Music: Luxe Luthier

  • Nancy A. Ruhling

"Every guitar has its own personality," says luthier John Monteleone. "It’s my job to give it its own dynamic voice. Each one I make is an extension of my soul."

At 61, Monteleone is a master of his craft, and he is widely acknowledged as the successor to the eminent jazz-guitar luthiers John D’Angelico and Jimmy D’Aquisto. His custom-made arch-top and flattop guitars, with their acoustical design elements and intricate inlays, command prices from $30,000 to $100,000.

The self-taught artisan put together his first guitar at 13. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Missouri’s Tarkio College in 1970, he took a job repairing guitars at a stringed-instrument shop on Staten Island. Two years later Monteleone met D’Aquisto while restoring a D’Angelico-built arch-top, and the two subsequently developed a friendship that spanned the next two decades. "I had the privilege of completing the last two guitars [that D’Aquisto was working on] . . . at the time of his passing in 1995," Monteleone says. "Knowing Jimmy enabled me to learn quite directly from the master."

Monteleone’s designs, which often have an Art Deco flair, began to garner international acclaim in 1997 when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., displayed one of the guitar maker’s arch-top commissions. Recently, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it will include Monteleone’s work in a 2011 exhibit celebrating Italian-American lutherie. As part of this exhibit, Monteleone will showcase the Four Seasons, a quartet of nature-evoking, bespoke instruments that he built over the course of four years. "Each of them is different in look and sound," Monteleone says of the guitars, which he values collectively at more than $1 million. "They are made to be played individually or together as an ensemble."

The four arch-tops, dubbed (below, from left) Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, feature precious- and semiprecious-stone inlays and Monteleone’s Side-Sound System. This trademarked design places sound holes—some with sliding panels that open and close—on the side of the instrument so that the musician can experience the music more fully. "This delivers sound directly to the player," Monteleone says. He built the four guitars from several sound-enriching woods, including European and Adirondack spruces, and a variety of maples. "These four instruments are as different as brothers and sisters," Monteleone says. "There is a vocal thread that runs through them, yet each has an individual voice."

In his studio in Islip, N.Y., Monteleone is hard at work burnishing his reputation as one of the world’s finest luthiers. Ever respectful of the legacies of those artisans who preceded him, he is currently applying his own genius to a guitar-design classic, the teardrop. In 1957, D’Angelico debuted an arch-top guitar that resembled a dropping tear. In 1993, D’Aquisto followed suit. Now Monteleone is making his own version. "It makes my own statement," he says. "Its design has a subtlety, but first and foremost, like all my guitars, it’s a musical instrument."

John Monteleone, 631.277.3620, www.monteleone.net

Photo by Richard P. Goodbody Inc.
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