The Left-Handed Guitar Players That Changed Music By John Engel
7-string and 6-string Cremonas
Some years ago, I spoke and exchanged letters with Bob Benedetto, whose reputation as a premier archtop guitar maker is established the world over. Here are excerpts from these exchanges, shedding light on the guitar maker’s perspective and Bob’s candid and highly informative views on fine guitars, left-handed and otherwise.
Bob Benedetto : “I have made five left-handed guitars. A 17” Manhattan (1992), an 18” 7-string Cremona and a 17” 6-string Cremona (1993), a 17” Limelite (1995), and an 18” La Venezia (1996). I have been fortunate to have had a very full schedule of standard right-handed orders. Making a lefty, although no more difficult to make, requires a little more time in both the planning and construction processes.
“My greatest influences and inspirations have always been family members, players, and, of course, the old makers: Gibson, D’Angelico, N.Y. Epiphone. Violins have always had a major influence on me. A great violin maker uses a proven and accepted design and strives for perfection in sound and aesthetics. Too many guitar makers, in pursuit of their own identity, make unnecessary changes in the instrument. Not all changes are improvements.
“Fortunately (or unfortunately), there are so many playing styles for the guitar as well as an endless amount of acceptable playing levels, that almost anything can sell. I suppose that’s why I find violin making a greater challenge: the finished violin, unlike the guitar, will be played and judged by only high-level players. It’s either right or wrong.”
“Much has been said and written on the aesthetics and functionality of guitar design. My own feeling is that the archtop is a traditional instrument and appeals to a traditional player. Above all, the instrument should ‘look good.’ It should have eye-appeal. When a player looks at a guitar, he should want to hold and play it.
“I think there is a lot of merit in refining traditional designs. The narrow finger-rest, for example, the ebony tailpiece, the single cutaway all improve the appearance of the guitar – and of course, each has a very real function as well. I do believe makers’ ideas and designs should be challenged.
“I think a mahogany neck would be an improvement over the more traditional maple. Mahogany is more stable than maple; it’s also considerably lighter in weight. Since, generally speaking, lighter instruments sound better, mahogany would be a better choice. With ebony fittings: fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge, pickguard/finger-rest, and truss rod cover. And of course, the ever-popular 17” body width.”
“Balance, balance, and balance. The guitar should be balanced – that can’t be stressed enough. Cosmetically, the instrument should have a uniform (balanced) eye-appeal. For example, a large flared headstock on a small 16” body makes the guitar look top heavy. The same large headstock on the larger 18” body is balanced.
Tonally, the instrument’s voice should be balanced. Fortunately, unlike the flat top guitar, this is relatively easy to do on an archtop. The bass notes should not be louder or stronger than the rest. The high notes should be big, round notes. The archtop player is an individual who uses the entire fingerboard for single line passages as well as chordal voicings. It is very apparent to such a player when the instrument’s voice is not balanced.”
“Actually, making a lefty was no more challenging than making a right-handed guitar. It just took a little more time. I have found myself, while carving the top and back, stopping for a moment and thinking, ‘Will this instrument vibrate as it should?’ It did.
“With every lefty I’ve made (only five), I found myself not able to look at the guitar as it hung in the rack with all the ‘normal’ guitars. It looked wrong and would bother me. A lefty guitar is not as much fun to test, only because I’m not a lefty player. All I’ve ever done to test a lefty is play each note, chromatically play on each string up and down the neck.”
“I enjoy mostly the fact that I seem to be satisfying something inside me: a desire or maybe a need to make guitars. I find it extremely rewarding listening to and seeing my instruments being played. The great players like Bucky Pizzarelli, Kenny Burrell, and Johnny Smith used to be in my dreams only. Now they call me, and they play my guitars. The ‘younger lions,’ like Jimmy Bruno, Jack Wilkins, Frank Vignola, and Howard Alden, continue to inspire me and keep me excited.
“Obviously, knowing the guitars will be around long after I and all my friends are gone is very satisfying. I’ve been pretty fortunate! As for public appeal, the guitar has been growing in popularity for as long as I can remember. Its popularity continues to soar, and I’m certain it will be with us for generations to come.”
“Legitimate design development will always require the players’ involvement, and there is more of that today than ever before. Guitar makers must be in touch with the good players – and as many as possible – if they are to perfect their craft.
“I’m sure we will see continued evolution with regard to design. Most changes will fall short of complete acceptance and die off. A few, however, will stick and become part of reality, such as the ebony tailpiece. The guitar continues to evolve, but very slowly.
“I suppose guitar makers will continue to alter the instruments in order to meet the needs of the players. If the musician of the future develop special needs, then certainly makers of the future will be there to satisfy those needs. We makers are often challenged by the players’ needs or demands, and would probably stagnate without them.”
“The more you make, the better you become. Making guitars repeatedly allows a maker to develop a better understanding of how the instrument functions. An experienced maker leans to differentiate between fact and theory or myth. You develop your skills and instincts. The intuitive skills slowly become a very real and firm tangible. The changes are often very subtle and singularly unnoticeable. Years of making slight changes in top and back graduations, varying the positions and dimensions of braces, slightly modifying an f-hole shape or the roundness of the neck. Does it ever end? Probably not.
“The lutherie community has enjoyed a steady and healthy resurgence over the past few decades. More people than ever before are buying guitars made by individual makers. This renaissance has spawned new makers in far greater numbers than any of us would have anticipated. As would be expected, few will succeed, but all will play a role in further developing our craft. The more makers the better. We inspire each other as we compete for a greater share of the market. Established makers have nothing to fear from new makers, while new makers aspire to become established makers. It’s all quite simple. It’s healthy and it works.”
Thank you Bob!
Four of Bob Benedetto’s beautiful left-handed archtops can be seen in the book UNCOMMON SOUND.
Photo by Cindy Benedetto.
© 1998-2006, John Engel & Bob Benedetto