“The Next One’s the Best One” An interview with John Monteleone

By Stuart Day

Originally Published in our “American Guitars I” Issue

The Galloup School of Lutherie is where I found myself as a student in 2006.  Two log cabins in the woods, far from the town of Big Rapids, Michigan, is where I and seven other wannabe guitar makers stayed as we studied.  There was no television, no radio, no Internet and hardly any cell service.  This meant that when we weren’t actually in the shop itself learning and working on instruments we were fairly cut off from the rest of the world.  It was in these times you could often find us reading one of the many books from the Galloup library.  Books like Making an Archtop Guitar by Bob Benedetto, or Acquired of the Angels, the great book about John D’Angelico, and Jimmy D’Aquisto by Paul Schmidt, or The History of American Guitar by Tony Bacon.  Lots of these books, like The History of American Guitar, were books filled with all sorts of guitars from all sorts of eras and places.  After reading through a number of them you began to see familiar names – names that would pop up again and again or work that you’d start to be able to identify as being by one maker. These people became, in my isolated little world as a student of lutherie in the woods of Michigan, the legends of the business.  These were the people I began to really look up to and want to be like some day.  One of those names was John Monteleone.  The flamboyant art deco, the big sweeping lines made it seem as if this guy was taking the whole New York arch top thing to its most extreme logical end.  I loved the colors, the bright oranges and yellows, the blues, and the accent pieces like the little carved area next to the neck joint on his tear drop instrument.  I just kept seeing his name and his work pop up in different places and I remember really being floored by the level of design, craftsmanship and vision.  There didn’t seem to be anyone else doing what he was doing.  As my studies at Galloup came to end, I became immersed in my apprenticeship and eventually my job with Tom Ribbecke  and my time for flipping through guitar books became more limited.  But John’s sense of style has surely remained an inspiration in my own style and was one of the early “ah-ha” moments for me as I developed in my mind the kind of luthier I would want to become.

Another characteristic of John Monteleone from the point of view of a young instrument maker was mystique.  Unlike many other luthiers I looked up to, I didn’t see much else about John or his work aside from the images and occasional blurbs.  As I grew in the business and got to know more makers John always remained in the distance.  Mysterious and unknown to me. A few of the interviews I had read always seemed to just touch the surface.  I imagined that a man with such wild vision, respect for the lineage of his craft, and such skill was a person of great depth.

During one of the last Montréal Guitar Festivals I participated in while working with  Ribbecke I finally had the chance to meet John.  He was across the room from us on the opposite end of the hall.  Up until this point in my career I had been pretty sociable with other guitar makers and with rare exceptions I felt pretty comfortable approaching them and introducing myself.  But I felt a little nervous about meeting John.  As a young archtop maker who had been reading about him for years it was intimidating.  During a slow period of the show I decided to walk across the room full of beautiful instruments on a mission to say hello to one of my heroes.  I got to his booth and just looked at the instruments he had on display.  I admired the detail work and stalled as he watched me look over the Radio City mandolin.  Its important, if you are not a luthier, to understand that at these shows every maker of note is often approached by many unknown young aspiring makers all of whom have many of the same questions and statements. As one of those young makers it can feel at times like you’re a nat buzzing around these people. In any case, before I lost my nerve I blurted out that I was Stuart Day and I worked for Tom Ribbecke and I had admired his work for a long time.  He looked at me, un-phased, and in the most calm and warm way said, “Oh, well I’m pleased to meet you” and he pulled out a chair behind the booth as an invitation to sit and play his instruments.  Over the next few minutes I asked questions about his designs and technical decisions and he answered them with no hesitation and no feeling of hidden secrets or proprietary information.  The interaction didn’t last long, but it was memorable.  I had confirmed to myself that this was a good man. Soft spoken, composed, smart, full of depth, and open to young makers.  All things which I just admire a lot in a business that can, at times, be pretty guarded and where it can be difficult to get through the persona of folks who are constantly approached by young luthiers they may never see or hear from again.

