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Builder Profile: John Monteleone

Builder Profile: John Monteleone

LEFT: The Blue Comet’s soundboard was carved from Adirondack red spruce, and the inlay is made of turquoise stone with mother of pearl. RIGHT: The guitars in John Monteleone’s Train series are inspired by various design appointments on famous locomotives from the golden age of passenger trains. Note the intricate details on the Blue Comet model, including the headstock’s aerodynamic shape and deco inlays.

Learning Curves
Like many luthiers, Monteleone’s first guitars were flattops, mostly because of his background of working on them during his teens and early 20s. “Somehow I never moved away from those,” he admits. “I always keep a flattop with me to play myself. When I got interested in archtop guitars, I had that experience behind me, knowing what a flattop could do, and I quickly learned what an archtop could do differently.” Monteleone noticed that flattop players had difficulty adapting to archtops. For starters, archtops often seem heavy or cumbersome compared to standard flattop. So Monteleone decided to try to make archtops more accessible— but also more intimate, with a more expressive, responsive, and immediate kind of sensitivity.

“Archtops have a particular character of enveloping all of the notes— all the notes are put into bubbles. They’re very clear and precise. You can hear them, they’re easy to identify. Flattop guitars have that, but they’re more dragged, one over the other, and it comes at you in a different way.” Monteleone decided he wanted to bring a bit of the flattop into the archtop, response-wise. “The flattop guitar has a very adaptive kind of looseness to it. It’s easy to play in many styles, and the archtop guitar really hadn’t known too much of that in the past. I don’t think it was developed beyond a certain point.”

Monteleone realizes, of course, that art, science, and craftsmanship must work together, and that instruments must be subservient to what their owners intend to play on them. He says that the guitar-building philosophy for an instrument intended to entertain a crowd of thousands is different than the philosophy behind a guitar that will be playing to 100 people or less. And the more you reduce the size of the crowd, he says, the more the design becomes acoustic oriented.

The Teardrop guitar is Monteleone’s homage to John D’Angelico and Jimmy D’Aquisto (Monteleone’s close friend and mentor), who both designed teardrop guitars during their careers.

“The one-on-one relationship is what really interested me,” he says. “That’s what led me to build a guitar with side soundholes. The musician was going to be the first one to be satisfied in the chain. I wanted to take the ‘me guitar’ and, through experimentation, turn that into the ‘us guitar.’

“I made my first guitar when I was around 14 or 15, and I would play that guitar, fool around with it, and the sound was okay. But if I laid my head on the side of the guitar, my ear right on the side, there was a sound in there that I wanted to hear. It was beautiful, rich, syrupy, live, crisp, clean, and lush. From that day on, my curiosity led me down a path to getting that.”

Monteleone’s Teardrop guitar was part of Guitar Heroes, a 2011 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the work of luthiers Monteleone, John D’Angelico, and James D’Aquisto.

Function Meets Expression
For some archtop builders, tailpieces aren’t necessarily high on the list of design considerations— at least when it comes to innovation and time investment. But Monteleone’s is remarkably functional, and it has a huge impact on the playability of the instrument. The bracket that holds the tailpiece is a one-piece casting that allows one to change the rise of the tailpiece by removing material. A piece of ebony block sits in a tray over which the tailpiece anchor strap will pass, so you can reduce or raise it simply by making different pieces and changing them out to arrive at something that’s going to be the best for that set up. The tailpieces are also horizontally adjustable. Monteleone likes having the option of shortening it up tight to the bracket, or extending it out closer to the bridge in order to slightly alter the tension of a string.

But though he dedicates a lot of attention to tailpieces, Monteleone says the bridge is what really drives everything. “The bridge mechanically transfers information from the strings out onto the soundboard. So with mandolins and archtop guitars, I focused on how to keep that energy alive, with the most efficiency possible, for the longest duration of time that I could get from it. And just for the power of tone and separation, and dynamic separation that is the complete spectrum from lowest to highest— how to smooth that all out from one end to the other was a particular objective of mine.”

His experience working with violins gave him an understanding about the connection between the bridge and an archtop’s tone bars, and how to move sound out to the soundboard. “This is one of the reasons I began to use an elliptical soundhole, and to rotate it to increase the real estate on the bass side of the guitar. And then on the treble side it was a little shorter. To have an efficient soundboard and resonator, that relationship needs to be coupled together.”

Archtops are heftier than flattops by design, but Monteleone doesn’t want his guitars to have the clunky feel that some archtops have. “There are those who are firm believers in weight reduction clear across the board when making the instrument—to make them as light as they can be—and they’re highly responsive, and that’s a fine approach. It’s not mine in particular. I don’t consider weight my enemy. I want to use it in a friendly way, put it in the right places, because I think you have things to gain in terms of tone and resonance.” After a pause, he continues. “There’s probably some scientific way to explain all that, but mine is more empirical— from that experience of having played with this and played with that, and knowing what works and what doesn’t work. And also with what the musicians would like to have. So I’ve chosen to bear that in mind. You can build an instrument totally to your own liking, but if someone else doesn’t like it … .”

