Resurrecting the Artistry, and the Name, of a Singular Guitar Craftsman



When John D’Angelico died in 1964, at the age of 59, he left behind a line of guitars that he had made by hand, one by one, in his shop above his apartment on Kenmare Street on the Lower East Side. His archtop guitars produced a stirring sound that could stand up to horns and percussion in big bands, and became some of the most coveted instruments in the world.

Half a century later, four stories above Manhattan’s flower district, Mr. D’Angelico’s instruments have been reborn. Rows and rows of guitars bearing his name — smooth and shiny, with curves and arches, in rich tones and with taut strings — adorn the walls of D’Angelico Guitars.

“They’re works of art,” said Steve Pisani, one of the store’s owners, standing in a denlike showroom decorated with big leather furniture and animal prints. Mr. Pisani, 56, has played guitar since he was a teenager and, until recently, worked at Sam Ash Music on a faded strip of West 48th Street that generations of New Yorkers remember as Music Row.

Mr. Pisani and the brand’s two other owners, Brenden Cohen, 30, and John Ferolito Jr., 27, have spent the past few years researching Mr. D’Angelico’s craftsmanship to resurrect his artistry. They have reproduced two of Mr. D’Angelico’s original guitars, following his exacting design: a 1943 Excel and a 1942 Style B. They have also produced a line of guitars under the D’Angelico name with a more contemporary influence, basically “our take if D’Angelico was still alive,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. D’Angelico made about 1,160 guitars, mostly for jazz musicians. According to the book “D’Angelico, Master Guitar Builder: What’s in a Name?” by Frank W. M. Green, Mr. D’Angelico once said: “I want to build guitars under my own name, for my own customers, the way I do it! For me that’s a good life!” His guitars are cherished by collectors and musicians and are so highly regarded that 11 of them were part of a 2011 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Among the visitors to the exhibition were Lawrence D’Angelico, the guitar maker’s great-nephew, and his young daughter, who plays the instrument. He said he appreciated the continuing brand, “especially in an era not as dedicated to craftsmanship as my great-uncle was.”

After past efforts foundered, the current resurrection of the D’Angelico name began with a 1943 Excel and Mr. Ferolito’s father, John Ferolito Sr., a businessman, guitar player and guitar collector. The older Mr. Ferolito, who had bought the rights to the D’Angelico brand from a guitar string company in 1999, sold it several years later to the current owners. He also owned a 1943 D’Angelico Excel.

Then, at a 2012 trade show of music merchants, Mr. Pisani ran into Gene Baker, a master luthier who had worked at Fender Music on Music Row, and told him: “Man, have I got a job for you.”

“I had been waiting for this all my life,” Mr. Baker recalled in an interview. (Continued )


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