But I was still left with that mysterious feeling.  I’ve always been interested in craftsmen and women and what makes them tick. I guess being a product of the 80’s and 90’s I didn’t grow up in communities where there were cobblers and hat makers and furniture makers in neighborhood shops like previous generations.  That’s always been part of the appeal of lutherie for me. And its been one of the reasons I have so much respect for any luthier who is able to make a solid living and life for themselves in the 21st century with their craft. So it was my good fortune that, midway through last year, Guitar Connoisseur asked me if I’d like to start contributing to this wonderful publication and if, for my first piece, I’d like to interview John Monteleone.  I finally got the chance to sit down and really talk with John, find out a little bit about who he was and what drove him as a man and a maker of some of the finest instruments on the planet today.  What follows is that conversation.

Guitar Connoisseur: Your father was a sculpture and pattern maker.  How did that influence you early on and how has it continued to influence you through your career?

John Monteleone: Yeah, it was certainly an influence.  I might not have known it at the time though.  To me it seemed like a normal way of life because that’s what I grew up around. I grew up around tools and machines (…) hand tools mostly, and it was a relatively small shop, several employees.  But I worked all over the shop. Casting lamps for my uncle (…) cast thousands upon thousands of lamps of all shapes and sizes.  That was only a small part of the shop.  The main part of the shop was my father’s and that was pattern making.  We did subcontract work for Grummen aviation, Fairchild aviation (…) all the aviation companies were here on Long Island.  It was like the birth of aviation in these parts… so a lot of people you knew worked for these companies.  Right up until the lunar modular landing.  But my father did all sorts of pattern making for other manufacturers who were making things out of fiberglass or some other type of material.  So, you would walk into his shop and you’d see anything from a wing to an airplane or helicopter blade… or you might see a statue.

GC: So you were exposed to all kinds of different materials and production methods from very early on?

JM: Yea. Working with a variety of materials… tooling materials, tooling plasters, casting resins, fiberglass, all kinds of lay-up material.  And there was a lot of template making.  So you would use blueprints to generate a positive of whatever item it was. A lot of it was ducting for the interior of aircraft. I remember that.

GC: How much of that was woodworking?

JM: I would say the smaller percentage.  The woodworking part of it, my father was trained somewhat in but he wasn’t necessarily doing wood patterns.  The time of the day was a lot of fiberglass manufacturing. Like, giant snowflakes that went on the Macy’s building in New York. (…)  But when I started to get into the woodwork end of it on my own it was like, in a way using some of that knowledge, but there was a whole new knowledge that would be necessary to build instruments.  And that was different, that would be my own undertaking.

GC: Did you get into woodworking then because of an interest in instruments?

JM: I think so. I mean I was fascinated always by how instruments were made, including piano, woodwind instruments, brass instruments… all kinds of things… drums…anything that made noise… even engines.  I loved how mechanical things worked.  And I was curious enough about them to try to understand them as well as maybe repair them.

I was about 10 years old.  Our old upright piano had all these broken hammers and things and we were waiting for our new piano to arrive.  They let me have at it because the new one was going to be coming so they said, ‘do what you want’.  And I had that piano up and running 100% by the time they took it away.  So you know, I was just a curious child, always, about these things.  My interest in guitars… well it started early with an electric guitar. I wanted one and there was no way I could afford one.  So I thought you know it might be possible for me to build one.  That was my thinking at the time.

GC: So, you grew up around a family of craftsman.  Dad, grandfather, and uncle… I’m curious, and this might get into philosophy here, but what are your thoughts on craftsmanship in general vs a more automated model of production?

JM: Well I think one of those important elements is sensitivity.  Sensitivity to a number of elements of design.  So let’s say you’re looking at a painting or sculpture, or a building, an automobile, an ashtray, any kind of object, which is manufactured. You look at the sensitivity of design to see if it was there to begin with.  And balance is certainly something that is important to the success of a design.

Applying that to a guitar is a challenge.  Because the essence of the instrument you want to build upon, the foundation of the guitar itself, you know… 6 strings, having a given scale to be tuned, in its most simple, stripped down, basic form… that is what you build upon.  So what you build upon it, is challenging because you do not want to end up with things that don’t belong there.  And you can put a lot of things on there.  Let’s face it, everything on the planet has been thrown at the guitar in terms of design, to try to make it look really cool.  To that point, a lot of people tend to hear with their eyes.  So they are trying to satisfy that need… but then they are overlooking the real essence of the item – being a musical instrument or a tool to create music.  You can dress it up all different ways… but it has to always make sense and come back to what the instrument is, the essence of the object.

