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Guitar # 1711 ready to go
by Otto D'Ambrosio on April 16th, 2014

BY BILL VAN SICLEN Journal Arts Writer printed 4.13.14 PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Step into Otto D’Ambrosio’s sunny, light-filled workshop on Mineral Spring Avenue and the first thing you notice is what’s not there. Though he’s considered one of the best young guitar-makers in the country, D’Ambrosio doesn’t keep many guitars in his own studio. What’s more, the few guitars he does have — notably a battered old Fender Telecaster — are hardly the stuff of rock-star dreams. Also missing are the amps and other electrical gear you might expect to find in a place devoted to making high-end custom-designed electric and acoustic guitars. “Basically, the idea is to match the guitar to the player,” D’Ambrosio explains. “As long as I do my job, there’s no reason for a guitar to sit around the studio.” Since opening his workshop in 2001, D’Ambrosio has relied mainly on referrals and recommendations from satisfied customers — some of whom pay up to $20,000 for one of his handmade one-of-a-kind instruments — to spread the word about his work. But last year, he did something radical, especially given his low-key, no-nonsense approach to making guitars. First, he contacted Julian Lage, a New York-based jazz guitarist whose work has drawn comparisons to the likes of Pat Metheny and George Benson. “I knew Julian was teaching up in Boston, so I started going to some of his concerts,” D’Ambrosio says. “Eventually, I introduced myself and showed him one of my guitars. I asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating on a guitar and, amazingly, he said ‘Yes.’ ” Once Lage was onboard, D’Ambrosio approached another artist — local filmmaker Guy Benoit — with an equally radical idea. Would Benoit, who’s best known for directing low-budget horror movies with names like “Exhumed” and “Atomic Brain Invasion,” consider making a documentary chronicling the months of painstaking work that would go into creating Lage’s guitar. “Obviously, it wasn’t going to be “Atomic Brain Invasion, Part II,” Benoit says with a laugh. “But I’ve known Otto for a while and I have a great deal of respect for what he does. I’ve also directed a few music videos over the years, so I said I’d do it.” After more than a year of filming and post-production work, the documentary made its debut at last year’s Rhode Island International Film Festival. Called simply “Guitar #1711,” the 25-minute feature was an instant hit — this despite the fact that it has virtually no narration and its “soundtrack” consists almost entirely of the sounds of D’Ambrosio at work. “It’s a very different approach, but that’s what Otto wanted,” Benoit says. “He didn’t want the film to turn into a how-to manual. He wanted to document the process of making a guitar, but the goal wasn’t to explain every step. It’s more of a spiritual process.” D’Ambrosio, meanwhile, says he wanted the film to highlight the often invisible artistry that goes into creating a great guitar. One of the film’s most memorable moments, for example, is a scene showing him tapping on a piece of wood he’s selected for the guitar’s body. The process, which is sometimes referred to as “tap tuning,” helps a guitar-maker understand how the wood will respond when an outside force — in this case, a vibrating guitar string — causes the wood to resonate. Though modern-day guitar-makers can buy an array of high-tech oscillators and stroboscopes to help them tap tune a guitar, D’Ambrosio does it entirely by ear — a technique that hasn’t changed much since the days of Renaissance masters such as Antonio Stradivari. “That’s one of the scenes where I think you can really see the artistic side of guitar-making,” D’Ambrosio says. “Yes, technology can help. But there’s really no substitute for your own experience working with the materials. It’s not something you can learn overnight.” A shy, soft-spoken man who’s clearly happier working on guitars than talking about them, D’Ambrosio became fascinated with guitars as a teenager working at Mandolin Brothers, a legendary music store on Staten Island. Before playing a gig in New York City, many musicians would send their prized instruments to the shop for last-minute repairs or tune-ups. “It was a great time,” D’Ambrosio says. “Every day, it seemed, somebody famous was coming in to drop off a guitar or look at one of the guitars in the shop. It was also the height of the market in vintage guitars, which meant that people were bringing in a lot of amazing older guitars