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Blue Guitar
Part III -- Jimmy D'Aquisto
p. 23-25
by Ken Vose

   Archtops, Flattops, Strats and Penguins: Collecting America's Musical Heritage



n 1952, seventeen-year-old James L. D'Aquisto, already an accomplished jazz guitarist, apprenticed himself to legendary archtop builder John D'Angelico. Jimmy soon graduated from seeping up the shop and running errands to working on the guitars themselves. As D'Aquisto's skills increased, D'Angelico, a lifelong bachelor, began to see him as the son he'd never had. Slowly this great archtop guitar maker's secrets were passed to the next generation. In 1960, D'Angelico suffered what would be the first of a series of heart attacks that would eventually claim his life. Over the next four years, D'Aquisto became the older man's hands, completing guitar after guitar under D'Angelico's watchful eye. John D'Angelico died at age fifty-nine on September 1, 1964, leaving behind a legacy of beautifully made archtop guitars. One of them, the 1957 Teardrop New Yorker, is generally considered to be the most valuable guitar in the world.

   For Jimmy D'Aquisto, who had been working with D'Angelico for twelve years, his mentor's death resulted in unanticipated legal problems and an eventual change in direction. The D'Angelico name became the property of the D'Angelico String Company, and after a short stint making guitars under the D'Angelico name, D'Aquisto set out on his own.

   After his own untimely death (like D'Angelico, at age fifty-nine) D'Aquisto was acknowledged as the premiere archtop maker of our time. He also made a small number of flat-tops and mandolins, and he designed guitars for Fender and for Hagstrom, a Swedish manufacturer.

   While Jimmy had no single apprentice to whom he passed on his remarkable skills, he did occasionally allow other makers who met his high standards to work with him in his Long Island studio. One of them, Canadian luthier Linda Manzer, recalls the experience.

   "I was surprised and delighted to receive an unexpected phone call from D'Aquisto in 1982 inviting me to visit his workshop. He was a living legend I had only read about in books.

   "He loved talking to other guitar makers about the archtop guitar, because he truly believed that it was the most versatile of all guitars and could do anything a player could want, if it was adjusted properly. he invited me to learn to build archtops with him during the winter of 1983-84.

   "Working with him was an exhausting but magical experience. Although he was a man who loved lively discussion -- very lively at times -- sometimes he said more with his silence. I would watch him as he'd feel the weight and texture of each piece of wood before he would even tap it. After he felt acquainted with the wood, he'd silently make a decision about how it would interact with the other woods. Then the work began. As he carved the tops and backs, he would work the wood with confidence. One always had the feeling he knew exactly where he was going with each guitar. He had what can only be described as a 'special touch' for the wood. he seemed to sense the characteristics of each piece, deciding how it could best be used in his guitar.

   "He said that he felt very restricted in his early years by traditional archtop design, that he felt he didn't have any room to experiment. He said to me, 'You are so lucky. You can do anything you want; everyone expects me to build what I always build.' But his mind was filled with ideas and designs. In his last years he finally had the chance to do the experimentation he had always wanted to do. With such incredible guitars as the Classic, the Solo, the Centura, and the Avant Garde, and finally his peek into the future with the Advance, one had the feeling he was just getting started. We will never know what else would have been created from his hands and heart. However, he has left us a wonderful legacy and a truly inspired path to follow.End

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