GC: You are very well known for your archtop guitars, but the mandolin seemed to be the catalyst of your career and has remained a passion of yours.  So how did you get into mandolins and how do they dovetail with your archtops guitars?

JM: Sure, when I was a little boy my father used to play mandolin.  So I was familiar with its sound.  But I grew up not being terribly attracted to the instrument.  As other forms of music would come through, pass through my life – classical music was certainly one important genre.  I started playing piano at 7seven years old and to this day still play.  That’s my own therapy.   But the way it worked out was by the time I met the mandolin brothers in 1973 I had wanted, and already had built, a few flat top guitars.  By 1963 or ‘64 I had gotten into folk music.  So at 13 or 14 I built a dreadnought guitar.  So by the time I met the mandolin brothers I had built a few… then suddenly I was introduced to a whole other world of fine instruments.  Fine banjos, fine mandolins, and fine guitars of all types.  So I was getting to work on these instruments in repair and into restoration.  So I spent the early years doing just that.  I started building a mandolin because I wanted one and I had some pretty nice Gibsons crossing my workbench at the time.  So around 1974 or ‘75 I started a carved top mandolin.  The market for flattop guitars at that time, which I thought I wanted to make, was just not all that hot.  What was really hot were mandolins. Lloyd Loar mandolins became the pinnacle of desire but the prices were going up faster than people could keep up with, which went in my favor because I thought “hey, I can make an F-5 style mandolin” and it’s an arched instrument too.   I’ve always loved archtop guitars but there just wasn’t a market for them at the time.  So this mandolin market was wide open… there weren’t many people making replicas of F5s. I’ve made over 200 of them by now.

Even though I was doing the mandolins, I was still making the occasional flattop guitar.  Then around 1976 or ‘77 I wanted to make an archtop guitar influenced by the D’Angelico design.  I saw my first D’Angelico when I was 12 years old… it was a blonde New Yorker cutaway and that impression stayed with me for a very long time.  So I finally started to get into them and the market was gradually getting warmer and warmer… meanwhile flattop guitars, in the middle of 80s was still not that hot.  By that time I was already quite friendly with Mario Maccafarri and was getting into the Selmer style… my interests were really varied.  I was just being exposed to so many fine instruments… and admittedly some not so fine instruments. I got into violins at one point too… just so I could understand the beast.

GC: Obviously you were dabbling in all this stuff at a pretty early age.  How old were you when you really got serious with lutherie?

JM: Well, that’s a good question.  I was aware of luthiers pretty early on.  I knew of John D’Angelico as a hand builder when I was a teenager.  But I wasn’t really aware that it was a viable profession.  I didn’t really understand it quite like I would later on.  In fact I didn’t even know the term luthier until I became one.  We were guitar makers.  That’s what we called ourselves.  The term luthier wasn’t really brought into the conversation until the Guild of American Luthiers got started around 1976 or so… 75… I’m not sure.  But that organization was quite helpful as well in encouraging people and answering tons of question for people who shared this common interest.  I was self-taught, so I was learning things at whatever rate of speed that I could go… which was quite fast, I was the kind of person who just had to know how to do something.  In those days there was not the luthier tools and plans and books and videos and all the rest of it so you had to build your own tools for the most part… or modify some existing tool, hot rod it in some way, adapt it to make it work for you.  That kind of information was shared universally and freely, which was kind of an American ideal that you didn’t see in Europe.  Europe came from another perspective, but they are catching up

GC: What was their perspective?  Just more secretive, close to the chest?

JM: Yes… yes that’s part of it.  But they also came from a more structured way of learning with the guild and apprentice system.  Where you would work your way through.  The information you gained was yours.  You earned it, you didn’t really share it.  You know, you had to get your certificate and hang it up.  Whereas in America you could sort of… create your own shingle and hang it outside and you are whatever you want to be.

GC: I’ve had conversations with some other makers in your “era” about how disconnected they felt when they were younger makers… you know, before the Internet and the big tradeshows and the like.  You spoke about how important the guild was… did you feel you had more of a connection to peers being in New York?

