Article Acoustic Guitar
John Mello ~ San Francisco Bay Area luthier specializes in the
fusion of classical and steel-string designs.
By Doug Young
Prepare to Meet the Maker: John F. Mello
by Cyndy Burton
Guild of American Luthier's Journal
Photos by Jon Sievert (From : American Lutherie # 48 / Winter 1986 )
I talked to John Mello, a very successful guitar maker, restorer, and repairperson at the shop he owns and operates in Kensington, California, right next to Berkeley. It was a lovely fall day and the light from skylights perhaps twenty feet overhead lay across a vast shop crammed with work stations, power tools, and instruments. We were in the orderly and clean area reserved for lessons, guitar sales, and the public.
John, how’d you get started in this business?
I played guitar from the time I was about fifteen. I sent a guitar back to the factory once to have some work done. It took them six months, cost me $60, and they didn’t do what I thought was a good job. Then when I was about eighteen I tried to have a set of machine heads put on a guitar. A week later when I picked it up, the machine heads had been installed backwards and upside down. I got very frustrated with this sort of incompetence, and I didn’t really want to be victimized by people like that anymore. I was going to school at Oberlin College in Ohio, and we had a month each year for independent study. For my month I chose to make a guitar. There was a student on campus who made guitars as a hobby and he let me use his workshop. I got Irving Sloane’s Classic Guitar Construction, a bunch of inexpensive wood from the Craftsman Woodservice Company, and I just had at it.
It was a classical guitar and had a few of the usual "hippie-dippy" touches of the time. On the heel cap there was a little mother-of-pearl flower inlay. I made my own rosette which I sanded almost all the way through after I put it in. I didn’t complete it within the month, finally finishing it in a basement in Philadelphia where I went for a semester of independent study. I’d say a good 90% of amateur makers who bring me their first guitars did a better job than I did with mine. I was not an inherently gifted craftsperson at all, as any of my seventh grade shop projects would also show. It had a big puffy bass, and the treble was a little thin and nasally; but I got a rush like I never experienced doing anything else. Those were my notes coming out of that sucker. And I thought, ``I’ve got to learn how to do this thing right, because it is so much fun to do it wrong...''
The next year during my independent study month, I built another guitar, this time a big-bodied 12-string with a European spruce top and Brazilian rosewood, materials I wish I had back now. That was fun, too. And that one really did sound good, better than any 12-string I’d ever heard before and a lot of other people had ever heard before. And it almost played. It was a little rugged, but I really loved it. By that point I was hooked.
I started looking for an apprenticeship after I graduated in 1971. I went to Michael Gurian’s shop, which was on Grant Street in New York. He was beginning production at the time, and I was looking for a place with a solo builder. I met a lovely man called Victor Manuel who worked out of his kitchen in Brooklyn, but he wasn’t doing it for a living; and he couldn’t apprentice me in his kitchen because his wife cooked there. I called Manuel Velasquez, too, who was also in New York then. He was very polite but informed me that he wasn’t taking any apprentices, and neither was Manouk Papazian.
In an early issue of Guitar Player magazine I’d seen an article by Richard Schneider. He seemed young and exciting, and a thinking maker. I flew out to Detroit, stayed with him for a couple of days, and I was really excited with his work. His craftsmanship was excellent, and he was really imaginative aesthetically. He was thinking a lot about guitar design. It was very exciting for me to see both scientific principles and aesthetics employed in guitarmaking.
Was he already making Kasha guitars?
He was making Kashas, but he also made traditional instruments. I could see that both his traditional instruments and his Kasha instruments were aesthetically excellent. The lines were harmonious. Curves in one part of the instrument reflected curves in others. Color choices were carried throughout the instrument and related to the wood tones. There weren’t just garish colors thrown in arbitrarily. The Kasha stuff was wild, but it was thematically unified. I thought he would be a really exciting person to study with, that I would not only learn traditional ways of instrument making from somebody who learned them traditionally, but I’d also learn a little bit about theoretical physics and how it could be applied to guitar making. I couldn’t wait to get started.
