Stringed Victory

The quiet triumph of Clearwater's internationally known guitar maker.

click to enlarge GUITAR CENTER: Augie LoPrinzi and his daughter Donna make custom guitars out of this shop on Drew Street. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
GUITAR CENTER: Augie LoPrinzi and his daughter Donna make custom guitars out of this shop on Drew Street.

You could whiz past and not even notice it. The glass-fronted shop at 1929 Drew St. in Clearwater has been there for 18 years, but its plain-scripted sign — "Augustino LoPrinzi, Guitar Maker" — is as modest as the two people working inside.

LoPrinzi, in chinos and a plaid short-sleeved shirt, and his daughter Donna, in a long T-shirt and shorts, aren't about flash. In fact, they discourage it.

If a customer comes in with a design for a guitar he wants LoPrinzi to make, the request usually gets turned down. The reason, he says, is that most custom designs "suck. It looks like 10 different people made it."

The diplomatic answer they get, though, is that LoPrinzi, 69, is old and tired and doesn't have the time.

"There's beauty in simplicity," says Augie, preferring the familiar version of his name. "The fancier the person wants it, the less of a musician he is because he's worried about what it looks like. The real musician doesn't want you looking at his fancy guitar. He wants you listening to his music."

By real musicians, LoPrinzi means customers like classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, acoustic innovator Leo Kottke and jazz great Larry Coryell, who, Augie claims, put the LoPrinzi guitar on the map in the 1970s by playing his LR-20 model. There's also ukelele virtuoso Ohta-san, who created a new collectors' base in Japan for the LoPrinzi uke.

While LoPrinzi says his last name means "the prince" in Sicilian — deriving from a French monarch who moved to the island and went native — his vocational lineage is decidedly artisan. His first-generation father was a barber in New York City, and his grandfather and uncles were tailors and dressmakers.

Sometime around 1958 one of the barbers in his dad's shop (where Augie also worked) was playing a 20-year-old steel-string Martin. LoPrinzi asked how much it had cost him. When he found out it cost $145, he said he could make one himself for cheaper. The musical barber dared him to try. Using wood bought from the local lumberyard, the first LoPrinzi guitar was born.

"It sounded like my front door," LoPrinzi says, laughing and rapping his knuckles in the air.

With the LoPrinzi guitars now starting at $2,200 for a steel-string and going up to $17,000 for a high-end archtop, the front door to his workshop on Drew Street is locked. He and Donna will let you in by appointment only.

But as soon as that door opens, he'll start talking. "My wife says I'll talk to a tree if I could," he says. He'll tell you about how he started out as a young boy shining shoes in his dad's barbershop. Even though he wound up working as a barber himself for 22 years, he realized early on that he didn't want to spend his life looking at the back of someone's head. By the time he had his own barbershop in Flemington, N.J., his employees would be up front cutting hair or shaving away five o'clock shadows while he stayed in his back workshop, building guitars. By this time he had started making classical guitars as well as the original steel-strings. In 1969 he quit the hair business and became a full-time luthier, or maker of stringed instruments. He'd build guitars all day and then go home and work on guitars 'til two in the morning.

LoPrinzi says that he and Michael Gurian and Stuart Mossman pioneered the American hand-crafted guitar industry in a time when factory-manufactured instruments reigned. It's not boasting. It's matter-of-fact.

"I've always said that if I could've apprenticed for six months I would've saved myself 10 years of work," he says. "But there was no one around. There was one little book I found by Sharpe out of England [Make Your Own Spanish Guitar by A. P. Sharpe], and it was so crude it was pretty tough to learn. So it was mostly just trial and error."

When any of his three children — Donna is the youngest — were naughty, his wife, Carol, would send them to the workshop to help out their dad. Donna never thought it was punishment; she liked working with Augie.

But she would have to wait until she was in her late 20s before her father would take her seriously and bring her into the business. And, as in most families, she had to go through her mother to get to her father.

"I kept asking him, 'Why don't you let me work in your shop?'" recalls Donna. "But it would just go in one and ear and out the other. So I kept asking my mother, 'Why won't Dad let me work in his shop?' That went on for about five years."

"What really happened," says Augie, taking over the telling of the story, "is when I saw some woodwork and joints in Donna's house and I told her husband he did a nice job, and he just got this funny little grin on his face."

It was Donna's handiwork. Augie went home and told his wife that his daughter was really good.

"She was very quick to learn. That was the fun in teaching her — I only had to show her once," he says proudly. He's only had a handful of students he rates as high as his daughter.

After 12 years of working with her father, Donna Chavis née LoPrinzi now owns the business. But Augie still keeps his hands very deeply in the pot, and he's far from retiring.

"I did retire when I was 65, but that lasted two days," he says in all seriousness. "I just couldn't take it."

Despite his active devotion to making guitars and ukeleles, he does think about his legacy. He's holding onto his stock of rare Brazilian rosewood from the mid-1960s, before it was embargoed in 1969, so he can pass it on to Donna. He's got enough to make about 30 more instruments from the precious lumber, but he won't craft a Brazilian rosewood classical guitar for just anyone.

"A lot of people want them, and I refuse to build them," he says. "If they just want it because they want it, then I don't build it. If they know what it is and they are a good enough musician especially in the classical field, then there's that edge that you can tell. And if I only ever make a few more guitars with it, the rest I want to leave to her. In the meantime, I just want it to look at."

There's a lot of wood to look at besides the rosewood: mahogany, cypress, cedar, spruce, ebony, koa. But the smell, surprisingly, is less woodsy spice and more Fritos Corn Chips.

"I'll tell you a secret," Augie says conspiratorially. "When it gets damp and humid and on rainy days, it smells like monkey piss."

Monkey piss?

"The trees this wood comes from are hundreds of years old, and there are lots of monkeys in the jungles. The wood has been soaking up monkey piss for hundreds of years," he says, as he and Donna start laughing.

So the LoPrinzi empire has been built on simian urine?

"Yeah, but don't write that."

But Augie and Donna won't mind if you know about the monkey piss. Or if you don't notice that it's a LoPrinzi guitar Leo Kottke plays on your car stereo as you fly by his shop on your way home. As long as you appreciate the music.

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