Modern Builder Vault: Rizzolo Guitars
This Tasmania-based guitar builder offers up a variety of handcrafted gems from Down Under.
15" SJ Acoustic
The SJ is Rizzolo’s latest design but it’s actually based on an old neck and headstock template he made in the ’80s. The back and sides are cut from American walnut, the top is “bearclaw” Sitka spruce, and the Florentine-cutaway body is braced with both spruce and mahogany. Rizzolo also went with mahogany for the neck that’s topped with an ebony fretboard, and he used East Indian rosewood for the bridge, headstock, and binding. In describing the tone of the SJ, Rizzolo says it has a “deep bass, strong mid, and sweet treble.”
For some, hearing mention of the Australian island state of Tasmania evokes thoughts of the home of a particular Looney Tunes character—not necessarily a place to find a guitar builder producing a wide range of high-end instruments. But Tasmania does offer just that. For more than 30 years, luthier Gary Rizzolo has been handcrafting instruments out of his shop for players around the globe.
Rizzolo remembers the exact day he fell in love with the guitar. He was just 10 when his uncle showed up on his regular Sunday visit to Rizzolo’s family, but on this particular day, his uncle had an “amazing looking, shiny greenish archtop” in tow. Rizzolo was hooked.
Rizzolo is essentially a self-taught luthier. While he didn’t attend a formal lutherie school, his education—coupled with a love for music and guitar—led him down the path to what he so passionately does today. It started with his 3-year diploma of teaching studies that included crafts training where he honed his woodworking and metalworking skills building furniture, cabinets, wood lathes, dowelling tables, and, yes, a guitar.
He later went on to pursue a fine arts degree in design at the Tasmanian School of Art to learn line and form. During his time there, he began amassing books on guitar building and ran a guitar-repair business that he feels helped him immensely in understanding “what worked, what was good, and what wasn’t.”
Unlike many in the boutique-luthier category, Rizzolo builds quite a wide range of instruments, from flattops to archtops to electric guitars and basses. “Once a builder masters the fretted instrument, it’s just a matter of re-jigging to build any other type of guitar,” says Rizzolo. He became known early in his career for 7-string classical guitars that eventually developed into his 7-string archtop, and then electrics that are close to his heart because of his days in a rock band. But he contends he’s still most passionate about acoustic instruments. With that, “Because I build guitars on commission, I make whatever the customer requires.”
Rizzolo likes working with highly figured varieties of timber, in particular rosewoods and maples. Local Tasmanian blackwood remains his favorite, even though its dust has been declared a carcinogen, but the luthier says he’s more than willing to mask up and work with it. “It looks a lot like koa and has a sound like mahogany with a bit more midrange. It has a wonderful fiddleback grain, but it is getting harder to find and more expensive as global demand increases.”
“I work alone and quite like the ‘one-man, one-guitar’ ideal,” says Rizzolo. “I work on an instrument from the initial full-size drawings to the final polish and then into the case to maintain the highest quality control.” Along with attention towards fine fretwork and shaping of the necks for superb playability, “extracting a full-rounded sound of bass and treble with a rich tone from thin pieces of solid timber is the art I enjoy the most in guitar making.”
Pricing and Availability
Rizzolo’s shop is located in the Tasmanian capital city of Hobart where he builds approximately seven instruments year entirely by hand. “I am slow and methodical,” says the luthier. His turnaround time is six months or less. He for the most part only builds on commission (which means all sales are direct), but he continues to experiment with models like his recent leaf-hole ukulele with Kasha bracing. Rizzolo’s guitars range in price from approximately $3,750 to $6,500 for his electric guitars and basses, and $5,600 to $11,200 for acoustics and archtops.
For more information, visit rizzologuitars.com