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New York Times
HUNTINGTON - GUITAR music sometimes sounds as if it came off an assembly line, efficient and adequate but hardly a distinctive work of art.
The same can be said of the instrument itself. But just off Route 110 in Huntington there is a guitar maker who is nowhere near the factory.
Joseph Jesselli, 56, starts with fine seasoned wood, and finishes -- countless details later -- with pieces of functional art, mostly electric guitars, that have won customers ranging from obscure collectors to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
Electric guitars did not hit their stride until the 1950's, but to hear Mr. Jesselli talk, and to see his work, is to be taken back earlier in the 20th century. He draws his inspiration from Art Deco and Art Nouveau, from gun and furniture makers and from what he believes is a dying group: skilled artisans who served true apprenticeships and know how to use their hands.
"To me, an artisan has to chop stuff, really do a good job, like a woodcarver," Mr. Jesselli said at his studio. "A guy who inlays, a guy who gilds, a guy who finishes. These take lifetimes to really master these things."
His obsessive attention to detail shapes every part of his process, from start ("I don't want to use a piece of wood unless I've had it 10 years") to finish ("a finisher is not just a guy who schlops paint on a piece of furniture -- it's a really very intense thing to do"). As a final touch, he even makes leather and oak cases with tools and straps to match that guitar.
Mr. Jesselli, who grew up in Huntington, moved back here this year after spending 18 years in West Virginia honing his craft, makes just a handful of guitars a year, taking five to six months for each one. He doesn't like talking about prices, but said they start at $18,000 to $20,000.
Alan Rogan, who is the Who's longtime guitar technician, bought one of Mr. Jesselli's guitars a few months ago. "Best guitars ever made," Mr. Rogan said in a telephone interview from England. "There are the guitars we all dreamed about growing up, and then there's Jesselli. And as cool as they look, they sound even better. With the time and money he puts into them, how does he make a penny?"
Mr. Jesselli served two apprenticeships, first making frames for paintings and mirrors with Marcos Baiter, a Huntington woodcarver. "Woodcarving, gilding, nothing directly to do with the guitar," Mr. Jesselli said, "but that, in my opinion, is way more important."
He second apprenticeship was with one of the most famous names in guitar making: James L. D'Aquisto of Huntington, who died in 1995.
"I wanted to learn how to make guitars, and he was the best," Mr. Jesselli said. But after six or seven years with Mr. D'Aquisto, he said, he felt constricted and wanted to experiment.
"Jimmy was great to me -- he was there for me," Mr. Jesselli said. "But there were certain rules and regulations which stemmed from his personality. I was into art, designing, carving things, and that was not what he wanted."
From carving the wood to inlaying an ebony fret board with pearl to casting the metal parts, each step of making a guitar requires a special skill. Mr. Jesselli does it himself, in painstaking detail.
"Like this," he said, pointing with pride to a finished guitar. "I got into ormolu casting, gold leafing and patinas."
Mr. Jesselli speaks passionately about the wood he uses, which he has collected since the 70's: Cuban mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, ebony and Circassian walnut, which he called the "filet mignon of the tree."
Mr. Jesselli carves away, working on five to seven guitars at a time, but it is not until the neck is glued to the body that a guitar is born.
"It's almost like that genetic thing when the sperm fertilize the egg," he said. "When that neck goes on, bam!"
The guitar then has its own personality, Mr. Jesselli said, a reflection of the artist who made it.
"A lot of people design their guitar for a market niche -- Les Pauls do this and Fenders do that," he said. "Well, I don't do that. I make my guitars for me, so that people who are like-minded, they're going to die for these guitars."
There is nothing wrong with factory guitars, Mr. Jesselli said, some of which in his view are better than many custom-made guitars. He also believes that a guitar should not be expensive just because it's old or rare. It must have intrinsic value, he says; it must have a soul.
"Regardless of whether you like the style, these are really beautiful guitars," Mr. Jesselli said. "They're not a regular guitar that was made beautiful, they were conceived that way. There was no applied art. And it's a dream."
Mr. Jesselli, one of the last of his kind, from the old school of New York guitar making.
James D'Aquisto was born on November 9, 1935 into a musical Italian family. An aspiring jazz guitarist he visited luthier John D'Angelico's shop in 1951 which lead to him in 1952 becoming his apprentice.
About his routine, D'Aquisto said,
"I was making $35 a week. I was like the runner: I'd go to the stores, pick up the tuners, go get the tailpieces from downtown, take the necks to the engraver, all that. I cleaned the windows, swept the floors, everything—we all did that. On Friday we put away the tools and cleaned the shop so when Monday came the place would be spotless."
D'Aquisto guitar played by Jim Hall ("Something Special" recording in 1993)
Later, he learned the "rough work" of the D'Angelico style.
D'Angelico had a heart attack in 1959 and also parted ways with his long time employee Vincent "Jimmy" DiSerio. As a result he closed the business but soon reopened it after D'Aquisto who was unable to find work, convinced him to do so. After several more heart attacks and having also suffered from pneumonia John D'Angelico died on September 1, 1964 at the age of 59. Following D'Angelico's death the last ten of his guitars were finished by D'Aquisto. D'Aquisto bought the business but a poor business decision lost him the right to the D’Angelico name.
D'Aquisto then continued building guitars under his own name. In 1966 he moved to Huntington, Long Island, then to Farmingdale in 1973, and finally Greenport in 1980.
He felt he would die at the same age as his mentor, and this did occur on April 17, 1995 when he was 59.
D'Aquisto's name is on many guitar models from the Fender "D'Aquisto Elite" "D'Aquisto Ultra" and the Hagström Jimmy. His blue "Centura Deluxe" was the inspiration for the book Blue Guitar. His guitars have sold for tens of thousands of dollars to over $500,000. One of his guitars was the first to be worth a million dollars.
In 2006, D'Aquisto was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. His tools and work bench, passed down to him from D'Angelico, were given to the National Music Museum.
In 2011, guitars by D'Aquisto were included in the 'Guitar Heroes' exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
AVAILABLE AT SOUTH SHORE GUITAR BOUTIQUE, NY