I went back to Massachusetts and finished my summer waiting tables at a country club so I could get enough money. Then I bought myself a ’61 Buick Special for $200, loaded what few things I had in there, and drove to Detroit. Once there, I got another restaurant job to support myself and a cheap apartment in a bad part of town. Then I started in.
It was a really exciting time. Every day was a revelation, learning what one had to do to get first-class results. One of the most important things I learned from Richard was that each stage of construction had to be done to a specific standard below which you should be ashamed to sink. If you could see how the work should be before you proceeded and would not be satisfied with less, you could craft instruments that you could show to anyone with pride. Studying with Richard gave me the most solid foundation for a career I could have wanted. It’s funny that although my instruments have evolved far from the Kasha-Schneider technical designs and aesthetics, I feel Richard’s influence to this day in the way I approach my work. If I could, with twenty-five years hindsight, arrange to have studied with any current or historical maker, I would still choose Richard Schneider.
How long were you with Richard?
Only about a year. And while I was there I met Jeff Elliott who was just finishing his time with Richard. We decided to open up a shop together. It was on the second floor of a rock 'n’ roll music store called Fiddlers Music in Detroit. We had twenty-four hour access to the building, so even if it got kind of hairy during the day with people trying out guitars, it was a wonderful place to work at night or on weekends, because it was really quiet then. I actually consider myself apprenticed under Jeff at that time, because he’d had much more experience with Richard than I did. He also had much more repair experience, probably more than Richard had, particularly in steel strings, because Jeff came from a folk tradition, too. So I learned a lot from Jeff, both about building to round out what I learned from Schneider, and about repairing. I got to see Jeff make a couple of instruments while I was there.
You can’t say anything nasty about him 'cause he’s right here.
We ran the repair shop together and made a lot of joint purchases. It was an exciting time because we both needed to get tools. We’d get a little money squirreled away and put a deposit on a bunch of tools and then go to work and make enough money to actually buy them. We’d go to Sears and get all the generic hand tools, all the Phillips-head screw drivers, routers, and other things we needed to complete the shop. It was kind of fun building up the shop.
After a couple of years, my wife-to-be was going to graduate school at the University of California in Berkeley and Jeff and his family were going to move to Portland, Oregon. And I didn’t necessarily want to stay in Detroit. I was looking for someplace to set up shop and begin my career, and the Bay Area seemed like as good a place as any. I’d never been here, but I’d heard it was a beautiful area. We worked furiously for about four or five months to complete all our repairs, and in Jeff’s case a couple of commissions.
We loaded up a 24' U-Haul with two shoploads of equipment. There was a milling machine, two bandsaws, a couple of planers, all kinds of wood, and all of Jeff’s household stuff. It was literally stuffed to the gills. But we managed to make it across country, stop off in Portland and unload all of Jeff’s stuff, then drive down to San Francisco and unload all my things here. That was in the summer of ’73.
Have you been in this location since ’73?
No. I was in the basement of a music store called Tupper and Reed on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley for a dozen years. It was good because I got a lot of exposure in the music community; Tupper and Reed was a very big music store. And they treated me very well, very forgiving when I was late with rent. They actually based my rent on a very reasonable percentage of repair work. And they were great people. But the shop was too small. I’m 6'2" and the 7' ceilings were a little claustrophobic. And it didn’t have any natural light or ventilation. I had my spray booth at my house so I’d be ferrying instruments back and forth. But it was my own little world and I loved it.
So you were managing to do repair business for them and build your own instruments at the same time?
Yes, until about ten years ago. Tupper and Reed was a full-line music store. They started to stock more and more electric guitars. What used to be an acoustic piano showroom with an occasional visitor turned into the electric guitar, synthesizer, and amp showroom. I just couldn’t do fret jobs with some bozo playing Stairway to Heaven next to me at full volume. I almost didn’t mind Stairway to Heaven played on the electric guitar, but when they hooked up a synthesizer and played it with the vocal stop that’s where I drew the line. I just had to leave.
