Photography by Doreen Iafrate
It’s a small circle of elite builders, luthiers who, in the modern era, have established their names in the annals of guitar building. Names like Buscarino, Monteleone, Sadowski, Benedetto. Add to that list the name Mark Campellone and the fellowship grows in stature. Over the past thirty years, Mark has carved out a place for himself in guitar history as a builder of fine archtop guitars, and has become a well-known name, especially among jazz guitarists and those who trade in the vintage guitar market.
As is true of any modern heavyweight in the building game, those who are successful have been able to craft the finest instruments while at the same time put their unique artistic stamp on each work. Mark’s instruments, while relying on the style and tradition of earlier Gibson archtops, incorporate a well thought out artistic design that spans tailpiece to tuners. A blend of traditional hand-craftsmanship and modern technology, Mark’s guitars – at least for the moment – may be the last of affordable, high-end, handmade acoustic instruments. The following conversation with Mark offers unique insight into how he thinks and feels about his development, the design of his instruments, the current market and his vision for the future.
You’re going to have to educate us a little bit about this business. How do you see your type of business in the guitar market? How do you define what you do – a “small builder” or a “boutique builder?”
[laughs] Micro-manufacturing. I’m not really sure what “boutique” means. There are guys making boutique amplifiers, but they’re not really “custom made,” in that they’re not making a different amp for every customer. There are a lot of guys that do what I do – small independent builders and one-man shops that build whatever a customer wants. Some of them have a loose model structure, but a lot of them will build whatever guitar a customer wants, customizing it in any way.
I used to do that, but since work has backed up, I have kind of gone in the other direction, basically doing what manufacturers do, offering three strictly delineated models. I offer some customization in terms of dimensions, but basically I have been trying to make the building process as efficient as I can to try and get guitars out on time. I kind of shy away from custom work now, so I’m not building a different guitar for every customer. In that sense [my process] is very much like manufacturing, but on the other hand, since I control every operation, the quality and the attention to detail are always there.
There seems to be a new interest in small builders. If you look through this magazine, for example, they often spotlight a lot of these builders. It seems that many new ones have emerged in the last few years.
[laughs] Tell me about it!
Why is that?
I guess it started as far back as the seventies, when some of the manufacturers were dealing with huge demands for guitars and began spitting them out of the factory as fast as they could – Gibson and Fender were cranking out some really crappy stuff. Around the same time Ibanez came out making Gibson copies that were better than Gibson originals at that time, and that kind of got people interested in looking elsewhere for quality instruments. I also think that as music got more sophisticated and the demands on the instruments became a little more sharply defined, customers became more educated and started looking for higher quality instruments. Because of the drop in quality of the manufactured stuff, a lot of them became willing to look elsewhere for something of higher quality.
I was aware that the decline in quality from both Fender and Gibson in the seventies really inspired people to go back and buy older vintage instruments, but I had not thought about how that period of time also inspired small builders to emerge.
I’m not so sure why it happened with flattops, because Martin has always maintained really good quality, but the number of independent flattop builders out there now is huge! And with archtops, as people were looking for higher quality archtops and turning to vintage pieces, the cost of vintage pieces got so high that a builder like myself could build and offer a new guitar at a lower price than you could get a vintage piece for.
And with the same quality as the older stuff.
Yeah, and Gibson wasn’t making a lot of archtops during the seventies and eighties – they weren’t so much a part of their regular production. But, just as a disclaimer, I’m a big Gibson fan and I’m glad to see that they got back up to speed. Obviously my designs are Gibson inspired, and I really like their stuff.
It goes way back to when I first started playing guitar. I got my first good guitar, which was a Gibson, at age 12. I had a hint even then that I liked the guitar itself as much, or more, than I actually liked the music. This became more evident later on as I went in the direction of having a performance career; I dropped out of it because the lifestyle wasn’t for me. I got into building, so I guess I was more excited about the instrument itself than I was about the music.