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Monteleone’s Grand Artist guitars are inspired by his mandolin-making years and feature an elegant scroll on the bass-side bout. Photos by Vincent Ricardel
Taking a stellar instrument in your hands can be a bit overwhelming— especially when it’s a masterfully built piece of high-functioning art. For starters, you don’t want to ding it, drop it, scratch it, or do anything that might cause its owner pain or expense. Secondly, and possibly even more powerfully, you might not feel worthy of such an instrument.
Among the instruments likely to cause such a reaction, those built by John Monteleone up the anxiety ante considerably—like, to heart-attack level. But despite the jaw-dropping beauty of his instruments, Monteleone insists his central goal is always to make his guitars player friendly. From his early incorporation of side sound ports (which has since become much more common among high-end builders) to his use of a tailpiece that can be minutely adjusted to ease string tension, Monteleone’s archtops are a player’s dream come true in spruce and maple.
Early on, Monteleone was concerned that the archtop had been pigeonholed as a jazz-only guitar. “That idea never sat well with me,” he says. “I knew it was capable of much more than that, and if I could bring it into an arena that was more friendly to the broad application of guitar, then I’d be going in the correct direction.”
Monteleone grew up in Manhattan in a family of artists, craftsmen, and engineers, so his background suited him well in his conquest to expand and develop the archtop guitar. He spent several years working for his father on blueprints, generating different kinds of objects and things from paper to reality. It was interesting work, but Monteleone felt he was searching for something else. “I wasn’t quite sure what that would be, or if it was even possible to find a direction that I really was going to align with,” he remembers.
Monteleone makes 17" and 18" versions of the Grand Artist scroll-body. One client calls it “The Terminator” for its aggressive tone, “yet it can be as mild as you want it to be,” Monteleone says.
In a classic quest to find himself, Monteleone took off to backpack through Europe, where he hitchhiked, slept out under the stars, and dreamt about the future over a period of months. He knew he didn’t want to spend his life working in his father’s pattern shop, but still wasn’t completely sure how to craft the rest of his life. Then it hit him.
One day he was listening to the radio while working, and a show came on featuring Stan Jay and Harold “Hap” Kuffner from the Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island. “They were entertaining live, and they were fielding questions about instruments,” Monteleone says. “I think I called in to find out more about a certain mandolin—a Gibson mandolin that I had seen in a store.” Monteleone had already built some instruments as a hobby by that time, but says, “I had no idea you could turn it into a profession or a business.”
He decided to go meet Jay and Kuffner, who had just started their now-famous business of buying and selling vintage instruments and were, unbeknownst to him, looking for someone to repair them. Fortunately, Monteleone happened to bring along two flattops he’d been building and ended up getting the gig. “With a smile on my face I drove home that day with a Gibson Bella Voce banjo to re-neck as a 5-string. Also on the backseat of my Volkswagen bug was a pre-war Martin 000-45 and a D-28. What more could a starry-eyed guitar geek want to spend the rest of his days with?”
While he was working on rare instruments at the little workshop in his house over the next few years, Monteleone learned a few tricks of the trade from legendary mentors such as Jimmy D’Aquisto and Mario Maccaferri. “I was very lucky to have that experience,” Monteleone says. “Everyone has their own building styles, and I admired Jimmy’s talents. I know they’re not my own talents—and vive la difference! That’s great, everyone should have their own signature on things. Same with Maccaferri. I did some work with him purely on a friendly basis, not as a business arrangement, because I just loved the man. I knew that his approach to building was not my own, but I could appreciate it.”
Even so, Monteleone says D’Aquisto and Maccaferri influenced his luthiery in the same ways that master musicians influence aspiring musicians. “These things play into your own development of how you think about sound, about tone, about construction of the instruments, too. I wasn’t necessarily going to follow their examples exactly, but things do play into your cards at some point.”
Despite having such close working relationships with two of the 20th century’s most famous builders, Monteleone says his main design philosophies came from his hands-on experience working as a repair tech. “You’re a problem-solver when you’re doing this—you’re fixing something, you’re righting something that was wrong. Or something happened to the instrument that was not the fault of the design.” Because of that, Monteleone’s guitars are a product of his reverence for vintage instruments, as well as his desire to improve projection, tone, and playability, but not to turn a guitar into something it’s not. “In design and construction of instruments, there’s a lot to be learned from others. Some of these guys I still hold in high regard, and in some ways, you wouldn’t want to change [what they pioneered].” But in other ways, he says he found certain design aspects called out for change. “Not just to change it for the sake of changing something— that’s not a good reason.” Monteleone says such changes are warranted, however, for the betterment of functionality or user experience.
“The basic design of my instruments, the foundation, is something that is easily identifiable, and recognizable as the instrument we all know, as opposed to a spaceship, or ‘What the hell is that thing?’”