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To Make the Wood Sing

Mark Campellone explains what its like to build quality, handmade archtop guitars

To Make the Wood Sing
To Make the Wood SingIf you know your archtops, you already know Mark Campellone;

if you’re new to the world of jazz, we talk with one of a handful of builders who are successfully merging tradition with modern sensibilities.

To Make the Wood Sing
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.

To Make the Wood SingI 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.

As a kid I had a couple Gibson catalogs. I used to look at the pictures and thought the L-5 and the Super 400 were so cool! And then when I was 14, I was in a band and there was a girl that was friendly with one of the guys in the band, and she had an uncle who had a late-fifties Super 400 with two P-90s, and he gave it to her to play! She used to let me take that guitar on gigs. There I was at 14, playing Steppenwolf on a late-fifties Super 400 CES – not appropriate at all, but I didn’t know, I just thought it was a really cool guitar! That guitar made a big impression on me.

You said that at one point you were considering the path of a professional musician. Did you go to college?
I went to Berklee for a couple semesters, but after two semesters there, I kind of started to run out of steam for it; there weren’t many more courses that I wanted to take. I thought if I really wanted to learn how to play the best thing to do was to just get out and play – that kind of stuff. That led me to leave the school and try playing for a living.

But I think, subconsciously, what was really at work was that the whole lifestyle just wasn’t for me. I thought I wanted to be a musician so bad. It was like this big, cathartic thing one day – I just came to the revelation that it just didn’t work for me. Whatever it is that makes musicians so devoted to trying to play music for other people, I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with music. I like music and I have musical talent, but I don’t feel compelled to share it with the public, and certainly not at the cost that most musicians pay to do that. Plus, I was interested in guitars and woodworking. It was something I could do during the day and have a relatively normal schedule. Once I started getting into that I felt more like, “This is me, this is what I should be doing.”

When did you build your first guitar?
I started out building solidbody electric instruments, which came about because I had picked up the bass. I grew up playing guitar but I picked up the electric bass and was playing in a rock band. I was playing an imported student bass that I bought from a friend of mine for 50 cents, although I thought that I should get a better bass because this one was kind of junky. I started looking around, and being a guitar player, the Fender basses were just too bulky and Gibson basses of that era didn’t sound very good. I really couldn’t find anything I liked, so I thought, “let me try building a bass.” I built my first electric bass in 1977, and it was technically the first instrument that had my name on it.

I got off to a very slow start with the archtop stuff. I initially went to this local music store because I was looking for a five-string banjo – I had picked that up and was having some fun with it. This store had a lot of repair work and when the owner found out that I had built some electric guitars he asked me if I wanted to do some repair work, so that’s how that started. I started working on archtop guitars, which again raised my interest level. The owner had an archtop in there built by a guy by the name of Glen Markel who used to work at Guild in Westerly. I had thought about building one, but I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t know anything about it. But I figured if Glen could do it I could do it! Glen loaned me some of his carving tools and I started putting my first archtop together, which was around 1988.

A lot of the designs [on my instruments], like those fingerboard inlays, I’ve taken directly from architecture on local buildings. Both the five-piece and the three-piece keystone inlays are designs that I have seen over windows on concrete buildings.

I had built half a dozen or so archtops by 1991 and I went to display them for the first time at a symposium in Pennsylvania. From around 1990-91, I started to get serious about working full time, trying to build archtop guitars, and my production started to increase. I was still building some solidbody instruments, but then I did the Classic American Guitar Show in Long Island in ‘93 – the first year they held the show – and that was my first really good commercial exposure. That pushed me further into the direction of doing the archtop thing.

How many archtops have you made since then?
The last one from this batch was number 339.

How do you think your guitars compare with Gibson’s quality these days?
Well, they’re at least as good, if not better! Like I said, I’m a Gibson fan and I haven’t seen a lot of new Gibson stuff, but inevitably with factory instruments, there’s always something about it that says, “I came from a factory.” [laughs]

The joinery and the binding, that’s where I tend to see it most...
Yeah, the little things. I’ve got a couple of Heritage archtops that are really, really nice, but on most of them there’s always some little thing that says, “someone really wasn’t paying attention when they did this.” But as far as the quality of those instruments overall, if you buy a Gibson it’s a good quality instrument – it’s not going to fall apart. You’re probably not going to have any serious problems with it, the build quality is good, but it’s just in some of those details. I still own some Gibson guitars that are really nice.

Why should someone consider buying a Campellone rather than a Gibson?
If it were up to me, I would just as soon buy a Gibson as one of mine, if it was a nice one. But why would other people consider me over that? I think a lot of people just like the idea of a guitar that’s built by one person.

