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

Sublime: This 1943 D’Angelico New Yorker archtop recently sold for $36,414.

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.

The apprentice and master, D’Angelico (right) and D’Aquisto, in front of their New York City shop, circa 1960. (Archives of the National Music Museum, The University of South Dakota)

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. 

Archtop guitars—like dobros and electric guitars—were first made in response to musician’s need for a louder instrument. Common flat-top guitars didn’t have the projection that was needed to be part of a big-band rhythm section, so guitar makers of the 1930s scrambled to build a guitar that musicians would buy. The Gibson Guitar Company’s solution to the “volume” problem was to build a guitar that had an arched top instead of a flat top. A properly made arched guitar top is made the same way that a violin’s top is made: it is carved by hand. Arched-top instruments were standard fare for violin makers, and had been for several hundred years. A violin’s arched top (and bottom) greatly improved the instruments projection. The same is true for a properly made arched guitar top.

But Gibson’s factory couldn’t keep up with the demand for top-quality archtop jazz guitars, and a niche was opened for custom builders like John D’Angelico.Apprentices who spend decades working with a master luthier have both sensibilities and skill, or they don’t last long on the job. Some workshops have a tradition of making first-rate instruments that comes from a craftsman’s skills and sensibilities combined with a solid instrument design and practical manufacturing process. Such a workshop was begun by John D’Angelico in 1932 in New York City, and his tradition of fine archtop guitar making was carried on by his apprentice Jimmy D’Aquisto. Today, these two Italian guitar makers are spoken of with the same respect given to Stradivari and Guarneri, and their archtop guitars are sought-after instruments.

Hand carving guitar tops is very labor-intensive, and Gibson couldn’t hand-carve enough tops to keep up with production demands. Over the next decade, guitar manufacturers began to fast-track archtops by steam-bending a thin piece of wood (often laminated) into the desired shape. Steam-bent, mass-produced archtops focus on the shape of the top; handmade guitars focus on the sound of the top. Starting with a close-grained block of spruce or other good “tone-wood,” a craftsman chisels and gouges the ideal shape into the wood. As the work progresses, the wood is held by an edge and tapped. If insufficient wood is removed, the wood “thuds” like a two-by-four. When properly shaped and carved, the top rings with a bell-like tone, and the top is considered complete.

Mel Bay playing his D’Angelico guitar.

The original Mel Bay model D’Aquisto guitar has appeared on the cover of Mel Bay’s guitar method book since 1947.

D’Angelico learned to carve tops under the tutelage of his uncle Raphael Ciani, an Italian luthier who had immigrated to New York. D’Angelico worked for his uncle building violins, mandolins and flat-top guitars. After the death of his uncle in 1923, 18-year-old D’Angelico took over the shop, supervising his uncle’s 15 employees. In 1932, he opened his own shop on Kenmare Street in New York City.

D’Angelico’s first guitars were close copies of Gibson’s model L-5 archtops (early D’Angelico models couldn’t incorporate Gibson’s patents). D’Angelico made four archtops: models A, B and the Exel (spelled without the “c”)—all with 17-inch bodies—and the popular New Yorker, made with an 18-inch body and boasting Art Deco styling. His guitars were highly sought-after; guitarist Chet Atkins, before signing an endorsement contract with Gretsch, played a D’Angelico and considered it to be a status symbol. Guitar maestro Mel Bay’s custom D’Angelico has graced the cover of his guitar method book since 1947.

D’Angelico’s career output was a little less than 1,200 guitars, producing at his peak about three guitars a month. Prices were competitive with Gibson. A D’Angelico New Yorker that was built for Peter Girardi for $500 in 1957 is now on loan to the Smithsonian Institution and insured for $500,000.

In the mid-1950s, teenage Jimmy D’Aquisto went to work for John D’Angelico. Jimmy tells of his early days working for D’Angelico: “I was making $35 a week. I was like the runner: I’d go to the stores, pick up the tuners, go get the tailpieces from downtown, take the necks to the engraver, all that. I cleaned the windows, swept the floors, everything—we all did that. On Friday we put away the tools and cleaned the shop so when Monday came the place would be spotless.”

The Art Deco styled headstock of the D’Angelico New Yorker.

A D’Aquisto archtop guitar.

Jimmy’s enthusiasm for learning the trade gained him bench time and D’Angelico’s personal attention. Jimmy had “the knack,” and became D’Angelico’s right-hand-man. When D’Angelico developed heart problems in 1959, Jimmy assumed control of many of the shop functions. When D’Angelico died in 1964, Jimmy started the D’Aquisto guitar shop. Like D’Angelico’s guitars, D’Aquisto guitars are legendary. The D’Aquisto Avant Garde prototype is listed by the Museum of Musical Instruments as one of the worlds “10 most expensive guitars ever sold.” D’Aquisto’s Centura Deluxe model, blue in color, was the inspiration for the book “Blue Guitar.”

The work of both D’Angelico and D’Aquisto are chronicled in the book “Acquired of the Angels: The Lives and Works of Master Guitar Makers John D’Angelico and James L. D’Aquisto” and were featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibit Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York.

Prices attained by D’Angelico and D’Aquisto guitars are steady. Recent eBay sales include a 1943 D’Angelico New Yorker for $36,414 and a 1977 D’Aquisto for $12,500. Prices will vary according to the ornamentation (inlays, etc.) and age of the instrument. Age can be accurately determined by the serial number, referencing the Vintage Rocker guitar forum.

Lower-end D’Angelico’s (models A & B) range in price from $10,000 to $20,000; New Yorkers with a cutaway body typically sell in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, and in the mid-$20,000 range without a body cutaway.

D’Aquisto archtops sell for prices similar to the D’Angelico’s, the exception being custom-built one-of-a-kind guitars like the above mentioned Avant Garde.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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