JM: I think I was out on my own. I certainly felt that.  The community of luthiers was really through the guild.  They started to have their symposiums and that was where you got to meet and become friends with other people who shared your interests. And you got to display your instruments… it was something quite new.  People were becoming aware of the golden period instruments as well and those served as the models to copy.  And we were all doing that.  The variety was also quite nice to see too.  I mean where else would you see someone making a harpsichord or a lute or a theorbo or a hurdygurdy or mandolin or all the guitars.  It was quite a combination of everything… a big source of information to tap into.   And they published their quarterly as well and put papers forth for people and they would have all sorts of information.

GC: One of the things I’ve always really liked about lutherie is the community of builders and more involved clients, buyers… the guitar shows.  It’s always struck me as a very supportive community of people.  Can you talk about your experience in the community?

JM: Yea, I think they are quite supportive.  As an example… we built a guitar – that is 14 archtop guitar makers- we got together and we collaboratively built this one guitar in honor of John R. Zeidler who had passed away.  He died of leukemia at a fairly young age (44).  So we got together as a community to build this guitar to be sold to raise money for the family.  It took a long time for it to happen but eventually it did sell for quite a good dollar and the plan was successful.  So that’s the kind of spirit that we have and share in our community.

GC: Wonderful.  Now, many builders take the approach where they are building… like Martin copies for example, where their focus is refinement of an already successful design.  They remind me of violin makers in that respect.  And even though you’ve done that in your career, I think it’s fair to say you’ve taken a pretty different approach.  You’ve taken a lot of risks, tried to evolve the instrument, tried new things… what drives you to be that kind of maker?

JM: Well, I think it’s good practice for people to go through the exercise of making a copy of something.  They learn what it’s about.  That’s usually what I recommend to someone who wants to learn how to build.  I tell them to go copy the best example they can find… not once but do it twice.  By the second time you will have learned from the first one.  That’s the process… a continual process, even for me today.  The next day is something new.  If I didn’t learn something every day it’d be kind of disinteresting.  And maybe that’s why I choose to look at instruments and examine them in a way of potential.  So to innovate on an idea, again, goes back to what belongs on an instrument and what doesn’t.  What fits?  You know, a trip to the patent office will show you a million things that people came up with.  They all had ideas but how many were successful?  Very little… very little.  The percentage is very small. But the pursuit or fascination with an idea can really get your juices flowing. And for me, it’s exciting to pursue an idea… such as, let’s say the side sound guitar, the side port.  A lot of other very small ideas… going back to the mandolin in terms of tail piece design, pick guard design, bridge design… and then, as far as aesthetic design itself goes as ornamentation, that’s a very exciting path to go.  It keeps you on your toes.  It’s a challenging kind of thing and I enjoy it.  Repetition, for me, is not exciting.  Some people are well cut out for that.

GC: Can you describe how you feel when you’ve poured a lot of yourself into a one of a kind instrument, then you finally get it into the hands of a capable player or client?

JM: I remember Jimmy D’Aquisto told me once “I never want to hand a guitar to a client behind my back”… I think you can understand what he meant by that.  You have to be really honest and up front with your clients.  You want to satisfy them.  If you can satisfy them you are satisfying yourself.  For me to be happy I have to know they are going to be happy with it.  There are a lot of happy and satisfying moments. For me, one of them would go back to what I call the “me” guitar.  It was a guitar I made back in 1995.  It made use of the side sound system, it was the first one that I built that way, and I built two side sound holes and one diagonal sound hole on the top… it was an archtop guitar… I called it the rocket convertible.  The ‘rocket’ had to do with the positioning of the sound hole,  rotating it as I did to accommodate the tone bar and bridge system.  I wanted to bring the tonal balance dynamically into a greater… well… balance.  So the extreme from one end to the other I wanted a very smooth transition.  I had to do something with the tone bar layout and how the bridge was responding to it.  And that was the rocket part.

{The familiar sound of an air compressor turning on in the background}  Hold on, I gotta turn this air compressor off…. The sound of industry.

