Gary Mortoro:
His Guitars Sing and Soar
Changing careers is a common occurrence in modern day America. Often times, the decision to make a radical career change is determined by many factors, like unemployment, dissatisfaction, or insufficient pay.

Even so, a person will often make a change, but to a related field. This was not the case with Miami's guitar luthier Gary Mortoro. In fact, he has come into guitar building rather late in his life, having actively been building them for less than ten years.

During his adult life, he had been a chemist for Fabergé Cosmetics, a textile chemist, and a high school oceanography teacher. The transition from chemistry to artistry has been sublimely at work, like molten lava, and it is

now ready to erupt into the creative realm which he has created.

- The Early Years -

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he lived there for the first ten years of his life before moving to Fairlawn, New Jersey. Because his father continued working at the same job in New Jersey, Frank and Bruna Mortoro thought it made sense to move there with their son and daughter, Barbara.

As is true with most people involved in any art form, children are influenced by their families. In Gary's case, his mother loved to sing, while his father played the trombone and guitar. "My father's family was extremely musically talented," said Gary. "They all studied music as children.

"There were four brothers in my father's family: Dad, Gene, Mario and Ort. Dad, Uncle Gene, and Uncle Marty (Mario) played quite a bit.

"As children, all of them studied solfeggio, the Italian syllabication of musical symbols and rhythms. Back then, they studied solfeggio until they mastered it, usually about a year, before they were even allowed to pick up an instrument. They were very adept.

"My father could read music like a hawk. When I was seven, I was given an accordion. I became really good and gave recitals. At first it was fine, but as I started getting older, the accordion didn't make it for me," he laughed.

"One of my father's brothers, Uncle Marty, was a high school math teacher in Connecticut. But he loved the guitar. He initially played the jazz guitar. In the late 1940s, he played professionally.

"But somewhere in the '50s, he converted completely to the classical guitar. He didn't like the life-style forced on some of the jazz musicians. They had to work in places where people were drunk or they had to wear certain kinds of clothing or they had to play with inadequate musicians, things like that that he objected to.

"So he studied classical guitar, including a time at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, Spain. When Uncle Marty came to spend a week with us every summer, I studied with him and he taught me a lot of things. But before we'd play guitar, he would teach me new things in math," he chuckled.

"Whatever he wanted me to do in math, that's what we'd work on. When he was satisfied, then we'd go to the guitar. My father and all his brothers were very regimented on how things would get done."

As he was recalling memories of his father and uncles' families, the lilt in his voice depicted a smiling, delighted face reliving cherished memories of people who helped shape his thoughts, his attitudes and his abilities to handle any task at hand.

Not only have researchers proven that people who study music do better in every other subject than those who are not involved in music studies, people with a music background seem to be more adventurous in tackling other kinds of life challenges, too.

This is certainly the case of Gary Mortoro. "Music is audible math, really," he said, "when we're talking about rhythms."

The first guitar he played was an electric, thin body Zimgar, less than a hundred dollars that his father bought for him. "My Uncle Marty came to New Jersey on one of his trips. The first thing I would ask him is if he brought his guitar. One time, he told me no, he hadn't.

"But he had. He had hidden it in my closet and then sent me on some ruse to get something from the closet. And there it was, his Guild Manhattan in the case. He had given it to me when he gave up playing jazz guitar. I couldn't believe it."

"I took lessons from Joe Cinderella when I was in my teens. He was a renowned teacher and studio guitarist in New York."

The guitar, however, was not seriously considered by Gary as a career choice. He attended college with the traditional goal of graduating with a degree to be able to get a "real" job.

"I wanted to go into some area of science, but I didn't know for sure which specific one. When I lived in Brooklyn, my father would take me deep sea fishing once or twice a year. I was fascinated with the ocean.

"When we moved to Jersey, it was the same thing. I couldn't get enough of being around the ocean. So I recalled this love of the ocean when I was declaring a major in college, but they didn't have an undergraduate program in oceanography then. So I studied biology and chemistry.

