From the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY E.E. BRADMAN
My brother and I were in a record store looking through the bargain bin, and there was a copy of Cream’s Disraeli Gears, and right next to it, Muddy Waters’ Hard Again,” Todd Cambio says. “At the time, I was 14 and trying to play harmonica. I really wanted to buy Disraeli Gears, but my brother told me to get Hard Again because Muddy always had the best harmonica players. I thought he was trying to talk me into it because he didn’t have any money, but I reluctantly bought it. When we got home, I put it on, thinking I’d get it out of the way. I knew I was never going to listen to it again.” He was in for a shock. “The first song was ‘Mannish Boy,’ and the hair raised on my head. I was bitten. After that, that was all I listened to.”
Cambio’s passion for blues, rags, and old-time music is no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen the exquisite hand-built instruments he makes under the Fraulini Guitar Company banner in his Madison, Wisconsin shop. The Chicago native specializes in building instruments like those used by such early guitar heroes as Lead Belly and Eddie Lang, and he’s an especially popular builder for contemporary players—such as Ben Harper, Mary Flower, Todd Albright, Craig Ventresco, and Jake Sanders—who favor old-style guitars. He’s also renowned for his meticulous recreations of instruments played by early 20th-century recording guitarists Lydia Mendoza and Lonnie Johnson, who both used 12-strings made by Guadalupe Acosta of the San Antonio, Texas–based Acosta Music Company.
Cambio may have been born in the Windy City, but his country roots are real. His family moved to a farm in Wisconsin when he was a year-and-a-half old, and after years of regularly visiting relatives in Chicago—including a teenage stint as a harmonica player on the South Side, where he sat in with players who’d known Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—Cambio moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for college. There, he busked on guitar, playing “lots of Robert Johnson/Blind Boy Fuller kinda stuff.”
Eventually, his passion for older-style blues led him to contemporary players like Paul Geremia and Alvin Youngblood Hart, who would point him in a new direction. “Before I met Alvin, I didn’t really think about the guitar I was playing,” Cambio says. “He was playing all these old, inexpensive guitars—he had a couple Stellas, and that started to register with me. One day, I asked [Hart’s ex-wife] Heidi Loetscher-Hart if she would fix a guitar for me, and she said, ‘Well, you’re a carpenter and woodworker—you can fix it.’ A lot of things in life are like that . . . you think you can’t do something, and somebody tells you, ‘Yeah, you can!’”
Once you decided to build guitars, did you consider luthier school?
I didn’t, because I wanted to learn the old ways. I had worked very briefly with a violin repairman in my early 20s, and he impressed upon me the importance of hide glue and varnish. I knew that if I went to a school, they weren’t going to teach me things like that, and bolt-on necks had no appeal to me. I wanted to learn how to make guitars like the ones I was repairing and rebuilding, which weren’t held in any sort of regard in the guitar world.
What makes you say that?
Acoustic guitar makers are always embracing advances in technology—looking for the new wood, moving on to different state-of-the-art finishes and adhesives—and the only thing people go back to in the acoustic guitar world are early Martins and Gibsons.
I don’t know. They’re wonderful instruments and there are lots of people out there building great stuff, but I’m interested in old music, old instruments, and stuff that guitar historians have mostly overlooked.
You’ve been instrumental in spotlighting the Acosta family of luthiers.
Those cats were so amazing, and the fact that they’re overlooked is a shame. On my website, I have a picture of an Acosta double-neck that’s electric, with two DeArmond pickups, pickup switches, and volume knobs. And it’s from 1947—ten years before Gibson made a double-neck 6/12-string. They were far out!
How did Lonnie Johnson get an Acosta?
Lonnie was a talent scout for record labels. He would go into a town, look for blues or jazz players, bring them in to record, and then cut a few sides himself at the session. He was in San Antonio for a while, and presumably he ordered that guitar and then took it to New York, where he recorded these seminal duets with Eddie Lang. Here’s an African American playing a guitar made by these Mexican guys and doing a record with an Italian dude. That’s America. Totally beautiful, man! And then he played that same guitar with Duke Ellington and with Louis Armstrong on a 1929 record called “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” That is an iconic American guitar.
You’re an expert on Italian-American luthiers, too.
Oscar Schmidt, the company that made the early Stellas, was in Jersey City, New Jersey, and a lot of Italian craftspeople worked there. There were also many independent Italian luthiers, including the guys that preceded John D’Angelico, and who he learned from. That style went out of fashion in the ’20s and ’30s. I began digging into their history, collecting and restoring their instruments and getting in touch with their families.
Where’d the name Fraulini come from?
It was my dad’s mother’s maiden name. My family came here from central Italy and worked as coal miners in Missouri in the early 1900s. They were great mechanics, carpenters, and stonemasons; the women did all kinds of artwork, including crocheting, beadwork, and needlework, and they made all kinds of tiny pastas and stuff. That’s where I got my craftsmanship. I got my love for music and people—and just life, in general—from my mother’s side.
