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JGT Masterworks Spotlight: Otto D’Ambrosio’s Allegro Special

Doug Martin

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Each month Jazz Guitar Today spotlights a very special ‘one of a kind’ guitar from some of the finest luthiers in the world. JGT contributor Doug Martin provides an insight into both the artesian and instrument.

Although I am a California native, I have made a home for myself in China playing and teaching jazz guitar for the majority of that time since first moving here in 2003. I maintain a busy performance schedule as well as a wonderful working relationship with Eastman Guitar Company. As an expat living abroad, I try to make the most of my visits back to the US when I am able to be there and part of that means catching up with fellow jazz guitarists and seeing old friends on the scene. 

On my most recent visit to California last year I was able to get together with my friend luthier Otto D’Ambrosio and guitar legend John Pisano. Most people who follow Eastman guitars are aware of the collaboration between Eastman and Otto and of course John Pisano, who has his own signature model with Eastman. On this particular day I speak of, Otto and I met up with John to discuss various details of his signature model guitar. 

After work topics had thoroughly been discussed and dissected, I had to take note of a mystery guitar case that I had recalled seeing Otto pull out of the trunk when we arrived to meet up with Mr. Pisano. I hadn’t put much thought into it until later in the afternoon when we were all talking and Otto said “Hey John I have a special guitar I’d like you to try out”. Naturally these are words of music to any card-carrying guitar geek and naturally John and I were eager to see what treasure await us in the black hard case.  

Master luthier Otto D’Ambrosio

“There are times when I come home from the shop when whole days have been dedicated to working with only a few square inches of wood. This is when I visualize the pictures of my great grandfather ivory sculptures. He did what he did, quietly and with great patience, until he died in 1953. After 30 years of building instruments, I am still as passionate about my work as I was the day I first stood in awe, and witnessed our history’s premier instrument works at that famous Staten Island music store. In this way I have been very lucky. I thank my family for the inspiration, my parents for the encouragement and my many mentors for sharing their skills, their stories and their secrets” – Otto D’Ambrosio

What came out of the case was not what I was expecting as Otto uttered the words “this is my latest creation”.

At that moment I found myself feeling like I had just witnessed the unveiling of a great work of art like the Mona Lisa. I instantly thought to myself “this is one of the most beautiful instruments I have ever seen”! 

Now, hold on for one moment. I should just say in advance that having played guitar for over 30 years, being a full time musician, having a great working relationship with Eastman guitars and having played tons of archtop guitars over the years from the big names to many boutique private builds, I want to impress on the fact that I absolutely love archtop guitars BUT what I love even more is seeing a luthier design something that is truly his/her own take on tradition.

As John Pisano took the guitar from Otto I closed my eyes so I could better hear the nuances of the sounds radiating from the slim, elegant body. Of course, John Pisano is a living legend in the guitar world and I firmly believe he could play a toaster with strings on it and make it sound beautiful. We know tone is largely in the hands, but my point being, when you get a top caliber player with a top caliber instrument, you know it when you hear it and you really can’t go wrong. After a few minutes of playing some chordal runs, Signore Pisano handed the guitar to me to try so he could hear it from the front-side. 

Sometimes you pick up an instrument that makes you say to yourself “all is right in the world”; this was such an instrument.

I am reluctant to call this beauty a guitar because it is so much more. Otto D’Ambrosio personally builds instruments that are what I would classify as “functional art”, but don’t go thinking this instrument should sit in a glass case. From the first minutes of playing this instrument one thing was clear right away which is, Otto builds guitars that are made to be PLAYED firstly. Forget about the inlay, the gorgeous tailpiece, the pearlescent finish for a moment, just holding the guitar in your hands you instantly know that this is a guitar that is supposed to make music. 

Playing up the neck from the low range to the high range, each note is like a bell. You breath on this thing and sounds just pop out. It’s alive! Ok that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but seriously, the bass register is extremely warm and round yet just a little tight without the wetness that can sometimes result in a boomy, muddy bass that mushes the overtones. The midrange is strong and each note is in your face yet not overpowering to the ears. The frequency response I can only describe as each note is lush like velvet. Moving up to the higher range, the notes are like cathedral bells that seem to not only sound thick but sustain for days. The highest notes sound so fat that you’d think the guitar was strung with cables from the Golden Gate Bridge. The point is the entire range was so balanced and it never felt like one note popped out too much or was weaker than others. Just a perfect tonal balance that is normally found on very old instruments if you’re lucky. On the day I tried out this guitar it was actually strung with bronze strings and the finger rest and pickup had not been installed yet, so I was getting the full acoustic treatment.   

When I play any guitar, it doesn’t matter how great it looks, I need to know it can deliver as a players’ instrument first. After having been properly blown away and seeing that the guitar had all the tonal characteristics and playability of what we all dream every guitar should have, I then allowed myself to then take a closer look and appreciate it with the eyes. 

Naturally the guitar has the clean lines and build quality you would expect from somebody of Otto’s caliber. Every joint, every line, every detail is just spot on and done to perfection. You couldn’t find a visual flaw on this thing with a magnifying glass. 

In addition, the guitar is fitted with EVO frets and the pickup is a Lollar Goldfoil floater. Another elegant touch are the 250k sliding tone controls built into the pickguard and are flush with the top of the guard.

The materials used to craft this instrument are top notch as well. Otto says the woods from this particular guitar come from his “aged stash”. European Spruce and Maple were used for the body and neck. Gorgeous Macassar Ebony was used for the headstock, fingerboard, pickguard and binding. 

It’s easy to notice at first glance the “bling” factor of the fingerboard inlay but what really caught my eye on closer inspection was the pearlescent finish. I had not ever seeing that before on any guitar. Otto says that this was done by spraying pearlescent powder over his white lacquer burst. In Otto’s own words, “it’s like the grain subtly fades towards the edges”. 

Lastly, check out the gorgeous tailpiece, also a D’Ambrosio design.

This tailpiece would almost look at home as the ornament on the hood of a Rolls Royce. It functions perfectly of course but it is elegantly designed and flows perfectly with the lines of the guitar. Every detail extremely well thought out. 

All of us who love guitars know that sometimes the experience of playing a magnificent instrument that puts you in a state of nirvana can be a double-edged sword.

The time spent with the instrument in your hands is pure bliss, but when it’s over you want more, like a kid just after that roller coaster ride that is over so quickly. Artisans like Otto D’Ambrosio, build instrument of the absolute finest quality. I consider myself very lucky to be able to experience some of his creations. A guitar like this looks beautiful to the eyes, feels as comfortable as can be in the hands and sounds like a chorus of angels when played. What more could one ask for in a dream guitar that’s a reality?!

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