To Make the Wood Sing
Mark Campellone explains what its like to build quality, handmade archtop guitars
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As a kid I had a couple Gibson catalogs. I used to look at the pictures and thought the L-5 and the Super 400 were so cool! And then when I was 14, I was in a band and there was a girl that was friendly with one of the guys in the band, and she had an uncle who had a late-fifties Super 400 with two P-90s, and he gave it to her to play! She used to let me take that guitar on gigs. There I was at 14, playing Steppenwolf on a late-fifties Super 400 CES – not appropriate at all, but I didn’t know, I just thought it was a really cool guitar! That guitar made a big impression on me.
You said that at one point you were considering the path of a professional musician. Did you go to college?
I went to Berklee for a couple semesters, but after two semesters there, I kind of started to run out of steam for it; there weren’t many more courses that I wanted to take. I thought if I really wanted to learn how to play the best thing to do was to just get out and play – that kind of stuff. That led me to leave the school and try playing for a living.
But I think, subconsciously, what was really at work was that the whole lifestyle just wasn’t for me. I thought I wanted to be a musician so bad. It was like this big, cathartic thing one day – I just came to the revelation that it just didn’t work for me. Whatever it is that makes musicians so devoted to trying to play music for other people, I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with music. I like music and I have musical talent, but I don’t feel compelled to share it with the public, and certainly not at the cost that most musicians pay to do that. Plus, I was interested in guitars and woodworking. It was something I could do during the day and have a relatively normal schedule. Once I started getting into that I felt more like, “This is me, this is what I should be doing.”
When did you build your first guitar?
I started out building solidbody electric instruments, which came about because I had picked up the bass. I grew up playing guitar but I picked up the electric bass and was playing in a rock band. I was playing an imported student bass that I bought from a friend of mine for 50 cents, although I thought that I should get a better bass because this one was kind of junky. I started looking around, and being a guitar player, the Fender basses were just too bulky and Gibson basses of that era didn’t sound very good. I really couldn’t find anything I liked, so I thought, “let me try building a bass.” I built my first electric bass in 1977, and it was technically the first instrument that had my name on it.
I got off to a very slow start with the archtop stuff. I initially went to this local music store because I was looking for a five-string banjo – I had picked that up and was having some fun with it. This store had a lot of repair work and when the owner found out that I had built some electric guitars he asked me if I wanted to do some repair work, so that’s how that started. I started working on archtop guitars, which again raised my interest level. The owner had an archtop in there built by a guy by the name of Glen Markel who used to work at Guild in Westerly. I had thought about building one, but I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t know anything about it. But I figured if Glen could do it I could do it! Glen loaned me some of his carving tools and I started putting my first archtop together, which was around 1988.
A lot of the designs [on my instruments], like those fingerboard inlays, I’ve taken directly from architecture on local buildings. Both the five-piece and the three-piece keystone inlays are designs that I have seen over windows on concrete buildings.
I had built half a dozen or so archtops by 1991 and I went to display them for the first time at a symposium in Pennsylvania. From around 1990-91, I started to get serious about working full time, trying to build archtop guitars, and my production started to increase. I was still building some solidbody instruments, but then I did the Classic American Guitar Show in Long Island in ‘93 – the first year they held the show – and that was my first really good commercial exposure. That pushed me further into the direction of doing the archtop thing.
How many archtops have you made since then?
The last one from this batch was number 339.
How do you think your guitars compare with Gibson’s quality these days?
Well, they’re at least as good, if not better! Like I said, I’m a Gibson fan and I haven’t seen a lot of new Gibson stuff, but inevitably with factory instruments, there’s always something about it that says, “I came from a factory.” [laughs]
The joinery and the binding, that’s where I tend to see it most...
Yeah, the little things. I’ve got a couple of Heritage archtops that are really, really nice, but on most of them there’s always some little thing that says, “someone really wasn’t paying attention when they did this.” But as far as the quality of those instruments overall, if you buy a Gibson it’s a good quality instrument – it’s not going to fall apart. You’re probably not going to have any serious problems with it, the build quality is good, but it’s just in some of those details. I still own some Gibson guitars that are really nice.
Why should someone consider buying a Campellone rather than a Gibson?
If it were up to me, I would just as soon buy a Gibson as one of mine, if it was a nice one. But why would other people consider me over that? I think a lot of people just like the idea of a guitar that’s built by one person.
Is it because it is more handmade?
Believe me, I use as many tools as I can – the less handwork I have to do, the better. I gladly accept the help that power tools can offer. But the thing is, it’s one guy building a guitar from start to finish, which a lot of people like the idea of. They figure the quality and the attention to detail are going to be better, so I think that’s why a lot of people would choose to buy one of my guitars over a factory-made instrument.
Why they would choose my guitar over an instrument made by another builder? There are a lot of reasons for that. It could range anywhere from the price and style to personality. One of the things that I think is unique in terms of the appeal of my instruments is that they look like old guitars. A lot of builders now are doing stuff that looks more contemporary, kind of picking up where D’Aquisto left off. They are experimenting with different woods, different sound holes, all that kind of stuff, and that’s ok. It’s a different look with no plastic binding, no inlay; it’s a minimalist kind of thing. I’ve seen some of those instruments and they’re very nice instruments – they have a good volume level, a good balance and all the things that make a guitar good – but they don’t really sound like a forties L-7.
Do you feel like yours recapture that?
Yeah, that’s my goal actually. I like to build what I like, and I like those old guitars, so when I started building that was the vibe I was going for. So I think maybe that’s the main thing that distinguishes my work from that of other builders.
You are very rooted in a traditional style and there are many Art Deco points on your instruments.
Yeah, D’Angelico really kind of crystallized that. As for the Gibson stuff, I don’t think they were necessarily going for the art deco look, although that’s kind of how it came out. But when D’Angelico started building, you could tell a lot of his designs were screaming art deco. And that got me thinking along those lines.
A lot of the designs [on my instruments], like those fingerboard inlays, I’ve taken directly from architecture on local buildings. Both the fivepiece and the three-piece keystone inlays are designs that I have seen over windows on concrete buildings. The design for my stepped tailpiece was inspired by a door handle plate in my aunt’s apartment building.