Is it because it is more handmade?
Believe me, I use as many tools as I can – the less handwork I have to do, the better. I gladly accept the help that power tools can offer. But the thing is, it’s one guy building a guitar from start to finish, which a lot of people like the idea of. They figure the quality and the attention to detail are going to be better, so I think that’s why a lot of people would choose to buy one of my guitars over a factory-made instrument.

Why they would choose my guitar over an instrument made by another builder? There are a lot of reasons for that. It could range anywhere from the price and style to personality. One of the things that I think is unique in terms of the appeal of my instruments is that they look like old guitars. A lot of builders now are doing stuff that looks more contemporary, kind of picking up where D’Aquisto left off. They are experimenting with different woods, different sound holes, all that kind of stuff, and that’s ok. It’s a different look with no plastic binding, no inlay; it’s a minimalist kind of thing. I’ve seen some of those instruments and they’re very nice instruments – they have a good volume level, a good balance and all the things that make a guitar good – but they don’t really sound like a forties L-7.

Do you feel like yours recapture that?
Yeah, that’s my goal actually. I like to build what I like, and I like those old guitars, so when I started building that was the vibe I was going for. So I think maybe that’s the main thing that distinguishes my work from that of other builders.

You are very rooted in a traditional style and there are many Art Deco points on your instruments.
Yeah, D’Angelico really kind of crystallized that. As for the Gibson stuff, I don’t think they were necessarily going for the art deco look, although that’s kind of how it came out. But when D’Angelico started building, you could tell a lot of his designs were screaming art deco. And that got me thinking along those lines.

A lot of the designs [on my instruments], like those fingerboard inlays, I’ve taken directly from architecture on local buildings. Both the fivepiece and the three-piece keystone inlays are designs that I have seen over windows on concrete buildings. The design for my stepped tailpiece was inspired by a door handle plate in my aunt’s apartment building.

To Make the Wood SingThat reminds me of some of the antique stores I have been in that carry nothing but hardware from the houses built between 1920 and 1940. Every piece – the plumbing fixtures, the registers, window hardware – everything has little artistic design elements like this. The craftsmanship is amazing.
I did a lot of artwork when I was a kid and I have a really strong art background. So when I came up with the designs for the decorative appointments I really tried to make everything work together, like a motif and development kind of thing. You see the same theme repeated in a lot of places on the guitar: stepped tailpiece, stepped fingerboard inlays, stepped truss rod cover, peghead inlay. To me, that’s just a good design and it gives things an overall kind of homogeneous look. And even though the guitar is pretty highly adorned, it doesn’t look gaudy.

Some people don’t have that artistic sense. They’ll stick this here, and they like this other design so they’ll overuse that for some other part of the guitar, and the parts don’t work together. It’s like wearing a striped shirt, a polka dot tie and checkered pants. The fact that I have spent quite a bit of time making sure all of the design elements work together I think gives the guitars their overall pleasing effect, visually.

The craftsmanship, the attention to detail and the consistency really separate your guitars from other archtops. For example, I’ve sold a lot of the new Gibsons lately and some of them are much nicer than other ones, especially with respect to how straight the neck is. Some of them you cannot get the neck to lay flat straight. How do you accomplish that?
I think Gibson is still using the old, bent, single type of truss rod. I made a choice to go with another type of rod a while back. Because the [new] rod basically works as a compression-type of rod, it works with the wood and neck to move it. Any inconsistencies in the neck will come out in the action of the rod. It’s an upside-down U-channel, open along the bottom with a rod in the middle of it. As you tighten up the nut – because there is less material under the rod than there is over it – the U-channel will make a nice, smooth arc. This works independently of the neck, and your chances are better for getting a smooth arc with this type of rod.

I think Martin is using this type of rod now; it’s actually not that new of a style – it has been around for a while. It’s the one choice I made that I think helps my guitars end up with a good neck.

I once had an archtop that, when you looked down the neck from the headstock, you could tell the headstock was twisted, and as you sighted down the neck, gradually the neck straightened out. Have you ever had a problem ending up with something like that?
I’ve seen that before and a lot of times it doesn’t affect the way they play. Some of them play fine. In fact, somebody actually produced a design where the whole neck was radically twisted to accommodate the position that your hand is naturally in as you go up and down the neck. Toward the nut it was angled a certain way and as it came up to the body the neck was more parallel. I can’t imagine how they did that! But a guitar with a headstock twist can actually play fine as long as the frets under each string form a straight line under that string.