So the convertible part of the guitar was like taking the top down.  When I was about 12 or 13 years old I had my first acoustic guitar.  And I’d play the thing and I’d put my ear right on the side of the guitar and heard a sound that I wasn’t hearing normally… and I thought that was the sound I really  wanted to hear.  How can I get the sound to come right at me, right out of the side of the guitar like that?  It was a pretty untraditional idea.  It didn’t fit in with the expectation of guitar players.  They didn’t want to see a guitar with a hole in the side… it just looked weird.  So, this experiment… it took a long time for me to actually get to do it.  Even though I had drawings from early on, I didn’t get to do it until 1995.  I made all the sound holes close-able and open-able independently because I wanted to know what these holes would do.  I had a pretty good idea but until I made the thing I wasn’t going to know. Again, my focus was to make it the “me” guitar, so the guitar player was really the benefactor of this sound.  When a guitar player walks into a store to buy an instrument, they are buying it for themselves first.  If it does something beyond that like entertain an audience in the conventional way, that’s gravy.  So I said ok, maybe, let’s just see about this other idea first.  And I learned from doing this guitar that it was successful.  Like a no brainer really, you open this up and it was like a monitor came straight at you and it didn’t really change or alter the normal behavior of the instrument as well.  So everything worked.  So that was certainly one of my great ah-hah moments.

That guitar, by the way, ended up becoming the blue guitar in the Chinery collection [Scott Chinery’s blue guitar collection].  Originally I was contracted to build a blue radio city.  But this other guitar [the me guitar] I was building I had on my workbench, purely as an experimental piece, (…) it turned out so good I told Chinery about it who coincidently was telling me that every time he played an archtop guitar he had to lean over to hear it because it projected so far out front.  I said “well… as a matter of fact (laughs) blah blah blah. I got one on my workbench and I think you might like it” so that’s how that all got started, we switched guitars.

GC: Since you bring the blue guitar collection up, could you talk about Scott [Chinery] and the impact he had?

JM: Without a doubt he had quite an influence on the activity of collecting.  He was an avid collector and he was very vocal and very public about his appetite for collecting fine, vintage instruments.  It was only a little later on, when he had already built up a collection, when he started noticing the independent builders and started to look at them because of the quality of workmanship that he was beginning to see.  He certainly, since he was already buying D’Angelicos to a high degree, naturally got into D’Aquistos’ guitars and Jimmy was making a few for him.  But after a while Scott became ill and other things began to happen. But before that time, in the height of Chinery’s collecting, the vintage market was going bananas, it was really in a wonderful state (…) the guitar shows, especially the Long Island vintage show we had here was instrumental – not to make a pun – but it was important! Certainly, for the archtop guitar world, because it was tied together with a pretty good jazz program.

The blue guitar project came along after Jimmy passed away.  There were not an awful lot of full-time archtop guitar makers.  Linda was making some, Ribbecke of course, Benedetto…. I remember Scott asking me if I knew of more because he had only come up with about half a dozen that he could think of… then suddenly there was 22 or so.  The money was good; it attracted people into that business.

GC:You’ve talked before about how instruments should evolve as musicians evolve. The F-5 was an example of that in your career.  But you just mentioned about how the side sound hole was something that was not conventional, that players were resistant to something like that.  How do you negotiate between what you, as an instrument maker know is a good idea or at least something worth chasing, and the resistance to new ideas on the buying end.

JM: Well I think one of the enjoyable aspects of making an instrument specifically for someone -a good musician- is putting it in their hands and watching them explore it.  It begins to tell you something… like the musician is looking for something, perhaps new and fresh… something in the instrument that he might not have been able to experience.  So what that brings me to is trying to make an instrument first of all that’s as good of a musical tool as it can be.  If you are successful in capturing that you will be offering an instrument that will go beyond your lifetime.  We see instruments get passed down from generation to generation… well that’s what we hope to do.  Not only satisfy the current generation, but something that will transcend it and go beyond that.  Does that answer your question?

GC: Well yea, but if you could expand on that… what I’m curious about is if you think luthiers, as the “experts”… do luthiers have a responsibility, in a sense, to innovate instruments… or, if the market or client base is not open to a new idea is that the last word?

JM:  Ohh no! No! Most of the time… who comes first, the chicken or the egg?  The instrument or the music?  Well it kind of works both ways.  I think the music comes out of the possibilities of whatever instrument becomes the vehicle.  So the instrument can come first and then become recognized for whatever capacity it has.  Bill Monroe would be an example of that with the F5.  The instrument was there before he brought it into bluegrass. (…) if we look at fingerstyle for a moment, we are looking at the guitar being a more intimate instrument.

