Truly creative personalities always make the most of the matter at hand. And in the case of Bob Benedetto, that’s no homily. It was almost literally his bread and butter. “I was 21 and I had just come home from the Army,” recalls the Bronx native, known today as the designer of the world’s most coveted archtop guitars—instruments that have sold for as much as $40,000. “And I made my first guitar.”
It was 1968, and Benedetto, a lifelong musician who first began carving miniature instruments when he was 10 years old, had vastly more desire and skill than he did raw materials. He couldn’t afford to buy the appropriate “tonewoods,” specific types of woods like European flamed maple or an Indonesian ebony that have ideal acoustic properties. At the time, even the word “tonewoods” would have been foreign to him.
“So I cut up the family’s kitchen table,” he says, recalling a historic day in the Benedetto’s New Jersey household. “And when I ran out of that wood, I carved up my sister’s bed. It really worked out well. She was in the convent.”
Cue rim shot. In most families, this might not have been such a good-humored occasion. But for Benedetto it was part of a long tradition. Decades before he founded Benedetto Guitars (Savannah-based since 2006), the luthier was steeped in a family culture that values the handcrafted over the mass-produced—and the organic beauty of acoustic instruments made from natural sources—including an array of uncles who were musicians, artists and cabinet-makers. Benedetto’s Italian roots, which stretch back to Sicily and the southern region of Basilicata, also connected him to centuries of Italian instrument makers. So it’s in his blood. “As a kid, when I decided I wanted to make guitars for a living, nobody scoffed at me,” he recalls. “Instead, my father showed me how to make a proper joint.”
Fans in high places
These days, Benedetto has his own legacy. His work is championed by masterful contemporary jazz artists like Pat Martino and an elite circle of traditional jazz greats, guys like Howard Alden, Joe Diorio, and Bucky Pizzarelli—a former bandmate of Benny Goodman and Stephane Grappelli, who became the first major name associated with the Benedetto guitar in the 1970s.
“I was playing an old Gretsch and it was falling apart,” Pizzarelli says. He was engaged for a three-week run at a Walt Disney World venue when he first got to know Benedetto, who offered to make him a new guitar. “A month later, a guitar arrives. A seven-string … beautiful. Now it’s in the Smithsonian.” Pizzarelli has several models in his collection, including one made of plywood constructed to hold up amid the rigors of the road. He amplifies his guitar for live performances, but those Benedettos just get sweeter with age. “The longer you keep your guitar, the more acoustic sounding it gets.”
The particular sound created by Benedetto models like The Manhattan ($24,500) and The Bambino Elite
($18,500), echoes back to the emergence of the instrument in the dance halls and studios of the 1930s and ’40s. “With the advent of the big band, jazz became mainstream culturally,” explains Howard Paul, a weekend guitarist who went from being a fan and patron of Benedetto to helping him set up and run his current Georgia-based business, a bold but satisfying move after leaving his executive post with Chatham Steel four years ago.
As the banjos and tubas of the early street bands gave way to guitars and double-basses, it was necessary for players to have instruments that could project sound in rowdy nightclubs and concert halls. Thus, the archtop was born, invented in 1922 by Lloyd Loar, an engineer for the Gibson Guitar Corporation. The contoured design allowed the top of the guitar to vibrate. “It was like a violin,” Paul says. “The harder you played it, the more it projected.”
The rock-era nadir
The archtop went through an evolution over the decades, but by the time Benedetto began hitting his stride in the mid-to-late 1970s, most of the great makers—like John D’Angelico—were long gone. Demand for the instruments had fallen off, thanks to the rise of rock music in the ’60s, and rights to all the legendary signature brands would wind up in the hands of various Japanese, Chinese and South Korean interests, who rolled cookie-cutter versions off assembly lines. “I became a dinosaur,” Benedetto says. “I really didn’t have any competition. Everyone was into flat top electrics. The focus on archtops and jazz was dead.”
