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Special Exhibition: Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York
February 9, 2011–July 4, 2011
James D'Aquisto (American, 1935-1995)—who was trained in the traditional method of building archtop guitars and introduced radical change to the instrument during his career—is the second of three renowned master craftsmen whose work is profiled by exhibition curator Jayson Dobney.


[Steve Miller plays a solo guitar improvisation]

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 for the exhibition Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York. For many years, I’ve been fascinated by a school of Italian American craftsmanship in New York City, building archtop guitars. This podcast is about the maker James D’Aquisto, who is one of the great “guitar heroes” of this tradition.

Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band was close personal friends with James D’Aquisto and got to know his working process over a number of years.

Steve Miller: I went out to his shop to see him and to see my guitar. And I walked into the shop and the shop was out in his back yard, and it was like a tiny, little dollhouse. You could barely stand up in it. And there was nothing in the shop—there wasn’t any sawdust, there was nothing, you know? And there were three guitars. He says, "Yours is over there." And I looked at it and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I picked it up and strummed it. And it was drying, it wasn’t quite ready to go. But it was there that I got my first D’Aquisto in my hands. And instantly I could tell that it was a very, very, very, very special instrument. It was extremely light. The tolerances had been taken farther than most guitar makers would ever do.

You know, when you start building an archtop guitar, you get this wood, you start carving it, you start steaming things, you start bending stuff. You get a lot of time invested in it. And as a luthier, then you chicken out. You kind of go, "Well, I got this…ooh, I don’t want to bend it anymore." Jimmy just went right through all that, way beyond that, to where you were just—his guitars almost felt like, if you tapped it, if you went [snaps fingers] on it, it might blow up. You know? And so, it had all this coiled energy inside it. And the voicing—as soon as I played that guitar, I looked at Jimmy and I said, "Thank you, you’ve given me a new voice."

Jayson Dobney: James D’Aquisto was born in Brooklyn in 1935. His family was a typical Italian American family and he was surrounded by music his entire life. And he began playing guitar and bass and was quite accomplished and joined several ensembles, and eventually was introduced as a teenager to the workshop of John D’Angelico, which was located then on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

At the age of seventeen, he was hired on as a shop boy, doing everything from sweeping the floors to running errands, and slowly, over the course of about twelve or thirteen years, learned all the processes of building a fine guitar.

As his teacher, John D’Angelico’s, health failed, James D’Aquisto took over more and more of the business until, around the time of D’Angelico’s death in ’64, James D’Aquisto was practically building all the guitars out of the shop.

However, after D’Angelico’s death, James D’Aquisto had a real difficult time making a go of it. He didn’t have a reputation of his own, so people didn’t come to him to buy guitars. And he entered into a bad business arrangement with a former customer of D’Angelico’s that left him really not making any money off the business. So eventually he ended that arrangement and moved his shop to Long Island. This was in the sixties, when many of the Italian Americans from New York City were moving into New Jersey and Long Island and away from Manhattan.

He first built his instruments very much in the style of John D’Angelico, but slowly he would try to introduce his own ideas and move away from this very traditional style of guitars. But it was a very tough time to be building guitars. In the late sixties and seventies, the acoustic guitar market was really in steep decline as the electric guitar became the instrument of choice to most players. So James D’Aquisto really specialized on a market here in the city based around the jazz club scene. He sold his instruments to such greats as Jim Hall and Grant Green, who were playing combo scene jazz, usually with an electric pickup in the guitars. Here is Jeffrey Mironov.

Jeffrey Mironov: Grant Green played an eighteen-inch D’Aquisto New Yorker. And Jimmy loved Grant, and Grant loved Jimmy and loved that guitar. As a matter of fact, whenever he would have anybody riding with him in his car, the guitar would go in the front seat and the people would have to ride in the back. I mean, he just revered this guitar and it had a living stature and a living place in his life.

Jayson Dobney: As the guitar market began to rebound in the 1980s, James D’Aquisto, who was by then established as the great maker, finally found his opportunity to break away from the traditional styles of John D’Angelico, and he began introducing radical new ideas to the guitars. He stripped down all of the synthetic materials, no inlays on the guitars—in fact, cut-outs in the headstock instead of his name—and interesting-shaped sound holes, for example, and radical color choices for the varnish. He was really a forward, modern-looking maker who broke completely with the past and built his reputation on this.

James D’Aquisto didn’t train an apprentice in the traditional manner that he had learned. But in many ways, through his radical change and his new ideas to guitar construction and building, he had a profound effect upon the next generation of builders.

James D’Aquisto died at the age of fifty-nine in 1995.

This is Steve Miller improvising on a D’Aquisto guitar.

[Steve Miller plays a solo guitar improvisation]

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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