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Howard Paul Talks Future of Benedetto Guitars

Jonathan Ross

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Guitarist Jonathan Ross spoke with Howard Paul of Benedetto Guitars on the company, how it’s handling the COVID-19 crisis, how it’s adapting, and the future of one of the top jazz guitar companies in the world.

For the past 14 years, Howard Paul has crisscrossed the USA and Europe playing around 200 gigs a year with players including Romero Lubambo, Chico Pinheiro, Tom Scott, Bob James, Bob Sheppard, Bucky Pizzarelli, Don Braden, Wayne Wilkinson, and many others while holding his day job as President/CEO of world renown Benedetto Guitars.   

Jonathan Ross: Benedetto Guitars is based out of Georgia. Has that always been the home of Benedetto Guitars?

Howard Paul: Not always. Bob Benedetto started building in 1968 in New York and is originally from the Bronx. When he got out of the Air Force in 1968, he went into building and repairing instruments full time and established himself in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. From there he spent a decade or more building in Clearwater, Florida. He and his wife Cindy moved up to East Stroudsburg, PA, and built from his home there for many years. Then in about 1998 or 1999, he moved to Tampa, Florida, but he licensed Fender guitars to build Benedetto guitars in their custom shop. So he built independently from ’68-’99 then from ’99-2006, if you wanted a Benedetto you could have one built under the master luthiership of Fender’s Master Luthier Stephan Sterns at the Fender Custom Shop but under Bob’s supervision. Bob would fly out there one week month to train their luthiers on how to build Benedetto Guitars, and fly out to do training and quality control, which lasted until 2006. That’s when Bob and I became partners. I was living in Savannah, Georgia, and convinced Bob that if we were going to be partners he’d have to move to Savannah, so we could open up our workshop here. We’ve been here in Savannah since 2006.

JR: Georgia is a beautiful place. Are you from Georgia originally?

HP: I’m not. I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. But I was stationed here in the Army in 1991, got married and eventually settled here.

JR: I grew up in Chicago, but have relatives in the South. It’s a totally different world down there.

HP: It is. Savannah is a cultural hotspot for the South. It feels a lot more like a European city than a Southern city. We have the largest art college in the world here called the Savannah College of Art & Design. It’s a major port, and gulfstream jets are built here.

JR:  How is Benedetto Guitars adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic?

HP:  As a result of the 2008 Recession, I scaled back the company pretty dramatically, and basically had to fire all the retail stores. At least for the last 10 yrs, we’ve sold guitars directly, rather than through retailers or distributors and maintained a one-on-one relationship with our customers. We had to revise our website, and build our ability to communicate and track customers, and not rely on the kind of marketing and interface that traditional manufacturing uses. In other words, the standard for them is, the guitar company spends money on advertising and sells their product through a distribution network, which is then redistributed through music retail stores and online stores, and then those stores have a margin mark that allows them to discount the instruments and advertise them locally after taking inventory. So we don’t do any of that, so our prices are what they are.

Our website is a buying and listening experience, rather than an eCommerce site. So when all of COVID hit, we were, unlike manufacturers who rely on retail stores to distribute, and unlike retail stores who rely on stores having their doors open to sell product, we were a little insulated from that.

Fortunately for us, in January or February of this year, we brought in a new internet marketing advertising company that specialized in web-based marketing in the boutique musical instrument field. So we had been doing all of these things to bring brand awareness to individual customers through Facebook, Google, and Bing, and all these other products leading back to our website. 

So when the switch was flipped in March, and retail stores were being closed, and manufacturers were sending workers home, everybody was struggling to re-establish themselves, we were already set-up to do that kind of communication.

JR: Hopefully this won’t happen again anytime soon, but when it does, you’ll be ready!

HP: All these other companies will be ready too. They’ve been struggling to get where we already were. The other thing that we were fortunate about is that we had built an inventory of our most popular guitars. We only make about 100 instruments per year. Our goal is to make 120 a year. We will never be a big manufacturer. And of those instruments probably 60-70 percent of them are custom orders that take 7-8 months for the customer to receive their guitar. The other 30-40 percent of those guitars are our most popular models that we build because we know people are going to want them and don’t want to wait for them.  We were very fortunate that we already had an inventory of our most popular models for sale, and for sale online direct to customers. COVID hit, Georgia had stay-at-home orders, and we were forced to furlough our employees, but I was permitted to keep two critical employees on board because we were able to isolate and have them social distance. We were able to finish inspecting, packing, and shipping inventory that was already built.

JR: Do you have any new models in the works?

