Bench Press: Frankie Montuoro’s “Bench Copies”

Truth be told, we’ve been a little tardy asking Frankie Montuoro, of the Montuoro Guitar Company, to take part in our Bench Press series, so, in a way, when Frankie introduced his new “Bench Copy” project it more or less forced the issue. With his new line of instruments (which will be available exclusively through The Music Emporium, pricing TBD) he’s taken the notion of the “Martin-inspired” guitars that dominate the market to its logical extreme, building painstaking reproductions of particular, exceptional instruments. We’re fortunate and grateful he’s shared his thoughts on this project with us.

Fretboard Journal: What inspired your “Bench Copy” project?

Frankie Montuoro: I have always been fascinated with the violin world. Building “Bench Copies” of violins has been around almost as long as the instrument itself. Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was a French luthier from Mirecourt, France. It has been speculated that Vuillaume had quite possibly built and sold several violins that he claimed were made by Antonio Stradivarius. At his shop in Paris he was seemingly in the right place, at the right time. Instruments built by all of the prominent Cremona luthiers–Stradivarius, Amati, Maggini and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù–came to him for restoration, and he made extremely accurate molds, patterns and measurements from these violins. He even built several copies of the famous “Messiah” violin built by Stradivarius. It wasn’t until dendrochronology came along that they were even able to determine what was authentic and what wasn’t.

My point being, the man was obsessed, and dare I say a bit OCD. Both (it seems) are needed in order to want to spend years measuring instruments to that extent of detail. So, long before I even came to guitar making I had spent at least 25 years doing restoration work, which is still a large portion of my business. In order to properly repair or replace missing parts on vintage guitars you can’t take carte blanche. It’s important to focus on allowing your work to blend seamlessly with the originality that still exists.

Factory-made vintage guitars from the 1920s through the 1930s are, to a large degree, asymmetrical in comparison to instruments coming out of modern factories. There was a lot more handwork applied to each instrument, and obviously no such thing as CNC machines. If you use C.F. Martin & Co. as an example you can look at instruments built during a specific period and you can tell that the same group of guys built these guitars. Then another 10 or so years goes by and you can see smaller shifts in the way the instruments were made. It’s like a fingerprint. All of the minutia becomes part of the guitars’ DNA, so to speak.

For myself as a luthier, in many respects this is my way of giving back to this craft that I honor and cherish so much. It’s my way of saying to John Deichman and Frank Henry Martin, “You see? I told you I have been paying close attention.” Those guys are the real geniuses; I am just good at copying. History has taught us that there is no such thing as a better mousetrap. There are irreplaceable designs, and when it comes to acoustic guitars Martin set the “benchmark,” as well as standardized most of what we have come to know about the nomenclature that goes along with these instruments. In essence I felt it was time for me to truly challenge myself and reinvigorate my passion for guitar making.

FJ: How are you choosing instruments for the project? How many do you plan on building?

FM: Theoretically you cannot build a “Bench Copy” without knowing a specific instrument from tip to tail and all points in between, because what you are doing is copying in exacting detail. You can go to the extremes of adding the exact playwear of each instrument, which is in fact something normally done with violin “bench copies.” I have chosen to represent these copies as if they are being presented to you in very fine and well-cared for condition.

I am choosing to build copies of specific guitars that I have admired for their exceptional tonal quality and overall character. As well, instruments that would otherwise be very rare or extraordinarily expensive.

I am not sure if this list will grow or shrink over time. For now this is what I have planned to offer:

  • 1927 000-18 (12-Fret)
  • 1929 000-28 (12-Fret)
  • 1936 00-28   (12-Fret, last year made)
  • 1930 OM-28 (From the first batch with pyramid bridge)
  • 1931 OM-28 (March of 1931 was the first batch to get a large pickguard and last to get banjo tuners)
  • 1932 OM-18 (Shade Top, Bar Frets)
  • 1933 OM-18 (Natural)
  • 1934 000-18 (Shade Top)
  • 1935 000-18 (Rosewood bridge & Board, T-Frets)
  • 1937 000-18 (Natural)
  • 1934 000-28 (Long Scale T-Frets)
  • 1937 000-28 (Short Scale)
  • 1934 D-28 (First 14 fret D-28 ever produced)
  • 1935 D-28 #58956
  • 1936 D-18
  • 1938 D-28

