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.