Interview, Luthier Focus
In Depth: Stephen Marchione
Just in time to receive a brand new model, Texas luthier Stephen Marchione sat down with us for a long chat about his history, influences, "archival building", and what drives him as both a musician and artist!
It doesn't take much to get Stephen going when it comes to guitars. While he may be driven by his own artistic vision to create his proprietary designs, the studious instrument maker is a passionate lifelong learner who has dug deep into the history and legacy of makers of the past. Get ready to dig into his philosophy and wide-ranging knowledge in this chat!
Stephen, thank you so much for sitting down to chat today! Before we talk about the new guitar you’re sending us soon, let’s dig into your history as a builder a little bit.
As a kid growing up, I lived in northern Italy, Bergamo specifically, which is by Milano. Then you've got Cremona, Brescia and Venice nearby. We traveled extensively, and by the age of eight, I wanted to be a stringed instrument maker because of all the violin and guitar makers I saw. It's Europe, so it’s all old stone buildings and cobblestone roads, and you can walk up to a window and just peer in. All the artisans were just fantastic, but the instrument shops were the most special thing I had ever seen. So that seed was planted early.
That's such a unique way to get immersed into that world. Most people wouldn't even think about it until they had started playing, but you got this incredible exposure early on.
Yeah, and I loved woodworking, too. In Texas growing up, I was exposed to it constantly through my grandparents and many others in my family who were home builders or master cabinet makers. So besides getting the exposure in Italy and seeing the luthiers, it was that tie to woodworking which drew me in as much as anything.
That was the beginning. Then I started playing guitar, got a music degree in college, played in the University of Houston Jazz Band. During that time, I was getting more interested in business, too. A few years down the road, I went to Baruch College in in Manhattan and did an SBA program with a professor there for small entrepreneurial artists and businesses.
You got the perfect education to dovetail into running your own lutherie business!
Yeah, and it was fun and exciting to do all this stuff. My first job actually making guitars was around 1989-1990. I initially worked for Rudy Pensa of Rudy’s Music, mostly doing a lot of neck and body shaping. At the time, it was hard in New York to get a young guy who could woodwork; you kind of need a garage or workspace to do it, which you don’t have in most apartments. That was an important step, and quickly thereafter, I was making a couple instruments at home, including an F5 mandolin I built from a blueprint.
That's kind of straight into the deep end!
Yeah, I dove right in! But there's a lot of information out there if you can synthesize and use it intelligently, so I've always tried to do that. For instance, early in my time in New York, I started learning flamenco and classical guitar—traditional Spanish stuff. I also have distant relatives from Spain, so I decided, well, while I'm learning the instrument, why don't I learn some Spanish language and culture? All the while, I was studying the blueprints, and then I was buying and collecting Spanish guitars, and eventually I sold some here or there.
After working with Pensa through 1993, I wanted to have my own shop because I had some designs I wanted to bring to the market, so I opened Marchione Guitars in Manhattan. I still have the original DBA! It was perfect because I was close to where the old pro recording studios were, and I had all these professional session guys who played on Broadway come in, some of whom are still excellent friends like Kevin Kuhn, John Putnam, and Kenny Brescia, who at the time was touring with the Mamas and Papas. But these guys are just the icons, you know? Now the benefit for me, besides being able to make some guitars, was their feedback. That's what I think sets my guitars apart from other instrument makers. I’ve worked with so many pros over my 32 years of building, and that gives me the knowledge of what great guitarists want. Perfect action, intonation, feel, ergonomics, all that. That's very important to me and what I do as an artist.
Those players are going to be better able to give you the critiques that a more intermediate player may not know how to articulate. But they benefit from the feedback of those pros when they play your guitars, too.
Another one of my philosophies about instrument making is archival building—archival in the sense that you construct the instrument so it lasts a long time. That means a lot of things we’ve already discussed, but it also involves other things that most people wouldn't think of. For instance, most of the lumber I buy is big planks, and it comes in and me and my two guys and we cut it up ourselves. Otherwise you're relying on somebody you don't know, who isn’t used to cutting for your purposes. I buy mahogany, and a lot of it is three inches thick and the boards can be as wide as sixteen inches. That's a lot of parts for a guitar! I find that part of woodworking fun, as you’re looking at how best to use the tree to your advantage. You plan what parts will come from where. Then I like to set those pieces in the climate controlled room downstairs. I like to take the rough cuts and stick them there to give them time to adjust to being outside of that part of the tree, and then it can adjust and change ever so slightly. It typically takes ten years to air dry before its ready, but if it was previously kiln dried, it might be a year and a half. Then you take those pieces that have already relaxed, and then you're getting down to your milled size. After we do that for, say, a neck, I'll let that rest once again and then re-plane with an actual hand plane. We use these all the time to get something absolutely and perfectly flat, and only after that will I put the fingerboard on. So in the end, that neck has relaxed multiple times before a piece of ebony is ever glued on there.
You give the wood several different phases to get used to no longer being a tree and ready to become a guitar.
Yeah, exactly right. Another thing that I've learned over 32 years is that, if you're going to make a glue joint, you want it to be as permanent as possible and as strong as possible. The best glue I found for that is the same one that many luthiers and violin makers use, and that’s hot hide glue, a protein glue derived from cow, horse or oxen bone and hide. When you plane a piece of wood you don't have the cutter marks that you get with an electric plane; you get a perfectly flat surface. Well, that flat surface will make a molecular bond to the other piece if it's prepared correctly. You really don't have a film of glue between the pieces, you have cells touching each other, and then the glue gets into that molecular cellular structure. That is why a hot hide glue joint is so important. When you do that, you've changed the piece of wood once again. Take this 16” Modern Archtop. I put this fingerboard on a year ago, and it's been hanging out in the studio because the joining of the woods makes it a new thing, and I want this to adjust and move however it needs. Only then will I plane the fretboard and put the frets in.