I also wanted to begin merchandising more of my own instruments, and I couldn’t do that there. As part of my repair work I wanted to sell student instruments. A high percentage of the time that people came to me for repairs, they had instruments that were simply not worth fixing. A properly modified student guitar can start a novice out on the right foot with a good sounding and playing instrument. And frankly there was money to be made by selling an instrument like that, because it was very hard to get. I figured I should be the one to sell them that instrument as much as anybody else. Also I was the one who was recommending they not fix what they brought in. Then a wonderful space opened up about 200 yards from my house, so the commute’s right.
It looks like you have 30, 40 guitars here, new guitars, mainly?
They’re new, old, Santa Cruz, Taylor, Martin, Gibson, Guild. I stock new student instruments, all solid tops, no laminates. I go through each guitar and do a fret-mill on them. On the steel string guitars I actually go in and shave the braces, scallop them and reshape them pretty heavily. What I can offer the student for a reasonable price is an instrument that’s set up as well as anything else on the market, so they don’t have to worry about mechanical problems. I warranty the instrument really thoroughly. They can get a good start; and that keeps people wanting to play the guitar and eventually getting something better. I have a liberal buy-back policy; and in the last ten years only two people have taken me up on it, because the instruments are good enough that they keep them or pass them on when they upgrade.
You buy instruments back for...
Wholesale price. Anytime anybody wants to bring an instrument back, as long as it’s in good condition, I’ll buy it for half of what they paid for it, or they can put it on consignment and get 75% when it’s sold. It doesn’t have to be pristine but it can’t be beat to death.
I started this policy for students. People were worried about spending $400 on a student guitar for their kid, because they were afraid he or she would outgrow it or decide not to play the guitar. The typical $200 guitar is not set up properly, so the kid’s busting his fingers trying to play it; and also it doesn’t sound like much because it’s a laminated top. It’s not worth it to me to spend the time on those. I spend about an hour and a half on most of these instruments, and that gives the kid a full shot at having a good sounding instrument. People don’t give kids enough credit for having auditory discrimination. They don’t have the bullshit vocabulary that adults will sometimes use to describe either wine or sound, but they’re much more direct and their hearing is better. If they hear a really wonderful instrument, it’s very visceral. Their eyes will light up and they can really tell. So if you give them a piece of crap that doesn’t produce a good sound, even if it’s mechanically correct, chances are they’ll get discouraged and quit.
I’ve noticed you have a 61CM scale classical with a solid top that’s really nice for under $400?
They’re $395. Unfortunately there’s not a comparable, solid-top, small-bodied steel string. Martin Guitars used to import a wonderful instrument in their Goya line (Goya G-230S). It was a 000 size, solid-top guitar, and it sounded wonderful for the money. With the popularity now of small-bodied Taylors, Santa Cruz's, and Martins, maybe it will come back.
Let’s talk about your own building. Do you build Kasha-style classicals and steel strings?
I’ve never built a Kasha-style classic except my first instrument under Schneider, which looked traditional but the top was heavily Kasha braced. And it originally had a semi-Kasha bridge which I later converted to a standard bridge.
My steel strings have gradually gravitated away from the Kasha design as have my classical guitars. My steel strings incorporated some things, but I don’t weight the neck, I don’t split the bridge anymore, and I never made the impedance-loaded asymmetrical bridge on any of the instruments. But I did use some of the Kasha principles I learned from Schneider as well as principles gleaned by seeing other instruments. I took what I could from whatever influence I could, although I filtered out a lot of the Kasha stuff right away. If you looked at my design now it would be asymmetrical, which I would liken somewhat to Kasha, but also it’s as much like Ramirez and some of the instruments of Torres and a lot of other Spanish makers. Even a X-braced steel string is somewhat asymmetrical. So the asymmetry about my guitar is influenced by Kasha theory. The brace flying through the transverse bar on the bass side has a lot of precedents, but the first time I was exposed to that was through the Kasha system. I don’t micro-grade my top, I keep it an even thickness. I don’t even thin down the perimeter. I decide on the thickness of the top, and I leave it that way. I mass load it via the braces as opposed to thinning the top in different areas. So there are some things in my design I owe to Kasha, but I consciously filtered out some, because I didn’t think they worked for the kind of guitars I wanted to make.
