The Chisels are Calling
Although their prominence in bluegrass and roots music has receded and grown over the decades, archtop guitars (and their brethren in the mandolin family) have played a significant role in our music. Mother Maybelle Carter legendarily played a classic Gibson L-5 created by Lloyd Loar. Miscellaneous rhythm players in many early mountain, Western and folk bands used archtops due to their unique projection and percussive pop, or more likely because it was the only guitar available. More recently, various Kentucky Thunder guitarists have used one, as does the talented Courtney Hartman. And many modern players like Sierra Hull and Joe K. Walsh have adopted octave mandolins, which are essentially an archtop guitar with an eight-string neck.
The modern king of the archtop, John Monteleone, has left a lasting legacy in bluegrass and new acoustic music. David Grisman worked with Monteleone to design the radical Grand Artist model, considered a milestone in modern mandolin design and the first truly revolutionary advance in mandolin design beyond the F-5. It’s even featured on the cover of Dawg’s Quintet 80 album. Mike Marshall famously uses a custom Monteleone octave mandolin for tunes like “Gator Strut,” and allowed Monteleone to regraduate the top and voice the tone bars of his own Loar F-5 because he was sure the instrument could provide more of what he needed. Paul Glasse, who used a Monteleone Style B mandolin on his albums, also appears playing his treasured instrument.
In The Chisels Are Calling, the producers and director have crafted a documentary almost as finely made as Monteleone’s guitars—which can reach prices just under $200,000. It lovingly explores not only his personal impact on these exquisite instruments, it informs the viewer with the rich history of the archtop variety of acoustic guitars through the history of legendary builders like John D’Angelico and Jimmy D’Aquisto, while recognizing John Monteleone as the heir apparent to those Italian-descended, NYC-based builders he so admires and respects. Monteleone guitars are fine art objects upon which beautiful music can be made.
Filled with gorgeous background music from David Grisman, Julian Lage and Mike Marshall, as well as non-bluegrass artists like blues slide specialist Ben Harper and rock guitar legend Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, The Chisels Are Calling delves into minute detail on Monteleone’s career. It includes his recollections of building his first guitar because, as so many other luthiers discovered, he could build a better guitar than he could afford. After his long-time stint as chief repairman at Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island, Monteleone even applied for a position at C.F. Martin, and was turned down. Imagine if his creative vision and remarkable craftsmanship had been applied to the guitars from Nazareth, PA.
Although not exclusively focused on bluegrass, this documentary appeals to anyone with a passion for acoustic guitar design and construction, an eye for modern design, and an appreciation for how one instrument builder can change the trajectory of an entire style of instrument. A bravura performance.