If there’s a living heir to the great mid-20th-century luthiers like John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto, John Monteleone would have to be it. Growing up on Long Island near New York City, Monteleone, now in his mid-70s, began building guitars with just his own observations and some rudimentary books to guide him. Thus began a journey that would see his instruments among the most prized in the world among players, collectors, and even the curators at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his Four Seasons guitars are on permanent exhibition.
Influenced by both guitar and mandolin designs and driven by his own understanding of tone, Monteleone is as much an artist as an artisan. His work builds on tradition without being beholden to it as he continues to evolve and challenge himself. As a result, his instruments aren’t so much models as individual examples, each one bearing his fingerprints.
I spoke to Monteleone from his Long Island workshop as a new documentary about him called The Chisels Are Calling was about to make its way onto DVD. Shown on display, in progress, and in the hands of players like Julian Lage, Ben Harper, the late Woody Mann, and others, the film showcases Monteleone’s approach to lutherie in which, as Mark Knopfler says, “Every piece of [the guitar] is a work of art.”
The title of your documentary emphasizes the word chisels. Are you still building everything by hand?
I’m sort of an old-fashioned guy [laughs]. I build by hand mostly, and the machinery that I use is fairly simple and straightforward—nothing terribly exotic.
What made you decide to build a guitar in the first place?
In 1958 or ’59, I was about ten when I first starting hearing guitars on the radio. I was already a piano student; I’ve been one of those all my life. But rock ’n’ roll was on my list. I began to desire a few different kinds of guitars—Fenders and Gibson Les Pauls. There was this hit called “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny. I looked at the album cover and saw that triple-neck steel guitar, and that would be the first project I tried to build—a copy of that guitar.
So you started with something easy—a triple neck?
Yeah. But I never finished it because I got distracted by other guitars. I wanted to have a Martin D-28, but it was too expensive, as was the D-18. So I would go to local music stores looking for similar guitars so that I could try to memorize their forms and copy them. That became my mission. By the time I was 14, I started to build a mahogany dreadnought.
How did you learn? Were there books at the time?
Somewhere along the way, I found a drawing that I traced to make a template. One day my dad drove me into New York City, to H.L. Wild, where you could find wood to build instruments. I collected the materials to try and build this thing. The only book I could find was How to Make a Spanish Guitar by A.P. Sharpe, about classical, not steel-string, construction. But I understood the difference and would make up modifications along the way, starting with the form, the body outline, and then the bracing. I figured it out and copied the D-18 as best as I could. I still have that guitar today.
How long did it take you to complete it once you got the materials?
When I built that first guitar, I laid out the frets according to a formula that I got on the first day I bought my materials, on how to lay out the frets mathematically. I did that the best I could using the vernier measuring system to the nearest one thousandth of an inch. After I’d finished the whole thing, it always had this intonation problem. So I figured, “One day I’ll try and fix this.”
Meanwhile, a couple of years float by, and I’m already building another guitar, Number Two, so Number One never really gets the full attention that it should have. It sat around for about 50 years. I took off the neck because it needed a reset, and thought, “That neck was never really any good anyway.” Finally, last year, I got the thing out and said, “Today is the day—I’m the guy who built this guitar! Why can’t I build another neck for it?” And that’s exactly what I did, in a bolt-on style. It came out beautifully, and for the first time, I was able to play that guitar in tune and enjoy what it really sounds like. It brought a tear to my eye.
So your first guitar was a mahogany dreadnought. What came next?
By 1965, I managed to buy a secondhand D-18, so I was able to access all the information I needed to make that second guitar, which was an Indian rosewood dreadnought. I built it on the kitchen table in my first apartment, and I still have that guitar, too.
Did you or others perform with your early guitars?
During my college years, I was playing quite a bit. Every week there seemed to be some kind of gig. I had a partner; we called ourselves John and John. My college was in Missouri, so we performed in that area, in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. We even made a demo that I had on tape that was sitting around for years. I recently digitized it, and I even put it on vinyl [laughs].
When did you decide that you wanted to build guitars for living?
After I got out of college, I was working for my father’s pattern making business when I heard about Mandolin Brothers. [See a shop visit to the legendary New York store, which has since closed, in the May 2011 issue. —ed.] The owners were guests on a radio show. I called the next day and arranged a trip to go in there to see some mandolins. I told them [owners Stan Jay and Hap Kuffner] I had built some guitars and they said they would like to see them. Their business was just getting started at the time; they didn’t have a repairperson, so they saw my work and offered me the job.
That was the very beginning of any idea of making a career of repairing instruments, let alone building them. Right off the bat, I was building replica [Gibson] Mastertone banjo necks, five-string necks, for converting tenors into fives. Along with that I was getting some Martins for neck resets, crack repairs, etc. Then the parade of instruments crossing my workbench just elevated. I got to see so many interesting, fascinating instruments. My university was right there on my workbench.
Was there an instrument that sent you in a new direction? Or was it more about compiling ideas and influences and putting them into the mixer?
I was beginning to see quite a variety of instruments, from good to bad and in between. So I was able to examine and evaluate them quite easily. Some beautiful specimens would come in. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to see original Martin D-45s, OM-45s, OM-28s, and other 1930s instruments. Some wonderful Gibsons also came through that contributed to that educational experience. It was a serendipitous moment to gather all that input. I was also beginning to see some Lloyd Loar [signed] mandolins [those made by Gibson between 1922 and 1924] that I could examine quite easily, and I learned a lot from that.