I know you’ve done a lot of restoration work on some pretty interesting instruments. Is restoration a specialty?
It’s not really a specialty because it’s probably just 20% of my work. If it’s broke I fix it, and I do whatever it takes to do that whether it’s an 1862 Antonio Torres or a three-day-old Yamaha that a little kid is having a problem with because it’s improperly adjusted.
I enjoy restoration work because it’s a challenge. It’s also a real frustration especially with an older instrument that has been messed around with over the years by people of varying abilities. Some of the wood you want back on the instrument was left on some shop floor as sawdust fifty years ago.
I restored one instrument from 1862 I would almost have rather held in front of a train and just gone and picked up the pieces, because then I could at least assemble the original thing as opposed to seeing situations like the a bridge set up on a little raft of spruce with all the wood having been sanded away around it. When bad repair decisions have been made, it’s really hard to figure out what to do. I think the main goal in restoration is to restore an instrument to its full acoustic potential, not to remake an instrument in the restorer’s own image. That’s very hard to do when the original instrument has been compromised so much.
If you’re dealing with an instrument that was made early in someone’s career, consider that they may have done things differently later on. So if that same Torres came back into his possession twenty years down the line, he would have done things to it that he didn’t do in 1862, just to maintain its structural integrity given what he’d learned. Now it’s 130 years later, and we’ve learned things. I’ve had to make modifications accordingly, for example in scaling and in what will affect long-term integrity. And there are other things that you need to do just to keep the instrument together that Torres never did during his lifetime. We now have modern glues to better serve a particular situation than those Torres had. Torres was a tremendously innovative person; he wouldn’t have used epoxy to glue a top together, but you can bet in certain instances he would have reached for the epoxy or superglue in the blink of an eye. He used all different sources of wood of "varying" quality. He was much more freewheeling than most of the makers are today or most of the makers were in the past 200 years. And he was a seminal influence in his time. He would be much more willing to incorporate stuff that he learned on an instrument than a lot of restorers would be today. There’s a somewhat justifiable tendency to want authenticity in instruments, but I think it really gets anal retentive when it’s taken to the extent of people wanting to use original glues or original gears. I mean nobody who runs a Model T expects to have its original tires. And yet people will go bananas if a 000-18 doesn’t have all its original tuners. Most Stradivarius violins have had their neck angles changed, their fingerboards changed, and a higher bridge put on for modern playing practices. These instruments have been allowed to last for 300 years and are now singing in contemporary concerts.
It’s amazing to me that we wouldn’t afford somebody like Torres, who in a way is our Stradivarius, the same respect to actually do whatever we can to make these instruments playable for modern concerts. Often in restoration, people will tack the instrument back together as best they can, putting very, very light gauge strings on it, and use it to play period music. That wasn’t what Torres was about. His guitars were played by Llobet and Tarrega, and they were used to play music that is in some ways every bit as modern as 95% of the contemporary repertoire. They were used during a time when people were much more coloristic, were searching for a wide variety of tonal colors in a guitar. And these instruments were tuned to concert pitch and played hard. It was the magic of the sound that people appreciated about these instruments. They didn’t go to him because he was necessarily the most exquisite craftsman of his time, because he wasn’t. His instruments were well made, but it was the sound that drew people to those instruments. A sound that was characteristically very different from what a lot makers are achieving today, and I would argue a sound that projects as well today as a lot of the so-called concert instruments that are made in a drastically different way. And I think Torres instruments have a wider range of tonal colors. He was a person that pushed the envelope. His instruments were whistle-thin. That’s what makes restoration so hard. The tops and sides are really thin, which produces a dramatically different sound. So you have to preserve that sound and at the same time make sure the damn thing holds together.
You did restore one of them completely. Had you read the Romanillos book on Torres when you began work on the 1862?
It was the main reason I could do the restoration. It was extremely valuable first of all because it was one of the first guitar books I had seen that was actually written for adults. It was intelligently written with an empathy for Torres as a person. It wasn’t written as a fan, but as someone with a genuine affection for the person with all his strong points and all his frailties. You got a real sense of what made his instruments what they were. It gave me the strength to begin the restoration.