Drool-Worthy Details
One of the most interesting of Monteleone’s guitars is his Grand Artist model, which has a beautiful scroll on the bass-side bout. The Grand Artist began as an extension of his mandolin making—he’d always wanted to make a guitar based on mandolin construction. It required a neck joint different from a normal archtop guitar’s and, once again, Monteleone pulled innovation out of deeply rooted tradition: He’d seen an example of a scroll-body, O guitar from the early Gibson years, and others from his years repairing mandolins, but he didn’t find them terribly interesting.

Each of Monteleone’s Four Seasons guitars is made of wood expressive of the season it represents (left to right): All of the perimeter lines on the quilted-maple Autumn are influenced by leaves. The natural-finish Winter uses contrasting ebony, maple, and alpine spruce. The wild tiger maple and blue hue of Spring is to represent “the wonderful sky, sunshine, and things that come exploding out of the ground.” Summer’s scroll body and fiery colors are meant to invoke that season’s “hot, sweaty, steamy” essence.

“They looked cool, they looked different, but they didn’t play well,” he explains. “They didn’t give the expected tone and response we were looking for.” So he steered away from that type of design and followed his intuition. He’d also built mandocellos and mandolas by this point, and with that experience, he says it wasn’t too difficult to conceptualize a guitar based on those designs. Monteleone now makes 17" and 18" versions, as well as a Teardrop model. He says the guitar’s response and tone is hard to explain. “One of my clients calls it ‘the Terminator,’” he says with a laugh. “It can be very aggressive, but yet it can be as mild as you want it to be.”

Photographer and guitarist Vincent Ricardel has worked extensively with Monteleone and co-authored Archtop Guitars with Rudy Pensa. Ricardel says there are only three guitars like the Teardrop in the world, with the first one being by John D’Angelico in 1957. “It was so unique at the time—with a lower bow that dipped and curved—and it had that ’50s sunburst color we all identify with guitars of that period,” Ricardel says. In the early ’90s, Jimmy D’Aquisto built the second known Teardrop, one with a reddish finish, in homage to D’Angelico. It was only natural that Monteleone followed suit with an homage to his mentor and friend D’Aquisto. He built his in 2008, and it features a scroll and elaborate inlay work.

Ricardel photographed all three Teardrop guitars, as well as many of Monteleone’s intimate building sessions. “If you look really closely, it says ‘In homage to John and Jimmy’ on the inside of the guitar,” says Ricardel of Monteleone’s Teardrop. “You couldn’t pay a higher compliment to somebody.”

But Monteleone is accustomed to getting compliments, too, and few could be more flattering than being invited to have his guitars displayed alongside many instruments by D’Aquisto and D’Angelico at the 2011 Guitar Heroes exhibition at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monteleone’s markings on the insides of his instruments were made possible through his use of side soundholes. “I thought, ‘Hey, here’s a whole new canvas. Why not?’” The first guitars he decorated this way were the Four Seasons guitars, a collection he built starting in 2002. Now in a private collection, these guitars were featured in a recording by guitarist Anthony Wilson, who was commissioned by Monteleone to write a suite of music for the guitars, Seasons: A Song Cycle for Guitar Quartet (Live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The recording features Wilson, Steve Cardenas, Chico Pinheiro, and Julian Lage, and it was performed at the Guitar Heroes exhibit. One of the Seasons guitars, Summer, is a scrollbody model, and on the recording you can hear a range of Monteleone’s options, including f-hole and elliptical-hole guitars. Each of the Four Seasons guitars has elaborate sketch and inlay work on the interior, including genuine precious gemstones such as diamonds, rubies, and even emeralds.

Despite the unique, forward-looking aesthetics of his guitars, Monteleone is a player himself, so his designs always take into account how unique appointments will affect tone, ergonomics, and playability. “The bigger the guitar, the more shallow it’s going to be, and the smaller the guitar, the deeper it’ll be, in contrast,” he says. He even pays close attention to things as small as putting a radius on the edges of the binding so it doesn’t press uncomfortably into the player’s arm or leg.

Above all, Monteleone treasures the close relationships he forms with individual clients—he loves building each guitar to suit a unique person. “I’ve been blessed with a clientele that allows me a pretty free range of experimentation to develop ideas,” he says, “but it always comes back to hanging those ideas of design on a functioning body that will play as expected, at the least. Otherwise what good is it?”

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