The Stradivarius of the jazz guitar

What happens when you make a guitar like a violin? Thank you Benedetto!

A tree from the Pacific Northwest got cut down two years ago, and a portion of it ended up in Savannah, Georgia.

There it got sanded, shaped, glued, lacquered and refined into a beautiful jazz guitar. One that’s now residing on my wall, #10 for the collection, the “Bravo Deluxe” by Benedetto, a small boutique known for making incredible custom jazz guitars for nuts like myself.

Jazz Guitar Today: Benedetto “builds some of the world’s most collectible and expensive instruments.”

Acoustic Guitar magazine: “Some of the most coveted archtop guitars in the world” are made by Benedetto. The instruments are known for their “stability, sonority, and responsiveness to touch and a player’s attack.

I don’t know about that. They just feel right. As a jazz player, when I put it in my hands, the notes just flow in a way they don’t on other guitars I own. And the tone!

On a guitar forum, a person identified as Sierra Tango said it even better: “The feel of a Benedetto can not be equaled. There is a solidness to it that defies logic.”

To those of you who don’t understand the need to add yet another guitar to the collection or have ten guitars around the house (“do you play all of them, all the time?”) I thought it would be fun to share a little backstory about this guitar.

You probably know that guitars were first invented in Spain over 500 years ago, and that it’s one of the great acoustic stringed instruments, like the violin, bass, mandolin and cello. As an acoustic guitar, you’re talking wood formations and strings to produce certain sounds.

In jazz, my idiom, the banjo was first used as the rhythm instrument, going back to Jelly Roll Morton and early Louis Armstrong recordings because it was louder, and could be heard. The electric guitar was popularized by Charlie Christian in Benny Goodman’s orchestra, circa 1939, playing an early Gibson model that looked to the eye like a different type of acoustic guitar with a pickup for amplification. Instead of the sound hole there were two F holes, like a violin.

The dye was cast. Christian was playing an archtop, which produced a soft, mellow tone and the greats followed in his footsteps, from Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, to Martin Taylor, George Benson and Pat Metheny. The beauty of an archtop is that you can play it acoustically or electrically. And it sounds awesome.

Rock and rollers opted for the lighter solid-body guitar (think Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix with their Fender Stratocasters) which could be played louder amplified than an archtop, and produce more distortion and sustain.

And to answer your question: every guitar sounds different and adds a little something extra to your life. My Kirk Sand custom built guitar is nylon string and sounds awesome for bossa nova and jazz. I played my Yamaha steel string recently when I sat in with Lisa and Larry Kohorn for some klezmer music, because it just sounded right. My old Fender Telecaster rocks. Plus, I love looking at all my guitars, every day. They are works of art.

Our Photowalk angle: this new guitar is one hard baby to photograph, with all the reflections. But I finally got it. The trick: bounce lighting, and moving the guitar this way and that way until it finally clicked.

But back to Savannah.

I was visiting my brother Jez in Atlanta and convinced him to take a drive with me down to Savannah, which is the coolest part of the state (rich in history—see “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) and home to Benedetto, which I’d read about. So we stopped by the guitar maker, unannounced, and CEO Howard Paul welcomed us in. I played “Satin Doll” on one of the guitars and fell in love, but the price tag was too rich for my blood.

Five years later, I attended the NAMM Show, the music instrument convention held in Anaheim, and I happened to be there with Paul Ellis, my guitar teacher and mentor. We both had the same reaction playing the guitars in the Benedetto booth. Gotta have it.

The only difference is that I actually bit the bullet. Paul Ellis just got to live vicariously through me. (Watch his reaction above in the unboxing video.)

Benedetto makes just 100 guitars a year. It took a year and a half for the new guitar to get made, longer than usual, Howard Paul says, due to COVID.

Once it was finally finished, Paul, a working jazz guitarist himself, personally inspects it before it goes out. He does this by playing the old 1938 ballad “The Masquerade is Over,” which was popularized by Billie Holliday, “to make sure there is no hum, and no imbalance.” In Eb, folks.

Benedetto’s have been called “the Stradivarius of jazz guitars,” hand-carved and tuned specifically for the best acoustic performance, still using traditional methods and violin-style designs. And Paul notes that beyond the Pacific Northwest, Benedetto (named after Bob Benedetto, the original and now retired luthier who started the company) also uses wood from Europe for maple and spruce and Indian and African ebony to make the finger boards and parts. 

Benedetto has guitars selling for $25,000 and up, (and lower)) in an economy where you can buy a cheap Chinese made Fender knockoff for $100. Why spend that kind of money?

“What motivates people to own something that’s made by hand is an appreciation of the art,” he says. “We want to experience the things that only an artist can create.”

As a person who has spent decades writing about tech marvels like the iPhone (can you believe all the different things it can do—and the camera!) to the drone (throw it in the air, it takes pictures and actually lands!) you gotta love something that is still hand made. No robots, no computers, just good old-fashioned craftsmanship.

I see and hear the difference. Can you?

Guitar coverage:

Made in Laguna by Kirk Sand

One of a kind Portugal guitars

This week’s tech news:

Don’t mess with Roku. Just ask YouTube, Peacock and HBO Max. Roku, which makes the most popular streaming player, warned users this week that it might be pulling the live streaming service YouTube TV off the platform due to what it said were onerous demands by YouTube owner Google. And by the end of the week, it followed through. You can watch the app if you already downloaded it, but it’s not available anymore in the Roku Channel store. Roku takes its power very seriously, although I’m not convinced that YouTubeTV won’t be back and running within days. These things tend to work themselves out.

Apple’s unbelievable quarter. The iPhone maker (along with Facebook, Google and Amazon) announced earnings this week, and they were pretty mind-boggling. Sales of $89.6 billion, up 54% from year-ago $58.3B. What’s going on here? Apple seems to be profiting from having that massive base of 1 billion plus iPhones users in which it can market to. That and, despite the claim we used to throw at them for years, that they stopped innovating with Steve Jobs, the truth is, they continue to make incredible products. Apple breathed new life into the Macs with the faster M1 chip, the AirPods are the best sounding mobile headphones I’ve used, and they interact seamlessly with the iPhone for reading aloud texts and e-mails while listening to music. The new AirTags sound like a perfect solution to a problem we all have, losing stuff. On paper they should be more effective than Tile bluetooth trackers, again, due to the size of Iphone army.

Photowalks updates

Thursday: Sunset Photowalk in Manhattan Beach. We meet at the Pier at 7 p.m.

Monday, May 10. Catalina Island Photowalk. Will you be on Avalon? If so, please join me at 10 a.m. We meet at the Hotel Atwater.

As always, if you haven’t tuned it yet, please binge watch this weekend the 6 Photowalks TV episodes on Tubi, the free TV streaming app. We’ve got the Oregon Coast, Los Angeles, Morro Bay/Cayucos, the Big Island of Hawaii, Porto and Lisbon, Portugal and the islands of Catalina and Balboa.

Great reads:

The NY Times on a bitter battle involving 7-11 stores in Osaka.

Rick’s latest: My pal Rick Sammon has just released his 42nd book, Photo Pursuit: Stories Behind the Photographs - a travel photographer’s memoir. This e-book is good reading, good info and good fun. Info on Rick’s Recent Books page:  https://ricksammon.com/ricks-books

Thanks as always for reading, watching and listening. Please let me know what you think of today’s edition. And who’s ready for a solo guitar concert? Or better yet, duets with Paul Ellis? Have a great weekend everyone.

Jeff