Tell us about the various Fraulini models.
The Seven Sisters, which are named after my grandmother and her six sisters, are straight copies of the seven guitars that really influenced me. The Ultra Modern line is inspired by old Martins and Gibsons. I also build ethnic instruments like the lira calabrese, a three-string bowed instrument played throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic.
What inspired the Decalomania line?
Restoring a decal Stella 12-string. They were made out of poplar, which is a simple, humble wood most people don’t have much regard for. Put a colored varnish and a decal on it, though, and suddenly it’s appealing.
You’re a proponent of domestic woods like white oak, too.
People are hip to eating locally and all that groovy stuff, but when it comes to guitars, most of us don’t think twice about getting wood from clear-cut forests in Madagascar or Central and South America; the CITES restrictions are a good reason to explore alternatives. On these old guitars, they used all kinds of domestic stuff, including white oak or birch, but those aren’t often options for many luthiers.
Partially because it requires a paradigm shift for the buyers. We’re barely scraping by as luthiers, so to satisfy the market, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using woods that are getting harder and harder to get because we’ve overharvested them.
How did you get into using white oak?
The first guitars I made were from the woods I saw on the old instruments I was working on. In the early 1900s, white oak was fashionable for furniture, and it was plentiful. It’s a beautiful wood, and it sounds great. I was just trying to recreate what the old luthiers did, but it’s hard to convince people that white oak is a good wood, even though it looks and sounds good. The acoustic guitar market can be conservative.
What do you like about these old, ladder-braced instruments made of poplar, birch, and white oak?
They have a particular sound. It’s not “pretty,” but if you’re trying to play old-time stuff, it’s the sound you want.
You’re a fan of ladder-bracing?
People think X-bracing is more structurally solid, and in a way, it is, but it makes for a different sound. The thing is if I have a 100-year-old parlor guitar that’s ladder-braced, it’s not going to have been worked on, because it wasn’t perceived as worth working on. Most of the time, when I see issues on an old, ladder-braced guitar, it’s not because of the bracing. It’s because it’s been cooked in a hot attic or stored in a basement with lots of humidity. A Martin or Gibson would have that problem, too.
I get the impression you’re not crazy about archtops.
I’m a fingerpicker, and archtops aren’t made for fingerpicking. They’re made to carry the rhythm over a large band; they don’t have the overtones or warmth that I enjoy in a guitar. As a woodworker, building an archtop is a great challenge, and although it appeals to that part of me, I’m more interested in flattops.
How close do you stay to the originals that inspire you?
If I’m making a copy, I try to stay as close as possible. If I see failures in the original, I’ll make changes. Most of the time, I put in adjustable truss rods because most people want them, and I put a radius on my fingerboards so that they don’t become concave. On some old guitars, the necks are baseball bats, and few people today want necks that chunky.
Are you interested in updating the original designs?
I went through a time when I made “improvements,” and I found that a lot of them weren’t. As I progress, I get closer to what the old stuff was. But there’s so much inconsistency in the old stuff that you can usually find something that fits with what you’re doing.
How do you distinguish your own designs from your inspirations?
When you’re doing something traditional—and this applies to playing music and making guitars—you can try to do rote copies, but at a certain point, you have to say, “OK, now it’s going to be me.” You do your own thing, with the old instruments pushing and encouraging you on.
Which Fraulini instruments best represent your original ideas?
What are some ways you keep learning?
I try to do a round of repairs once a year to keep my mind right, and I always go back to the instruments I have and pull ideas off them. And I’ve learned a lot from people passing through the shop—some of the best tricks I’ve learned were from people saying, “Somebody that I know does this.”
Has feedback from players shaped your perspective, too?
Absolutely. I’ve learned a lot from Alvin, and Paul Geremia was a huge influence on what I do. When I made a guitar for him, he said, “Make it as lightly as you dare.” It was a really wonderful instrument, and every time he came through town on tour, I got to see what it was doing and how it was responding to life on the road. He and I talked a lot about what makes a good guitar.
What inspires you most?
I’m a lifelong musician, but I don’t really care for the hustle of playing music for a living. Building guitars allows me to keep a foot in that world, and this is the best way I can serve my community of fellow musicians. I want to provide instruments for my friends and for people who play traditional music. I feel so incredibly fortunate to do what I do.
When will you write a book about all the research you’ve done?
I’ve done a lot of digging—it’s the coal miner in me (laughs). I’ve got a lot of things going, but a book is on the list. Making guitar tuners is also on the list. There are a few things I want to get to before I expire.
Blues and rag guitarist Todd Albright brought two Fraulini 12-strings for his exclusive AG Session.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.