A good guitar sounds good right away. But it will change as it’s played and as the lacquer dries out. I’ve had guitars come back after a couple years that I think have really opened up. You get some noticeable degree of improvement even within that short period of time.

I’ve never had an extreme problem like that with any of my guitars. When I make neck blanks I cut a bunch of blanks up, store them on the shelf for a while and let them do whatever they’re going to do. I have seen some develop a slight twist during that period. Before I use any blank I resurface it, so by that time hopefully it has done whatever movement it’s going to do.

How long do you store them?
Most blanks sit up there for a year or two before I use them. Even if I do glue up new blanks to use, they hang for a couple of months while I’m doing the bodies. So at minimum they’re going to sit around for a couple months and do whatever they do; when I’m ready to start the necks, it’s a couple months into the building process, so they get resurfaced again at that point. And I imagine they’re pretty stable by that point, because I’ve never had any problems with them.

Is the wood that you get already aged?
Yes, 90 percent of it. Rarely will you get wood from an instrument supplier that’s not dried enough – if they are a reputable supplier they’ll always tell you if it’s not dry. Most of the wood I get for neck stock is just from lumber suppliers – construction grade lumber – and most of that stuff is kiln dried.

You mentioned that you often go after a forties or fifties L-7 type of sound. Can a guitar be built with that sound from day one, or is that something that can only be acquired over 40 or 50 years? Does the guitar really change that much over that period of time?
The sound of the guitar changes dramatically within the first day or two when it’s strung up. That’s the initial settling in period when everything tightens up under string tension. Good guitars – you know they’re good at that point, within the first day or so. A good guitar sounds good right away. But it will change as it’s played and as the lacquer dries out. I’ve had guitars come back after a couple years that I think have really opened up. You get some noticeable degree of improvement even within that short period of time. But if you happen to build a guitar that’s a real dog – if it’s a dog when it’s new, it’s going to be an old dog when it’s old [laughs].

Some builders just use pre-manufactured parts added on to their wood. It seems like you have really put a lot of thought into the geometry of your pickguard, the unique design of your bridge and the tailpiece – these parts are distinctly Campellone.
The pickguard is a similar silhouette to a Gibson pickguard – I just made it a little smaller and a little less rounded. The tailpiece is really considered a decorative feature, like some of the other parts of the guitar. When I started building you couldn’t buy anything except a 335-type trapeze tailpiece, and I used that on a couple of my first guitars because that was all that was available. If you wanted to use something different, you had to make something, and I was thinking, “the tailpiece is a design feature which should match the rest of the design features of the guitar.” I’m a wood worker, not a metal worker, although I used to make my own bridges out of brass when I was building solidbody instruments. So I have some metal work experience but not a lot of mill working tools. I had to come up with a design that was original, matched the other design features and still had a classic look. I spent a lot of time drawing tailpiece designs and finally refined it over the course of a couple years to the design that I have now.

So you’re only going to see this tailpiece on your guitars.
I hope so, because I’m having them made. Enough people have seen this on my guitar that they know it’s my design. The tailpiece is made out of brass stock, so I buy a 3’x8’ sheet of brass from a metal supplier; I take it to the sheet metal guys and have blanks cut – you can get two or three tailpieces out of every blank. They cut these squared blanks, and they go to another machinist who has a wire EDM – electrical discharge machine – which is basically a machine that cuts with a high voltage electronic pulse through a very thin wire. The blanks are stacked one on top of the other and then they are all cut in a stack on this machine where they are placed in a tub of water – they have to be submerged for the electricity to work. The tub of water moves on an X/Y axis and that’s how the shapes are cut. At this point, they’re still flat, so they have to go back to the sheet metal guys and have bends put in – the hook that holds the strings and the bend where the tailpiece fits to the rim. From there they go to the plater/polisher.

Are they nickel plated, then gold plated?
Yes, nickel then gold.

That’s the old Gibson way.
Yep. Then they go to a local craftsman and have the ebony appliqués made. A few guitars have been ordered with some abalone work inlaid in the appliqué, but that’s a custom feature. So it’s the metal supplier, the sheet metal guy, the machinist, the plater and the craftsman – five people are involved in the making of a tailpiece!

To Tap or Not to Tap

We asked Mark if he tap tunes his tops, and if he believes that it can produce a better guitar. He explains how tap tuning fits into his philosophy of building.

