D’Aquisto New Yorker Classic

D’Aquisto New Yorker Classic
1986 D’Aquisto New Yorker Classic. Photo: Kelsey Vaughn/Gruhn Guitars. Instrument courtesy of Steve Fishman.

During his 30-plus years as an independent guitarmaker, James L. D’Aquisto was acclaimed as the premier maker of archtop guitars. He gained the title initially as the successor to his mentor, New York maker John D’Angelico. Then, after carrying on and embellishing the D’Angelico tradition for more than 20 years, D’Aquisto suddenly changed direction, as if to prove that his reputation was not simply inherited, but well-deserved. Like an artist moving from one stylistic period into another, D’Aquisto shed the restraints of traditionalism and began to design modernistic new models.

It wasn’t an instant change, however, from the New Yorker and Excel (models handed down from D’Angelico) to the Centura and Avant Garde. D’Aquisto first retreated from the traditions of ornamentation to arrive at what he felt was the essence of the archtop guitar. Only then did he let his imagination drive his designs.

The New Yorker Classic show here, from 1986, represents D’Aquisto’s bridge between the traditional and the modernistic – the end of one era and beginning of another. However, it was not D’Aquisto’s first outreach to establish himself as a gifted and influential maker in his own right. He had learned the art of archtop guitar making in the New York shop of John D’Angelico, where he began working in 1952 at age 17. He took over more of the workload after D’Angelico’s first heart attack in 1960. Following D’Angelico’s death in ’64, D’Aquisto finished 10 guitars that were in progress, then began implementing his own design ideas, changing the peghead shape from a broken scroll pediment to a rounded shape and modernizing the f-holes to a smoother S-shape. But, since he was taking orders from essentially the same group of players who had ordered guitars from D’Angelico, the guitars remained essentially the same – high-quality, handmade archtops in the D’Angelico tradition.

By ’69, D’Aquisto’s reputation was strong enough to attract the attention of the Hagstrom company, which introduced a D’Aquisto-designed model called The Jimmy, featuring a 16″-wide electric archtop with a pressed (not carved) birch body. The initial run was not too successful, but a reintroduction of The Jimmy in ’76 (with oval or f-shaped soundholes) helped establish D’Aquisto as a designer as well as a maker.  

In 1984, Fender sought D’Aquisto’s input while creating a guitar to compete with Gibson’s electric archtops, and the result was the Fender D’Aquisto Standard and D’Aquisto Elite. Made in Japan, these were sleek, 153/4″ jazz guitars with bodies of laminated maple and set necks. They featured an ebony tailpiece and a bound ebony pickguard. Like the Hagstrom, the Fender D’Aquisto was initially produced in limited quantities, followed by a more successful reissue period (1989-’94). 

In the meantime, D’Aquisto was feeling ever more trapped by a backlog of orders for traditional-style guitars. In 1986 he decided to break with that tradition and called one of the customers on his wait-list, “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, and talked about his concept of a guitar with no celluloid, no metal except where absolutely necessary, and minimal ornamentation. It would be all-wood and all-acoustic, with a sound as well as a look that would expand the appeal of archtop guitars beyond the circle of traditional jazz guitarists. Larson agreed, and he received D’Aquisto #1191, the first New Yorker Classic. 

Guitarists in 1986 would have had to look twice at this guitar to recognize it as a D’Aquisto. The pearl peghead logo does say D’Aquisto, but it does not stand out from the natural-finish maple peghead veneer. The top of the peghead – the round broken pediment with ornamental finial – is a de facto D’Aquisto signature, and the simplified, S-shaped soundholes are also D’Aquisto indicators. But overall, this guitar is missing more of the D’Aquisto/D’Angelico features than it retains. The multi-layered nitrocellulose binding – the sign of an expensive guitar since the first D’Angelicos in the 1930s – is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a tasteful outer layer of maple and two thin lines of violin-style purfling. The standard pickguard, typically of nitrocellulose with multi-ply binding, is also gone, replaced by a smaller, simpler, angular guard made of ebony. A matching ebony tailpiece replaces the heavy, ornate brass tailpiece of the earlier D’Aquistos. The minimal ornamentation continues on the fingerboard, which is plain ebony with no inlaid position markers whatsoever, bound in natural maple. The truss rod cover has a double-flared shape, continuing the ebony motif to the tuner buttons. 

As important as its aesthetic beauty is this guitar’s performance. Before the first note is played, the player will notice that it is lighter in weight than the typical 17″ archtop guitar. And it has a tone to match – a lighter, more complex tone than one expects from an archtop. It clearly was not designed to be played with a heavy hand, not designed strictly to fill the rhythm role that acoustic archtops have played since the ’30s (and, without a pickup, it obviously was not designed for electric play). It was designed to prove D’Aquisto’s belief that the archtop is simply the best guitar design, for versatility as well as for power and tone. 

After making this New Yorker Classic, D’Aquisto pushed on with a determination to pursue his own design ideas, to the point of abandoning traditional models – along with the security that his backlog of orders provided. (Ironically, this breakthrough design for D’Aquisto did not excite the guitar’s original owner; Larson preferred the bigger, more traditional sound of an 18″ archtop, so he eventually parted with his New Yorker Classic.) D’Aquisto proceeded to develop new models with the all-wood concept of the New Yorker Classic, with such new features as elliptical and double-elliptical soundholes, and adjustable baffles and sound ports. Modern names, such as Solo, Centura and Avant Garde drew a line of demarcation between the old D’Aquisto and the new. A Centura with a blue sunburst finish captured the attention of the late collector Scott Chinery, and when D’Aquisto died in 1995 (coincidentally at the same age D’Angelico died – 59), Chinery paid tribute to D’Aquisto by commissioning blue guitars from all of the leading archtop makers.

While D’Aquisto’s blue Centura and his other modernistic models represent the fulfillment of his concepts of new, modern archtop guitars, this New Yorker Classic is equally important as the starting point for the imaginative, non-traditional designs that became D’Aquisto’s legacy.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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