By Steve Rider
Master Luthier Damon Mailand has been passed the torch by Bob Benedetto. Personally mentored by Bob, Damon has spent years with the esteemed guitar company and has learned all the elements required to maintain the brand’s identity. The announcement comes at the 50th anniversary of Benedetto Guitars and the team seems confident of Damon’s capability.
GC: How did your journey into music begin? Did you first experience guitar at home?
Damon Mailand: My father played guitar, and he fixed up a little classical guitar for me when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. Strumming and singing along with him and his (very patient) musician friends was one of my favorite pastimes as a child.
GC: Your father is a gunsmith? Do you feel that you inherited a love of craftsmanship from him and watching his work?
DM: Absolutely. He does a lot of repairs, and his ability to create improved versions of intricate, obsolete parts is quite impressive. He takes a lot of pride in the functionality and refinement of his work.
GC: What kind of place in your life did music hold as you were growing up?
DM: Music was always a great way to bond; with family, with friends, with strangers. When I started playing and singing, it also proved to be a great (and often easier) way to communicate an idea or feeling. Music can enhance, or alter almost any mood.
GC: At what point did you become fascinated by the idea of building instruments in addition to playing them?
DM: In high school, I was busy maintaining a series of worn-out classic cars and pickups and working in a tire and service shop for gas money. I did enough of that to know I didn’t want to be a mechanic but started looking into other professions working with my hands. Having played for years, I was passionate about the guitar, and making one was a thrilling prospect!
GC: According to your bio, you were inspired by a visit to the Gibson Guitar’s acoustic division while in school at Montana State University, Bozeman. Can you tell us what it was that really moved you during that visit?
DM: That was the first time I got a glimpse into the process behind the scenes. I think seeing each step laid out in front of me helped make a career in Lutherie conceivable.
GC: What were you majoring while you were in college? Was it something related to music, or were you looking at a completely different life path from what you’ve found?
DM: Business marketing was the plan. It’s hard to say where that would have taken me!
GC: What prompted you to attend the Luthiers International School in Georgia as opposed to another program?
DM: It was the farthest from home, and I needed adventure! Really, it was one of the shorter courses around and offered an introduction to Lutherie with minimal investment. That gave me a foundation, and then I spent a little over a year honing my skills while teaching the guitar-making classes.
GC: How did you discover Bob Benedetto’s work, and what was it that drew you to him?
DM: I already knew of Bob’s guitars, and then discovered his book and video series while attending school. I was struck by his speed, precision, and design aesthetic. I recognized Bob as the preeminent archtop maker and spent countless evenings studying his techniques.
GC: How did you come to work for Benedetto Guitars?
DM: Word spread through the industry that Bob was setting up a new facility under his direct supervision, and I immediately applied for a position. I stayed in touch for about 6 months while they set up the shop, and was hired as the first non-management employee. I worked in every department of production before taking over construction of the Flagship instruments. Working directly with Bob Benedetto was truly invaluable experience.
GC: Would it be fair to say that you and Bob hit it off very well right from the start. In the bio on the Benedetto page it says that you were, “in Bob’s opinion, perhaps the next generation’s greatest guitar maker”.
DM: I would say so. Bob is very particular not only about the level of craftsmanship but also work ethic and dedication to the craft. Cindy always laughs about how similar we are!
GC: Can you tell us about your initial interview with Bob and how things progressed immediately after that?
I brought some guitars I had made to show (then Production Manager) Evan Ellis. Bob walked in and complimented a couple of features that impressed him, and they hired me on the spot. Between helping Evan finalize jigs and fixtures for production, Bob and I made the first few guitars for winter NAMM as he began training me on the particulars of archtop construction.
GC: What was Bob’s approach to mentoring you as his apprentice?
DM: Bob would show me how to do a certain process, and then have me do it… usually on the actual workpiece. We didn’t have time for “practice”, and he didn’t see the need. Adding a pickup route to a finished and buffed Bambino Elite was one of the first projects he gave me. He would inspect my work and make comments or suggestions as needed. He was great about explaining why we did things a certain way, providing the insight necessary to sustain his vision.
GC: Did you know that he meant for you to take over for him with Benedetto Guitars upon his retirement, or was that something that came about much later?
DM: The transition was gradual. By the time he was ready to step back, he had given me the tools to take over. (He also, literally, gave me his tools!)
GC: Can you illuminate for our readers the Benedetto approach to jazz guitar building?
DM: Our approach is highly intuitive. Bob’s background includes a lot of repair work, where he saw what other makers had done right and wrong and where there was room for improvement. A great archtop should have projection, warmth, balance, and never get in the way of the player.
GC: Were there any elements that you felt more challenged by than others while you were apprenticing? Bob had you rotate through every position in the shop?
DM: Circumstance has sometimes dictated my role with the company over the years, which diversified my skillset. Capturing Bob’s essence in the completed instrument is ever intriguing.
GC: What is your personal approach to building?
DM: My focus is to build upon the extraordinary quality and sonority established by Bob over five decades.
GC: How do you maintain creative identity while carrying on such a profound legacy?
DM: The ability to manipulate the sonic characteristics of the wood to align with a customer’s vision is immensely satisfying. Though not distinct from Bob’s approach, I believe the maker’s “voice” is present in each instrument. I’ve made a few nylon string archtops that are incredibly unique and responsive.
GC: Was it intimidating at all to think of the responsibility of maintaining such an esteemed brand?
DM: It’s certainly a role I take seriously, but I find it more inspiring than intimidating.
GC: Are there any differences in your approach to the business of building high quality instruments and Bob’s?
DM: For most of their careers, Bob and Cindy did it all. The two of them were responsible for every component of the business, from making and finishing the guitars to bookkeeping, marketing, and customer relations. I am part of a team, with each member focused on different aspects. I handle the carving, voicing, and assembly of the Flagship instruments and supervise our production crew of expert Luthiers, Finishers, and Set-up specialists. Howard Paul takes care of the business end, and oversees our Sales, Marketing, and Administrative departments. This allows us to broaden our scope without compromising the exceptionally high standards established by Bob and Cindy.
GC: Where do you see yourself and Benedetto Guitars going from here on out?
DM: As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Benedetto Guitars, we are pleased with our position in the industry. We work directly with our customers to create and customize their dream guitars, and take great pleasure in personally welcoming each one into the Benedetto family. Moving forward we will concentrate on production of three or four of our most popular models (16” carved Bravo Elite & 16B, laminated Bravo Deluxe, and chambered solid-body GA-35), while continuing to make our flagship and custom instruments as special orders and commissions. Our goal is not to be the biggest manufacturer around, but to provide a comfortable future for our team while maintaining the integrity of the Benedetto name.
GC: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
DM: We have some exciting new projects in the works, so stay tuned for details!