Star-Spangled Instruments- Made in the USA Week

By Alexandra Arena

I don’t know about you, but with the arrival of July comes just a few of my favorite things: good barbeque, good friends, and good music. There’s nothing better than gathering up a group of your favorite people, buying summer concert tickets, and going to see your favorite band or artist live (not to mention tailgating beforehand is always a good time). In my opinion, these things define the American summer and led me to wonder: how many instruments are truly made in America?

Photo by Seabamirum.

My father, Chris Arena, worked for the piano makers Steinway & Sons for 22 years. Steinway was founded 1853 in Manhattan by German immigrant, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later Henry E. Steinway). The company’s growth led to the opening of a factory and company town in what is now the Astoria section of Queens, New York, as well as a factory in Hamburg, Germany. My dad worked at the Astoria factory as the manager of restorations.

In the 2010 documentary, The Last American Grand, produced and directed by Weilun Soon and Paula Neudorf, my dad was asked to talk about what the factory was like when the Steinway family still ran it, the company’s subsequent corporatization, and the impact of the recent recession.

He knew this impact all too well. He was laid off by Steinway in 2009.

A clip of Mr. Arena featured in the documentary.

Sitting down with my dad, (who currently works at Bark Frameworks, a high-end American framing business,) I expounded upon the questions asked in the documentary and what it meant to him to manufacture an American product for much of his life.

“It meant the world to me to be able to build a piano from scratch. I was extremely proud of my skill, my knowledge, my responsibility, and my work. It is a very, detailed, difficult, high pressure thing to do,” he said. “I was proud when I went to a concert and I saw someone playing a Steinway and how well it worked. It’s that sense of satisfaction you get from doing something that takes time and effort, especially when it pays off.”

When I asked my dad what he thought it meant to consumers to buy an American-made instrument, he said, “I think the main thing is that they’re getting their money’s worth. If you’re getting your money’s worth, you’re also getting the satisfaction of helping support jobs in America. Additionally, if you’re in close proximity, you can go to the factories and see how it’s done. You can meet the workers and see how proud they are of their work and the passion they put into it.”

“Furthermore, the working conditions are also so much better in America because we were adhering to so many rules that a person can be sure that the job is done ethically, as well as efficiently,” he told me. “Which is definitely not the case for some of the countries in the far East.”

Upon my dad’s suggestion, I contacted premier American instrument maker Roger Sadowsky for an interview. Sadowsky is known for being “one of the industry’s master craftsmen” and founding Sadowsky Guitars Limited, a high-end guitar, bass and preamp workshop also located in Queens.

BreakThru Radio: Give me a little history, where did you get your start in musical craftsmanship?

Roger Sadowsky: I apprenticed with an acoustic guitar maker, Augie [Augustino] LoPrinzi, in 1973 for three years. Then I took over a flat top acoustic repair shop of an established music store in Philly and ran it for five years. In 1979, I opened up my own store in Manhattan – the first shop was a loft on 33rd and Madison from ’79 to ’86. Then I had a shop on Broadway between 48th and 49th streets from ‘86 to ’02 until they tore that building down. After that, I moved to Dumbo, Brooklyn for five years before moving to where I am now in Long Island City.

BTR: At what point did you decide I want to build my own brand of American basses and guitars?

RS: In ’79, I was focused in doing repairs and restoration. By ‘82, I was building 50 percent of the time. I maintained that until 2003, at which point I decided to just repair my own instruments and focus on building.

BTR: What does it mean to you to be able to build an instrument from scratch?

RS: I have always enjoyed the woodworking and the craftsmanship part of the instrument. My ultimate satisfaction is in dealing with the person I’m selling to.

BTR: Do you think there are any advantages to manufacturing your NYC instruments here in America?

RS: I think it’s all about what price point you want to be in. I have a range of models and a range of options. We build to order, but we’re building within what I already designed. The level of detail we devote to each instrument is light years beyond any factory. There is a huge difference between a smaller production company and huge manufacturing companies. The main reason people manufacture overseas is price point and mass production. I have a lot of respect for Collings Guitars for keeping their business small and their quality high.

BTR: Do you think American instruments are of higher quality?

RS: The U.S. makes the highest quality guitars in the world.

BTR: Do you think it’s important to keep American factories up and running for the American economy?

RS: There’s no question. I would like to see the amount of U.S. guitar manufacturing increase not decrease. Virtually all factories are owned by the brand. In Asia, the factories are independent of the brand and they contract out to marketing companies. There’s virtually no place in the U.S. that does that. There are virtually no factories that contract for other people, it’s just for themselves.

BTR: Do you play any instruments?

RS: I was a folksy, finger-picking hippie in the ’60s. I play flat-top acoustic. By the time I started my own shop in ‘79 it was incredibly hard to build a handmade acoustic guitar. MTV Unplugged re-popularized it, as did the progress in acoustic guitar amplification technology that allowed bands to play in large venues.

BTR: Do you play on your own guitars and basses or is your go-to something else?

RS: Well, I don’t play electric guitar or bass so I don’t really play my own instruments. I’m primarily a Martin guitar fan and the style of acoustic I build myself is modeled after a Martin guitar from the ’30s and early ’40s.

BTR: What do you think about large American instrument manufacturers like Fender and Gibson?

RS: I love what all of these companies made up until the ’70s, which were the dog years of American guitar manufacturing. There was a turn around mid ’80s, but with big companies, they’ve become run by MBAs and suits and there are no people in management left that have that huge love and passion for these instruments and the musicians that play them. There’s no genuine passion for what they’re manufacturing. They’re brands with high Americana appeal, but the quality doesn’t match the nostalgia.

BTR: Who are some of the famous artists you’ve sold your instruments to?

RS: Paul Simon, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, almost all The Late Show bassists… just to name a few. You can check my website for a full list of artists I’ve worked with.

BTR: Who’s been your favorite?

RS: That’s like asking me to pick between my children. I love them all.

BTR: Have there been any guitar or bass requests you’ve turned down?

RS: In the early ’80s, Billy Idol asked me to make a guitar modeled after the Starship Enterprise. I refused that request. I consider myself a guitar maker, not a model maker. Meatloaf asked me to make a guitar modeled after a medieval hat. I had to turn that one down.

BTR: What do you think it means to people to play on an American-made instrument?

RS: I think it gives people a great sense of pride, assuming that the quality is better than anything else. When it is, it’s best in show.

BTR: Is building American instruments your passion?

RS: There’s no question this is my passion. Classic Guitar Construction by Irving Sloane turned me on to smaller maker’s tools and opened up this door of possibilities to me that transformed my life. My second year of grad school, I rode guitar makers all over the world to get a job. I eventually quit grad school and took a job selling guitars. Through this job, I arranged to go see LoPrinzi. I gave up a fellowship that paid for grad school… gave it all up to follow my dream.

BTR: What advice do you have for people looking to achieve their own version of the “American Dream?”

RS: My advice is to balance dreams and passions with economic survival. I lived a very Spartan existence, but I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. You have to take risks to follow your passion. If you don’t have the risk-taking gene, you’re not going to succeed. You need a little self awareness in that regard. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it work. If you never reach for the goal, you’ll never have a chance at grabbing it.

What can be taken from both of these men is that people who are truly passionate about constructing well-made, high quality products in the U.S.A. produce some of the best results in the world. As long as the company maintains its integrity and remembers to cater to the individual, American-made is the way to go. This way, when we hear “Made in America,” it’ll be music to our ears.

For a full list of other American-made instrument manufacturers, click here.