"I still played guitar throughout college, but my main focus was to get a degree in science.

Early 1970s into the 1980s

Bad economy in the United States, the so-called non-war raging in Vietnam, and a looming Presidential impeachment that forced an eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, all were factors influencing many career decisions of people entering white collar professions in the early 1970s. Gary Mortoro was also affected.

Although he and his wife, Joan, were living in New Jersey, Gary was looking for a job in oceanography and few were to be had in the Northeast at this time.

"Grants in oceanography are given mostly to warm water climates; ninety percent of all funding goes to them. So I got on at the University of Miami, where I have a degree, and found this job in research in the late '70s.

"When the grant ended, I found out that I could teach marine biology and oceanography at the high school level. I taught public school until March of 1999. That was when I decided to go into guitar building full time."

His wife encouraged him into making this important decision.

During the '80s, famed guitarist and educator, Vincent Bredice, at one time a teacher of Gary's Uncle Marty, was living in Florida. Gary hooked up with him and asked if he could study guitar. Bredice said yes. But this connection had to end when Bredice subsequently moved to Missouri.

After all the years spent as a chemist, scientist and teacher, he would eventually reach a point where building a guitar became not only a challenge for him, it is now the challenge for him. Competition is fierce. There are many skilled luthiers from coast-to-coast.

For example, Denny Stevens lives in Oregon and has a four to five year waiting period for each of his highly crafted and beautifully sounding instruments.

Gary Mortoro has a waiting list and that continues to be growing, too.

Before deciding to build a guitar, the idea has to strike in the mind and lodge there awhile before action is taken. In Gary's case, the idea first came to him as a little boy watching the Ed Sullivan Variety Show on television.

He remembered seeing a man playing a guitar made of toothpicks! That piqued Gary's inquisitive mind, however, into asking the question of how one builds a guitar? He also thought why would someone spend all that time making a guitar of toothpicks? Why not just build a regular one?

Armed with that memory, those questions, and a love for woodworking, he decided to put all of these questions to the test. Gary's father, Frank, had been a project engineer and a skilled woodworker.

"My father had taught me woodworking and we built all kinds of projects together: furniture, cabinets and so on. He had been very analytical in everything that he did. It had to be right. He taught me how to read blueprints to how to materialize the blueprint.

"My mother, Bruna, was a tremendous artist, especially oil paints. She was a big influence on me, too. I attribute my artistic abilities to her and my analytical skills to my father."

In the late 1980s, he met Bob Benedetto, master luthier, through his friend, Bucky Pizzarelli, a Benedetto player. "I asked him if there were any books to read that would teach me what I want to know about building a guitar.

"Originally, I just wanted to build one for myself. Basically, Bob took me under his wing, as he was living in Clearwater, Florida, near me. But he was just getting ready to move to Pennsylvania in 1990, I think.

"Largely through conversation, he guided me through the steps of constructing the guitar." That Gary was never an apprentice with anyone makes the quality of his instruments even more extraordinary.

A few years after his initial contact with Benedetto, Hurricane Andrew left a path of destruction in 1992 from which residents of Miami and other land sites are still recovering. Gary's first-built guitar had received its first coat of lacquer on a Thursday. Andrew hit on Sunday and demolished the instrument.

"We had no power for six weeks. It took us three years to get our home rebuilt."

He would have to wait almost a year before he had another guitar built and ready to play before actually hearing the fruits of his labor. Was it worth the wait? Gary Mortoro is too modest to give me a good answer so I asked a couple of his friends.

Put their comments together with the fact that owners of his guitars include:

George Benson, Tony Mottola, Rodney Jones, Jimmy Vivino, Gene Bertoncini, Joe Cinderella, and Jimmy Buffett and you have an idea of how impressive his guitars are.

Here is what George Benson and Tony Mottola had to say about the guitar and the man:

George Benson on Gary Mortoro and his Guitars:

"Gary and I have become really good friends. The thing that attracted me to his guitars was, first, the ingenious design with the birds; the cutouts are birds instead of f-holes. The way that he did it, too, is so creative; not symmetrical. He really gives a human touch to the instrument and shows a lot of art.

