D'Aquisto 7- and 12-String Masterpieces

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Rare Bird, 4/83
MOST OF MY PREVIOUS columns have focused on historically interesting instruments that are no longer in production. Certainly the D'Aquisto guitars pictured here are rare specimens of exceptionally fine quality--however, James D'Aquisto [Box 259. Greenport NY 11944] is very much alive and still in business producing custom instruments. Ordinarily I would not consider any instrument that can still be ordered new to be a collector's item but D'Aquisto (profiled in the Sept. 78 issue of Guitar Player) presents an exception to this rule.

D'Aquisto's work with guitars began in 1953, when he apprenticed to master builder John D'Angelico in New York. For some years prior to his death in l964, D'Angelico suffered from ill health. During this period D'Aquisto did much of the heavy work involved in guitar construction while D'Angelico did the final graduation of tops and backs, fitting of necks and final finishing.

D'Aquisto first began to produce guitars undel his own name eight or nine months after D'Angelico's death. According to D'Aquisto the first ten or so guitars he built had almost exactly the same appearance as D'Angelico's including the distinctive D'Angelico peghead shape, f-holes, and art deco-pattern pickguard and tailpiece. In 1966 or '67, D'Aquisto began using his own experimental concepts: the step-pattern metal tailpiece was replaced with an S-pattern one, small pickguards were introduced, the f-holes were redesigned, the carving pattern was changed, and the body shape on the 17" model was slightly altered. Til 1971 the adjustable ebony tailpiece so typical of D'Aquisto instruments had been incorporated. These tailpieces adjust up and down in order to vary string tension on the bridge. While string length is not adjustable, each tailpiece is custom-made to produce the maximum tonal output from the instrument to which it is matched. With the exception of the tuning gears, all components used on D'Aquisto guitars are designed expressly and uniquely for that particular instrument.

D'Aquisto claims that the archtop design is superior to other acoustic guitar designs. In his opinion, a properly constructed arch-top guitar could be equally appropriate for classical, jazz, country or any other form of music. The arch-top design permits both great dynamic range and a broad palette of tonal color. Rather than trying to build guitars of traditional design, D'Aquisto claims he is attempting to reinvent the guitar as a modern instrument capable of outperforming currently available ones. He claims to have many new ideas yet untried but that he must move gradually, since the mentality of the market will not accept too manv radical chaliges at once. Certainly his instruments have shown revolutionary changes over the years so we may look forward to future innovations from D'Aquisto.

The 7- and 12-string guitars shown here were both made in 1973--these are very unusual instruments--Jimmy says he has only made half a dozen 7-string guitars and only one other 12-string (the other 12-string has an f-hole top and a 17" wide body, 1" wider than this one) in spite of their many unusual features, these two guitars arc excellent examples of the maker's work and are typical of his innovative approach to guitar construction.

The 7-string, Van Eps-style guitar features an 18" wide body, typical D'Aquisto modernistic f-holes and the standard D'Aquisto ebony tailpiece. The absence of pearl inlay and other ornamentation is not a cost-saving measure--in the maker's opinion, inlays and any other artificial materials added to an instrument detract from its tone. The sunburst finish is a light chocolate-brown color. This instrument is an acoustic guitar--the removable DeArmond pickup is a later addition, though D'Aquisto has built many guitars with floating pickups. Essentially this guitar is very much like the typical 18" wide D'Aquisto jazz models with the exception of the wider 7-string neck.

The 12-string too, is a most unusual piece. Jimmy has built only one other guitar in this body shape. The arched oval-hole top is finished in clear lacquer while the back, sides and neck are finished in a chocolate brown color. While most D'Aquisto instruments have solid headstocks and 14 frets clear of the body, this guitar has a slot-head neck with 19 frets clear of the body. The 16" wide body is smaller than most D'Aquistos, giving a treble sound especially well suited to a 12-string. While this instrument sounds quite different from other 12-strings I have played, the tonal quality is excellent--its handling characteristics, too, are superb.

Since each D'Aquisto guitar is individually handmade, the total output has been very low. Jimmy states that he worked on only six guitars in 1982, although his pace over the last five or six years has been 10 to 15 instruments per year. Prior to that period, he says he produced eight or nine guitars per year, but was taking in some repair work as well--particularly on D'Angelico instruments.

Today, D'Aquisto builds only custom-order guitars, with specifications tailored to suit the needs of the purchaser. He says he particularly enjoys working on new designs, although he will not accept an order unless he believes that the design has genuine merit. These instruments are expensive, but their quality places them among an elite group of the finest fretted instruments ever made.