John D’Angelico’s name is synonymous with the now legendary tradition of great archtop guitar builders prevalent in the early 20th century. D’Angelico, along with contemporary Elmer Stromberg and others, essentially defined the tradition of independent, boutique guitar building in the 1930s and ’40s, forecasting the current golden age of guitar building by several decades. D’Angelico’s guitars were featured on many seminal jazz recordings, employed almost exclusively by notable jazz and New York studio players such as Billy Bauer, Chuck Wayne, and Johnny Smith.
After D’Angelico’s death in 1964, James D’Aquisto—who apprenticed under D’Angelico in the ’50s and is now regarded as one of the most influential luthiers among contemporary builders—purchased the shop and continued to build and repair guitars. Eventually however, D’Aquisto developed his own line of guitars and the D’Angelico brand was retired.
Fast-forward to 2011 when a major exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York) sparked interest among players and collectors in D’Angelico’s work. The D’Angelico brand had been purchased by businessman and guitar collector John Ferolito, who recruited the assistance of several master builders and industry professionals to revive the D’Angelico line. The company recently unveiled several models at the 2013 NAMM show, including affordable reissues of various models as well as new contemporary models (semi-hollow and solid-body designs) and even an electric bass featuring classic D’Angelico aesthetics. The company also introduced the USA Masterbuilt line under the direction of master builder Gene Baker.
Among the most popular of D’Angelico’s original models were the New Yorker and Excel. The flagship Excel model has been reissued and expanded in various new models and designs, and we had the opportunity to review the EXL-1 from D’Angelico’s Standard series, which is handmade in a shop just outside Seoul, South Korea.
Vintage Style, Classic Appointments
Based on the Excel model popular among guitarists in the 1950s, the EXL-1 has a single-cutaway 17-inch hollow body available in natural and sunburst finishes. Within the first few minutes of playing and inspecting the instrument, I was impressed at the overall level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. This guitar has vibe aplenty! With its vintage gold hardware set against a rich tobacco sunburst and multiple bindings on the body, F-holes, fingerboard, and headstock, the EXL-1 has an elegant and sophisticated visual presence that evokes the classic jazz guitar tradition with flair. The body of the guitar is made with a laminate spruce top and maple back and sides. The neck is constructed of hard maple with a walnut center strip and an ebony fingerboard and is exceptionally comfortable to play in all positions. The EXL-1 includes a Kent Armstrong–designed “floating” pickup, and the pickguard, which has a nicely matched tortoiseshell pattern with cream binding, includes two discreetly mounted volume and tone controls. The rosewood bridge is floating and stained to match the ebony of the fingerboard. The fingerboard has mother-of-pearl block inlays, while the headstock replicates the original D’Angelico design with vintage Excel logo inlays and a signature gold pin at the crown of the instrument.
Rich Tone, Easy Playability
Despite its 17-inch-wide lower bout and three-inch body depth, the EXL-1 is comfortable to play in both standing and sitting positions. It is also surprisingly light, and the weight is evenly distributed, particularly when using a wide, high-quality strap. I had the opportunity to test the EXL-1 out on several gigs, including a solo jazz gig the night I received the guitar for review. I was amazed at how well the instrument was set up, right out of the case. It barely needed to be tuned as I headed out the door to go to work. The guitar sounded great played with a pick or fingerstyle as I made my way through a collection of jazz standards. The bass register was full but never overwhelmed the midrange and high registers, and individual notes in complex chord voicings were clearly discernible. I also used the EXL-1 on a duo gig with a bassist and with a quintet featuring two horns and a fairly loud drummer. The guitar excelled in both situations, easily cutting through the mix on single-note melodies and solos. The action was smooth, the guitar stayed in tune, and I got a reasonable sound without having to fiddle with EQ all night. All I had to do was quickly dial in a sound and play—just the way I like it!
There are debates on the merits and disadvantages of laminate and carved top archtop guitars. While this is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, it’s important to keep in mind that the classic jazz tones of the Gibson ES-175 and others were created with laminated plywood guitars. Most players are purely interested in solid, consistent tone and playability, and this guitar has plenty of both. Some may be skeptical of a guitar that sounds, plays, and looks this good for a street price of just over $1,000. Does this guitar have the same level of acoustic resonance and tonal complexity as a handmade, carved-top instrument? Certainly not. But if you’re looking for a clear, electric jazz sound with an affordable price tag for professional “workhorse” situations, the EXL-1 is hard to beat.
SPECS: 17-inch cutaway archtop body. Laminate spruce top. Laminate maple back and sides. Rock maple neck with walnut center. Ebony fingerboard. Stained rosewood bridge. 25.5-inch scale. 1 11/16-inch nut width. 2 1/32-inch string spacing at saddle. Available in natural and sunburst finishes. Grover tuners. Custom-voiced Kent Armstrong “Johnny Smith–style” floating mini-humbucker. Custom D’Angelico flatwound strings. Left-handed versions available. Made in South Korea.
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PRICE: $1,859 list/$1,149 street.
MAKER: D’Angelico Guitars: (732) 662-1912; dangelicoguitars.com.
TEJA GERKEN: Because playing a vintage D’Angelico is a special experience, I was skeptical of a factory-built guitar with such a celebrated name and a price tag of just over $1,000, but I was impressed by how well the EXL-1 captures the D’Angelico spirit. The guitar’s huge headstock not only provides an authentic look, but that kind of mass at the end of the neck creates a certain feel and balance to the instrument. The guitar’s flatwound strings and low-action setup made it a joy to play even tricky chord-melody passages. Tonally, I was impressed with how full the guitar sounded acoustically, even considering its laminated top. And plugged into an amp, I was greeted by true electric jazz guitar tones that would sound great in any straight-ahead jazz setting.
SCOTT NYGAARD: While this plywood-top instrument doesn’t have the distinctive midrange bark of a fine acoustic archtop, played acoustically it does have plenty of volume, enough to keep you from overplaying during acoustic practice sessions. And the Kent Armstrong pickup immediately provides classic amplified archtop tones and great string-to-string balance when plugged in. As a budding jazz guitarist you need to establish credibility when you show up for the local jazz jam. Besides learning all your scales, arpeggios, and Wes Montgomery solos, a genuine jazz box is essential, but can be pricey. I’m betting no one will get the stink eye when they show up with this relatively affordable gem at the Sunday night jam.