See, the way it’s [the guitar] been used has changed.  Since the 70’s, back in those days the club scene was more active, recording studios were abundant and doing a lot of work.  So the professional musician was a very different kind of musician of the day.  My clientele… I have a lot of people who maybe started out as musicians like that, but maybe identified early on that that might not be the future, a way to raise a family and all the rest of that.  So they got back into education or other professions… always having a passion for the instrument, then later on being able to afford a nice instrument.  Musicians couldn’t afford to keep their own instruments.  I remember people would bring their D’Angelicos by my shop to sell because they needed the money.  That’s why a lot of them went to the guitar shows… they’d bring their Gibsons or D’Aangelicos to trade… and they’d buy a Yamaha or Takamini or whatever cheap instrument that they didn’t have to worry about anymore, didn’t have to insure it… if it got stolen… OK it was cheap enough.  So nowadays we are in a different perspective.  So it’s always evolving. An organic process.

And music itself, the way we make music, and get music is quite different.  So the way people make and sell their instruments has to evolve and come from a perspective that can accommodate the change in music.

GC: Speaking of all the changes in music and instrument making, given the experience you’ve had, when you look at the future in lutherie in general, but specifically archtop guitars, what do you see down the road, particularly for luthiers approaching it as a career?

JM: I think… well that’s a hard one to answer.  A lot of archtop makers make other instruments as well.  So they can float their profession accordingly and adapt.  The manufacturers are certainly good at following trends.  It goes back to making Hawaiian instruments because of the big Hawaiian craze.  Then big band jazz and in the 50s more of the combo type of jazz with more soloing… so as the music grows, so grows the luthier.  The archtop guitar… I think… I’ve always tried to take the archtop beyond jazz.  Because just to throw it in a box and call is a jazz box is unfair to the instrument.  It always was.  Early on I had musicians who came by my shop who were looking at the archtop guitar, with these early Gibson L-5s and early D’Angelicos and so forth, and they were playing fingerstyle… trying to play Chet Atkins and a variety of things beyond the standard jazz repertoire.  That idea really interested me and I thought, yes, the archtop guitar is really capable of a lot more than it’s been given.  But has it been discovered as such?  Well… not really.  That’s why I tried to look at that guitar in a more conventional way that would relate to the sensitivity of a finger style player, a more acoustic type of player.  I always looked at it acoustically first and you can put a pickup on it later on.  But in the 50s people tended to start to look at it more from the other way… always with a pickup.  And the acoustic part of it was not really foremost on their mind.  But these days, it is.  So that has changed.  To make itself attractive to musicians I think, making the archtop guitar in its most sensitive form acoustically, will always be appealing to some musicians.  To approach it whatever way they find interesting and creative… but I think it will be there.  It should be there just as the piano is there, the drums are there… all these other instruments we know iconically… so will the archtop.

GC: I’ve always felt the archtop has gotten a bad rap.  Because many people do feel it is this very limited instrument.  But you aren’t the first well-known archtop maker I’ve spoken with who has said that’s wrong.  Where did that notion that it’s so limited come from?

JM: Well, a couple places.  Archtops guitars commonly… the way they are built, vintage ones in particular, tend to be thin at the top and steely and not necessarily thoroughly broad in their tonal balance.  Archtops are very, very good at isolating the notes within a chord quite well.  A flattop guitar on the other hand would take those notes and kind of like… drag them, scumble them as a painter would say.  They drag the colors across each other.  So the tones have another kind of richness.  Well, I wanted to take that kind of richness and introduce it into the archtop guitar.  So for me, my focus is to try to take it into a richer environment acoustically.  One that is very sensitive to the touch, to the fingers.  But you don’t want it to be over driven with a flat pick.  But the sensitivity of it dynamically and the balance was always really important to me.  I wanted to take the thinness, the brittleness in the treble tones out of it and make them more round more complete.  Fatter.  Thicker. Whereas at the lower end I’m trying to make it as broad and open as like, a dreadnought let’s say.  Good sustain.  Those kinds of things are some of the things that you don’t really find on a good number of archtops, which has contributed to the misconception

GC: One of the things that’s really intrigued me about what you’ve done is … like the four seasons project was a huge undertaking, but that was not the only collection of guitars you’ve built.  You also built a collection for the modern mandolin quartet.  So, I feel building collections of instruments like that is something bowed instrument makers did a lot of back in Europe, but it’s not something you see a lot of contemporary guitar makers do.  I just think it’s a very cool concept and I was wondering what that experience is like.

