Mario Maccaferri: An Interview with John Monteleone (Part Two)
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
By Daniel Wheeldon
In continuation. John Monteleone here talks about his insights into Maccaferri’s workshop, further projects which shed light into the philosophies of Mario Maccaferri, also discussing how these interactions left lasting impressions on him and his instrument making. My intention in making and transcribing this interview has been to document a unique story without digressing into histories already well written about.
I find it fascinating to think about instrument makers who span generations and seeing how they met and influenced one another. John Monteleone has connections to many great musicians and instrument makers not least D’Angelico and D’Aquisto. Mario Maccaferri has the heritage of Luigi Mozzani for his training but it is important to remember and highlight the importance of his friendship with Monteleone who no doubt reignited his interest to turn his creative genius back to the guitar.
19:15 GMT, 13th January 2019.
Daniel Wheeldon – DW
John Monteleone – JM
DW: What was Maccaferri’s New York workshop like when you knew him? Was it his personal workshop or was it part of a bigger production?
JM: Well it was a big workshop, it was a complex of buildings, it was in the Bronx on Webster Ave, right next to a police precinct. It was about a city block in size, so it was a complex of buildings. By the time I’d met him he had just retired, and if you went into one of the larger buildings you would see a line of injection moulding machines, and these machines were huge, and there were [perhaps] 40 of them. And then there were other places, other buildings, out building and so forth. Four silos full of plastic pellets out back by the railroad yard. In one of the buildings all he did was play golf, he would tee-off. As you walked in the door you saw thousands of golf balls all over the place – it was huge, you could drive a ball in this place!
DW: Good grief!
JM: He was a real golf nut, and he gave me my first set of golf clubs.
DW: It’s such a vivid image I’ve got in my mind now of that scene in the Bronx. With the guitar that you made for him, did it have any of the internal structure, the [resonator] or anything like that?
JM: Okay so here’s what happened next. So he gets the guitar back and he’s playing it and enjoying it, and he gets the idea that by this time we’re pretty friendly, he sees the potential of a project so he proposes that we make: ‘lets make some guitars together’. I said ‘well okay let’s do that’. He says ‘alright we’ll make six classical and we’ll also make six jazz model guitars. I said ‘great! This is good’. He says two of the jazz model guitars will have internal resonators and the other four would not. He just felt that he would revisit the idea, it was so long that he had been away from it that he just kinda wanted to get back to it to see what it would do. So we got started,we went out shopping together for wood, and we’d go out to lunch together and come back with wood and start getting a list of items that we needed. He had his own press for laminating. He laminated the sides and the backs, and I brought the soundboards.
DW: So what happened to these guitars?
DW: That’s disconcerting isn’t it. So the guitar that ended up in the Guitar Heroes [exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011], was that a Jazz guitar did you say? [This instrument was a classical model]
JM: [Unsure] These were all D-hole models – I remember making all the rosettes myself, multi-coloured rosettes for the ‘D’. We had a tremendous amount of fun in this project together, it really was a bonding moment, I was fortunate because there was nobody else who he shared these moments with as a luthier. Luthier to luthier. For me it was all about enjoying the experience, I didn’t interfere or interject with my own ideas because I just wanted to let him be himself. And then he offered the idea of going into business together too, which I rejected.
DW: The obvious question for me to ask which might be difficult to answer is: are there any areas in your own design or making processes that changed during that time, or any influences that you’ve kept on from that period?
JM: No actually it’s a good question, because there’s something that rubbed off of course. That was the ergonomic feel of those instruments were quite good. They have a good balance they are the right size for a very full tonal response, they have a good projection. And I always wanted to see something like that in a flat top guitar: x-braced, flat top, pin bridge, fixed bridge, like the American style approach to building the flat top, and that’s what led me to start building what I call the ‘hot club’ model. I still make those today. But originally one of the first ones was a carved version of that guitar. Carved top and back, a true archtop. Some people refer to those Selmer guitar as archtop guitars, and they’re not really.
DW: Could you say that they’re a flat top guitar makers’ archtop? Or would that be pushing it?
JM: Well it’s a very odd kind of guitar because the way I learned it from Mario, I learned it from the horse directly. And the real key element. There are several key elements: one of them is the top itself, which really came from the mandolin and that’s what Mario, when he went home from the Jazz clubs learning what to do with Jazz, he figured what you need is a nice highly responsive membrane spruce top. And he went to the mandolin folded top, that’s what he used as his inspiration. And to build that, a few people by the time I met him, a few people had tried either Ibanez, or Yamaha or one of them, was building a model that Mario, they tried to get him to endorse it, this was back in the ‘70s. And nobody got the mechanical means correctly on how to construct that top. And I learned it directly from Mario and he showed me exactly how to do that. By now people have learned how to do it, but back then when I learned it from him, nobody else was doing it right.
DW: I suppose it’s difficult to go into it here. With the top it had been bent in an unequally and then planed flat again, so it was a diamond shape. How did the top work again?
JM: Before the two halves are joined together it’s bent across the bridge line, but the bend is more focused towards the centre of the joint than it is towards the outside of the instrument, so you have that raised kind of diamond effect, that to join them together you have to use a shoot board, you have to shoot them separately and then bring them together to glue.
DW: Do you have to carve them out after that?
JM: There’s no carving. These are flat top, you bend them on a steam pipe a little bit more generously towards the centre, and then join them together, which is a tricky operation. Mario designed a device that, you can see it in the Selmer catalogue, if you look at François Charle – there are pictures in there of the Selmer workshop and the tools. You can see one of the top joining tools.
DW: It’s interesting that as Mario met you after a lot of experimentation and entrepreneurship and had come full circle back to wooden instruments.
