John D’Angelico is widely regarded as one of the finest archtop guitar builders who ever lived. From 1932, when he started making guitars on his own, until his death in 1964, he made approximately 1,100 guitars and several hundred mandolins. All D’Angelico instruments were strictly hand-made, and a very high percentage were custom orders. But from the mid ’30s onward, he settled on a standardized line with models A, B, Excel, and New Yorker, with the A being the least expensive and the New Yorker being the most elaborate and costly.
While it is very clear that D’Angelico was a creative designer and a superb craftsman, he (and other makers) borrowed concepts from major manufacturers. His early models very closely resembled Gibson’s L-5, though he chose to make his instruments 161?2″ wide versus the L-5′s 16″ at the lower bout. D’Angelico’s early peghead and body shapes were virtually identical to Gibson. These early D’Angelico guitars so closely resemble a 16″ L-5 that, were it not for the name and inlay on the peghead, they could be mistaken.
And the resemblance is more than coincidental. Shortly after Gibson introduced its Advanced model 17″ L-5, the less expensive L-7, L-10, L-12, and the 18″ Super 400, D’Angelico altered his designs to feature 17″ style A, B, and Excel models, and his 18″ New Yorker. The D’Angelico A model is roughly equivalent to a Gibson L-7, whereas the B is more akin to Gibson’s L-12, and the Excel closely resembles an L-5, even featuring the X bracing on the New Yorker, which was similar to that introduced by Gibson on their Advanced models, and the block pearl fingerboard inlays similar in pattern to the L-5 of the time. The New Yorker’s body shape closely resembled the Super 400 and has split-block fingerboard inlays like the Super 400. By the mid ’30s, however, D’Angelico’s peghead shapes and pickguards were clearly of his own design. In ’39, Gibson introduced cutaway guitars and clear “natural” finishes. D’Angelico followed with natural-finish instruments but did not offer cutaways until after World War II. However, from the 1950s until the time of his death, the majority of his instruments were cutaways.
While D’Angelico had standardized models, a high percentage of his orders were for custom instruments. His shop was small and accessible, and many musicians developed a relationship with him. Custom orders were done at virtually no extra cost. D’Angelico’s prices, in general, were only slightly higher than Gibson or Epiphone models in a music store. At that time, though, music stores typically sold guitars for full list price, and wholesale was half that amount. Per guitar, dealers made more profit than builders. But D’Angelico sold primarily direct to musicians, getting twice as much for a guitar as Gibson or Epiphone when they sold an instrument to a dealer.
The guitar shown here is a D’Angelico Excel four-string plectrum guitar made in 1937. D’Angelico’s ledger shows this instrument, serial number 1241, having been completed on February 19 and sold to “Arnold.” While many ledger entries give a full name of the buyer, many of whom were very well-known musicians, other entries are tantalizingly incomplete and some such as “traded Rocky” are an enigma both as to what D’Angelico received in compensation and who the instrument went to.
This guitar is the only four-string plectrum D’Angelico I’ve encountered. I have seen a number of D’Angelico tenor four-strings designed to be tuned the same as a tenor banjo (low to high, C-G-D-A), but this is the first with a plectrum-banjo-style 26″-scale neck designed to be tuned the same as a plectrum banjo (low to high, C, G, B, D). Tenor and plectrum banjos were popular during the 1920s and ’30s, but after the Dixieland era, banjo sales dropped dramatically and guitar became the fretted instrument of choice, being more suited to accompanying crooners such as Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby during the period 1929 through ’33. Plus, orchestral rhythm guitar was the fretted instrument of choice for the big-band era of 1934 through World War II. Most banjo players who wanted to work adapted to playing the standard six-string guitar, but a few opted to play tenor and plectrum guitar so they wouldn’t have to re-learn the fingerboard. Tenor banjos outsold plectrums by more than 10 to one during the 1920s and ’30s, hence tenor guitars are also far more common than plectrum guitars. Plectrum guitars are more scarce than plectrum banjos in ratio to how many were made compared to tenors.
While the fingering of the tenor guitar is the same as tenor banjo, and plectrum guitars the same as plectrum banjo, the sound of the instrument is quite different from a banjo. Tenor and plectrum guitars have far more sustain than their banjo equivalents and are much more mellow and guitar-like in tone. In the hands of a skilled musician, both tenor and plectrum banjo are extremely versatile instruments capable of being utilized for a variety of musical forms, and the equivalent guitars are equally capable of a variety of musical expression. The fact that they have only four strings does not mean they’re easier to play or limited in their musical expression
This guitar’s body conforms closely to the typical Excel model of the period, with 17″ lower bout, carved spruce top with early-style D’Angelico straight-slot F holes, beautiful tiger-striped maple back and sides, multiple bindings, and sunburst finish. The neck, with its 26″ scale, is longer than a standard guitar but virtually the same in ornamentation as the standard six-string Excel of the period. The peghead is typical Excel of this year, though it is scaled down to accommodate just four strings. The pickguard is engraved, as was common on Excel and New Yorker models of this period. Later Excels and New Yorkers do not feature this type of engraving except on custom orders.
In an ensemble setting, a tenor or plectrum guitar can add a new dimension. Due to their scale length and tunings, tenor and plectrum have unique voices that blend well with each other. Since they are tuned the same and have equivalent neck dimensions as the equivalent tenor and plectrum banjos, banjo players are readily able to adapt, though skilled guitar players – especially those accustomed to alternative tunings – would find these instruments of interest.
This D’Angelico plectrum is a superb instrument, suitable for the most discriminating of musicians. Its voice deserves to be heard.
Above Photo: George Gruhn
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.