What's changed in terms of construction of archtops? How
the old guitars hold up against their modem counterparts?
BENEDETTO The essential form of the instrument has
remained primarily the same--a design, by the way, for
which I'd have to credit Gibson, as they initially single-
handedly developed the archtop guitar as we know it
today. However, lots of small, detailed refinements have
taken place that, I feel strongly, make some of today's
instruments sonically superior to the older ones.
Are you referring to the ebony tailpiece and pickguard,
BENEDETTO Yes, but it's not just that. Dedicated makers
their own small shops can concentrate on just one thing,
while using and developing their skills. This eventually
results, of course, in a more refined instrument.
years learning to carve and tune a top and back, to use
perfection an already proven bracing system, and to
shape and reshape the same style neck over and over until
it's perfect-that's refinement! Perfecting an already
Do you use traditional tools for carving and shaping?
BENEDETTO I use both old-world-type tools handed down
from my grandfather and also tools handed down from
Black & Decker [laughs]. Seriously, my greatest
getting the job done correctly and on schedule, so I see
advantage to spending two or three hours with knives and
chisels cutting a rabbet for body binding when I can do
the job better in about two minutes with a router. There's
a time and place for everything. I'll use a router to
carve my tops and backs, but I'll do all the final
and graduating by feel with a small wooden palm plane.
How did you develop your bracing techniques?
BENEDETTO When I started making violins in 1982, 1
began to understand bracing. People like Franz Kinberg,
Bob Bragg, and Tony Skey encouraged me to closely follow
the Italian school of violin making. This included strict
guidelines for size, weight, shape, etc., and, most
for sound. I was finally being really challenged. The
first ten or so violins were OK, but by 1987, after
45 violins and five violas, I really felt like I was
Anyway, I use both parallel and X-bracing, depending
upon a player's needs. Generally speaking, the X-brace
creates a soft, warm voice, the parallel bracing a
and slightly stronger voice. In either case, a guitar
balanced so that the high notes are as fat and clear as
midrange, blending with a rich bass. This balance is what
can separate a good handmade archtop from the rest.
Can you balance the guitar's voice through tap tuning?
BENEDETTO If there's any magic and romance Involved in
making archtop guitars, this is it. Nothing excites me
carving and tuning guitar tops and backs. Tap tuning is
centuries-old violin-making technique of tapping the wood
before and while it's being carved, which is a very
Briefly, it begins with tapping rough boards, resting
on the fingertips, that will be planed to tops and backs,
memorizing the tone produced. As the top and back are
carved, they are continuously tapped to monitor this tone,
drops dramatically in pitch. Carving the f-holes drops
the pitch even
more. Gluing the bracing in causes the pitch to rise, and
braces are shaved, it again lowers. It's difficult to
quickly, but in the hands of a good player, we want the
back graduated so that tha back will vibrate freely in
with the top, creating a well-balanced voice that
improves as the
guitar ages. It is magical, isn't it?
Why do you use the ebony tailpiece?
BENEDETTO I'd have to credit Chuck Wayne, who suggested-no
insisted-that I do this on my first guitar. The idea is
attach it with cello gut, without using any brass, and
it absolutely improves the natural tone and voice of the
guitar. I'd add also that a purely wooden bridge would
improve the tone, but this is one area where climate
and customers' tastes make it very unfeasible to lose
adjustment made possible by metal posts and wheels. But
solid ebony tailpiece with its cello gut looped around an
jack plays a vital role in the development of the archtop.
Some builders insist upon Germab spruce or use only
curly, or flamed maple. Are there sonic differences, or
we talking cosmetics?
BENEDETTO European spruce and maple are among the finest
tonewoods known. The maple Is lightweight and soft; the
is lightweight but stiff. That's the criteria for
for stringed Instruments. But spruce and maple with those
properties also grow in this country. I've used both
domestic woods for 25 years and have found good and bad
Figured woods are a strictly cosmetic preference--
completely unrelated to tone. But beautiful woods are
appealing, and, for instance, I use an exotic burl veneer
on the headstock face of my Cremona model.
I recently played both an old D'Angelico and an Albanus
guitar, and they were definitely heavier than your
models. How come?
BENEDETTO Well, you have to remember the weight of the
metal D'Angelico tailpiece. And Albanus used an ebony
overlay screwed to a brass bracket, which was then
to the body. Those were both very heavy tailpieces that
added a measureable amount of weight to the guitar. And
the old Grover Imperial [tuning machines] were much
than today's Schallers. And, of course, if a maker uses a
dense maple back like bird's-eye and someone else uses a
softer European maple, the differences will be quite
In general, the lighter the woods, the lighter the
which will then usually sound better.
What kind of finish do you apply to your guitars?
BENEDETTO On my very first guitar, I was instructed how
to French polish by classical guitar maker Lorenzo
French polish is a beautiful finish, but French polishers
are born, not made. I soon switched and still prefer
nitrocellulose lacquer, which comes out crystal clear,
enough to be buffed out, and yet allows the wood to
Most players who want to amplify an archtop choose a
pickup, but there are still a fair number of players who
prefer a full-sized guitar with built-in pickups. Tal
states that 'built-ins" develop a superior sound,
Johnson, who plays a Heritage Golden Eagle that comes
a floating pickup, had Bartolinis carved into his top. Do
have any feeling on built-in pickups?
BENEDETTO I prefer the floating pickup, as it allows one
feel the Instrument vibrate and to hear more of the
natural voice, and I think it works perfectly for solo or
small combo settings. With louder music, built-in pickups
tend to feed back much less and offer more versatility.
There are, of course, traditionalists who say nothing
like an old DAngelico. Is this, to an extent, a myth?
BENEDETTO Although there are players who revere the
sound of the D'Angellco, there are countless others who
prefer the New York Epiphone, Stromberg, or Gibson.
Sound is subjective. I would have to say that the truly
handmade archtops produced by today's luthiers (and
there really aren't many of us) are every bit as good and
some cases better than the older D'Angelicos, Epiphones,
and Gibsons. But this is only because we have continued
where the older makers left off. Here's a little food for
thought: Stradivari made his finest violins when he was
his 60s--his golden period. He continued working until
death at 93. D'Angelico died when he was 59. Obviously,
he had lived longer and gone further, his skills and his
guitars would have been that much better. I'll bet he
would have switched to a solid ebony tailpiece [laughs].
Just imagine if he had lived and worked another 30 years!
If one person makes enough guitars, he or she will
begin to develop a personal, distinctive sound. I'm not
sure if it's planned that way; we simply learn by doing.
D'Angelico sounds like a D'Angelico, a D'Aquisto sounds
like a D'Aquisto, and a Benedetto sounds like a Benedetto.
Text From Acoustic Guitar Magazine - April, 1994