By Adam Perlmutter | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta
Few acoustic guitars are as wildly coveted as the nearly 1,200 bespoke archtops crafted between the Thirties and Sixties by luthier John D’Angelico in his small shop on New York’s Lower East Side. Often compared to the work of legendary Italian violinmaker Antonio Stradivari, these guitars are not just exquisite musical instruments but also fine works of art that feature beautiful art deco flourishes and provide a functional showcase for the woods used in their construction.
Though the original production of D’Angelico guitars expired with its maker in 1964, the name has recently been resurrected with a line of imported archtop, semihollow, and bass guitars—new designs that evoke their namesake through details like the trademark engraved asymmetric tailpieces, gold peg-head ornaments, and stair-step–shaped pickguards.
Most faithful to D’Angelico’s instruments is the company’s new USA Masterbuilt Series, which is reviving his guitars in astonishingly accurate detail, beginning with the Excel model. “In his huge personal collection, our owner, John Ferolito, has an amazing early Forties Excel,” D’Angelico CEO Brenden Cohen says, referring to a glorious 17 1/2–inch non-cutaway that was started in 1942 and completed in 1943. “We all thought this would be the perfect representative example to duplicate.”
To faithfully recreate Ferolito’s Excel, its components, many of which D’Angelico carved by hand, were measured precisely with an MRI machine, and two- or three-dimensional images of all the individual parts were created. This data was then submitted to Gene Baker, master luthier at Premier Builder’s Guild, in Arroyo Grande, California, who made building forms based on the measurements and oversaw the Excel’s construction. “We wanted to preserve as closely as possible the original model we were extracting DNA from,” says Baker, a veteran of the Fender Custom Shop and the brains behind b3 Guitars.
To realize the guitar, Baker assembled a team of master craftsmen: Art Esparza, who handles all the major components, Bryan Eskew, who performed binding chores; paint supervisor Dave Wilson; and Justin Abernethy, who oversaw final assembly of the guitars. Before starting the project, the team encountered a sourcing challenge. Thick wedges of wood were required to create the guitars’ solid, carved arched tops and backs, but most tonewood vendors now slice their offerings thinly, for maximum yield. As a compromise, the team used Engelmann spruce for the soundboards and AAA-figured European maple for the backs and sides. Unlike the Adirondack spruce and Eastern hard rock maple found on the original Excel, these violin-family tonewoods were readily available in the proper-sized billets. “Some of the constructional things that were hard for D’Angelico are easy for us with the assistance of technology,” Baker says, referring to the CNC machinery used in the construction of the reissue. “Whereas the things that were easy for him, like sourcing materials, can be very hard for us today.”
Baker and the crew took a few other small liberties in their recreation of the Excel. For instance, the original doesn’t have a truss rod, but it obviously would have been a disservice to musicians to eschew one on a new guitar. Also, only flathead screws are found on the original, but its doppelgänger features the Phillips-head variety in some instances, such as on the Grover Imperial tuners. The guitar is available with a floating humbucker made by Jason Lollar, with tone and volume knobs mounted on the pickguard. Though these electronics weren’t available in the early Forties, purists needn’t be troubled. “A Johnny Smith–type pickup or truss rod is a far cry from a modern upgrade,” Baker says.
The majority of the other original details are retained in the new Excel. For instance, the mother-of-pearl inlays are hand etched, for they would have looked suspiciously clean if rendered by machine, and the bridge is carved and hollowed out entirely by hand. Even the pickguard bracket has received special attention. “The original bracket was made from solid, eighth-inch-thick bent brass. It’s just so cool, because you don’t see a bracket like that these days. You can tell it’s 100 percent handmade,” Baker says. “I wanted to nail it, so the bracket on our Excel is hand bent, drilled, tapped, polished, and even attached with all-brass straight-head screws.”
LIST PRICE: $9,999, dangelicoguitars.com