When did you start building for others?
At the time, Loar mandolins were beginning to get so expensive that the average musician couldn’t afford them, so I saw an opportunity to make replicas at a much more affordable price. Mandolin Brothers was my exclusive agent for these mandolins, which I called M-5s. They were notated on the interior as replicas, but I think the first eight even said Gibson on the headstock. Then I was testing the field out there, making some mandolins with my name, and they were accepted. From that point on, I never put Gibson on any of my instruments.
Did building mandolins influence your guitar designs?
Sure. It played a part in my understanding of tone, the tonal balances within the instrument itself. I have to go back to the first archtop guitar I ever saw, a D’Angelico New Yorker, when I was 12 years old. It was brand-new—the guy had just taken delivery of it. When he opened the case, the lacquer just wafted out of it to my face. It was unbelievable, a beautiful blonde cutaway.
That image stayed with me for many years until I was beginning to work on some D’Angelicos at Mandolin Brothers. That would play into my understanding about the tonality, balance, and response of these guitars—not only that, but also the potential uses of the archtop. I was beginning to have a broad mix of musicians come through my shop—jazzers as well as fingerstyle and bluegrass players—who were looking for more sensitive, user-friendly, adaptive, and tonally balanced instruments.
Can you elaborate on that?
By the 1980s, I was beginning to see a more intimate approach, with players gravitating toward early [Gibson] L-5s from the late ’20s and early ’30s. Those L-5s are smaller bodied, 16-inch, and were being used by some of my friends who were playing fingerstyle or open-tunings-style, Chet Atkins–style, or blues. They were looking for a more versatile instrument—not just a “chunk-chunk” or strumming type of guitar, an orchestral instrument.
At the same time, the conditions were changing for the professional musician—cabarets, Broadway, live gigs, and the recording industry—all of that was changing. And so starting in the late ’80s, you began to see a real movement into a more intimate, solo style of home recording for guitarists.
How did these different factors influence your design philosophy?
A few different things come to mind. One is tradition. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, musicians expected to see certain things in the way guitars and mandolins looked and sounded. The idea of an individual luthier coming on the scene was something new and yet to be proven. You were up against traditional values. For the individual luthier to challenge that, they would have to prove themselves.
I always understood that my instruments were going to have to sing for their supper, so there’s been a real obligation to have them be fully functional, desirable, and inspiring instruments for musicians to play. I’ve always based my guitars on this very simple foundation on which I can build something that has individuality. As an independent luthier, I’ve never wanted to be repetitive and build the same instrument over and over.
So I began building some individual ideas thematically into my designs. The Four Seasons is a good example of that. That was a personal project I built for myself in my own time. The instruments were going to be inseparable. I thought of them in a choir-like way; I could hear their voices and hear them blend together as a quartet.
What is the first guitar that felt like a statement of your voice as a builder?
My Eclipse model was my first archtop design, a traditionally based guitar. Right after that, I started what I called the Radio Flyer, really my breakdown of this traditional expectation, followed by the Radio City. Those where the first two that really were my own artistic designs. [See another original Monteleone design, the Rocket Convertible, on page 74. —ed.]
Did you build them for specific players?
I built them for myself.
Were there any players that helped you to understand your instruments in a different way?
It’s going to be a subjective idea to any player. But I was listening very carefully to good advice and evaluating and weighing that all the time, trying to understand what they were telling me. And I would learn from certain players, be they professional or amateur.
I pretty much understood that many of these players were after the same thing: an instrument that can deliver a highly balanced response, one that is quick off the fingers or pick. You should be able to play the guitar and drive it as hard as you want and it will still not break up—but you should also be able to touch the thing as softly as you want and have it sing. A very lyrical instrument is what I was after, especially in the trebles.
What do you mean by “balanced” in the case of an archtop?
A lot of instruments, if you go out of the midrange into the trebles and the basses, you begin to have more challenges. With an archtop guitar, I never want to hear that steel of the string; I want a very complete treble response that is very rich and pure, has good fundamental to every note, and a nice overtone structure. So as a result, I have these treble notes quite consistently that have a very rounded kind of sound—you can hear the wood of the instrument. And same going down to the basses, allowing them to have really deep resonance. So I build the instrument in that direction, through the way I brace it, with asymmetrical tone bars, and how this system works together with the bridge.
Do you have preferred materials?
I have a pretty steady diet of materials that I use—maples and spruces, both European and domestic. But I think the bottom line is for an independent luthier to be able to read the materials that are on your workbench, to be able to understand them to the point that you can extract every ounce of tone that you can pull out of them. That’s what a luthier does.
Are you still creating new templates?
The ideas continue, and they come easily, but bringing them to fruition is really the difficult part. I just designed a smaller body that is 15-3/4 inches, just under the 16 that I normally do. I will design something new if I see the need for it, and if a particular client is asking me to do it, I will investigate it. I’ll make sketches, drawings, and templates. But ultimately, I like to get the material out there on my workbench and let it tell me where it wants to go. I’m listening to the material. There’s a constant flow of decisions being made as you’re building. That process never stops.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.