“I always knew I wanted to remain a single-man workshop,” says guitar-maker John Monteleone. “There was nothing more boring to me than having to make the same instrument over and over again.”

That conviction has stood him in good stead; today Monteleone, 75, is lauded around the world for his acoustic guitars and mandolins. Handmade at his workshop in Islip, New York, his guitars are considered works of art in themselves – examples sit in The Met Museum’s permanent collection – while Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler loved his guitar, “Isabella”, so much that he wrote a song about Monteleone. In a recent documentary, Knopfler admitted that he felt he “wasn’t worthy” of the instrument. Each piece commands upwards of $85,000, and the waiting list is around three years. 

A guitar in progress
A guitar in progress © Vincent Ricardel
Shaving a piece of tone wood to bring out its resonance
Shaving a piece of tone wood to bring out its resonance © Rod Franklin

Monteleone made his first guitar as a teenager. “I had a burning desire to comprehend how these instruments work,” he says. He now travels the world in search of exotic woods that might produce different resonances or tones. “I love the search,” he says. In the US, the wood often comes from Adirondack spruces (loud and well-rounded) and maples (a bright, clear tone); in Europe, it is sourced from the Italian Alps. For decorative flourishes, he uses Macassar ebony from south-east Asia, “which has these lovely brownish stripes”. For the binding – which joins the guitar’s top to its sides – there’s Hawaiian koa or tiger myrtle from Tasmania.

Monteleone at work
Monteleone at work © Rod Franklin
The “Teardrop” guitar, 2008

The “Teardrop” guitar, 2008

The Four Seasons “Spring” guitar

The Four Seasons “Spring” guitar

Back in the workshop, he shaves each piece of wood by hand to bring out its resonance, and judges how the pieces will interact. “The luthier’s job is to understand the material so well that it tells them what it can and can’t do. Each one is challenging me to expose its voice.” His pieces are known, he says, “for a tonal balance that’s smooth and even. It’s more piano-like, I suppose.”

The top and base of a guitar ready to be joined together
The top and base of a guitar ready to be joined together © Rod Franklin
Chisels in Monteleone’s workshop
Chisels in Monteleone’s workshop © Rod Franklin

Although Monteleone does now have a range of “standard” models, which take three to four months to complete, he remains most excited by the projects that challenge his imagination. “The Four Seasons guitars were a personal project,” he says. “I began to hear a quartet of guitars as voices. I thought, ‘Well, how about the seasons?’” And the “train” guitars featured finishes – tuning keys, the bridge – and paintwork inspired by historic locomotives including the Santa Fe Super Chief and the New Jersey Blue Comet.

The waiting list may be long, but the reward is a guitar that’s built to a client’s exact specifications. “I start with a wishlist,” says Monteleone. “What is this instrument supposed to do for you? What are you going to play? What’s your style? And I also ask what you don’t want. Often that’s easier to put your finger on.” 

One might think Monteleone had earned the right to take it easy – but he remains as driven as ever: “That curiosity is still there.” Play on. 

monteleone.net. John Monteleone: The Chisels are Calling is on Apple TV

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article