For one night, two paragons of exquisite Savannah-based craftsmanship will merge as the Savannah Music Festival hosts a 50th anniversary celebration concert for Savannah-based Benedetto Guitars.
The festival has culled a lineup of the best music from around the world in a 17-day springtime showcase for nearly three decades. In kind, Robert Benedetto’s custom guitar company has been crafting some of the world’s greatest archtop jazz guitars for five decades.
While it’s not the first time the two Savannah organizations have intersected, it is a special occasion for two of the city's most prestigious companies. Savannah Music Festival executive and artistic director Rob Gibson has organized an exceptional lineup of Benedetto artists to celebrate the occasion.
One of the most prolific guitarists of this age, Pat Martino, will make his Savannah Music Festival debut with his quintet. Martino will play a special lunchtime concert at 12:30 p.m. March 29, before the Benedetto anniversary show that same evening.
Howard Alden is set to play a solo set, while Brazilian guitarists Romero Lubambo and Chico Pinheiro will play as a duo, primarily. The youngest of the group, “King” Solomon Hicks, will borrow Martino’s Hammond B3 player and drummer to rip through the blues.
“I think it’s great to have an instrument maker in your community that is world class,” Gibson said.
“Robert Benedetto and his wife Cindy are coming up,” Benedetto Guitars president Howard Paul said. “I have to give Rob Gibson all the credit. It’s through his good graces and excellent taste that he’s allowed us to do a 50th anniversary Benedetto concert.”
Stacked in a small back room of a pedestrian warehouse, in an innocuous business district of Savannah is an assemblage of cut, specially curated wood basking in a dehumidified room.
Each piece is marked with a date and stacked on shelves. Some pieces are cut into triangular shapes about 2 feet in length and a foot or so in width, and others in long, thin strips. Larger blocks, 25 feet long, are stacked in the middle of the room.
Most of the storage room’s wood has been cultivated from the same forest Antonio Stradivari shopped when he crafted his legendary violins. After years of having the moisture drawn out, the bland blocks of wood will be shaped by hand into some of the most prestigious custom guitars on the market today.
Benedetto Guitars has been crafting high-end instruments for over 50 years. In the late 1950s, a young Robert Benedetto became fascinated with the guitar. He began crafting guitars out of whatever he could find. The descendant of Italian immigrants who were master tailors, the notion of craftsmanship was instilled in him at an early age. His great uncle, Vito Tavarone, was tailor to Jackie Gleason and Mickey Mantle. His father and another uncle were wood carvers and cabinet makers.
By the late 1990s, the Benedetto Guitars company had established itself as a high-end guitar maker, and attracted the attention of Fender Guitars. Robert Benedetto licensed the name to Fender, who began to craft Benedetto guitars in their own custom shop in California.
Around the same time, Paul met Benedetto as a customer through his friend Jimmy Bruno. In those days, it would take nigh three years to finish a custom guitar order, so while Paul was waiting on a guitar, he and Benedetto became close friends. Apart from his job at Chatham Steel, Paul become immersed in Benedetto guitars as an official artist of the company, playing concerts and manning tables at trade shows.
Benedetto eventually grew unhappy in his relationship with Fender in the early aughts. Historically, larger guitar manufacturers often swallow smaller luthiers and integrate the brand into their business while sacrificing craftsmanship.
“Over a six-year period, Fender wasn’t going the way Bob had envisioned it,” Paul said. “If you look back in history and see the relationships all the great luthiers had with the bigger corporations, they don't always end well. Bob had learned those lessons and had a good contract with them. But, after five or six years, problems always arise when you’re married to a really big, growing company that is trying to do an IPO. They want to increase margin, limit cost and push the distribution chain to grow.”
As his job at Chatham Steel began to shift, and Benedetto was looking to move on from Fender, Paul decided it was the perfect opportunity to change course and set up a boutique operation, where Benedetto could make the guitars he wanted to make without the oversight.
“We looked at four different cities to relocate the factory,” Paul said. “I convinced him this is where we needed to go. I raised the private equity we needed to lease this building and buy all the equipment and hire all the employees. I brought Bob’s home workshop up from the Tampa area where he lived and assembled it in the corner of the building.
“We started hiring employees to do what Fender was not able to do, to build quality and consistency but keep the cost at a reasonable level. We were not trying to operate a rock ’n’ roll factory; we were trying to do a jazz guitar workshop.”
From 2006 until 2009, the company grew exponentially. Prior to the recession, Benedetto Guitars was manufacturing about 500 instruments a year. While the recession crippled the company, as it did to many, they were able to survive through Paul’s business acumen. Currently, they turn out about 100 to 120 guitars a year.
The instruments range in price from $5,000 to $30,000 and are all crafted from Benedetto’s original designs using some of his original tools, fixtures and benches. Benedetto worked in the Savannah shop for years, before recently retiring to Florida.
Leading up to his retirement, Paul needed to shape the future of the company, while maintaining the integrity it was built on. Damon Mailand, frontman for Savannah band Damon and the Sh!tkickers, was the first employee Benedetto hired in 2006. Over the years, he became Benedetto’s apprentice, working side-by-side with the master. Mailand was recently named Benedetto’s master luthier.
“Knowing that Bob was going to retire, the goal for the last five years, just before he was thinking hard about retiring, was how do you maintain the brand without Bob Benedetto being here to physically build the guitars?” Paul said. “The way to do that is to not turn it into a bigger, sleeker, growing manufacturing company, but to keep the tooling, the models, to retain the designs and to have someone who worked at Bob’s side as the guy that takes over as master luthier.
“That’s where Damon falls in. He was the first employee we hired back in 2006. He’s worked almost every job in the shop. As he got better, we put him in charge of different departments and got him trained on everything and brought in the next young talented guy. When Bob hired him, he said he was the most talented kid he’d seen. Now the instruments that he’s building, using Bob’s work benches, Bob’s tools and fixtures, are as good or better than anything Bob was building in his best days. He has all of Bob’s experience.
“The bottom line is, if you look at all the guitar manufacturing companies that were started by independent luthiers, they have either turned into big manufacturing companies and left behind the craftsmanship and integrity of the original builders or they’ve disappeared.
"Benedetto is this little company that has slipped through the cracks and retained Bob’s integrity and is still a very small bespoke company that will continue on without him. It’s pretty miraculous in this environment of offshore, grow-or-die mentality.”