John D’Angelico (1905-1965) and James D’Acquisto (1935-1995) were two of America’s greatest guitar craftsmen. Their work - done separately and together - has created some of the most sought-after instruments produced during the 20th Century.
John D’Angelico is regarded as perhaps the finest archtop guitar builder that ever lived, and his instruments have come to represent the highest standards of excellence in instrument making. D’Angelico was born in Little Italy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to immigrant parents from Naples. His uncle was a well-known New York luthier, and as a young boy D’Angelico began working in his shop. Upon his uncle’s death in 1923, the eighteen-year-old D’Angelico took over the operation, but by 1932 he had set out on his own, building archtop guitars patterned on those made by the Gibson company. He soon became known for his high-quality instruments, and as the reputation of D’Angelico-built guitars spread, his small New York workshop was soon attracting musicians from all over the United States and the world.
D’Angelico instruments were strictly hand made, in limited quantities, yet their prices were generally comparable to factory made models from larger guitar manufacturers. Although D’Angelico’s guitars were made to regular specifications and standard catalog descriptions, they were often built to suit the specific requirements of the customers who ordered them, and this close relationship between the maker
and the customer was one of the most appealing factors in ordering a D’Angelico instrument. While the larger commercial makers also offered high-quality guitars, D’Angelico was small enough to cater to a musician’s individual needs by offering a choice of different types of wood, sizes, and shapes of neck, and other custom features.
James D’Aquisto was born in Brooklyn and was a skilled young musician who studied and played guitar and bass. On a visit to D’Angelico’s workshop he was immediately entranced by the idea of instrument building and in 1952, at the age of seventeen, he was offered a job as a shop boy. D’Aquisto spent the next twelve years learning every aspect of guitar making from the master, D’Angelico, and for the last five years of D’Angelico’s life, D’Aquisto was the only other worker in the shop. As D’Angelico’s health began to fail, D’Acquisto gradually took over more of the production duties, and the instruments made just prior to D’Angelico’s death were built almost entirely by D’Aquisto. Upon the passing of his mentor in 1964, D’Acquisto purchased the D’Angelico guitar shop, and was immediately recognized as a worthy successor. With his own masterful skills, D’Aquisto became known as the world’s greatest guitar maker from the 1960s until he passed away in 1995. Initially he continued to build high-quality instruments in the same traditional style as D’Angelico, but later brought his own ideas to instrument construction, culminating with his modern-style guitars introduced in the second half of the 1980s.
Musicians of later generations continue to desire D’Angelico and D’Acquisto guitars for their tonal quality and exquisite workmanship. Today these superb handcrafted instruments are also regularly included in museum and gallery shows as representative of high art and design. In February 2011, a major exhibition on the art of guitar making opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, centering largely on the work of D’Angelico and D’Acquisto. Guitars from both makers - and D’Acquisto’s tools and work bench, passed down to him from D’Angelico -have also been displayed the National Music Museum.
The Metropolitan Museum presently has an exhibit Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York focusing on the history and work of these two guitar makers, through 4 July 2011.