Thursday, August 21, 2008

The American Guitar Museum

The reason for early jazz bands using banjos and never guitars was simply because guitars were not loud enough. But by utilizing brand new recording and amplification techniques, Eddie Lang played his guitar in the movie “The Big Broadcast of 1932” and banjo players immediately recognized that guitarists would soon be filling their chairs on the bandstand. Pawn shops soon filled up with banjos, and guitar craftsmanship produced lush sounding quality instruments that were in enormous demand.

The American Guitar Museum located in New Hyde Park, Long Island exhibits the finest work of craftsmen that poured their skill and love into this wonderful instrument. The museum puts us in touch with both the guitar’s history and its future.

It’s only fitting that the person responsible for establishing this museum would not only be a guitar player and collector, but as he is affectionately called the “Guitar Doctor” Chris X. Ambadjes is one of the finest luthiers in the business having conceived a guitar museum about 33 years ago, Chris was able to bring his dream to fruition about 16 years ago. Fortunately Chris’ friends, Demo Manolis, the late great Wayne L. Wright and a few others were willing to make this museum a reality. The friends pooled their resources and they formed a board of directors there.

The American Guitar museum possesses an authentic charm. Its home is a restored three-story colonial building that is one of the original farmhouses in the area. Stepping through the outer gates (which by the way are made in the shape of guitars) and entering the main door, you can’t help being caught up in the pictures that seem to be everywhere. These are pictures of the great players of both today and yester-year.

Moving on to the main room right in front at eye level stands one gorgeous oval-holed D’Aquisto New Yorker on loan from the talented player, Joe Carbone. Before his untimely death, luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto was considered the greatest guitar builder alive. For this beautiful sun-burst instrument he would charge about $50,000 with a three year wait.

The main room’s ceiling is certainly worth a look. It’s designed like the inside of an archtop guitar with f-holes, cross-bracing and wood grain all painted into the ceiling. A Showcase at the front of the room holds some of the original punches used to manufacture picks around 1910. These punches were contributed by the D’Andrea Company of Long Island, which is still in business today. If you have a pick in your pocket, there’s a 90% chance that the D’Andrea Company made it. The picks were originally made by punching out little tortoise shell plates in different shapes.

The Guitar Museum is just chock full of luthier tools, various tailpieces, books, blueprints, biographies of various players and histories of some of the guitars gracing its walls. One piece impossible to miss sits on the right side of the room. This is a 400 lb. press from the Strad-o-Lin Company that was used to bend the sides and tops of guitars and mandolins. It dates back to the 1890’s.

One of the oldest guitars in the museum was built in 1861. Chris Ambadjes says, “We like to tell the kids that come for a tour that this guitar is from Abraham Lincoln’s time and they get a kick out of that.” It’s exhibited in its original hard shelled case.

Two guitars that always get a lot of attention are the 1965 Olympic White Strat that belonged to a friend of Jimi Hendrix which Jimi played on occasion; and the other eye-catcher is a mint condition dark wood-grained Les Paul which Les himself contributed to the museum containing the inscription “To Chris, from Les ‘Keep On Pickin’.”

In addition to Les Paul’s signature model, there are a number of cherished Gibsons on display. A few of the most valuable Gibsons belonged to one of New York City’s finest musicians, Jack Hotop. Jack played in the opening of such Broadway hits as “Oklahoma” and “Annie.” He fell in love with the sound of the first 1957 ES-175 with a PAF pickup (better known as the humbucking pickup). This guitar was used as a demonstrator model by Gibson and Jack begged Gibson for that particular instrument. He was forced to wait until it was shown around the country before Gibson would let him have it. Jack later used this ES-175 when he played for the opening of “West Side Story.”

Two of the newest items in The American Guitar Museum are a pickup winding machine that jazz innovator Attila Zoller made and the mixing board that was used in Woody Allen’s classic movie “Radio Days”.

What this museum boasts of is its wonderful collection of both rare and beautiful instruments – What Chris calls “the cream of the cream.” Ambadjes has a particular love for the D’Angelico archtop guitar and who can blame him. John D’Angelico is considered by many to have been the “Stradivari of guitars.” Appraisals place these guitars between $25,000 - $75,000 on the average, with some being even higher. Quite an investment when you consider their original price tag of about $695.00!

How fitting, that D’Angelico started making his custom guitars the same year as “The Big Broadcast of 1932.” 1,164 beautiful custom guitars and mandolins were built bearing his name by the time of his death in 1964.

At the museum there are roughly 10 D’Angelicos on display, two of which are “one of a kind.” Though it’s accurate to say all D’Angelicos are unique, they all are either guitars or mandolins; all that is, except for these two. Sitting appropriately in a baby’s cradle is the first of these unique acquisitions. It is an 18” tall baby jazz uke. Benny Mortell pleaded with John D’ Angelico to build this to use as a wedding proposal to his wife. The finger board contains the inscription “To My Dearest Rose From Ben.” The newest addition to the museum is called a Cellar (pronounced ché lâr). This is John D’s largest masterwork and it is the only other instrument that does not fall into the category of either guitar or mandolin. Alongside these two priceless pieces you’ll find the 1942 Excel, which was played by its owner Benny Mortell, in the film “The Godfather” in both the wedding scene and on the soundtrack. Next to this is a 1946 New Yorker. There is a left-handed D’Angelico that has been used by Wayne Wright (rhythm guitarist for Les Paul, George Barnes, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee).

“Nothing in this life is free” — not true anymore, because a tour of the American Guitar Museum is just that FREE! Guitar aficionados, class tours and families alike have had mini-lessons on guitar building, how guitar pickups work, how fretboard in-lays are inserted and an overall history of America’s most popular instrument. Note too that Chris Ambadjes repairs fretted instruments of all kinds right on the premises and there are a number of excellent music teachers present also.

So pay a visit to this little treasure where the love of its owners is evident throughout. This is really a present to the world. It just so happens it’s been gift wrapped in Long Island, New York.

The American Guitar Museum
180 New Hyde Park Road
New Hyde Park, NY 11040

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