for repairs or condition reports. For an aspiring guitar-maker, it was heaven.” In 1998, D’Ambrosio decided to continue his apprenticeship at the Guild Guitar Co., then based in Westerly. (It’s now based in New Hartford, Conn.) He says his first year or so at Guild was “a grind,” but adds that the experience of working at a large, well-established company taught him some valuable lessons. “Everything they did had been tested and re-tested over the decades,” he says. “I’m not saying it was always the best way to make a guitar, but they certainly had the process down to a science. There wasn’t a lot of wasted motion.” In 1991, D’Ambrosio opened his own guitar-making shop, D’Ambrosio Guitars, in an old factory building in Providence’s Valley neighborhood. A decade later, he moved to his current location next to the sprawling Lorraine Mills complex on Mineral Spring Avenue. Asked what he strives for in creating a new guitar, D’Ambrosio pauses for a moment, then says: “I think what I’m striving for is a sense of surprise — surprise that such a beautiful sound is coming out of something that is basically a wooden box with strings on it.” At the same time, he admits that his ideas about what constitutes a great guitar (and great guitar sound) have evolved over the years. Initially, he says, he modeled his guitars on the classic “archtops” created by guitar-making legends such as Jimmy D’Aquisto and John D’Angelico. Though prized by collectors for their rich, deep-toned sound, these large hollow-body guitars can be cumbersome to play and can sound muddy or muffled when played without amplification. Nowadays, D’Ambrosio tends to prefer guitars that are smaller and lighter in construction and that sound good with or without the help of an amplifier. That approach is evident in the El Rey, a small hollow-body guitar D’Ambrosio designed for the Chinese music company Eastman Strings. Now available in several different models, the El Rey has been one of Eastman’s most popular models since its introduction in 2005. The benefits of D’Ambrosio’s less-is-more approach can also be heard on “Guitar #1711.” As the film opens, a recording of Lage playing the finished guitar is intercut with images of D’Ambrosio arriving at his workshop, ready to begin work on the same guitar. It’s a brilliant touch — combining both the beginning and the end of the guitar-making process while showing off the instrument’s gorgeous, harp-like sound. Long before the first piece of wood is cut, you know the story has a happy, harmonious ending. “The amazing thing is that Guy and I never really talked about doing that,” says D’Ambrosio. “It’s just something he did on his own, but it’s wonderful.” Looking ahead, Benoit and D’Ambrosio say they hope to enter “Guitar #1711” in film and music festivals around the country. In the meantime, an extended DVD version of the film is available for $19.95 through and through local music stores, including Empire Guitars in Providence and Ray Mullin Music in Swansea.

Guitar #1711 update
by Otto D'Ambrosio on March 20th, 2014
The DVD is done. Guitar #1711 includes bonus FEATURES! Julian's full shop audio, and two selected songs for up close video recording. This week the Learning guide jacket will be ready. Looking forward to getting some orders out, Thank you all for being so patient. Guitar #1711
One Big Archtop
by Otto D'Ambrosio on March 02nd, 2014
This will be my largest commission ever built, 18.5" at the lower bout. The form is something I have been working on for quite a long wile. (Ever since the Stephen Still's New Yorker Restoration) it was a similar body size. I incorporated a sloped shoulder and a softer cutaway, the internal volume of this instrument is cavernous. I'm also using John D'Angelcio's "high flater" arching as well as large split wing sound holes. It will be one striking Instrument, it already is. I feel this guitar has a intimidating vibe, but maybe I'm just dreading the finish work.
New 70 year old Brazilian
by Otto D'Ambrosio on March 01st, 2014
Holy Wood Gods, Thank you! The shop received a call last week about a couple sets of Old Brazilian rosewood originally purchased in France in the 50's and stored in Salt lake City for the past 50 years. It just was received and it sounds and looks better than anything I have ever seen! I think this will be saved for a really special one. Wood Rich and Piss Poor here at D'Ambrosio Guitars.
Groundhog day.
by Otto D'Ambrosio on February 02nd, 2014
Happy GD everyone. Sunny day and looking forward to a good week of upcoming work.
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