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Born in New York City in 1905, John D’Angelico began working at for his grand uncle, Raphael Ciani, at the age of nine. Located in New York at 57 Kenmare Street, Ciani’s shop built and repaired all manner of stringed instruments including violins, mandolins and flattop guitars.
In 1932, John opened his own shop at 40 Kenmare Street and it was here that he began building archtop guitars in earnest. The earliest recorded date for a D’Angelico guitar is 11/28/32 (serial number 1002). Reports suggest that he may have built a small number of archtops in the late 1920s.
The earliest D’Angelico guitars were clearly based on the 16-inch Gibson L-5, with similar body dimensions, a hand-carved spruce top, maple back and sides, a maple neck that joined the body at the 14th fret, a floating bridge and tailpiece and violin style f-holes.
By the mid 1930s D’Angelico was offering three models: Style A, Style B and Excel. Priced at $150, $200 and $275 respectively, these were approximately equivalent to the Gibson L10, L-12 and L-5.
In his book Acquired of the Angels, Paul William Schmidt lists the earliest examples of the Style A, Style B and Excel models as dating from 03/10/36, 09/02/33 and 03/16/36 respectively. However, vintage guitar dealer Laurence Wexer (wexerguitars.com) says that there are no model listings for the serial numbers indicated above in the actual ledgers, the earliest entries for the Style A, Style B and Excel models being 1936.
The New Yorker (earliest ledger date 09/26/36) represented D’Angelico’s response to the 18-inch Gibson Super-400.
Priced to compete with the L-7, the 17-inch A-1 (earliest ledger date 05/02/36) was added to the line by 1938 as D’Angelico’s most affordable model.
Photograph courtesy of John G. Stewart (myjazzhome.com)
The D'Angelico "Volpe" Special
This early D'Angelico does not have a serial number. A pearl inlay on the headstock is engraved with "Volpe Special", a reference to teacher, recording artist and studio musician Harry Volpe (1906 - 1995). Harry gave lessons from the New York music store that he ran. Students included Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and Sal Salvador.
Photos courtesy of niceguitar.eu
This photo shows the 'Crooning Troubadour' Nick Lucas playing his early D'Angelico archtop
Image from the collection of Paul Alcantara
Over the years, D’Angelico guitars became progressively fancier with additional binding and larger position markers and inlays.
Initially, John D’Angelico had three or four employees but the shop soon comprised just himself and his assistant, Vincent DiSerio.
Later, in the 1950s, John would be joined by Jimmy D’Aquisto, who would go on to become a celebrated archtop guitar maker in his own right. He remained on New York’s Lower East Side throughout his working life, during which time he made nearly twelve hundred instruments.
For more on John D’Angelico see Acquired Of The Angels by Paul William Schmidt, published by Scarecrow Press Inc., ISBN 1-57886-002-4 (http://tinyurl.com/ph29ctm)