JM: Right… well the modern mandolin quartet started first.  I had heard them play and they were all interested in getting a better balance in their sound.  So it began with conversations like that.  Then I began to look at each of the members and how they play.  It’s different than a violin quartet.  In a violin quartet… these people are schooled and trained in another sort of way.  In the mandolin quartet that kind of training is not really there.  The desire and ability is there.  But they all approach the instruments with a different kind of sensitivity, a different hand, and a different touch.  They each bring a different power into the instrument.  The instruments themselves were also not really well balanced as a set.  So those kinds of ideas were interesting to me.  A challenge if you will – would it be possible to build a quartet of instruments that would bring this group into a better balance, through the way the instruments are made in order to be suitable for each individual.  And I enjoyed it.

Later on, the [four] seasons began in another way.  I was hearing I think what I wanted to hear four archtop guitars do before I actually got to begin making them. When I actually got the go ahead it began with winter.  As soon as I started the winter guitar… I had already by that time laid away sets of wood that, if I made a quartet for the seasons, I think I would use for each one of those seasons.  So the ideas were coming together quite speedily.  And so I said OK, let’s just get into this.  I started the first one, winter, and I knew I was committed at that point to make the other three.  But these were being built in spare time and I knew it would take a while for each one.  So I figured well, maybe a couple of years a piece, a year or two whatever. It was always a background project.  But it began to really pick up speed after the first one was made.  At that point I knew I had to have music composed for them.  And that was another idea that came along.

GC:There is a DVD or some kind of recording, is that right?  From the Metropolitan?

JM: Yes, I commissioned Anthony Wilson [www.anthonywilsonmusic.com] to compose a serious piece for each guitar. And it was premiered and recorded live at the Metropolitan Museum.  It was beyond belief. It was very cool.  Doing projects like that are extremely rewarding.  And there are more, other projects that had their own challenges.

GC: Amazing.  Well, John, that’s about it for time.  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JM: Well… I think we’ve covered some good things… One of the things that occurs to me while building these instruments is that you’re building instruments for the future.  Not only now.  That’s nice.  I have a great respect for the person who comes into your workshop and plunks down the cash on your workbench and initiates that guitar or that… whatever it is.  That instrument.  They helped put that into process, to get it going.  So I’ve always had a respect, certainly for the working musician to put down their hard earned cash and get the ball rolling on whatever instrument that was.  And that happens with just about every instrument maker.  So now they go on beyond one generation and to the next and to the next and to the next.  So it goes to what I was saying about making the finest instrument that you possibly can. My motto has always been “my next ones my best one”.  That propels me forward.  It makes me sharper. Keeps me on my toes.  It’s a personal challenge.  So you’re building something that hopefully will be good enough to inspire other musicians to come down the road for generations to come.  We’ve experienced that with fine violins… the guitar is not that old it doesn’t have that kind of history yet.  But it’s getting there.  And with archtop guitars too, it can be that kind of thing to be discovered and rediscovered from time to time as musical trends fall in and out. People are looking for something a little different, fresh, something to add to their music in another way, they begin to explore other options and they will bump into the archtop guitar as they did with the flattop guitar.


After getting off the phone with John I put my phone and my note pad down and just sat in my car (did I mention this whole interview happened while I was parked in my car in a gas stations parking lot on the way to a friends wedding?) and I thought how lucky I have been to be able to be part of the same community of folks who had helped build the archtop for Ziedler’s family, the same group of folks who can count amongst them the likes of John Monteleone – a true craftsman.   A man surrounded by a fast paced, digital, competitive world who, with steadfast focus, patiently built a life and career for himself with his own two hands that is truly noteworthy. From fixing up his families old broken down piano to building some of the worlds most sought after and respected stringed instruments.  He has built more than instruments that will last for generations to come, he’s built a legacy that will last as well

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