HP: Yes, the newest model we released was in January of this year. It’s actually the second generation, or a re-release of our Andy model, which we discontinued about 8-9 years ago. It’s a carved, ¾ size travel guitar. It’s a 23” scale, carved Spruce top, Maple Back, laminated sides, with a built-in mini-humbucking pickup. It’s ¾ the size of a full-sized guitar, but when amplified, it sounds like a full-sized archtop. The idea was to build a travel guitar that you could fit in the overhead of a plane, take it on vacation with you, or walk into a gig and plug it in on a stage. We’ve sold every instrument we’ve built. We’re taking orders now, so they’re still in production, of course. Again we only make about 100 instruments per year, but they are available for order right now.  

JR: We are in an ever-changing world, especially in terms of technology. What are your plans technologically speaking, to adapt to this world?

HP: We’re a very traditional company. We make guitars in a very traditional way, and they are very labor-intensive. We use traditional materials. They are cured and aged, and they are works of art. That’s not to say we don’t embrace technology when it makes sense. Over the last few years, we bought computer-numerically controlled routers, for example, rather than relying on the old manual routing tools and patterns that we had, to slot fingerboards, or carve bracing, or pre-carve tops and backs. We do that to save time and improve accuracy, where it doesn’t interfere with the quality and sound of the instrument. As far as inventing a new modernistic guitar just for the sake of it, we don’t do that. We prefer to build the very best traditional guitar available guitar in the world rather than create something new just for the sake of it. 

JR: I think that’s wonderful that Benedetto is sticking to their guns when so many companies are trying to reinvent the wheel when there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the wheel in the first place.

HP:  You have to ask yourself what kind of company do you want to be, and what is the goal of your investors or owners? Is it profitability? Is it growth? Is it creating a company that can be sold to another company? Is it handing it down to the next generation of family members of owners? All of those factors affect the quality of the guitar and the quality of the company. For example, Gibson was being bought and sold years ago, and frankly, so was Fender. All the big manufacturers had to sell the company to make their brand survive and to make their investors happy, or they had to buy other companies and grow in order to have a profitable company for their existing investors. And that’s a conscious decision. A little company like Benedetto until 1999, Bob tried to ensure that Fender maintained all the traditional methods of Benedetto guitars without turning it into another big box brand. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s not a profitable thing to do. Little companies like this where everything is about the quality of the product, and everything that is associated with the brand, you can never grow SO big. 

JR: Benedetto Guitars has a roster of jazz greats endorsing their product (Pat Martino, Chuck Wayne, and Corey Christiansen to name a few). Who was the first Benedetto endorsee?

HP:  Probably Chuck Wayne. He was one of the legendary jazz guitarists out of New Jersey. He played with the Red Norvo quartet, and Bob probably built him his first Benedetto in the early 1970s. He worked very closely with Chuck. They worked very closely to refine the best Jazz guitar for the player. Not too far behind him was Bucky Pizzarelli. Bob built his first guitar in the 1970s.

JR: Was Bucky’s Benedetto a seven- string?

HR: Yes. And then there were a lot of other guys who came to Bob for guitars.  Martin Taylor, Kenny Burrell, Jack Cecchini were some of the early players. Martin Taylor at that time was playing with Stephane Grappelli. Bob was also a violin maker, so for the last years of Grappelli’s life, he was playing Benedetto violins. Then in the ’90s, there was a Renaissance period of jazz guitar after Bob wrote the book “Making an Archtop Guitar”. That was the days of Jimmy Bruno and Frank Vignola and Martin Taylor, this younger generation of jazz players that were sort of taking over for the older generation. Today we have a younger generation of brilliant jazz guitarists like Randy Napoleon, Chico Pinheiro, and Dan Wilson… just a bunch of great players that are a new generation of Benedetto Guitars endorsees.

JR: What’s on the horizon for Benedetto Guitars?

HR: As far as production we want to slightly increase the number of guitars we make without compromising quality. Pre-recession we were making about 500 guitars per year. I think that was too many, but I would like to get to about 150 per year. We have that new technology that helps us get there. We are revising our webpage, which will take a few months. A lot of this is because of the pandemic. We’ve invested a lot of time and money in being able to make high-quality video and digital recording/photography, and we do all that work in house. All of this is born out of the fact that, with this pandemic, the whole musical instrument industry has to re-look at how they do business. We already did that, but the other companies will have to work really hard to catch up with us. When Bob started, there was no internet, no Guitar Center, Sweetwater, or Musicians Friend. We are a company that’s really founded in tradition. Taking into account all the changes going on in the industry, we will adapt to it, rather than get run over by it, or try to adapt something that doesn’t fit a little company like ours.

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