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D’Angelico guitars get an encore after 50 years

Over the course of his life, John D’Angelico made only 1,164 guitars from his storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He passed away in 1964 leaving demand high, supply low and musicians hungry for more of his work.

Now, 50 years later, with the D’Angelico name still resonating with fans, a team of guitar enthusiasts have purchased the brand and are working to sate that desire and bring the instruments to the masses.

To own a D’Angelico guitar was to own a work of art. While D’Angelico copied his first archtop guitars from the Gibson L-5 model (Orville Gibson invented the archtop design in the 1890s), he ran with the concept adding to their design and creating an enviable reputation for quality and craftsmanship. While musicians admired the guitars’ acoustic abilities, even non-players found his handmade archtop guitars objectively beautiful — all smooth wood, beguiling curves and intricate inlays. His archtop guitars were even displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, complete with videos of jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli playing a D’Angelico and photos of The Who’s Pete Townsend and Grammy winning jazz guitarist George Benson holding their D’Angelico’s with pride.

Jazz players such as Johnny Smith, Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel and country crooners like Chet Atkins all played D’Angelicos, but their appeal isn’t limited to the past: Eric Clapton and Townshend also consider themselves fans of Mr. D’Angelico’s hard work. Even Les Paul was rumored to have borrowed a D’Angelico and refuse to give it back.  But when D’Angelico died, for the most part, his craftsmanship and skill set went with him.

Working out of a showroom hidden above Manhattan’s flower district, D’Angelico is having a rebirth thanks to a team determined to revive the brand’s artistry as authentically as possible, albeit with a few updates and additions to the line to reflect the taste of the modern market.

Last year, CEO Brenden Cohen, President Steve Pisani and John Ferolito Jr. stepped forward to buy the brand for an undisclosed sum from the previous owner, John Ferolito, Sr., the founder of Arizona Iced Tea and an avid guitar collector. Ferolito Sr., had purchased the brand 17 years ago, but never really developed it. Now with his son and his team at the reins, the company is diving headlong into resuscitating the comatose brand.

“We got lucky because the D’Angelico name has been held up for so many years. We just needed the right team to re-launch it with the passion and give the brand what it deserves,” said Pisani.

To achieve as close a replica as possible, the team took a guitar hand-built by Mr. D’Angelico and sent it for an MRI and an x-ray, to boot. The combination of medical equipment and guitar building know-how let the team divine the inner construction of the guitar and craft a blueprint from which their high-end hand-built instruments are created.

When asked how close they got to recreating D’Angelico’s famed acoustics, Pisani laughed. “It sounds like playing a Stradivarius while I’m eating Entenmann’s coffee cake, which I love so much,” he said, while noting that their replica, “sounds like a Stradivarius while eating Entenmann’s doughnuts.”

High praise, indeed.

Authenticity is key for the company, especially for their USA-made higher end models, and extends from the ornate Art Deco D’Angelico headstock to a quirky representation of the New Yorker Hotel on the tailpiece. For their high-end line, the company even goes so far as to craft the guitars from the same California trees that provided the wood for D’Angelico’s instruments.

On average, four luthiers — guitar builders —  work on each high-end D’Angelico guitar before it is ready to be shipped out and into the hands of an eager aficionado. Like with most artisanal processes, making a guitar by hand is not quick. “From raw wood, it takes 18 months to two years to make a guitar,” said Pisani. “They have to wet sand it, finish it, wrap it in gauze, let it dry, add a coat of paint, let it dry. It’s a process, and you can’t rush it.”

Due to the time-intensive nature of building a guitar by hand, the D’Angelico luthiers can only produce four or five guitars a month. The company couldn’t release a single guitar for over a year after they bought the rights to the D’Angelico name and patents, which isn’t that different from the production timeline from Mr. D’Angelico’s day. “We have original letters from John D’Angelico apologizing for the delay in getting customers their guitars,” laughed Pisani.

While D’Angelico is an iconic brand, the current owners have no qualms about letting it evolve under their purview. “We offer different levels of guitars, now,” said Cohen. “The ones we make in the U.S. are the highest level of craftsmanship. The ones that we import, for the price, are amazing. A comparable guitar from another brand would be double the price.”

“We are very proud of our USA manufacturing,” said Pisani, while Cohen added, “We want to have as many manufactured in the USA as possible, but we also want to hit our price points for lower-priced lines.” Not that manufacturing origin affects the quality of what you get for the price. “We’re sticklers for quality,” noted Pisani. “For the price, the standard series of is the best guitar. Above all else, we have that in mind.

“Every guitar player who has the means wants to buy an original D’Angelico,” said Cohen. “What we try to do is give an alternative of the same quality and workmanship for someone who might not have the access or the means to buy a 1942 guitar. It’s rare for them to even come into the market.”

To wit, their USA pro series — which is made in the heart of luthier country, Kalamazoo, Mich., where Gibson invented the archtop guitar —is aimed at mid-range clients, who are interested in entering the higher-end market, but not willing to throw down $10,000 yet. (Still a bargain compared to the original D’Angelico’s, which cost around $50,000. The company had to buy its in-store model at a Sotheby’s auction.)

Cohen isn’t worried about diluting the brand by introducing the lower-priced models, which are imported from South Korea. “It gives people the chance to own the guitar that they couldn’t afford before. It’s hard for Honda to sell a $140,000 car, but if Porsche comes out with a $40,000 car, people would definitely buy it,” he said. “We want to take the legacy and branch out, with acoustic guitars, bass guitars and in the next year or two we are thinking about introducing more artists’ models, where the artist can put his twist on it.”

“D’Angelico was a genius,” added Pisani. “He’s the Stradivarius of the guitar world. He was innovative and built instruments that fit the players’ requests. Every model had its own character, when we put out a new model, we get to tap into that.”

They aren’t especially concerned about competition, either. “Guitar enthusiasts have Fenders and Rickenbackers in their collections, because every guitar sounds different and each has its own tone. Every guitar player would like a D’Angelico in their collection,” said Pisani.

Currently, though, D’Angelico enthusiasts will have to wait as currently every model is back-ordered by dealerships. When guitars come in either from the USA or South Korea, they are sent off to the 210 dealers in 21 countries around the world who do their best to keep the guitars in stock. “We would love to have a surplus of guitars, but it doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to keep up,” said Cohen. “A lot of people want the guitars.”

It’s a good problem to have.