By Howard Paul
In 48 years of Benedetto Guitars, three things remain constant:
• Adhering to tradition for unfailing techniques and designs.
• Innovating for the sake of improvement only when tradition fails to produce sonic and structural consistency.
• Listening to the professional players while providing uncompromising quality and playability.
In my ten years working alongside Bob and Cindy Benedetto and eventually guiding the company into its next iteration while Bob enjoys retirement. I’ve learned a lot about what sets a truly excellent instrument apart from both the mass-produced commodities or the sometimes stunning but impractical works of art. And it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Here’s a little historical perspective: I first met Bob and Cindy Benedetto in early 1996 through my friend and sometimes playing-partner Jimmy Bruno. Jimmy was a star Benedetto Player, one of the premier jazz guitarists in the mid-90’s playing one of Bob’s handmade guitars. Along with Bucky Pizzarelli, Howard Alden, Frank Vignola, Jack Wilkins, Andy Summers, Johnny Smith, Kenny Burrell, Chuck Wayne, and many others, they gave rise to a new golden age for jazz guitar. Bob’s seminal book “Making An Archtop Guitar” had been in print for about five years and catalyzed a renaissance period for archtop building. The Twentieth Century Guitar Magazine’s Long Island Guitar Show was a magnet of great players and fine builders in Long Island, a hub of guitar greats. Ed Benson’s Just Jazz Guitar Magazine was proliferating historical accounts, photographs, guitar arrangements, and new players’ introduction in what had been a mostly forgotten community. Coffee table books abound, providing a new perspective on vintage and custom guitars. And the now-deceased archtop patron/collector Scott Chinery’s Blue Guitar Collection was under construction by nearly two dozen luthiers and destined for the Smithsonian.
In the mid-’90s, Bob and Cindy were living in East Stroudsburg, PA, where Bob was building about 25-40 instruments a year. Bob Benedetto, originally from Brooklyn, had started building guitars in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, a natural transition for a remarkably skilled woodworker, from his role as a professional jazz guitarist playing in popular wedding bands. From New Jersey, the family moved to Clearwater, FL, with new daughter Gina. Bob teamed up with extraordinary apprentice (and, for a time, business partner) John Buscarino before Bob and Cindy returned to the Pocono gateway to be closer to family in the northeast.
East Stroudsburg’s proximity to the jazz guitar Mecca of NY/NJ/PA provided Bob continuous feedback from guitarists, rather than simply building designs for the aesthetic to set himself apart from other luthiers. His 17″ La Venezia, Manhattan, Fratello, and Cremona became flagship models, and highly visible players were drawn to these modern but traditional new instruments to replace tired and often overbuilt vintage instruments of the 1940s and 1950s. Bob was productive and usually had a talented apprentice helping him keep his schedule. He made time to write, teach, travel, and participate in industry events during this mid-1990’s period, elevating his brand and sharing his expertise with his peers. Up to this point, he had built about 800 guitars as an independent luthier.
In 1999 he launched a project with Guild Guitars, just purchased by Fender Musical Instruments, to re-design the recently acquired Guild Guitars archtop line, including the Johnny Smith and X-700 models. The project led to Bob’s licensing Fender/Guild to produce Benedetto Guitars in their custom shop under his supervision. This relationship lasted until 2006, when Bob allowed his license agreement to expire to regain control of his own construction, marketing, and sales.
Since 2006 Benedetto Guitars has been located in a nondescript warehouse on the Southside of coastal Savannah, Georgia. The shop initially was staffed and equipped to build about 500 guitars per year with one shift. We leased about 10,000SF and built segregated walls creating a drying room, mill, white wood assembly shop, finishing area, buffing room, and final assembly room. Our first step was to collect from their Florida home 38 years of Bob Benedetto’s workbenches, hand tools, modified machines, wood supplies, glues and stains, fixtures and molds, and templates and parts. We loaded everything we could fit into a 30′ Ryder truck and re-established everything in the new shop’s Southeast corner. From there, Bob hand-selected staff from lutherie schools, independent luthiers, and a few guitar-manufacturing companies.
With about a dozen small shareholders Bob and I formed a privately held company. One shareholder, Dave Miner, eventually became a more prominent shareholder and our most active investor. Dave began his relationship as a customer of Bob’s, ordering a one-of-a-kind 16″ guitar stained with wine from Dave’s Miner Family Winery in Napa, California. Following my performance in the 2002 NAMM Show at the Benedetto/Fender booth, we became close friends. In 2006 I invited Dave to participate in the newly formed Benedetto Guitars as an investor and board member. Dave’s participation and ownership grew until 2014 when Bob and Cindy retired, and Dave was able to become a principal shareholder in Benedetto. He continues to provide necessary assistance while living in California and visits Savannah a few times a year. Without his help, Benedetto wouldn’t have survived the tough recession or recovery.
