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Previously featured on GuitarSessions.com

Mortoro Guitars- Handcrafted Beauty & Elegance

by Gary Mortoro

For this profile I was asked to consider writing about what makes my guitars special or different from other builders. Each builder in fact is unique or different from all others. I continually try to improve, refine, and create the best instrument I can make with the realization that one never arrives at perfection. At the age of 94 Andrés Segovia said, "If I live another 94 years, maybe I will be able to play this instrument somewhat the way it should be." This is a great perspective to keep in mind.

I have tried to accomplish a few things that identify my guitars. One was to create a unique style in addition to the traditional archtop guitars which I make. My guitars with bird-shaped soundholes gave me this opportunity. The Starling (Il Storno) is my most popular model. Another thing I have done is cut a soundhole on the topside of the upper bout. I first did this with the bird models, then later on with the f-hole models as an option. In all of these designs, function, tonal characteristics, aesthetics, and structural integrity were prominent in my approach.

Another area of interest I have been experimenting with is enhancing the tonal qualities of the instrument. I've read numerous accounts on the great master Antonio Stradivari dealing with the woods, colors, varnishes, etc. he used. One article dealt with the amount of time the wood spent soaking in bogs where it absorbed various constituents. The point presented in this article was that Stradivari may have had exceptional woods, and thus his instruments were naturally better. We all encounter wood grades with varying tonal qualities in our building. While one could never diminish the brilliance of Stradivari, as in modern times, on some occasions the wood he used was better than others. What occurred to me was that this represented a variable, and I thought a somewhat controllable one. I also recalled research on the varnish he used and attempts to duplicate it.

Most builders probably seal the inside of their instruments. The look is appealing and the sealer acts as a moisture barrier; however, I believe its use can be taken a huge step further, and utilized to enhance the overall sound profile of the instrument. Since 1999 I have experimented with altering the chemical composition and the viscosity of the sealer. My intent is to affect the physical factors governing sound propagation by altering the density of the tonewood; i.e., to duplicate what naturally occurred with some of the billets of wood Stradivari used. The results are quite noticeable. Even if the instrument has been structurally crafted to maximize acoustics, further enhancement is still possible. For the exterior of the instrument, we might also use finishes that are more contributive acoustically.

There are tried and proven methods that we all follow, as we should; however, in many cases we limit ourselves and our visions with boundaries of one type or another. Coming from a scientific background, I am accustomed to turning every stone. We often hear the expression "Think outside the box." The phrase is commonly used and too casually exercised, but relevant here. I would say, "Think outside the box and apply it to the box," the "box" being the instrument or anything else in life you are involved with. Tap the creative side of your brain and test your intuitions.

The following is a brief account of the guitar I designed for Jimmy Buffett. The article is used with kind permission from Just Jazz Guitar* magazine where it first appeared.

I always liked Jimmy Buffett's music & hoped one day to meet him, probably in So. FL. Instead, I met him at Rudy's Music Stop in N.Y.C. when I was consigning a guitar. He commented on the guitar I had (my Starling model w/bird soundholes) and arranged to give me backstage passes to his concert in West Palm Beach, as long as I brought a couple of guitars for him to play before the concert. I was floored by his generosity.

The concert was great, an event that has to be experienced. I brought an opaque black f hole model which he later used in the studio, & then was purchased by George Benson, and a Starling I just finished for Tony Mottola. A couple of months later we talked about me building him a guitar.

I wanted to design something specific for him; palm trees, parrots, or manatees. It had to look aesthetically right and meet all structural requirements. After drawing what seemed like a million designs, I put the plans down for a while. Later I came up with this parrot design. I checked out several ornithology books from the library to check for anatomical confirmation.

The parrot soundholes are placed where f holes usually are. I also cut a parrot "monitor" on the upper side bout. My wife chose the color. When she told me I said 'G. R. E. E. N'! I thought the design was getting a little "out there," maybe the color should be subdued, but she was right. I mixed three shades of green and a little black to achieve the final color.

I had recently made Jimmy Vivino a guitar with built-in Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickups which he chose. I never used them before. They're great pickups, so I used them on Jimmy Buffett's guitar with a 3 way switch, 2 volume, 2 tone, and a kill switch which cuts everything. The guitar is pretty much a standard archtop like I usually make. It's a 16" body, 2 3/16" thick, with a 25" fingerboard scale. The pickguard I inlayed w/pearl and abalone to reveal the shape of the concealed parrot head. I often do that with f hole models just outlining the edge with 1/16" pearl.

I've got my other designs stored away and hope they'll come to life one day. It was a great experience and Jimmy is a warm down to earth guy. He let me play his guitar that Martin custom built for him while he and his two guitar players (Peter Mayer & Mac McAnally) played the ones I brought. The three of them were great. By the way, Jimmy plays really well and his timing is impeccable; he knows where one always is. . . and four! If you get the opportunity check him out in concert. He's phenomenal.

* This portion of Gary Motoro's article derived from Just Jazz Guitar magazine; Ed Benson, Editor; PO Box 76053; Atlanta, GA 30358; tel: 404-250-9298; fax: 404-250-9951; email: justjazzguitar@mindspring.com; website: www.justjazzguitar.com .