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Roundup: The New D'Angelico Line

January 30, 2014
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After working in, and then overseeing, his uncle's instrument-making shop in New York City in the early part of the last century, John D’Angelico set out on his own in 1932, and proceeded to craft the most desirable archtop guitars ever built at a rate of about 35 guitars a year, up until his death in 1964. At that time, James D’Aquisto, his apprentice and protégé since 1959, took over the shop, and quickly built a find reputation for his own name. But in acquiring D’Angelico’s premises and guitar designs, D’Aquisto never actually owned the brand name, which remained in the hands of a lawyer who had provided loans to keep the business going.

Fast-forward to the early 21st century, and the right to the D’Angelico name has found its way to John Ferolito, Jr., Brenden Cohen, and Steve Pisani, as well as to a new showroom in New York City. To fully resurrect the D’Angelico brand, the partners have developed a two-pronged approach to production. A limited run of high-end USA Masterbuilt D’Angelico reissues produced by Gene Baker at the Premier Builder’s Guild workshop in California. A far more accessible—read “more affordable”—Standard Series will emanate from Korea, with careful oversight from the USA, and strict adherence to many elements of John D’Angelico’s original designs. —DH

 

MASTERBUILT 1942 EXCEL

For the full zen experience of owning a classic D'Angelico archtop guitar, the path ends with the 1942 Excel reissue. This majestic guitar follows the specs of a particular Excel (serial number 1628007) that was built in 1942-43 by the master himself in his downtown Manhattan shop. Aiming to achieve a similar level of righteousness, the 1942 Excel reissue on review here is made under the supervision of another famed luthier—Gene Baker of the Premier Builders Guild—and is the result of extensive research into the design elements of the vintage original, which was thoroughly documented, even to the point of putting it though MRI equipment, to better understand the details of its construction.

The 1942 Excel reissue is a gorgeous instrument with its carved spruce top, solid flamed-maple back and sides, and a flamed maple neck with an ebony fretboard. As per original specs, the high gloss finish was a natural varnish, but the company switched to a poly finish due to some issues with cracking. The high-level cosmetics consist of multi-ply bindings on the body, neck, and pickguard; mother-of-pearl inlays on the headstock; a polished aluminum trussrod cover; and a brass ornament at the prow of the headstock. In a nod to modern needs, the instrument is equipped with a Lollar Johnny Smith floating pickup, which feeds small Volume and Tone controls mounted close together on the pickguard.

Well suited to those who favor a fat neck, the 1942 Excel is a comfortable player thanks to its wide-ish string spacing, polished 6105 frets, and an expert setup. The intonation sounds tuneful in all positions too, which is always a welcome thing.

As the original intent of this big-bodied beaut was to be heard on the bandstand in an era before amplification was standard, it’s no surprise that it pumps out a lot of acoustic volume. The tone is full and dimensional, with excellent note definition and little sense of compression when you strum it hard. Still, it would be impractical to use a guitar like this without amplification, so the inclusion of a pickup is a necessity that should to appeal to all but the hardcore collectors.

Plugged into a Fender Deluxe Reverb or a PRS 2 Channel Custom 50 combo, the 1942 Excel responded with warm, clear tones that were framed in sweet top-end and round, deep lows. The Lollar mini humbucker does a fine job of capturing the complexity and note detail heard in the acoustic sound, while maintaining excellent balance between the strings. Not surprisingly, the 1942 Excel is very easy to dial in for a brown jazz sound, and depending the amp, I only had to back off the Tone control a bit to find that sweet sonic zone. The 1942 Excel could be useful for other styles as well, but this guitar is really made for jazz and swing, and whether you play in a big band or a small ensemble, it will fulfill every expectation and then some. —AT

MODEL

MASTERBUILT 1942 EXCEL
CONTACT dangelicoguitars.com, (646) 460-8478
PRICE $9,999 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Flame maple
FRETBOARD Ebony, 25" scale
FRETS 21
TUNERS Grover Imperial
BODY Hollow with solid AAA flamed maple back and sides, solid spruce top
BRIDGE Ebony with D’Angelico trapeze tailpiece
PICKUPS Lollar Johnny Smith
CONTROLS Volume, Tone
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone Flatwounds, .012-.052
WEIGHT 7.2 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Beautiful reissue of a one-of- a-kind instrument.
CONCERNS Controls are very close together.

 

STANDARD SERIES EX-DC

My dad used to warn me that “you can't judge a book by its cover,” but how can you not feel a little weak in the knees after first viewing the EX-DC? This is an art deco-inspired dream machine that’s part stunning ’30s heroine Jean Harlow and part modern glamor icon Heidi Klum. And, to tell you the truth, if I had some miraculous fantasy opportunity to play with the EX-DC or Ms. Klum, I kind of think it’s the guitar that would be cradled in my arms. (I don’t know what this says about me, but check out an EX-DC and see if you’re not likewise tempted.)

The gorgeous transparent-cherry finish looks beautiful from a distance, and it gets even sexier up close when you can see the striking tiger-striped flamed maple on the guitar’s top and back. From there, the design elements follow an almost Bentley-like degree of quality control and artistic detail. The finish is flawless, as is the five-ply binding. The frets are smooth with rounded ends, the inlays are impeccable, and the gold hardware is solid. The headstock is totally off the hook, with its lovely deco inlays, skyscraper trussrod cover, and carved tip with gold bauble. Then, there are the small, but sophisticated touches, such as the rounded edges of the faux tortoise-shell pickguard, the classy black control knobs with their three subtle stripes, and the black paint on the rear of the headstock that ends in a diamond point and a long black line down the center of the neck. Put it all together, and it’s hard to believe this is a $1,259 guitar.

But here’s where it gets weird in a good way. You’d assume that any guitar with the D’Angelico name would deliver alluring clean tones, and the EX-DC does produce taut lows, articulate mids, and sparkling treble. The strange aspect is how ferocious this sophisticated lady can sound—it’s like a mixed martial art marauder in a ball gown. The high-output Kent Armstrong humbuckers easily pummel the front end of your amp into raging overdrive. Adding a boost, fuzz, or distortion pedal gets you into those soaring, sustained solo tones that conjure players such as David Gilmour. Back down the volume a bit, and big, honking riffs just explode from your fingers. And yet, the jazzbo is always hiding amidst the fury, as you never lose string-to-string definition. Even with saturated tones, you can hear every note in complex chords and arpeggios. The low end remains ballsy, midrange attacks snap and punch, and highs shimmer—and all of this without a hint of mud, brittleness, or other sonic no-no’s. Obviously, the EX-DC is extremely versatile, letting you bounce between tones that work for all varieties of rock (classic, punk, etc.), jazz, pop, blues, Chet Atkins-inspired country, and even ’70s-style metal.

The EX-DC looks and sounds kick-ass fabulous, and its easy playability seals its appeal. It’s a comfortable guitar to play whether standing, sitting, or jumping around onstage. The neck imposes zero impediments to phrasing, chording, or shredding. The new D’Angelico company has absolutely honored its esteemed name, while simultaneously pulling off an almost unbelievable value proposition, as well as moving the brand forward to accommodate more styles than jazz. The EX-DC simply feels good and right—a guitar that lives to be played, shown off, and, not to get too dorky—adored. —MM

MODEL

STANDARD SERIES EX-DC
CONTACT
dangelicoguitars.com
PRICE $1,259 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Maple with walnut center
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24 3/4" scale
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Grover Super Rotomatic
BODY Semi-hollow with laminated flamed maple back, top, and sides
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic style
PICKUPS Two Kent Armstrong humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.6 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS A stunner in every way.
CONCERNS Gig security to avoid theft.

 

STANDARD SERIES EX-SD

The thing that first struck me when I saw the D'Angelico EX-SD was its beautifully clean, arctic-white color, accented by its gold-plated hardware and contrasted nicely by a dark rosewood fingerboard, black pickguard, and black headstock. But what really knocked me out was the art deco styling showcased throughout the instrument. From the intricately carved headstock (a D’Angelico staple) to the mother-of-pearl inlays along the fretboard to the “stairstep” pickguard, this guitar is beautiful to behold.

Structurally, it feels strong and substantial. With a one-piece neck and chambered Indonesian mahogany body, plus a carved maple top, this guitar is no lightweight. The body and neck sport fiveply binding, and the headstock is bound, as well. Electronics and hardware include two Kent Armstrong humbuckers, a USA-made Switchcraft jack, and Grover Super-Rotomatic tuning machines. Controls are straightforward: two Volumes, two Tone controls, and a 3-way toggle switch. The EX-SD also ships with a deluxe hardshell case.

Our test instrument arrived set up with a .010 set of strings, and its frets were level and polished smooth at the ends. The neck profile felt comfy and inviting. The evening I received the guitar, I decided to give it a “trial by fire,” using it exclusively at a full band rehearsal. Even though I play lighter strings, I had no trouble with whole-step bends. Unison and double-string bends were also relatively effortless. Fast scale runs felt natural, and my usual bag of blues-rock riffs and solo tricks were as easy to pull-off as if I’d been playing the guitar for months. Additionally, full bar chords always sounded in-tune—even when I played them at the tenth and 12th frets. I was also able to switch between flat-picking and finger-picking with ease. The only difficulty I ran into was sliding up and down into notes, because the frets are a bit high for my personal taste.

Tonally, the EX-SD really nails the rich, thick sound evocative of so many late ’60s and early ’70s guitar gods. (Think Mick Taylor meets Leslie West.) Even notes played above the 12th fret on the first and second strings have weight to them. The astonishingly powerful pickups will drive almost any amp into juicy overdrive, and lower-wattage amps will get pushed over the top into gritty, harmonically satisfying distortion. This guitar also plays nice with overdrive and fuzz pedals, so if you got ’em, use ’em.

However, this guitar is by no means a one-trick-pony. Despite its ability to pummel an amp’s front end, it also produces fat, seductive clean tones with plenty of note definition and sustain, making it suitable for a variety of musical styles. Additionally, the Tone controls are responsive and musical, providing a wide range of tonal colors, from high-end edge to low-end girth with lots of variations in between. The D’Angelico EX-SD is quite simply a great guitar for all styles of music. If you check one out, trust me, you’ll be glad you did. —SH

MODEL

STANDARD SERIES EX-SD
CONTACT
dangelicoguitars.com
PRICE $1,249 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Two-piece maple with walnut center
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24 3/4" scale
FRETS 22 medium jumbo
TUNERS Grover Super Rotomatic
BODY Indonesian mahogany with carved maple top
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic style
PICKUPS Kent Armstrong humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 8.9 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS High build quality. Soaring tone. Easy Playability.
CONCERNS May be too heavy for some players.

 

STANDARD SERIES EX-SS

Designed to bring the D'Angelico flair to a modern guitar, this thinline acoustic-electric features beautiful woods and all the trimmings you expect from a high-end instrument. The semi-hollow cutaway body, which measures 15" across the lower bout, is constructed of flamed laminated maple with an arched top and back. The 5-ply bindings look amazing, and the vintage sunburst gloss finish really shows off the lovely graining in the woods. Two goldcovered Kent Armstrong humbuckers ride atop it all, and the controls consist of dual Volume and Tone pots and a 3-way pickup selector.

The 2-piece maple neck joins the body at the 16th fret and features a comfortable C shape and a center strip of walnut. The bound rosewood fretboard sports block-style mother-of-pearl inlays and 22 carefully shaped and polished jumbo frets. On the large, ebony-faced headstock we find the D’Angelico logo and “Excel” badge rendered in gleaming pearl, a polished aluminum “stairstep” trussrod cover, and a classic brass ornament that resides in a curvy cutout at the top. Gold-plated Grover Rotomatic tuners finish off what is no doubt one of the flashiest headstocks around.

The strings traverse over a bone nut on their way to a gold-plated Tune-o-matic bridge and a classic D’Angelico tailpiece. The setup on this guitar is spot-on, and the playing feel is inviting thanks to the generous string spacing and a low action.

The EX-SS is very resonant sounding acoustically, and has a stringy, well-defined tonal character that promises good things when amplified. Its also intonates extremely well in all positions. Plugged into a PRS 2 Channel Custom 50 combo, the EX-SS sounded crisp and open when feeding the amp’s Clean channel, and was easily steered toward a sweet jazz tone by switching to the neck pickup and rolling back a little on the guitar’s Tone knob. The jazz DNA of this guitar is obvious, but the EX-SS can do a lot other things too. The dual sets of controls provide an abundance of timbres when using both pickups, and the bridge pickup’s bright, fat response makes it easy to get gutsy overdriven tones.

With more front-end gain from amp’s Lead channel, the guitar pushed easily into a saturated tone that sounded cool for blues and rock. Up the amp gain and it starts to sing with a blooming sustain, and can go easily into soulful feedback simply by adjusting your picking. This makes the EX-SS very cool for things like Robben Ford’s jazzy blues or Larry Carlton’s dynamic solo tones, where touch sensitivity is key. The EX-SS has a block of wood under the bridge to enhance sustain while also keeping the top from being too lively, but it is a hollow design, and therefore more susceptible to feedback than a solidbody guitar when played at higher volume levels.

The D’Angelico EX-SS is such a great looking guitar and a real asset for styles like blues, jazz, and fusion. Bottom line: If you’ve always wanted to get some D’Angelico mojo happening in your world, I can’t think of a better way of getting there. —AT

MODEL

STANDARD SERIES EX-SS
CONTACT
dangelicoguitars.com
PRICE $1,409 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Hard maple (2 piece) with walnut center
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25" scale
FRETS 22
TUNERS Grover Super Rotomatic
BODY Semi-hollow with laminated flamed maple back, top, and sides
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic with D’Angelico tailpiece
PICKUPS Kent Armstrong humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 6.6 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Excellent quality. Plays and sounds great
CONCERNS Sharp edges on nut.

 

The Standard Series EXL-1 is an affordable recreation of one of D’Angelico’s most iconic models. At 17 1/2" wide, 3" deep, and with a 25 1/2" scale length, this guitar succeeds in copping the feel of a genuine big-bodied archtop, and, unplugged, the warm lows and silky highs back it up sonically. Even at this very reasonable price, it might have been nice to see a solid pressed-arch spruce top rather than this guitar’s laminated top (and perhaps to hear the added tonal depths that it might bring), but the EXL-1 is impressive regardless. Examined in detail, the overall build quality is extremely high, but it’s the raft of classic D’Angelico cosmetic appointments that really knock you out: the pearl block inlays; stairstep bridge; mirror trussrod cover; multi-ply binding on body and stairstep pickguard (subtly seen as single-ply from the front of the fingerboard, revealing multiple plies in the side-on view); and, most of all, the elaborate headstock with pearl empire Excel inlay and traditional broken scroll top with small metal ornament. In fact, while D’Angelico’s original instruments were known for a certain hand-hewn quirkiness that never let you forget they were products of a pre-CNC age, the workmanship here feels extremely precise throughout.

Plugged in to a TopHat Vanderbilt 33 set for clean, the floating Kent Armstrong mini-bucker accurately transmits the EXL-1’s personality, while adding a tasty pinch of that magnetic-pickup bite that characterizes the classic amplified acoustic jazz box. Lows are smooth and warm, and there’s no muddiness when you comp gracefully or strum aggressively. The midrange frequencies are clear and round, and while there is that “tasty bite” from the mini-bucker, the tone remains classy and silky. Highs are as subtle as you would expect from an old-school archtop, with an airiness that balances the overall sound and adds dimension. Everything about the amplified sound is comfy, cozy, and sexy in a very sophisticated way. It’s a joy coaxing notes out of the guitar.

The playing feel is smooth, solid, and confident. With a D’Angelico in your lap you just can’t help but pull out your best Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass impersonations (note that “best” is a relative term), but the EXL-1 is also right at home with Nashville-leaning Chet-style picking, or even mellow singer-songwriter forays. In the end, this Excel from a rejuvenated D’Angelico is a fun simulacrum of the legendary originals, and a good performer at this very reasonable price. —DH

MODEL

STANDARD SERIES EXL-1
CONTACT
dangelicoguitars.com
PRICE $1,149 street, including hardshell case

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Two-piece hard maple with walnut center
FRETBOARD Ebony, 25 1/2" scale length
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Grover Imperial, gold plated
BODY Laminated spruce top with laminated flame maple back and sides
BRIDGE Two-piece floating stained-rosewood bridge with compensated saddle, goldplated D’Angelico stairstep trapeze tailpiece
PICKUP Kent Armstrong “Johnny Smithstyle” floating mini humbucker
CONTROLS Volume and Tone
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario .012-.052 (with plain G)
WEIGHT 7.5 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Impressive build quality and lovely decorative details in an affordable rendition of the D’Angelico legend.
CONCERNS No major issues, although it would be nice to see a solid spruce top on this D’Angelico reissue, even as an offshore model.

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