness of…in-tune quality of the guitars. And when you play it…a lot of guitars, when you play, when you go high, sometimes it gets very thinner, the tone gets thinner, [demonstrates] but here it’s very sharp, very open [demonstrates]. So wherever you play, it’s kind of like, sort of like playing a Steinway. Wherever you play on the instrument it just sort of stays with that warmth and that tone, it doesn’t get thinner as you get up top.

Jayson Dobney: One of his most recent innovations was the creation of a guitar ensemble, the Four Seasons, which are four guitars that are a matched set and meant to be played together. And this is a new idea that John Monteleone really spent his attention on during much of the last decade.

Here is Anthony Wilson playing each of John Monteleone’s Four Seasons guitars, which he’s overdubbed in this recording.

[“Circle Interludes” by Anthony Wilson. Performed by Anthony Wilson on the Four Seasons guitars via multi-track recording, 2010.]

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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