That's all part of this archival building idea. You take those steps so that in 100 years, you'll have something that—if it was maintained—is just an old version of what it was when it was new, but it'll sound better. Wood that vibrates over time cellularly and molecularly lines up and it vibrates better and better, which is why a ‘40s Martin OM sounds so amazing.
Especially in your electrics, you can see the way those joints are so seamless that they feel like one piece, and that's clearly the result of you having taken all those slow steps to carefully unite everything.
That's one reason I charge what I do for an instrument. Most of my instruments are in the $15-30,000 range, because of everything that goes into them. Acoustic, electric, archtop, classical—they all go through that same process. I believe in generational wealth. So this is a way that something beautiful, interesting and valuable is passed down through generations.
You are kind of unique among builders in that you make archtops, acoustic flattops, electrics, classicals, and you also build violins. I assumed the violin making might have come first, but it was the opposite for you. Did you seek it out for the challenge?
Well, around 1995, I met two very important and good violin makers in New York City. One was Guy Rabut and the other one was Charles Rufino. They are the ones I learned all the archival building stuff from—it's all from the violin world. I learned their techniques like the planing and use of hot hide glue. No guitar maker ever showed me those techniques, but there are many who do use them. Most of the excellent Italian, Spanish, German and French builders build archivally. It's not my original idea. A lot of them were trained as violin makers, or maybe apprenticed with one, so we're all we're all taking from the same pot of European knowledge, which really was highly developed in Italy, and Cremona specifically.
At the same time that I was learning all that from Guy and Charles, I was also getting deeply into archtop guitars working with Mark Whitfield. R&B was big at the time, so with Mark I was going beyond my early love and experience with D’Angelico and other classic Italian New York designs and making something for the contemporary gigging and traveling musician.
As a luthier, I'm making an instrument for musicians, and for professionals especially, the goal is to make it so it's very useful to them. When it’s archival, that means it lasts a long time and is stable, which for traveling professionals is of the utmost importance. You don't want to go from a gig in Houston where it's humid to Salt Lake City where it's super dry and have your guitar go nuts. These are all components of what I do and what I care about. I'm trying to give my customers, my pro players, and my dealers a problem-free instrument.
Yeah, you don't have to tell people, “Never take this out of your humidified closet, always keep it at home forever!” People want to do things with these instruments—they're meant to be played.
That I guess that's what I'm saying also, is that I've built them so they can go out and play. They're not fragile flowers that have to be protected.
You're building us a brand new model that we’ll receive later this fall. Tell us about that one!
This is a new design—it’s my Modern Jumbo. It is similar to jumbo size historical instruments. This one is European maple with a beautiful silver maple neck, lots of ebony binding. The tuning of the instrument (Stephen taps the top); there's a lot going on inside that you can't see, but you'll hear and appreciate.
For instance, there is no neck joint; it’s Spanish heel, so the sides have been let into the neck, eliminating all the instability problems. Then at the very end when everything perfectly straight, I put on the fingerboard, so the action on my acoustic guitars or archtops is like a great electric guitar. It's not a compromise. The guys and I have also been working on some new inlay themes. These are different colored pearls, and then I've got that going on in the fingerboard and then a little bit on the headstock.
I’m just trying to celebrate some new design ideas and expressions that are really about me as an artist. I don't want to do a historical reproduction. I think there's so much value in new ideas and new ways of approaching things.
Absolutely. I love traditional-style guitars, but there's so much that can be done on the new frontier.
In my quarter century of collecting fine Spanish guitars, I have some great ones that are 75-80 years old. I love them all, but I don't want to try to replicate them. I appreciate them because each is a statement from their time. If you look at a guitar from Spain in the late ‘40s, it was part of a wartime environment and political upheaval. What we're doing now, here—me in Texas in 2022—is very different from wartime Spain.
One topic I’ve been asking all luthiers lately is about the use of unconventional tonewoods. Many of your guitars we’ve had have been built with the classics, but are you exploring alternatives more these days?
I was way ahead of the curve because of my violin making background. I've used beautiful quartersawn European maple for acoustic instruments going back to the early ‘90s. When I started, it was just rosewoods and mahogany; you never saw a Taylor or Martin with flame maple. Now and then the other wood that I've used for decades is Claro walnut. 500 years ago, there were cellos, violas, and stuff like that made of flamed walnut; it wasn't always maple.
What would you use on your own personal perfect guitar?
Usually, I keep a guitar once a year and play it a lot, and then at some point I sell it once I'm working on the next year's guitar. This year it was a Semi Hollow that has great warm tones and distorts beautifully. I can play with my tube amps cranked way up.
Do you have music online that you've recorded and released?
No. I used to play classical guitar gigs and I played flamenco with a group of dancers. That was the most performing I did, and in university it was all jazz band stuff. When I got to New York, everything was about guitar and violin making. But nowadays, I always have a few Spanish classicals hanging on the wall, and I always keep room for one of my electrics, so after work I can go and play blues for an hour.
As always, thanks for generously sharing your time and expertise with us, Stephen! Folks who are interested in the Modern Jumbo Maple can learn more by clicking on the photo above.
Model: Modern Jumbo
Top: Swiss spruce
Back and sides: European maple
Neck: Silver maple