In this In Focus feature, we’re homing in on the master luthier Stephen Marchione and his selection of handcrafted acoustic, electric, semi-hollow, and archtop guitars made in Texas. Joel Bauman talks to Stephen about the journey from high-school jazz devotee to one of the finest guitar makers working today...
In Focus: Stephen Marchione
Let’s just start right from the beginning, Stephen. Tell us about your journey into guitars and, subsequently, guitar making.
Well for me, the beginning of everything was living in Italy with my parents and going to school in the town of Bergamo, which is between Milano and Cremona. In the town square, there was a luthier who made violins and classical guitars and I used to stop and check out his shop. I was seven, maybe eight at the time, and I became absolutely fascinated that this was this guy's job, that every day he was in there working on instruments.
To me, it looked like he was just playing. I don't know. I was one of those kids who was always building stuff out of scraps of wood and making bows and arrows and walking sticks. So I was very much interested in what he was doing. And that pushed me into the guitar because my family had one of his guitars—another friend had bought one and gave it to us. And that was my first guitar: a handmade, classical guitar from northern Italy.
And it grows on you. Then you start hearing different types of music and you're like, ‘Oh, electric guitar.’ I was born in '66, so early musical things that I loved were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who. My dad also loved flamenco guitar so I listened to a lot of that with him.
And I had both interests very early on as somebody who loved woodworking or was fascinated with it, but also loved playing the guitar. Growing up in Texas, I had a lot of friends whose dads had workshops, so they had power tools and table saws and bandsaws. And I started making things, which led to tearing apart electric guitars in my teens and putting them back together—swapping necks on bolt-ons and the like. You can learn a lot doing that. And by then I was studying music seriously.
You studied theory and performance?
Yeah. I do have a music degree. I played jazz ensemble at the University of Houston for a couple years and then I finished my degree at Naropa University in Colorado with a major in jazz performance. One of my guitar teachers was this kind of famous old jazz guy in Denver. His name was Dale Bruning. And he was, I believe, Bill Frisell’s teacher when he was a teenager too.
Oh, wow. That’s quite the intro…
And when I moved to New York city to practice and play music, originally, I realized I was going to have to get another kind of job to make ends meet. Typical ‘young guy moving to Manhattan’ situation. And I was talking to Dale on the phone and he said, ‘Man, with your background and the woodworking you learned in Texas and your love of instrument making, go find a job as a guitar maker.’ And I thought, ‘Ah, that's a good idea.’ So, I went to 48th Street to ESP Guitars because they had been looking for somebody. And one of my old friends was the manager there, another Italian-American guy. There were a lot of Italian Americans in the business then, which was a big plus for me because I spoke Italian. And he said, ‘You're not the right fit for us because it's mostly repair.’ But he said, ‘Rudy Pensa across the street, he needs somebody because John Suhr is going to leave and start an amp company or join an amp company.’
Rudy hired me instantly. He was really into the D'Angelicos and D'Aquistos and when he realized that I was also into that stuff, he started buying more of them so I could do clean-up and light restoration work. I was still learning, but if you spend a couple of days cleaning up a D'Angelico and polishing and dressing the frets, you can do a lot with it. So that was a huge learning experience for me.
I was doing a lot of woodworking. So for the Pensa-Suhr guitars, I did all of the body shaping and carving of those guitar bodies. Their kind of famous MK1, which was Mark Knopfler's guitar, I still make that model like one or two a year.
Around '92 was when I realized I needed to expand, so I went to a conference and met a bunch of violin makers, including two from New York City, Guy Rabut and Charles Rufino. Those two guys are still my best friends. So we're talking 30 years later. I talk to them both weekly. But I became an apprentice of them. Now, I never went and worked full-time in their shops, but I would go for a day or two and work with them when they needed help. Or if I had a difficult problem or job, I would also go to them and do the actual procedures in their workshop.
Being able to go somewhere where you've learned the correct archival techniques for doing stuff like that, that carries over into all of your building. So right around that period, once I started getting the violin making techniques together and having made guitars at this point for five, six years, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm going to do my own archtop guitar.’
Jimmy [D’Aquisto] had just died and I wanted to kind of continue with what he was doing. That was my original idea, which was to take the Italian-American archtop, the D'Angelico, and then what Jimmy had done, and continue to work on it as an acoustic instrument and something where the wood really spoke for itself. It's not about decorating the guitar. It's about using the best materials you can and making it sound, feel, play—all the ergonomics, all the shaping, make that as perfect as possible. So I had some D'Angelico blueprints that were available and I based my first archtops off a 17-inch model.
I just started drawing it out myself, but with the things I wanted to change, like the f holes. Initially I used the D'Angelico f-holes. But doing the actual drawings allows you to start envisioning the whole instrument. From there I made templates and then I started prepping wood for this process. The planning from the first archtops to when the first two or three were done was over two years. It was a lengthy process.
Tell me a little bit about the ‘59 Burst. Of your electrics that I’ve spent time with, that guitar really blew me away.