The big question is, do any two people really have the same definition of tap tuning? When I started building, archtop construction was just as much of a mystery to me as it was to anyone else. I was struggling to find out what tap tuning meant – there are some people who go with the definition that it means tuning the plates to a particular pitch and I’ve heard some people say, “tune the top to one pitch and the back to a certain interval away from that pitch.” I threw all that stuff out the window. I have owned a lot of good archtop guitars, and at that time I was madly pursuing any information about how you make a guitar sound good. At one time I owned 12 or 15 great sounding, vintage Gibson archtops – L-5s and L-7s – and I used to study them. No two sounded alike and no two were built the same. What I initially realized was that there is no one right way to build a good-sounding guitar. These guitars were all wildly different, in terms of their construction. Some of them were parallel braced, some of them were X-braced, some of them had really thick tops and some of them had thin tops, but they all sounded great. So, I abandoned the idea of tap tuning to a particular pitch – however, I do tap.

If you have two raw plates carved to the same dimensions, and you tap each of them, they’ll produce a pitch. The one that produces the higher pitch is the stiffer piece of wood, so I use that as a kind of measuring stick of the wood’s stiffness. The higher the pitch it produces, the stiffer it is. The stiffer it is, the thinner you can carve it – I’m just carving to a point of getting the top loose enough to respond. There’s a point of diminishing returns; if you carve it too thin, it won’t have enough wood to generate any kind of powerful sound. You need a certain amount of heaviness to it to get the power, but you want it to be loose enough to respond. If the top produces a fairly low pitch and it isn’t stiff, you’re going to want to leave it a little heavier to retain enough stiffness so it doesn’t get too boomy, too bassy. I use the tap/pitch technique to assess how stiff a piece of wood is and, using that assessment, to determine how thin I should make the top.
The Eastman archtops use a similar idea, in that the tailpiece is brass with a decorative ebony piece on top – only theirs is made to look like a Benedetto violin tailpiece. Unless you look closely you can’t tell there’s a metal piece under it.
One reason a lot of guys use actual wooden tailpieces is because, like myself, they’re not metal workers. So if you want an original metal tailpiece – where do you go? How do you do it?

It’s a complicated process.
Yes. I was fortunate that I knew the sheet metal guys – there used to be a big jewelry industry in Rhode Island and there are still a few plating houses around. But a lot of guys are using the wooden tailpieces, and it’s kind of trendy now to use a wooden one.

How does an all-wood tailpiece affect the tone of the guitar?
I don’t know. Obviously I am not a wooden tailpiece guy. Initially it kind of made sense to me, but I have to disagree with some of the experts on this. I don’t think it necessarily improves the tone of the guitar. I’ve heard many wooden tailpieces that vibrate in an undesirable way. The big thing for me was that I wanted to do stuff that looked traditional and I liked Gibson stuff because they all had metal tailpieces; I played too many old Gibsons with metal tailpieces where I thought, “there’s no way you could improve the sound of this guitar – it sounds great. What’s a wooden tailpiece going to do for this?”

Maybe it’s the brass?
I don’t know. Sometimes you do get a little bit of a metal harmonic or overtone, but I don’t find that objectionable! A great L-7 does the same thing and you don’t have a problem with that. To my ears, I don’t think a wooden tailpiece is necessarily a design improvement. The whole idea with a lot of the contemporary stuff is borrowing [from violin design]. Archtop guitar design is based on violin family instruments. And while they did borrow many design features from the violin family, that doesn’t mean that all the violin features apply to the guitar, because it’s a whole different instrument. It’s plucked instead of bowed, so there are some violin features that would actually be a detriment if applied to the guitar design.

Your three models span what price range?
The base prices are $4000, $5500 and $7000. It’s about a separation of $1500 between models.

Has the recession slowed you down at all? Are you concerned about that?
That’s maybe way out there on my radar screen. If I was dependent on a local economy I would be concerned, but my business is nationwide and worldwide. If the whole national economy tanks then the first thing that happens is people cut back on luxury items, but somewhere in the U.S. or the world there will always be people that have money to spend on luxury items! My guitars are still relatively affordable for the average person.

It seems to take a guitar about 30 years to take on the mantle of “vintage.” Where do you think your guitars will be in 30 years, as far as how collectors will look at them? And where will you be 30 years from now?
I’ll be 83! I’m not good with leisure time. I always feel like I have to be productive. So I imagine I’ll probably build as long as I’m able, although maybe not at the level I am building at now. I’m going to want to keep busy. I’d like to think that my guitars will acquire vintage status. Of course, as soon as I croak the more expensive they get! [laughs] I’m pretty confident they’ll attain a fairly noble status after I’m gone – why not? Especially since I won’t be making them any more!

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