FJ: Can you tell us about the materials? The woods, the nut, tuners, etc…

FM: In regard to the building materials, I am using whatever was traditionally used, having to take into consideration what is currently available. For both the Style 28 and Style 18 guitars, Red spruce soundboards, Sitka for bracing, Honduran mahogany for the neck billets as well as neck and tail blocks. Spanish cedar for the kerf linings (interestingly enough, Spanish cedar is in fact a fragrant mahogany, most often used for cigar boxes).

African ebony is used for bridges and fingerboards. Hard maple is used for the bridge plates.

For the nut & saddle I am using pre-ban mammoth–not elephant–ivory.

Style 18 guitars have Honduran mahogany for the back and sides.

Style 28 guitars is where it gets interesting. The pre-war Martins made from Brazilian rosewood are in a class all by themselves. The material that Martin was using on the 28s is long gone. In fact, even in the 1930s Frank Henry Martin was noting that he felt the Brazilian rosewood they had been using for a long time at that point was starting to decline in quality. All I can say about that is, I am sure he would be less than enthusiastic about what we have available today.

Martin generally used this rather “plain”-looking Brazilian with virtually no figure on the Style 28s and reserved the material with exaggerated figure for the Style 42 & 45 guitars, although there have been periods, especially in the early part of the 1930s, when you saw material that would normally be suited for the 42 & 45 on OM-28s.

Conceptually with the Bench Copies I wanted to be able to make a guitar that looked as close to those herringbone 28s as possible, while keeping the guitars CITES-approved, so professional musicians could travel freely without concern.

I had been hunting for many years for the perfect substitute for that Brazilian. Most guitar makers I am sure would agree that Indian rosewood is truly the best substitute for Brazilian. In regard to overall density, stiffness and elasticity, it comes closer to Brazilian then most anything, whereas Madagascar rosewood, cocobolo, Honduran rosewood etc. are far denser and not nearly as elastic. That is why guitars made from those materials can sound brittle, harsh and loud, and offer too much sustain and way too many overtones. At least this has been my perspective. In a conversation I had with Chris Eldridge we kind of surmised that the old Brazilian guitars sounded more like the best version of that same guitar in mahogany, if that makes sense… the old Style 28 Martins were not these overdriven sustain machines. There is far more subtlety to the tone of those instruments, an incredible amount of depth and presence. Instead of overtones and too much sustain there is this brilliant warmth to the tone.

So, as we know, for whatever reason, way too many guitar players just do not favor Indian rosewood. I feel they will always look at this material as 2nd place and far from “exotic.” There is also the issue that many factory-made guitars made from Indian rosewood tend to be over-built. If you treat that material the same as you would Brazilian the results are phenomenal and you wind up with a “true rosewood” tone. That being said, aesthetically Indian rosewood doesn’t serve the purpose for making bench copies.

What I discovered is a material that is known to me as “Conscia Silva.” It is indigenous to Central as well as Latin America. This material belongs to the same plant genus as Dalbergia nigra with respect to being in the Legume and Fabaceae family, and it serves all of the purposes I need to recreate the Style 28s. Aesthetically it’s extraordinarily close to the old growth Brazilian. In regards to stiffness, density and hardness it’s spot-on. Once harvested it is properly seasoned and then specifically cut into what is considered “perfectly quarter-sawn” material ideal for making guitars. I have been stockpiling wood for so many years now–I do not like to build a guitar out of any material that I have had for less than five years. When the material comes out of being kiln-dried I will “sticker” it and allow for air to circulate over all surfaces. Wood is hygroscopic, so with enough time it will become equal to its stored environment in regards to EMC (the equilibrium moisture content). It can’t retain more or less moisture than its surrounding environment at a certain stage in the seasoning. By the time I build from it, the EMC goes from roughly 14% out of the kiln to around 5% EMC. I also make sure to build in a very arid environment so the material can take advantage of the hygroscopic nature. When built “dry,” instruments are far less likely to crack because they will have the ability to absorb excess moisture and then regulate back down to where they were “born,” so to speak. It is the rapid shrinking of wood due to losing moisture too quickly that will cause the most damage, because wood naturally dries from the outside in.

