Some of the most coveted archtop guitars in the world are built in Savannah, Georgia, at Benedetto Guitars, where the company’s president and CEO Howard Paul and master luthier Damon Mailand ensure that every guitar going out the door represents the artistic legacy of Robert Benedetto’s original designs.
Benedetto archtops are known for stability, sonority, and responsiveness to touch and a player’s attack. Each is the result of 50 years of relentless experimentation, innovation, and improvement. At first sight, they are striking for their simple elegance.
Benedetto, the company’s founder, turns 70 this year. The son of a master cabinet maker, he grew up in Bronx, New York, working as a leg-carver for the Steinway Piano Co. “All of his uncles were artists, furniture makers, and musicians,” Paul says.
I visited Paul, who also plays guitar, at the Benedetto factory to talk about the company’s history as it celebrates its tenth anniversary.
How did Benedetto learn to build?
Bob learned on his own. He cut up the family’s maple kitchen table, because he didn’t know where to get wood. Next he cut up his sister’s bedroom set. He told me he wishes he could take back the first 100 guitars he built because they must have been terrible. He gained experience and constantly refined his process. A musician himself, he knew what a jazz guitar should feel and sound like. In his early years, he also repaired and restored old guitars built by the masters. But what really set him apart was how he listened to what great players had to say—Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kenny Burrell, and others. He coaxed out of them an understanding of what made a particular instrument better or worse.
Chuck Wayne wanted a guitar that was more like a violin. You can see the influence of that in models like the Bravo Elite or the Bambino Elite. They’re violin-like. There’s no binding, no purfling. Bob also made the guitar lighter and less ornate. The aesthetic was minimalistic. He was interested in making the guitar more functional for the player.
‘Bob Benedetto cut up the family’s maple kitchen table, because he didn’t know where to get wood. Next he cut up his sister’s bedroom set.’
How did you and Bob get together?
I played guitar from an early age. Like every other crazy guitar player growing up in the ’70s, I was always looking for the best instrument. First, it was the Gibson L5. Next, it was D’Angelico. Then the guys who were really in the know said to me, “You think you want a D’Angelico, but [John] D’Angelico has been dead since 1964. You really want Bob Benedetto to build you a guitar.”
It wasn’t until 1995 that I could afford a custom-built guitar. I’d done a couple of gigs with guitar legend Jimmy Bruno, and he played a Benedetto seven-string. I got Bob’s number from him, called Bob and asked him to build me an entry-level seven-string. During the two-and-a-half-year wait for that guitar, I struck up what became a close friendship with Bob and his wife Cindy.
And then you went into business together?
Bob had licensed Fender Guitars to build Benedettos by hand at their custom shop, based on Bob’s training, designs, materials, and his final approval for anything they could sell. Once a month Bob would fly to Corona, California, and destroy everything that wasn’t up to spec. One time he took a ball-peen hammer to a dozen instruments they couldn’t get right. It wasn’t the happiest of marriages. So, in 2006, Bob asked me to help him create an independent factory.
I didn’t know how to build a business from scratch. [But] I was gigging 140 nights a year, writing articles for Just Jazz Guitar, so I felt I knew the industry. We agreed. Bob let Fender go and, the same day, I quit my job at Chatham Steel. Then I bought Business Plans for Dummies.
How would you characterize the first ten years?
A very bumpy ride. In 2006, all the trends were ridiculously positive in the music industry. Companies like Fender, Gibson, and Taylor were growing rapidly, building new warehouses. Paul Reed Smith had just launched a $30 million manufacturing facility on the eastern side of Maryland. No one occupied the really high end. Fender wasn’t doing a good job with it. Gibson wasn’t paying any attention to it. It looked like a great opportunity for a great brand. We hired 22 workers and set out building 500 guitars a year. That turned out to be the bubble before the Great Recession.
Things didn’t go as you’d hoped?
By 2008, oil prices shot through the roof. European sales dried up. Guitar Center had overbuilt. Sam Ash had overbuilt. There were megastores and e-commerce sellers, warehouses stuffed with guitars. China was ramped up and sending container ships of cheap Chinese knock-offs of Benedettos and other guitars into retail music stores.
The first thing to go were the independent stores that carried high-end guitars. Those guys lost access to credit. They couldn’t compete. There were bankruptcies. Stores that knew how to sell a $10,000 guitar could no longer afford to inventory that guitar. Next thing I knew, I had 100 guitars sitting in my hallway, and the people who had ordered them couldn’t buy them.
We had to scale back. We laid off most of our workers. I cut my pay dramatically. I cut Bob’s pay dramatically. We worked for nothing for months at a time. I lowered the pay of some key employees by as much as half. We kept the doors open by selling inventory built pre-recession. In 2010-2011, I fired all the retail music stores. That was at Bob’s insistence. “Just get rid of them all,” he said, “and we’ll sell direct, the way Cindy and I used to sell them.” That was very hard for me. When I grew up, the guitars we desired were the ones we saw hanging on hooks in the music store when we finished taking our guitar lesson. You’d play the newest whatever-it-was, salivate over it, save your money, and eventually you’d buy that instrument. Now you would never be able to walk into a music store, pull a Benedetto off a hook, and sit down to play. I found that hard to swallow. But we worked and borrowed our way through the recession.
Bob retired over a year ago. What has that meant for the company?
The great challenge was the transition from people knowing Bob Benedetto was sitting at the workbench to them knowing that he’s not there. Damon Mailand apprenticed with Bob for ten years, and his instruments are as good or better—Bob would tell you—as anything Bob built in his career. Today, we make 100 guitars a year, and they’re arguably the finest archtop guitars in the world. Most great players aspire to own one. We’ve evolved into a legacy company and still maintain the very pinnacle of the guitar industry without affecting quality or reputation. That has always been the goal: to preserve an art form without screwing it up along the way.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.