Rather than see the craft dwindle, Benedetto published his instructional book Making an Archtop Guitar in 1996. “That book unlocked the secret to making acoustic jazz guitars,” Paul says. “It started a renaissance period in guitar making.” But three years after the book came out, Benedetto himself signed a deal with Fender, with whom he had worked as a consultant, to set up a custom guitar shop. There was a 3-1/2 year wait for a Benedetto original, and Fender offered a chance to expand the brand with lower-cost, laminated archtops. Things didn’t work out as hoped, and after an amicable parting in 2006, Benedetto was convinced by his old friend Paul to move from Tampa and set up shop in Savannah. “My wife Cindy and I both like it here,” Benedetto says. “They’re very supportive of the arts.” Although the main musical event for the company is the Benedetto
Players concert every August in Napa Valley, it also sponsors events during the Savannah Jazz Festival and the Savannah Music Festival.
Since he rebooted his business, Benedetto’s devotees only have to wait between three and four months, at most, to get their guitars. About eight out of 10 sales is for a laminated model selling from $2,500 to $5,000. And even those sport the same remarkable consistency of the more expensive models. “When somebody does something over and over again for years they’re bound not only to get good at it but to refine things,” says Benedetto, who figures it was at least 1983 before he began batting 1.000 with his efforts. “I played, so I could feel the little subtleties. The voice of the instrument became more and more refined, in balance. There was a richer sound.”
The essential facet of a Bendetto, however, is how it reflects its maker’s connection with the music he first heard on the radio in the 1940s and in New Jersey taverns in the 1950s, and which continues to inspire him now.
“Without the players,” he says, “I’d be making birdhouses.”
A Tour of Benedetto Guitars
By Amy K. Pine
Savannah’s Southside—just a few miles away from the city’s renowned historic downtown—is lined with shopping centers, fast food restaurants, banks and grocery stores. Most people traveling down the busy Southside streets are oblivious to the fact that hidden away on a small cul-de-sac named Mall Terrace is one of the world’s premier jazz guitar makers, Benedetto Guitars.
The large industrial building is marked by a modest sign, but inside is 9,000 square feet that house the equipment and manpower responsible for making some of the world’s most highly sought after guitars. The facility is cleverly designed to produce both hand-carved and laminated models.
Wood is stored in a curing room, a neatly organized space that is heated from 90 to 100 degrees F and kept at 20 percent relative humidity. The room contains both foreign and domestic woods, including some specimens that have been painstakingly prepared since the early 1980s for the day they will be crafted into guitars worth well over $10,000.
The adjoining rough mill—the room in which the raw materials are turned into guitar parts—contains conventional industrial-sized woodworking equipment including belt sanders, a thickness sander, shaper and pin router. The highlight of the room is a handmade piece of equipment dubbed “Angelo,” a duplicating machine that one of Bob Benedetto’s loyal customers built to help him automate some of his handcraft. The machine’s standout feature is its archtop guitar pattern, a design that duplicates the shape that gives a Benedetto guitar its distinctive sound.
A white wood assembly room, dedicated to making laminated guitars, is divided into sections to accommodate the production of guitar bodies and necks. Shelves in the large room store uniform sheets of veneer, which are eventually laminated in presses for eight hours to form the tops and backs of the guitar.
Benedetto’s personal workshop is where the coveted hand-carved guitars are made. Benedetto and two apprentices work with tools that once belonged to the famed luthier’s father and grandfather. Much of the work is done on the same workbench Benedetto used when he first started making guitars more than 40 years ago.
Once the hand-carved and laminated guitars are assembled, they are taken to the finishing department, where they receive color, lacquer and a buffing.
The final products are then packed and shipped in house, eventually reaching customers as far away as Taiwan and Russia. Some savvy customers, however, schedule vacations to Savannah for sightseeing and personal tours of the Benedetto workshop, slipping out of the premises with one-of-a-kind guitars in hand, completely unnoticed by the city’s unwitting Southside shoppers.