So it's a semi-hollow body. And we all have our albums where we've loved our 335s, like In a Silent Way with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, and all that Larry Carlton stuff. But what I never liked was when I'd work on an old 335, a lot of them were very ‘fuddy’ and plywood sounding. So my design process on that guitar was, okay, I have a neck I like that's the right size from the 15 inch archtop, which that was designed about 20 years ago. And I thought that the outline of the body, it's 15 inches, similar to a 335. I thought, ‘Well, why don't I take that, and then design the inside and the rest of the guitar around this idea of how you make something that's like a 335 out of solid wood that sounds and feels better.’
So over 20 years, that guitar has changed dramatically. I mean, what I'm making now is actually quite different than the early ones. I'm never unhappy with my older models, but I always feel like as I learn more, I can improve. In my process, I'm always changing them to improve them.
It's pretty amazing how ‘big’ the 59 ‘Burst sounds. It sounds like there's more air moving around than there actually is. It's more comfortable than a 335, but it sounds big and warm with a lot more complexity tonally.
You have solid woods resonating. I think another thing that's important is I start from scratch and then do everything in my studio. We buy raw lumber. We re-saw it here. And then it goes into wood storage in the downstairs where the wood cutting's done. There's a huge open area in the ceiling. It's a giant wood loft. And that is just stacked full of wood that's pre-cut. So if I get a big piece of mahogany or a big piece of maple—and I'm talking about buying 10 quarter maple that's 12 inches wide and they're 14 foot boards—I'll take that board and I'll say like, ‘Okay, this area, the grain is dead straight. It's perfectly quartered. I'm going to make necks out of it or I'm going to take a couple of acoustic guitar backs and sides from it. This part is super beautiful and flamey. It's not perfectly quartered, but boy, would that make a nice top on a ‘Burst.’
There's a couple of things happening there. One is the wood selection and cutting is I get to do it myself and put that wood where it should go, in my opinion. The second thing is, they're cut down to size, the end grain sealed, and then they're stored in the same environment that you're going to mill it. So my goal is to pre-buy years in advance. Then, once that piece is aged in your shop and you go to start milling it, it's stable. You haven't just bought a set of wood from somewhere where you don't know what's gone on. I mean, was that on a tree six months ago? It might've been literally a standing tree. I'm confident whether it's air-dried or kiln-dried that it's ready to use. And that's very important in the longevity of the instrument, because if wood starts moving a lot after it's made, you've got big problems.
How long do you typically store the wood and keep it in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment before it gets used?
A minimum of a couple of years. But some things I'm real picky about. I've always bought a lot of African Ebony and the fingerboards I'm using now are about 10 years old, and I have thousands of them because that's also wood that may be hard to get later. When I buy it, I buy 500 or 1000 at a time, but it gets stacked to the back. So what I'm using now is coming from the early 2000s. So then, of course, we're making all the parts here. I have two luthiers who work with me. And between both of them it's been 20 years.
Then the instruments are made here and then they're set aside before the fret work's done or the bridges go on. I like to take a finished guitar in the white and hang it up on the wall and let it sit there two or three months before I do a final planing of the fingerboard at string tension, or before I do a final scraping of the top to put the bridge on, because I want to minimize any movement or distortion.
And it goes without saying, the entire guitar is made with hot hide glue. That's just a requirement. I make my electric guitars with the same precision and archival process that I make a violin, Spanish guitar, or big archtop. I'm doing the lacquer here as well, so I don't have to sub anything out to anybody. I can make sure it's right. I don't want to have finish problems later. I want things to be right. When they leave the studio, I'm at peace about it.
So you are highly involved with every instrument that comes out of the shop then?
More than people would imagine. It’s basically three guys making between 45 and 50 instruments a year and that's it. I'm not interested in making more than that. If I did, I'd become a shop manager, not an instrument maker. The way it is now, I get to work a lot on every guitar and I want to keep it that way.
I'm always trying to work on tonality, the engineering of the guitar, which is what the player feels, right? Like what are the neck angles, headstock angles, fretboard surface, bridge height, how is that affecting your right and left hand? It's all important. But you would only know that if you could play too. And a lot of instrument makers don't really play their instruments and are limited to just the feedback they get from their customers.
I also had great customer feedback because working in Manhattan for a lot of pro musicians, I had the famous ones. I made guitars for like Mark Knopfler, Vernon Reid, John Abercrombie, lots of guys, but the studio and Broadway players, they would come see me all the time because they lived in Lower Manhattan where I lived and had my studio.
And they were the most obsessed. Even though it was a lot of work, that information exchange paid huge dividends over time, to get things right. Because really at the end of the day, if you're buying an expensive guitar, everything should work right. The guitar should look beautiful and stay that way. It should last a long time. I want people to see my guitars in 100 years, in 200 years, whatever's left of them, and say, ‘Wow, that was a great period. Marchione was making beautiful stuff 100 years ago.’ My goal is the longevity of the design.