I had worked on Hausers, Santos Hernandezes, old rare Martins, old Strats from the mid-50s, just about everything under the sun. But this one intimidated me because it wasn’t a problem I could just repair. I had to figure out what I was going to do to make it a viable instrument when all the stuff I needed wasn’t there. Even if all the original wood were there, it would still have serious structural problems. I didn’t know exactly what Torres had done later on in his career because I hadn’t seen that many of his guitars. I didn’t know enough about the man to know what kind of approach he would have taken if he could restore one of his own instruments. And I felt I was obliged to consider that.
That book gave me, first of all, the knowledge to proceed by seeing what Torres did later on in his career. But it also gave me the philosophical strength I needed, because I saw that Torres was very much the innovator. For example, the book mentions that Torres’ son-in-law was using a board to make a lintel in a doorway, and Torres took the board out and replaced it with another saying something like, "This board is too good, I’m going to use it for guitar making"
He was much more freewheeling than "traditional" makers of today. Torres used woods they would never touch with a ten foot pole. People are busy measuring grain lines per inch and medullary rays to within an inch of their lives, and Torres would have taken the damn thing and built with it. It gave me the strength to be a little more freewheeling and to do it responsibly, because I had the knowledge now to back me up.
I thought it was a wonderful book. Also it was written with a real humanity you can easily miss in the guitar world, where people are comparing their instruments, wanting to be the king of the hill. The real, day-to-day element a person lives, the way it gets transferred into his or her work, very rarely gets talked about and considered.
The Torres I restored was a small-bodied instrument made in 1862, 64CM scale, fairly deep, very thin top, thin sides. I took off some really heavy previous crack repair reinforcements and reinforced the soundhole area pretty heavily. And one side was so thin, that although I wanted to preserve it, was too thin to just reinforce. But I wanted to preserve his wood choice in the original side, because the sides weren’t matched. It was a very casual choice of side wood. So I bent another side and laminated it internally so that on the outside it looked like the instrument originally did, and from the inside it was strong enough to hold together. I added an additional brace to the back as Torres did later on instruments of this same size, because two braces in the back did not hold the thing together. From Romanillos’ book I could see where Torres went from occasionally building an instrument with only two back braces, to only doing it on the cheaper ones, to always using three.
The guitar clearly had a history of coming apart at the body joint; it was a mess in that area. And that extra back brace was a major component in keeping the whole thing together. It is reversible if somebody ever wants to make it like it was originally and wants to watch it fold up again. They could pull it apart, and they could remove that back brace. I did what I thought Torres would have done if he saw it and said, "Gee, 1862, and it doesn’t work. I’ve done two or three of those two-back brace guitars, and they all fall apart."
I thought it sounded beautiful. It had a well-balanced sound. The fundamental on the sixth string was particularly strong for a small guitar. I had a full-sized Spanish guitar, a Contreras concert guitar, 66CM scale to compare it with. The Torres had as much fundamental, a very full, rounded bass. The treble was very clear and it projected really well, but it had a warm, round sound and a wide range of tonal colors and a broad dynamic range.
I gave a lecture at the Carmel Classic Guitar Society about the restoration and a guitarist gave a concert on it. I really liked the sound. It was fully capable of playing the complete modern repertoire, and it was one of his smaller guitars, not necessarily one of his concert models. It didn’t seem tremendously loud close up, but it really projected and the character of the sound was really beautiful.
No guitar in the world is going to fill a hall with 3,000 people without amplification. So we need to make a guitar that will speak eloquently, then worry about whether it reaches the person in the back of the hall, instead of trying to make something that’s kind of loud and brash with less of a palette of colors or dynamic range. Because in a concert hall, that instrument won’t be heard either. Trying to make a concert guitar to project for 3,000 people is like trying to make a bicycle that will go to the moon. You can make it out of the best titanium alloy, carbon fiber, you can put three spokes on the whole damn wheel, you can go without a seat just to save the weight, you can beef up to be as muscular as you can, and have 2% body fat, and so on. You’re going to get the sucker to go fast, but you’re never going to be able to bicycle to the moon. And you’re never going to be able to get a guitar, given its mechanical limitations, to project in your average hall of over 2000 people.
