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Historical Perspective from MTGA Member

Maybe I should start by saying: ‘How did a young guy from Scotland get to know the great John D’Angelico in New York’?? It’s a long story, so I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. However, to do justice to this story, I should give the reader at least some background as to what led up to this meeting.

In 1944 - I was an engineer on the old RMS Queen Elizabeth, ferrying US and Canadian troops to Britain, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. We ‘tried’ to come into New York on a regular three-week schedule, so I had the opportunity to visit some of those great New York jazz clubs. I say ‘tried’ because there were times when we were a little late due to the ‘situation’ in the Atlantic !!

My story begins in a Greenwich Village nightclub. A shipmate and I were sitting having a quiet beer listening to the house band; and when they finished their set I got up to go to the washroom. As I passed the bandstand, the guitarist was sitting near the edge of the stage, and I stopped to talk to him and admire his guitar. It looked like a top of the line guitar but I didn’t know the model. I jokingly said, "I'll give you fifty bucks for that guitar", and went on my way. I guess I must have got him thinking, because when I got back to my table he came over and asked me if I would like to buy it.

At that time I had absolutely no intention of buying a guitar - I could barely plunk out three chords on my beat up old ‘box’ that I had on the ship; but when I really looked at this beautiful instrument, I began to wonder if someone up there was sending me a message!

I won't bore you with all the haggling that went on between the sets, but at the end of the evening when I walked out of that club I was carrying a beautiful white artificial pigskin case containing a gorgeous "Gretsch Synchromatic 400" that I had bought for $125. The guy must have been in dire need of cash because I found out later that I had made the deal of a lifetime (in spite of the fact that it had a gash on the side). I guess that was why he wanted to get rid of it. I may not have known much about guitars, but I knew more about wood than he did. I knew that hole could be repaired.

The following day I took the guitar to a guitarist friend who played in a trio at ”Roger’s Corner” – one of my favorite clubs. He told me what a fantastic deal I had, and agreed with me that the hole could be repaired. He wrote me a letter of introduction and gave me the address of a guy he said would do an excellent job. The shop was down in the south end of town, near Spring Street; so the next day I boarded the subway and headed for the Bowery, to try and find a guy by the name of Johnny D’Angelico.

If took me a while to find his place because it turned out to be a rather unpretentious looking shop with one lonely guitar hanging in the window. I casually walked into that shop, completely unaware that I was about to meet one of the greatest luthiers of our time.

I have to admit that he did not fit the image that most of us would have of him today. John was a very quiet and friendly guy; he carefully read the introduction from my friend Frank Victor and said he would do what he could to help me. Maybe Frank had told him I was a service man and he would be helping the war effort !!

After he inspected the guitar he told me that he was very busy and although this was a small job he would still have to find the time to look around for a match to the curly maple side. He proposed to cut out a rectangular opening and insert a curved piece of maple to match the existing grain, which would then have to be blended into the contour and finished to match the sunburst finish. The gash was right at the blend area between the black and the yellowish color of the curly maple, which meant that he would also have to match the blend of the colors too. He said that this would not involve much woodworking time, but the length of time it could take between finishing coats of lacquer was anyone’s guess.

Because of the high humidity in New York, and no air conditioning in his shop, he could only lacquer on certain days. He told me afterwards that it took 22 coats of lacquer to match the finish.

The whole thing sounded pretty depressing to me, and I could see now why this could run into pile of money - but he was such a nice guy I just couldn’t pack up my guitar and walk out. I simply told him to go ahead, with no promises of a completion date.

So, that was the first of many trips to John’s shop. I would make a six thousand mile journey to the UK and back; then take my little subway ride down to the Bowery for another visit. I think he used to look forward to my visits, because it must have been something of a change to talk to someone outside his own field.

He was a constant pipe smoker, and I noticed he smoked a brand that I had seen in our crew store on the ship - I remember it was “Prince Albert” – and I used to bring him a can every time I went to see him. In those days I could buy a carton of 200 cigarettes on the ship for fifty cents – 5 cents a pack - How times have changed.

He never allowed visitors into his shop, but for some reason I was privileged to have a mini tour. From a woodworker’s point of view, it was something to behold. I knew a well-equipped shop when I saw one because I had done six months in the company’s pattern shop as part of my engineering course.

I can’t remember the number of visits I made, but it must have been at least four months from the time I gave him the guitar to the time when it was finished. I do however remember that great day when I went into his shop for the last time. He gave me a big smile and told me my guitar was ready to hit the road. There it was hanging up on a hook looking just like the day it came out of the factory. He took it down and let me examine it. For the life of me, I could not see a sign of the former damage; the match was absolutely incredible – and right on the transition of the colors from black to maple.

He told me - apologetically - that he had had to put on a new set of strings, and he would have to charge me extra for that, but I figured that would be ‘peanuts’ compared to the bill! When I asked him to play me something to let me hear how my guitar sounded he had to admit that he could not play too well and told me to try it myself.
I guess that is the way with some master craftsmen; they spend so much time in pursuit of their craft, they have no time to enjoy the beautiful things they create.

The logical end to this story is when I finally asked John to give me the sad news – how much did I owe him? I’ll always remember the sort of sheepish look he gave me when he said how sorry he was for the length of time he had kept me waiting, and would ten dollars sound OK, plus the new set of strings? I almost fainted !!

It wasn’t until many years later that I found out what a famous man I had been so fortunate to know. At the time of our meeting all I knew about him was that he was an excellent guitar repairer and maker.
I will never forget John D’Angelico. Apart from his incredible talent, he was a very kind and modest person.

When the war in Europe was over, my days on the Queen Elizabeth came to an end. As soon as we got the last of the troops home, they started to refit her for peacetime service, so I signed off and went in pursuit of a more adventurous life.

That was when I decided to sign on for a nine months voyage to the Antarctic on a 300-ton whale catcher – what a come down from an 83,000 ton super liner - My Gretsch did not go on that trip !!!

Actually, the Gretsch stayed in a closet for many years, and seldom got played. After living twenty five years in California, I retired in 1979, and moved to BC. Canada. Before moving, I sold it for exactly what I had paid for it - $125… What an idiot !! I think that guitar would be worth around $7,000 today.


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