In 2007-2009 we expanded Fender’s distribution and established new retailers around the world. But there were extreme headwinds, including the advent of “big box” stores, internet distribution, offshore manufacturing expansion in Mexico, South Korea, and especially China, and the 2008 collapse of the banking system and housing market, and the rise of oil prices.
The recession changed our focus to making more expensive flagship carved models for direct sales using a smaller staff and lower volume. Independent guitar shows were shrinking, mom and pop music stores were disappearing, and the average price of stringed instruments was dramatically reduced by the increase in Chinese manufacturing.
Today we sell about 120 instruments per year with a staff of 8 luthiers, a bookkeeper, a sales director, and a marketing director. We offer models that Bob launched 40 years ago, and some like our recent Pat Martino, Andy Elite, and GA-35 that were created in the past few years. In all, we have about 20 models offering custom appointments, finishes, and inlay options. The models range from our $4500 Bambino (14-1/2″ x 2-1/4″ laminated archtop with two pickups and no soundholes) to our $40,000 one-of-a-kind Sinfonietta models.
In 2013 Bob and Cindy Benedetto relocated to Ocala, FL, commuting to Savannah every few weeks while working from their home for the rest of the month. In December 2014, they retired entirely from the company, leaving Bob to work on several non-guitar-related hobbies and performing in jazz clubs again with his band a few nights a week. Cindy Benedetto is dedicating her time to compiling a comprehensive archive of Bob’s lifetime of work. Together with partner Bill Neale, they oversee sales of Benedetto Amps.
Meanwhile, Benedetto Guitars is under the skillful hands of master luthier Damon Mailand, a longtime Benedetto employee, and former Bob-apprentice. Damon graduated from Luthier’s International and was immediately retained as an instructor for the next year and a half. Bob Benedetto and then-production manager Evan Ellis hired Damon and instantly identified him as one the most talented young luthiers they had ever encountered. Damon spent the next eight years working through every position in the shop, eventually becoming production manager following Evan’s departure and then replacing Bob as Master Luthier upon Bob’s retirement. Over the next few years, we will be working to highlight Damon’s work in the industry and make sure the world knows about this remarkable talent that has easily stepped into Bob Benedetto’s massive shoes.
Damon inherited Bob’s original workshop, including benches, fixtures, jigs, tools, machines, woods, dyes, claps, and vices. Since Bob retired, he’s put his hands on every carved Benedetto built by Damon (over 200 to date), including two guitars that Damon built specifically for Bob. Damon still pulls rough-carved tops, backs, and raw materials from stores of maples, spruces, and ebonies Bob maintained for years.
From a business perspective today, Benedetto occupies an unusual position in a challenging market. We are handmade in the US with no secondary brands or offshore production. We are essentially a once-independent luthier sized for about 5 to 10 times the output of a one-person shop, without automating any of the processes or diminishing the handmade craftsmanship. We are a very high-end boutique brand that custom builds Benedetto guitars to order and makes a few instruments for an inventor. No dealers. No distributors. No wholesale pricing/MSRP gouging.
Benedetto Guitars isn’t trying to be scalable, and we don’t want exponential growth. We recognize that getting too big diminishes quality while decreasing desirability and appreciation. While we don’t want to be like the big guys, we want to be more available than one luthier breaking his back 12 hours a day to produce 20 guitars a year. We’ve achieved the scale but certainly, need a better balance of sales between our most affordable and most expensive instruments. Most of our customers are repetitive buyers and expect the same or better quality than the last Benedetto they ordered. Their satisfaction is how we gauge our success.
I’m often asked about our competition: One thing to keep in mind is that most guitar manufacturers (with very few exceptions) are private companies. That means no public disclosure, no annual public reports, and no way to corroborate claims made in magazines, advertisements, or press releases. The only way to know anything about companies like Gibson, Fender, PRS, or other major brands is to read the legal notices. Within the industry “trades” it’s very difficult to tell who’s healthy and thriving, who is existing on massive debt, who’s using sister companies to bolster anemic sales, etc.
The private nature of the business is why we are reluctant ever to measure ourselves against the competition. There is no one in the archtop world as specialized as Benedetto that produces the numbers or models. And, if there were, there would be no way to know if they were succeeding or not.
Our goal is pretty simple: we will continue to produce excellent traditionally constructed jazz guitars and maintain the Benedetto brand’s legacy for future generations of guitarists. We aren’t looking for the big payoff or the exponential growth. We are about quality instruments and extraordinary musicians combining to create timeless music effortlessly.