The Art of the Guitar

Jonathan Singer

John Monteleone has handcrafted custom guitars that are collected by true aficionados.

John Monteleone begins each workday by referring to a handwritten list of items that require his attention. But on this morning at his workshop in Islip, on the south shore of New York’s Long Island, he has made time for an unscheduled task. Lying atop his workbench, like a patient on an operating table, is a beautiful, if battered, 1938 D’Angelico archtop guitar, just dropped off by its owner. “It’s been handled harshly,” Monteleone says. “It probably spent some time in the back of a closet. Maybe without a case.”

He picks up and examines the guitar and strums a few jazzy chords. He’s checking the intonation. “An instrument should be in tune with itself,” he says. “Everything else will then fall into place.” He’ll attend to the guitar—named for its legendary creator, John D’Angelico—for much of the morning. It is an undertaking for which Monteleone, with his many years spent as a repairman of fine and vintage instruments, not to mention his once-removed connection to D’Angelico, is well suited. Then he’ll resume the labor that is the primary focus of his daily to-do lists: building his own archtops.

Monteleone, 66, estimates that he has built roughly 400 instruments over his career, a number that encompasses mandolins, flat-top guitars and even the odd banjo. But he now spends most of his time on archtops, each of which can take several months to complete; he finishes between eight and ten in a year. He has a list of commissions, but he is booked for several years out.

At a starting price of about $39,000, he will offer one of his established forms as a base. From there, woods, hardware and other design elements can be tailored as desired. Lately he has all but done away with model designations, preferring to work with each customer to create an instrument that suits his or her particular playing needs.

His guitars reside in the hands of noted musicians like John Jorgenson and David Grisman, and also discriminating collectors like actor Christopher Guest, The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson and novelist Jonathan Kellerman. Grammy-winning rock guitarist Steve Vai has paid a visit to Monteleone at his shop, where he was “stunned by both the visual and the tonal resonance of his instruments. The notes rang like church bells.”

Another of his customers, former Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, once equated meeting Monteleone to gaining an audience with Stradivari. On his 2009 album, Get Lucky, Knopfler recorded a song titled “Monteleone” in tribute to the luthier and the Adirondack-spruce-topped guitar he built for Knopfler.

With its convex curves and responsive carved surface, or “top,” the archtop came to prominence as the guitar of choice for pre-amplification-era jazz musicians who wanted to cut through a big-band configuration and project clearly and with volume. It also exudes a distinct aesthetic elegance. When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art staged “Guitar Heroes,” a 2011 exhibition that traced the history and progression of Italian-stringed-instrument luthiery from northern Italy in the 16th century to present-day New York, a significant portion of the show was devoted to a trio of modern-era guitarmakers: John D’Angelico; his apprentice, James (Jimmy) D’Aquisto; and the man who is perhaps the preeminent successor to their storied legacies, John Monteleone.

Monteleone got his professional start in the mid-1970s as a repairman at Mandolin Brothers, a renowned stringed-instrument shop on Staten Island. After a few years there, he began building and selling his own mandolins. He also forged a more intimate relationship with the archtop. Mandolin Brothers specialized in vintage equipment, and so archtops—many of them made by D’Angelico, who had been based on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—in need of repair would often find their way to Monteleone’s workbench. Though D’Angelico was by this time deceased, D’Aquisto was still living and working on Long Island, and Monteleone would call on his expertise to help guide him in his restorations. “I never got to meet John D’Angelico,” he says, “but I got to know him through his instruments. And that led to a personal relationship with Jimmy.”

Monteleone’s first archtop creation was essentially his version of a D’Angelico. He then moved on to a design he named the Eclipse. “It was still quite traditional,” he says. “But…I thought, There’s more to be said here.” This belief extended to not only the guitar’s sound but also its aesthetic appeal. He has since expressed his unique vision for the guitar through a variety of models such as the Radio City, whose Art Deco–inspired details pay tribute to Radio City Music Hall, and the Grand Artist, which sports a body that on one end is carved to form a regal scroll. Then there are his various one-off creations, such as the Sun King, whose beautiful sunburst top is accented by an arresting alternating pattern of blond maple and macassar ebony wood strips, and the Deco Vox, with a peghead and mother-of-pearl inlays designed to evoke the Chrysler Building as viewed at dusk.

Despite his full schedule of clients, Monteleone still makes time for projects close to his heart. One of these, the Four Seasons, consists of a quartet of instruments individually voiced and built with various woods (German spruce, Honduran mahogany, African padauk) and materials (reconstituted stone, rubies, even diamonds) selected to reflect particular times of year. He envisions one day using the golden age of American automobile manufacture as his muse. “These personal projects are an outgrowth of my natural curiosity and desire for experimentation,” he says. “Because I’m still learning. You really never stop—you just become more connected with your materials, with your ideas and with your skills.”

Monteleone’s guitar education began early in life; his curiosity about the instrument and its inner workings seemed almost innate. At 13, he commandeered his mother’s old and rarely played archtop from the family dining room and retreated to the basement to smash it to bits, years before Pete Townshend made it cool. “I gave it the old Babe Ruth against a steel column,” he recalls. “I needed to understand what was going on inside that made it sound the way it did on the outside.” The next year he began building a guitar of his own, a flat top—or folk-style steel-string—acoustic using wedges of wood fashioned from old baseball bats to fit together its mahogany sides.

He keeps this instrument—with a pen inscription on its interior reading “John Monteleone #1”—with him at his workshop, where he is surrounded by artifacts from his past: a bowl-back mandolin of his father’s; an old upright piano that once resided in the family home; and the first chisel he ever purchased as a boy, which he still uses to carve guitar tops today. Spend any amount of time with him in this place and it becomes clear that Monteleone is a man with a reverence for history. But only to a point—that old flat-top guitar he built at 14 currently sits in a state of disrepair, as today, more than 50 years later, he continues to tinker with it.