D'Angelico Guitars

George Gruhn
Frets Magazine, The Vintage Catalogue, April 1980
. JOHN D'ANGELICO (1905-1964) built arch-top guitars and mandolins that have come to represent one of the highest standards of excellence in instrument making. D'Angelico, bom in New York City, began his training at the age of nine in the workshop of his uncle, one Signor Ciani who was noted for his fine, traditional-style Italian mandolins and flat-top guitars. D'Angelico also studied violin making, which later influenced his arch-top guitar designs. After his uncle died, D'Angelico ran the workshop for his aunt and managed approximately 15 employees until 1932, when he set up his own shop.

D'Angelico's shop was located at 40 Kenmore Street in New York City. In 1959 the business moved--across the street. Both locations were quite small, but because there wasn't much machinery they were adequate. D'Angelico instruments were strictly hand made, in limited quantities. Dunng the late 1930s, when production was at its peak, D'Angelico was able to make approximately 35 instruments per year with the aid of two or three workers.

In late 1952, Jimmy D'Aquisto began work as an apprentice, and he was D'Angelico's only assistant from 1959 until D'Angelico's death. Production during this period was limited to approximately 15 instruments per year. Due to D'Angelico's failing health, an increasing amount of work was done by D'Aquisto under D'Angelico's guidance, until the instruments made just prior to D'Angelico's death were built almost entirely by D'Aquisto.

The earliest D'Angelico guitars were modeled after the Gibson L-5s of the time. Although they are l/2" wider than the early 16" L-5s, they feature the same body and headstock shape as the L-5 and similar parallel bracing on the top. These early instruments bear no model names; however, by 1934, D'Angeiico guitars were offered in four styles: A, B. Excel, and (the top of the line) New Yorker.

By 1937, the year in which our featured guitars were made, D'Angelico had standardized his designs such that styles A and B had parallel braces, with 17" wide bodies; the Excel had X bracing and was 17" wide; and the New Yorker had X bracing and was 18" wide. D'Angelico's 17"-wide guitars are similar in size and shape to the advanced model Gibson L-5, while the New Yorker is similar to the Gibson Super 400. During this period, Gibson was experimenting with X bracing on both the Super 400 and L-5, and it would appear that D'Angelico's inspiration for the X bracing design in an arch-top guitar may have come from that source. While D'Angelico instruments were hand made with traditional Old World techniques, they were thoroughly modem instruments, incorporating the latest features demanded by the musicians of the time. Many of D'Angelico's customers and musician friends were interested in guitar design, and they contributed to the evolution of D'Angelico's products by offering suggestions and ordering instruments with special custom features.

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. Therefore, D'Angelico guitars are found with considerable variations in such features as scale length, neck width, and body depth. Some had classical-width fretboards, while others had extremely narrow necks. Body depths likewise varied, depending on whether the customer wanted a guitar with a treble sound or a bass sound. In the late '50s and early '60s, for example, D'Angelico made many guitars primarily for recording use, and these were generally shallower than the guitars he made earlier.

This close relationship between the maker and the customer was one of the most appealing factors in ordering a D'Angelico instrument. Although such commercial makers as Gibson and Epiphone offered high-quality instruments during the 1930s and 1940s, D'Angelico was small enough to cater to the desires of each musician by offering a choice of different types of wood, sizes, and shapes of neck, and any other custom features a musician might desire. A large percentage of D'Angelico's customers were from New York City,and many came from considerable distances to place their orders. Although these custom instruments were of extraordinarily fine quality, they were sold at prices comparable to those of factory-made instruments. D'Angelico was widely recognized as a great craftsman during his lifetime. In recent years his instruments have become highly desirable collector's items, and they now command high prices.

The New Yorker and Style B D'Angelico guitars featured this month are of particular interest because they exemplify the characteristic features of these models. The New Yorker has a spruce top, curly maple back and sides, a maple neck, an ebony fretboard, and a straight-top ebony bridge. The body width is 18", the body depth is 3/4", the scale length is 25 3/4" and the neck is 1 5/8" wide at the nut. The lacquer finish is a reddish brown shading to a yellow sunburst. The tuners are Grover Imperials. The fretboard is inlaid with double splitblock inlays at the 1st, 5th, 9th, and 15th frets, triple split-block inlays at the 3rd,7th, and 12th frets, and a single block inlay, etched with initials, at the 17th fret.

The front of the fretboard is bound white/black/white, as are the sides of the fretboard. The front of the headstock is bound white/black/white/black/white/black/white. The top of the guitar is bound in the same fashion as the headstock, while the sides, back, and f-holes are bound white/black/white. The tortoiseshell plastic finger-rest is bound with multiple white and black binding; and there are two black strips, with a white strip between them, down the center of the back of the neck.

The Style B has a spruce top, curly maple back and sides, a maple neck, an ebony fretboard, and a straight-top ebony bridge. The body width is 16 7/8", the body depth is 3-1/8", the scale length is 24-7/8", and the fretboard is 1-5/8" wide at the nut. The lacquer finish is a reddish brown, shading to a yellow sunburst. The tuners are open-back Grover machines. The fretboard has simple block inlays at the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, and 15th frets.

The front of the fretboard has plain white binding, while the sides of the fretboard and the front of the headstock are bound in white/black/white. The top and back of the guitar are bound in white/black/ white/black/white/black/white. The fholes are unbound, and the tortoiseshell plastic finger-rest is bound in white/black/ white. There are two black strips, with a white strip between them, down the center of the back of the neck.

Both instruments are fine examples of the maker's craftsmanship and artistic concepts The New Yorker is a classic example of art deco design. The headstock shape of the Style B is a simplified version of the pattern used contemporaneously on the Excel, and later used on the New Yorker as well. These guitars have non-adjustable metal-reinforced necks. D'Angelico's later guitars feature adjustable truss rods of a design he developed after Gibson's patent on the concept expired [Ed Note: See "On Guitars," page 58, for more information on truss rods]. During the late 1940s, the Style A and Style B were discontinued and D'Angelico concentrated on the New Yorker and Excel models. Cutaway bodies were introduced on a custom-order basis during the late 1940s, and they soon became more popular than the original straight body style.

While D'Angelico instruments are not noted for exceptional volume or power of sound, they possess an exceptionally smooth, mellow tone; excellent sustain; and such balance that each note on the fretboard is nearly equal in volume. These features make them extraordinarily fine for studio recording and for stage use with a pickup.

D'Angelico guitars are consecutively numbered on the inside of the back, starting with number 1104 and ending with 2164. In addition to his guitars, John D'Angelico also produced very fine mandolins (which bear a different number sequence); and some unnumbered electric guitars with plywood bodies, made by another company, on which D'Angelico installed handmade necks and custom electronics. All sales, serial numbers, customer files, and other relevant information was carefully recorded in a ledger book, which is still in the possession of Jimmy D'Aquisto. Due to his long association with D'Angelico and his intimate involvement in the production of these guitars, D'Aquisto is undoubtedly the foremost authority on these instruments.