JM: Mario was an interesting guy in that he had a great strength. His vision was somewhat narrower than you might think but that enabled him to put a very strong focus on whatever detail was in front of him. So what I’m saying in other words is that outside of his vision didn’t really concern him that much. He was a business guy, he was a very good businessman. But he was not really aware of Ovation guitars or Martin guitars or all this other kind of stuff that was going on around him. I think part of the reason for that was because he had been away from lutherie for a long time.
When Mario left for America, he bribed his way onto the last ship leaving France when the Germans were invading. It’s like a movie. He sent his family ahead of him and he hollowed out the bedposts on his bed and stuffed them with money and sent his furniture ahead of him to his family. He landed in New York and got involved in the plastics, with the reeds, taking the knowledge/technology from Selmer, made it his own and turned it into a company called the French American Reed company. And he set up over the Roseland ball room in New York City. […] And that’s how he got into plastics and away from wooden instruments until I met him.
DW: You say that you had made archtops before you met him. What was his opinion of them?
JM: He wasn’t much interested in them, it really was outside of his ballpark, if it wasn’t classical he wasn’t that interested in it. You know. We went to Classical concerts, guitar recitals, concerts, we’d go together to all these different places. It was always classical in nature. So he really didn’t have patience for Jazz.
DW: When you built these twelve guitars together: six classical and six jazz. Even though he didn’t have a heart for Jazz and his purview was limited to his own interests and what he could make use of, he must have known that his fame and success came from his Selma-Maccaferri instruments. Was that the reason he wanted to build the six Jazz type instruments.
JM: Well I think that what he wanted to do was first of all to revisit the Classical form of the guitar. We played around with a few different fan strut designs in the classicals, as we also did with the Jazz models. No two were quite the same, they were all a little different, I viewed it at the time as an experiment. I remember he thought that the classical guitars came out pretty good. He thought the internal chambers/resonators were not worth the trouble.
DW: Were there resonators in the Classical as well?
JM: No. They weren’t worth all the fuss, they made the guitar heavier. So he didn’t spend too much time analysing the Jazz guitars, he just made them and had me get cases made for them. And just put them away. And by that time he was interested by the violin. And so was I, I was also fascinated by it and I was learning as much as I could about the subject. And he said ‘oh yeah, you know I’ve got this trunk full of wood I’ve been carrying with me since 1925 – let’s make some violins.’ And so ‘Sure let’s go make some violin’ and we started making violins. I was making my own in my workshop. So he would be working on his, and I would go visit him and see what he was up to. It was somewhere during that time, maybe a little before that, during our guitar building time that I discovered one of Django Reinhardt’s guitars, it belonged to Les Paul. It was sitting on a file cabinet. That’s a whole other story.
DW: When did Mario propose a business venture with you?
JM: Probably about 1984 or 5 ’85 maybe. I was building mandolins mostly at the time and I was doing okay with that in fact. The guitar market here was a little bit dry, and I remember Mario was getting a little antsy and looking for something to do, and he saw my enthusiasm for building that style of guitar, so he offered to go into business. ‘Come on, let’s get together and we’ll set up a shop, you move up here or I’ll move there’. ‘We can use the Maccaferri name if you want…’, so he was making all these offerings and at the time I was thinking to myself, ‘wow, this doesn’t happen to everybody, and it’s quite an offering’, I said ‘Mario, Mario, let me think about it.’ So I go home and think about it, after not too long, I called him the next day and I said ‘Mario, thanks by I can’t do it.’ Because he said to me ‘What do you want to make money or do you want to make art?’ He thought I was being an artist you know and sacrificial, instead of knuckling down and going into business and manufacturing. Which was his forte, that was really his forte: manufacturing. That was what he was really all about. I mean he was a lover of music and he was very talented in all these various areas including being an inventive genius, holding over 50 patents in plastics processing. That was really... He was captain of his own ship. So I called him back and I said ‘Thanks but I can’t do it, I want to make both. I’m going to make money and art.’ You know why? Because his guitars were entirely his guitars, and I didn’t want to make his guitars. I wanted to make my own. That’s the same way I felt about D’Angelico and D’Aquisto, the time that I spent with Jimmy D’Aquisto. That was the realisation that brought me back to the, my early period when I was copying a Gibson mandolin.
In the day, it was somewhat a little dangerous not to base your instruments on established models, you know nobody was going to accept your instruments. But to have acceptance and be recognised that was the gamble, so I figured that at the time people could identify with and be interested in because it was familiar to them. And along side of that I was also beginning to make my own design to test those waters. So I wanted to be able to cover both bases. And same way with Jimmy [D'Aquisto], I learned, I was working on so many D’Angelicos and restoring them and some of Jimmy’s too, and Jimmy liked it because I was doing the work that didn’t have to take away from his time at the workbench, so that was how we got along pretty good. So I was learning a lot about restoration and the history of D’Angelico. But I knew the instruments well enough that I could reproduce them pretty faithfully. But I thought to myself always in each of these circumstances that ‘Why would I really want to do that? I know plenty of other people that are doing it.’ And I wanted to make something of my own.
Daniel Wheeldon is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh and currently chairs the Banos, Mandolins, and Guitars working group for AMIS. Daniel trained and worked in London building and repairing guitars and developed an interest in early guitars and citterns. After completing his masters at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 he was awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he documented and catalogued their pre-1900 European guitars.
 François Charle and Alain Antonietto, The Story of Selmer-Maccaferri Guitars (Paris), 1999). 5
 Gregg Miner post dedicated to Mario Maccaferri. http://www.harpguitars.net/history/maccaferri/month-player,macc.htm