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I’ve always admired the supportive nature of the luthier community. Regardless of size or competitive positioning, many of the best builders share knowledge and inspiration with each other in an effort to move the entire art form forward. One of the most generous and uniquely talented of these is Swiss luthier Claudio Pagelli and his wife/business partner, Claudia—whom he says “brought style and a whole new dimension to my guitars.” You won’t meet two warmer or more welcoming people in the guitar business, but that’s only half of the reason admirers and fellow artisans like Paul Reed Smith, Bob Benedetto, and Ulrich Teuffel speak glowingly of the pair. The other half is, of course, their gorgeously innovative designs and exacting execution.
Pagelli’s creativity and lutherie skills are nearly boundless. A quick perusal of his website reveals how wildly the offerings vary—from electric solidbodies to archtops, flattop acoustics, and basses. Typically, each instrument is a one-of-a-kind design, but in a break from tradition Pagelli has decided to build the closest thing to a production-line model that we’re likely to see from him—the new Massari archtop
On a Mountain Aire You can better understand the quirky soulfulness of the Massari (and all of Pagelli’s guitars) by knowing something of where they come from. The Pagellis are based in the quiet little town of Scharans, Switzerland, and maintain their operations from a small workshop overlooking the Swiss Alps. He was trained as a piano builder and began his luthier career in 1977 working as a repairman for a Swiss operation specializing in American guitars. A year later, he set up his own shop and restored hundreds of jazz guitars. Pagelli’s chops as a builder were also enriched by his significant experience as a professional guitarist and sound technician throughout the ’80s. By 1995, Claudio was designing and building guitars for himself and manufacturers as varied as Schertler, Cort, Eastman, and Burns of London. Claudia, Claudio’s wife of 24 years, comes up with the imaginative designs that Claudio builds, and she also has an eagle eye for the build quality that defines a Pagelli instrument.The two make a formidable team and collaborate throughout the intensive design and build process. Given the amount of effort that goes into each build, Pagelli typically produces about 10 instruments per year.
All right, let’s get back to the Massari. A high degree of styling and craftsmanship are evident from the first time you lay eyes on it. While its basic design and materials largely adhere to archtop tradition, the Massari’s styling pushes boundaries and is asymmetrical as jazz itself.
The 17”-wide, single-cutaway body features handcarved Canadian quilted-maple back and sides. The soundhole on the side of the upper bout projects more sound to the player, and Pagelli says it has the added benefit of creating more vibrational surface on the top. The top itself is carved from a solid piece of “moon-cut” Swiss Alpine spruce. Moon-cut refers to a century-old practice of cutting Alpine spruce during winter, when the moon is in its last waning phase. I can’t speak to whether there is conclusive scientific evidence that this approach yields wood better suited to guitar building than timber cut under different conditions, but the Massari’s tight grain pattern and airy, open tonal qualities suggest something is very right with this wood. The top also features a pair of f-holes that are unlike any I’ve seen—swooping, angular lines that are so intricately carved that I couldn’t fit a medium pick though the narrowest aperture. The guitar is finished in a thin coat of nitro lacquer that beautifully complements the guitar’s other visual accents.
Ebony is everywhere on the Massari. An expertly inlaid stringer goes down the middle of the back, and ebony is used as binding along the top, back, neck heel, and around the f-holes. It’s also used for the bevels along the armrest and cutaway, the headstock veneer, the knobs on the Schertler tuners, the tailpiece and the bridge, which has been carved to match the top’s profile so there’s full contact between them. And the highly figured maple neck capped with—you guessed it—an ebony fretboard.
Art in Action
Many of the inventive elements that visually set apart the 25 1/2”-scale Massari also enhance its playability and responsiveness. It weighs a mere 4 pounds 15 ounces, and it balances well whether you’re standing or sitting. The 16”–18”, compound-radius fretboard, 22 medium-jumbo frets, and 1.734” nut make the neck feel spacious and comfortable. The neck profile is best described as a thin “C” carve that slowly graduates to a more rounded, medium-large “C” carve. It makes playing the guitar feel more fluid, and even with .012–.053 strings, jazz leads and chords feel relatively effortless.
The Massari’s single floating pickup is a Jaén SSH-266 humbucker built by Spanish archtop luthier Fernando Jaén. Its clear response sounds and feels more like a single-coil, and plugged into a blackface Fender Bandmaster it sounds super transparent and is a great match for the lush, natural acoustic voice of the Massari. The primary tone is well balanced across the dynamic range, without the mid dominance you hear in some traditional archtops. The pairing makes for a super-articulate instrument. I was particularly impressed with its touch sensitivity—it’s incredibly nuanced and responsive to small changes in finger pressure and picking dynamics. It also has remarkable sustain for an archtop.
The Verdict It’s hard to imagine the Massari was designed for anything other than jazz, but it’s a testament to the Pagelli’s open-minded design approach that the guitar sounds amazing in blues and acoustic rock settings. It reminds you how a clear, rich acoustic tone is such a wonderful base upon which to create and explore new approaches to melodies and progressions. Knowing the Pagellis, I wouldn’t be surprised if they aimed to create a guitar that both facilitates traditional jazz tones and embraces the genre’s adventurous spirit by enabling you to easily move beyond its stylistic constraints.
Playing the Massari, it’s easy to see why Claudio and Claudia Pagelli are held in such high esteem by other renowned builders. They’ve got a pretty rare combination of boundless creativity, exacting building standards, and stellar artistic sensibilities. The guitar may be priced like an heirloom, but that’s because it is one. Like all of Pagelli’s offerings, it’s bound to become a modern treasure.