The Torres spoke eloquently, something neither I nor the owner expected of a guitar so old and so extensively repaired. I was moved. I was amazed at how wonderful the guitar sounded and that it could be played today in a modern concert and hold its own. It wasn’t a quaint historical piece like a forte piano or baroque-bowed violin.
How did this experience influence or change your own building?
I was surprised that somebody who’d been dead a hundred years would influence my building, but he did in a lot of very small ways. I was already building closer to that design than many modern makers: my body depth is very shallow; I use a 65CM scale; my tops are taken very thin; my braces are heavily triangulated. At this point I wouldn’t take my tops quite as thin as I think he did, because I don’t think it serves any useful purpose.
In subtle ways he has influenced me. I like the kerfed linings and I use them with the grain oriented the way Torres did during that period (parallel to sides). I like the rounded sound I think it gives. And I like the free-flowing style of building. I like using a variety of woods.
The word traditional means almost nothing in this context. I think most people think of guitars built in the last thirty or forty yeas as traditional. The Kasha design isn’t necessarily all that untraditional. I would say a 1969 concert Ramirez guitar is about as much like an Antonio Torres as a Kasha design is. In some ways the Kasha design is closer to the Antonio Torres. The Ramirez is this big, huge-scaled thing, the finish is much thicker, it has heavy transverse bars, and the tops are much thicker. Of course, the Kasha design is further out. But those two instruments are as much dissimilar to me as a Kasha is to a Torres or as a Kasha is to one of my instruments.
Torres was a very innovative builder. He did things that had never been done before, and he also just put together, synthesized things that had been done before, but in a very particular way. He used his intelligence and his empirically-accrued knowledge to build these wonderful instruments . They are an expression of all those things that had been coming in that he had thought about and experienced and then learned over the course of his career. Every maker does that. My instruments are a synthesis of all the things I’ve learned based on all the instruments I’ve looked at, repaired, admired, or hated. And the sounds that are coming out of that box are my sounds, just like the sounds that came out of the Torres box are the Torres sound. I can try to appropriate some of those if I like them, but I can’t try to conquer them nor would I want to. But in neither case is my instrument traditional or untraditional, nor were Torres’ instruments. A lot of instruments that supposedly are untraditional are just another person making a guitar in the way he or she sees fit. I mean, if you want to put the soundhole up on the headstock, or you change it from strings to hammers plucking the strings, well then you start getting into untraditional; but it’s pretty hard to say exactly what is tradition. It’s like saying that all literature is based on stuff that was written by European and American white males from 1750 to 1895. That’s not traditional writing. That’s just writing from 1750 to 1895. And the same thing with instruments. I think you can harken back to Torres as an individual, because there were very few people who built as well as he did afterwards. It’s dramatically different from what’s done today.
One passage I really loved from Romanillos’ book describes the character of sound, which I believe is the same sound that made me fall in love with the guitar. The character of the sound, that’s what we were all drawn to originally, and it’s the most important thing.
About the Torres sound Romanillos writes: "On quiet evenings in La Cañada, while waiting for the glue to dry or weary after a long day’s work, Torres would relax by playing his own compositions and popular airs to the delight of his eves-dropping neighbors. This routine was well known among neighbors and farmworkers toiling in the nearby fields behind Torres’ house and it was a common occurrence to see the laborers halting their work during the maize harvest so that the cracking noise made by the peeling of the dry leaves of the cobs should not drown the sound of the guitar."
- Romanillos, J., Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker - His Life and Work, Dorset, 1987, p. 166
You know, if you’ve got a hall of 500 people and everybody keeps quiet, that’s the kind of stuff that can be projected back there to them. For me, that’s the heart of it; that’s what matters.
Various views of two of John's guitars.
Interior View of 1862 Torres before restoration; Same view after restoration; Back ready for reassembly (note the 3 back braces).