"I have great admiration for that kind of creativity. Another special thing about his instruments is that he also put a bird on the edge of the guitar that faces the player. This makes for an instant response in hearing the sound that we have never had before. No other guitar that I've ever played has that feature. It's a concept that a lot of people are paying attention to. It's innovative.

"I plan to experiment with it in the studio, at some point. Gary's guitar has a lot of acoustic value; more so than the standard electric guitar. He's one of the few guys that has given a nice acoustic sound to the instrument. It's value, for me, is that it has both electric and acoustic elements.

"A friend of mine was playing it recently - fingerstyle. He was going 'Wow! Wow!'

"Gary is a very gracious type person. He never steps on anybody's toes. He opens up to me on personal things. He likes to hear the other man's opinion, and you know how rare that is. He appreciates everything, and that, too, is rare. I like doing things with him.

"He is a good player, too. He shocked me. I didn't know he was that good of a player. We sat down one day and he played a recording that he had done and it was magnificent! I thought, Wow, this guy needs to get out and play some guitar for the people.

"I'm trying to convince him that no matter how good you are, you can always seek a further horizon for yourself." George Benson

Tony Mottola:

One of the best guitarists of all time, Tony Mottola worked in the studios for more than fifty years, accompanying such singers as Perry Como, Burl Ives and Frank Sinatra. More about this guitar legend in an upcoming 20th Century Guitar Jazz Profile:

"I first met Gary through Bucky Pizzarelli. They stopped by to say hello and Gary said he'd like to build me a guitar. I told him that was very nice, but that I'm not playing anymore. I've been retired since 1986.

"I had seen Rodney Jones and Gene Bertoncini at the Classic Guitar Show (presented by 20th Century Guitar magazine). That's when I first saw Gary's instruments. Gene and Rodney were playing Gary's guitars and I thought they sounded great.

"It was after that show that he stopped over with Bucky and that was how he decided that he wanted to make me a guitar. I told him I'd love to have one. So he did. And it's a beauty.

"It's one of the finest guitars I've ever played and I've had quite a few of them, including the D'Angelicos, D'Aquistos, the Gibsons, and Epiphones and this is right up there with the best of them.

"He has that warm, jazz sound that I love after years of listening to all this rock 'n roll, where everything had to be highs, roll off the lows. We went through that in the studio days.

"But Gary's is a warm, beautifully sounding guitar and it plays so easily. I'm enjoying it." Tony plays the Starling model.

As a writer, I have interviewed dozens of people and written stories about them. I've talked to dozens more in doing research about a topic. What I love most about the pre-writing experience is the privilege accorded me in being allowed into the personal lives of all these people.

It is they, in part, who remind me of the utter goodness and joy in our world when it sometimes seems to be sagging, or at least, tilting sideways as we become laden down in a society filled with greed, violence and a need to get ahead, no matter what the cost.

Gary Mortoro has become my friend in a few short months while speaking back and forth on the phone. As yet, I have not heard his instruments, but look forward to listening to Rodney Jones' Blue Note release, The Undiscovered Fan, on which he uses the Mortoro guitar.

However, for those who will be attending the Greater St. Louis Guitar Show during September 15-16, you will be able to experience first hand the sight and sounds of a guitar that seems to be destined towards greatness. He will have a booth there.

The measure of this man, it appears, lies in his gift to see and hear beauty in Creation. Gary takes one of those creations, the bird, and fuses it into the very essence of the instrument he builds.

He sees, hears and understands the soul of the guitarist. His instruments seem to embrace the family lessons he learned as a child: do it well, with love, with humor, make is sing and soar.

So far, so good. I look forward to hearing much more about the Mortoro Guitars and most especially, the man who makes them.

Jude Hibler can be contacted at 303-776-1764, info@jazzlinkenterprises.com or www.jazzlinkenterprises.com.

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