Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Forcillo Archtop Guitar (1953)

Forcillo archtop guitar, New Jersey, circa 1953

This week, I am going to indulge myself even more than usual. The guitar featured in this entry was recently sold on a well-known auction site with very little pomp and even less circumstance. It is a Forcillo Guitar. If that means nothing to you, even if you are a guitar geek like this writer, don't worry. The name Forcillo, as in Frank Forcillo, is one that lingers in a netherworld of footnotes and asides. That said, the few facts that we do know about Forcillo are interesting enough to make it worth documenting here, at least until what is left of the story is rescued from obscurity.

Here is what we do know. In 1932, first generation Italian-American guitar, violin, and mandolin maker John D'Angelico started his own shop in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. He had apprenticed under his Uncle, Raphael Ciani, for over a dozen years before Ciani's death. When he opened his own shop among his employees were Jimmy DeSerio, who stayed with D'Angelico until 1959, and Frank Forcillo whose tenure with the legend was a brief few years.

Frank Forcillo's name next turns up in the Blue Book of Guitars as the head of United Guitars out of Elizabeth, New Jersey, started presumably some time in the 1940s. The next concrete piece of info around Forcillo is courtesy of the United States Patent Office. On April 29, 1948, Forcillo filed a patent listed as an Attachment for Fretted, Stringed Instruments. This design is topped of by a finial that is remarkably similar to the same detail that D'Angelico used almost exclusively during the same time period. Could it be that this was, in truth, a Forcillo design that dated back to the Frank's time in John's shop?
Update: luthier Todd Cambio of Fraulini Guitars has confirmed that the finial on the headstock is a very old Neapolitan design used not only by instrument makers in Italy long before mid-century, but also used by John D'Angelico's uncle, Sr. Ciani, on several mandolins and guitars. 

United States Patent 2,510,775 filed by Frank Forcillo, 1948

1948 was also the year that Gibson, who had recently emerged from the industrial chaos of World War II as the guitar industry leader, introduced a 2-pickup version of their ES-350 guitar. This guitar was the first mass-produced 2-pickup cutaway guitar created solely for use as an electric instrument and re-set the standard for what an electric guitar was. Gibson's one-time biggest rival, the Manhattan-based Epiphone, introduced a competing but ultimately unsuccessful model within a year. B League champs Gretsch over in Brooklyn introduced their similarly-styled Electro II by 1951 and by decade's end parlayed the configuration into several fairly successful models.

At this point of time (or very close to it at least) the Forcillo Guitar enters into the picture. An educated guess would put this particular guitar in right around this time period. Some of the details in addition to the aforementioned finial include Waverly open-back tuners and matching tailpiece, as well as a headstock shape and neck design that is very similar to contemporaneous D'Angelicos. The pickups are something of a mystery. Perhaps they are manufactured by Franz/Fransch/Fransche, another small New York are shop that provided pickups most notably for Guild guitars while that guitar-maker was in New York and later New Jersey.

Beyond the above, very little is currently known about Forcillo and United and even less than the instrument. The seller shared that it was purchased by his father in New York some time around 1953 and continued to use it for years in jazz and society bands. There was some vague memory of it being a fairly expensive purchase at the time, but the other details are long lost. Of course I would love to hear from anyone who knows more about any of these topics. Please use the comments section below or email me direct. I will update this post as I discover and verify more information.

Footnote: both D'Angelico and Guild continued to have connections to Forcillo's United Guitars throughout the 1950s. When John D'Angelico finally caved into pressure to make "electric" guitars he chose not to make the bodies, but rather purchased laminate-top bodies from Forcillo's United company. John would then make the neck and complete the guitars - again using Franz pickups for the most part. Obviously they remained on good terms. According to Hans Moust's excellent and highly recommended The Guild Guitar Book, in the early years Guild used craftsmen from Code Guitars in New Jersey to finish their instruments. Many references to United Guitars make reference to Code in the same breath. The connection has yet to be fully explained but it is worth mentioning here. It should also be noted that the finish on this Forcillo guitar looks very similar to the finishes Guild used during it's first year or so (1953-1954).

Forcillo archtop guitar, New Jersey, circa 1953


Todd Cambio said...

Great post and great guitar. Thanks. The finial at the top of the headstock is a very old Neapolitan design. Raphael Ciani, D'Angelico's uncle, used it on some of his mandolins and guitars and builders in Italy used it as well. So Forcillo wasn't the first to come up with it, but perhaps the first to try to capitalize on it.
Todd Cambio

Nick Rossi said...

Thank you very much for the insight Todd. I will revise above and credit you accordingly. I will also send you an email direct to follow-up.

jazzmann teegarten said...

ABOUT "THAT", BOB?!?!?!?!?!?!?.... [RHETORICAL]

Nick Rossi said...

Thanks for the comments. I am nearly sure Mr. Forcillo has long left this mortal coil.

Deke Dickerson said...

This is great! I was not aware that Forcillo made his own instruments. The pickups are nearly identical to the earliest Guild pickups, which may or may not have been United made or imported from Franz. Not sure. Thanks for writing about this!

Nick Rossi said...

Thanks for the comments Deke. Yes, those pickups do remain something of a mystery, although they are very similar to early Guilds and/or something from the Franz/Fransch operation. I am still trying to compile more info on the latter, as there is no doubt a really interesting story behind those.

Anonymous said...

I have a Forcillo arch top dated 1949 no s/n, man that sold it to me in 1974 said it was 1 of 5 at the time.

Nick Rossi said...

Thanks so much for leaving the comment. I would love to hear more. Please feel free to contact me through any of the methods provided on the blog.

Anonymous said...

I have a very old flat top (1940'S)? that that has United Guitar inlaid on the head stock. The headstock is of the exact shape of a D'angelico New Yorker. The body and bridge are reminiscent of Ciani designs. The woods and craftsmanship look as though John D;angelico had a hand in it"s construction.

Rick S.

Nick Rossi said...

Thanks Rick. That is very interesting. If you care to share any photos, I certainly would love to see them. My email address is on the right hand side of this web page.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick,
I would like to send you a photo of the united flat top guitar, but I am unable to access your email address from the area notated on the page.

Rick. S

Nick Rossi said...

Try nickrossimusic@me.com

Anonymous said...

The Pickups sure look like early Franz's to me
I am very interested in information on Code, United or Code/United
I have a mid fifties Archtop branded "Orpheum" that looks in every way almost
exactly like my Gretsch Archtop from the exact same period, with Franz pickups
I believe that there may have been a lot of back and forth in the Italian
Guitar building industry in the New York area during that period of time

Beautiful Guitar, Interesting article, Thank You
Norm in California

dolce gabbana said...

Hello! I am writing from Southern Italy on behalf of a distant family member of the famous Frank Forcillo. His name is Domenico Forcillo. Does anyone have any information about the Forcillo family....if they still live in New Jersey...any info will be helpful...Thank you!

Frank Barreca said...

frank forcillo is my maternal grandfather. we still live in nj. you can reach out to us at thebarrecabunch@yahoo.com