When Italian-American luthier John D’Angelico opened his New York City guitar shop in 1932, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were less than two years old. Inspired by the world’s then-tallest structures and their American take on France’s Art Deco design movement, D’Angelico bedecked his guitars with sleek, geometrically patterned pickguards, tailpieces, and hardware. The original D’Angelico guitars aren’t merely beautiful. They are reputed to be the finest archtop guitars ever made. (I say “reputed,” because even after many years writing for guitar mags, I’ve never touched one. But that’s what I hear from the big kids who get to play the nice instruments.)
Like many modern guitar and amp manufacturers operating under brand names borrowed from the past, the new D’Angelico label has no direct connection to its namesake. Yet the new company is reviving more than just a moniker. All their instruments reprise design details from those storied archtops. Current D’Angelico offerings range from handbuilt archtops selling for north of ten grand to Asia-built, production-line instruments costing less than $700.
Deco for Days
D’Angelico models are classified in four ranges: Master Builder, Deluxe, Excel, and Premier (in descending order of cost). The SS is part of the budget-conscious Premier line. As you might expect at its $749 price, it is an Asia-built instrument that, like many of its current competitors, provides solid quality at an impressively low price.
Our review SS is a thinline semi-hollowbody with a single rounded cutaway and a center block. A more expensive version can be ordered with a vintage-inspired stairstep tailpiece and a fully hollow configuration. You can also order a semi-hollow version without f-holes. The 1.75"-deep, subtly arched body is formed from maple laminate. A 25"-scale rosewood fretboard tops a maple neck. Attractive single-ply binding outlines the top, back, neck and headstock. The blemish-free glossy finish is a lovely dark-cherry hue. But the guitar’s visual highlights are its Deco-inspired details. The pickguard, tuners, and shiny truss rod cover share a common stairstep motif. Equally striking is the “hollowed out” keystone headstock—another visual hallmark of vintage D’Angelicos.
Pickguard aside, the body is reminiscent of classic Gretsches, Gibsons, and Epiphones, with f-holes, a Tune-o-matic bridge, a stop tailpiece, and four plastic barrel knobs. Still, the SS provides ample bling for its price, and it’s a sharp-looking axe exactly as shipped.
Tone and Playability
Unplugged, the SS sounds promisingly zingy and resonant. The shallow C-shaped neck has a sleek, modern feel. So do the capably installed medium-jumbo frets. However, the guitar would have benefited from some extra love on its way out the door. The intonation was far from accurate, one of the tone pots was loose, and the bridge pickup was situated too far from the strings. Plan on doing your own setup, or paying for the job.
While old-school D’Angelicos are almost exclusively associated with jazz playing, the SS is a versatile modern axe. The svelte neck favors speedy playing. The elegant cutaway and neck joint make it easy to sail high notes to the stratosphere. And the SS’s feel accommodates everything from chord melodies to cowboy chords to vulgar shredding.
Of Coils and Character
The D’Angelico humbuckers are hot enough to summon gritty chunk from an overdriven amp, yet they clean up enough for traditional jazz playing—especially with the neck pickup’s tone pot rolled back. But while the SS’s tones never sound bad, they can sound somewhat generic and don’t always match the guitar’s distinctive visual flair.
Pickup character is a matter of personal taste, so consider my comments in that light. To my subjective ear, these D’Angelico humbuckers are relatively bland, and they don’t seem to telegraph the guitar’s attractive acoustic character. The high end suffers from a lack of openness and air. Tones are solid, but they seldom sparkle. I’d love to hear the SS with zingier, more distinctive pickups with character that lives up to the guitar’s visual promise. I’d also like to hear how they sound in the fully hollow-body version. Having said that, the same criticisms are often true for competitors’ pickups in the same price range, and I have no doubt that many players will dig these tones just as they are. Let your ears be your guide.
D’Angelico’s Premier SS is a well-built, ultra-stylish guitar with a perfectly fair price tag. Granted, its vintage D’Angelico DNA lives primarily in small visual details, but man, what lovely details! There are some weak links: notably the sketchy setup and (to my ears) unremarkable pickups. But between those players who like the SS sound just as it is and those who purchase it with pickup upgrades in mind, this Deco flashback is sure to win fans.
Watch the Review Demo: