By Tom Beaujour | Photos by Rayon Richards
There’s no arguing that the Seventies Sardonyx 800 D II pictured here is a rare bird: between 15 and 20 of these unconventional instruments were ever manufactured. But it’s the guitar’s association with John Lennon that has made it such a valuable and sought-after piece. Photographs taken during the making of his Double Fantasy album show Lennon using one of these guitars in the studio.
The Sardonyx (the name is taken from that of a gem stone) pictured here was not Lennon’s. It belongs to Peppy Castro of psychedelic pioneers the Blues Magoos and is currently available for sale at Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. It’s appropriate that Umanov has been entrusted with the instrument, as it turns out that he was both the friend and employer of its maker (who does not wish to be named here because he has not been involved in instrument manufacture since the early Eighties). “The guy who made this guitar and I went to Brooklyn Tech high school together on the subway every day,” Umanov says.
Several years after graduation, the guitar’s builder went to work repairing guitars at Umanov’s shop, then located on Bedford Street in New York’s West Village. Although he built the Sardonyx guitars at home, the instruments were available for sale at the store, and this may or may not be where Lennon purchased his instrument. “We sold a few through my store, and John Lennon ended up with one,” Umanov says. “He might have bought it from us, as he had an apartment a few blocks away and came through a lot.”
Whether or not Lennon purchased his Sardonyx directly from Umanov, he was likely attracted to the bold, interstellar catamaran design that these instruments all featured. “Back then, Brooklyn Tech was still based on a Twenties- and Thirties-era curriculum that included a lot of technical stuff, like machine shop, technical drawing, and pattern making,” Umanov says. “There was even a foundry. You can see all of that training in the design and execution of this guitar. It’s beautifully conceived and executed. The lines are clean; the curves are smooth; there’s nothing lumpy. If you look at the work of some of the most famous industrial designers of all time, like Raymond Loewy, who designed the most iconic Studebakers, or Henry Dreyfuss, who designed the Princess Phone, the lines are sharp and deliberate, just like they are on this guitar.”
Although casual observers often mistakenly assume that the Sardonyx is fashioned from synthetic materials, it features a wooden body finished in matte black, with a thick lacquer clear coat, and an ebony fingerboard. The hardware is by Schaller, and the two Bill Lawrence pickups are connected to a complex, three-output wiring system that allows the player to send completely independent pickup combinations (including different phase-reverse and series/parallel configurations) to two separate stereo outputs or to a single mono output. The striking stainless-steel “outrigger” bars are arc-welded to their supports and feature anti-skid rubber feet at their base as well as an adjustable balance arm on the upper bout, ensuring that the Sardonyx is as ergonomic as it is eccentric.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the only one that has ever turned up for sale,” Umanov says. “I know where three more exist, and no one knows where the others went. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Frankly, I believe that this belongs somewhere like the Museum of Modern Art.”
More information on this instrument and on Matt Umanov Guitars is available at umanovguitars.com.
Photos: Rayon Richards