In regard to the tuners, at this point I feel like I can write a book on the subject. As opposed to getting into extensive, boring details, I will say, collectively I spent about four years from start to finish on being able to replicate the first incarnation of right-angle G-98 tuners made by the Grover Co. These are specifically the tuners that had a 6:1 tuning ratio and utilize a rivet as opposed to a flathead screw to attach the helical gear to the string pos, made from brass and then nickel-plated. Reverse engineering the helical gear and the worm to run with the gear was a monumental task. It is truly staggering the amount of thought that originally went into Grover making these gears. Crossing that finish line was an amazing experience.

The pickguard material was yet another monumental task. That took about two years of my time. In order to simulate that “brown” celluloid that was available to Martin during the 1930s I literally had to study hundreds of examples to get it just so. The process is much more complicated today then it used to be (celluloid was used for so many things–from eyeglass frames to pens to hairbrushes and clothing accessories–so the availability of the material was not an issue). Couple that with the high volatility of celluloid… I only make this material in extremely small amounts at a time.

Lastly, and to add to the level of insanity I currently have induced, I am making period-style cases for each bench copy in-house. Believe it or not, it is way more cost-effective for me to do it myself. And as they say, if you want something done right you have to do it yourself. I went to 11 local upholstery shops with a case shell I had made. Asking what it would cost for them to line these with the flannel material, I will supply all materials etc., I was met with a look like I just crash landed from Planet Weirdo. Besides, I figured after everything else that has gone into this undertaking, making the cases is extraordinarily easy and less complicated than building the guitars, and it’s a nice deviation from feeling like you are involved in the same tasks day in and day out.

FJ: How many hours go into building these instruments?

FM: At this point I have not been able to accurately determine that. I would say that it’s easy to surmise it takes me close to twice as long as it would to build a guitar that is not specifically a bench copy. Either way, too many hours to count, it seems.

FJ: Other builders, Martin included, have chased these classic instruments over the years, usually without quite getting it right. Do you have thoughts on what they might have missed in the process?

FM: I actually find this question easy to answer. It goes without saying that if Martin wanted to do this they could, very easily. They are the originators of the designs and have a museum full of original examples. That being said, for a company that has been around for as long as Martin has, it just isn’t feasible to build this way. And I would say that goes the same for any other company that manufactures acoustic guitars.

As a sole proprietor of a cottage industry business, I have the “luxury” of building piece by piece. I do this, not from the position of getting rich–let’s face it, lutherie is far from a “get rich quick scheme”–but from the position of treating my building more as individual pieces of art, so to speak. It would cost literally a fortune to re-tool, train employees and reorganize Martin’s well-oiled manufacturing machine in order to build this way, and most businesses are not in the business of moving back in time; it is more about becoming integrated with the technology of the times.

The other factor that I do not ignore is, I can’t expect everyone who plays guitar to appreciate this style of building. Dare I say, and most certainly, there are those who might find it pointless. What I can say for myself is, I am just an old soul that seems to spend more time reminiscing about a long gone era then I would ever want to spend programming a CNC machine or figuring out a way to do things as fast as humanly possible. I consider myself a woodworker, not a wood-machinist. The satisfaction has to come from a place of wanting to turn trees into musical instruments with your hands, more than it comes from figuring out a way to mechanize the process. As well, you have to be willing to lose money in the process, which is inevitable building this way. I’ve replaced being business-savvy with being a staunch traditionalist because it’s apparent I do not know any other way. It’s not based on instant gratification or even everyone’s approval. No matter what you do in your life I think challenging yourself is vital to your growth and satisfaction. This just happens to be what makes me jump out of bed in the mornings.