August 4, 2009
August 4th, 2009 |

Plugged Into the Past

In the Italian Renaissance town of Urbino, where selling the past is a major industry, Filippo Battistelli seems to fit right in. He is a luthier, an artisan who uses ancient tools and techniques to craft musical instruments from blocks of wood.

But there is one glaring difference: Battistelli is making electric guitars.

“When I restore old instruments, I feel like a doctor: They come in sick, and I revive them,” he says. But making electric basses is different: “I give them life.”

Filippo Battistelli adjusts a client's electric guitar

Filippo Battistelli adjusts a client's electric guitar

Battistelli is a man who seems at home living in two worlds, much like the country that he calls home. Italy may be famous among tourists for its ancient cities and hilltop castles, but it’s the cutting-edge technology, fashion and music that keeps its traditions alive in a changing world. So it’s not surprising to find Battistelli in a workshop that was used as a horse stable for 16th-century nobility, using old-fashioned methods to fashion high-tech instruments. “I love restoring ancient instruments,” says Battistelli. “But I learn even more about early instruments from experimenting with modern ones.”

A quick look around his shop makes it clear that Battistelli is not just a Renaissance man. The arching brick interior of the building is covered in foam insulation to absorb the reverb from the large speakers and bright yellow drum set. A single upright bass chills in the corner, surrounded by rows of colorful and boldly shaped electric basses and guitars. The chisels, brushes and woodshavings that cover his work area would look at home in Stradivari’s workshop, if it wasn’t for the elaborate electronic equipment (and the motorcycle helmet) sitting beside the bench where Battistelli works.
Salt-and-pepper stubble covers an easy smile as Battistelli squints down the neck of a guitar he is adjusting. His muscular arms and calloused hands give testimony to the physical skill and work involved in his trade.

Never formally trained as an instrument maker, he attributes his knowledge to “stealing with his eyes” from the work of other luthiers— and to lots of experimentation. He began repairing his own instruments at an early age, taking them apart to see how they were made. “I think this is common among young people who play,” says Battistelli, who plays trombone and saxophone as well as, “officially,” the electric bass. Battistelli also admits to a youthful affair with heavy metal, during which he smashed a guitar. “But then I grew up,” he says. “Now, besides jazz, I like…jazz.”

But music was not his first love. “I originally wanted to be a visual artist,” he says, pointing to a dramatic pencil drawing he did of electric bassist Jaco Pastorius. “But all art comes from the same source.”
While he was in a high school for visual art, he heard Pastorius—“my idol”— perform live and was inspired to paint the watercolor that now hangs above his workbench. In bright colors and skewed lines that look like they’ve been passed through a distortion amp, the painting depicts a figure playing an electric bass. The musician and instrument are so closely intertwined that they meet at a single point: Just below the neck of the instrument (its shoulder), the body of the bass curves and stretches up to meet the player’s head in a spiraling embrace.

Battistelli used this distinctive design as a model for the first bass he made. Apprenticed to a furniture-maker in the very shop he now owns, Battistelli carved out the body using woodworking tools from the furniture shop. The spiral of the bass’s shoulder recalls the silhouette of the bass player’s head from the painting.

“This is my trademark,” he explains. “It is a symbol of the union between musician and instrument.” It also looks remarkably like the scroll on a violin, bringing to mind another union between the heritage of traditional violin-making and Battistelli’s electric innovations.

Each instrument he makes is fashioned from a block of wood that has been aged and seasoned for between 10 and 40 years. Factory-made instruments, on the other hand, are generally made of wood chemically seasoned for a much shorter time. “They put them in the oven in the morning, take them out at night,” says Battistelli. “This does not allow the sap to drain properly, so they aren’t as sonorous.” Battistelli puts the wood on an incline so that the wood drains and ages naturally over a long period of time.

Once he has selected the wood, he makes measurements for the instrument’s shape and size, carefully orienting the grain of the wood and ensuring that the weight is properly balanced. He cuts and shapes the body using tools that have not changed for centuries. Then he tackles the neck, which, he explains, is the mechanical heart of the instrument — and the most difficult to make. “It’s the part in which everyone who wants to try to be a luthier stops,” he laughs.

Inside the neck is a string that is used to counterbalance the tension of the strings outside, each of which exerts 20 kg of tension on the instrument. The frets (the horizontal bars that cross the fingerboard of the guitar) are also difficult to make. “If you spend 2,000 Euros on a bass, 1,000 was the neck,” he says.
The final step, and one of the most important for the personalization of the instrument’s sound, is the setup of the microphones and other electronic components of the instrument. “The microphone is the interpreter of the sound,” he explains. “It is important to choose the right connection between microphone and wood.”

Battistelli uses ash wood when he wants a bright and resonant sound, and mahogany for a more sensual and warm sound. By combining a bright microphone with a bright wood or vice versa, he can shape the sound of the instrument to fit the client’s personal voice. “My instruments speak,” he says. “A factory-made instrument can also have a beautiful sound, but if you play it for two hours—there’s nothing left to discover: your ear has already understood it. But with my instruments, there are infinite possibilities.”

But there’s a price to these possibilities. Battistelli’s basses can cost between 2000 - 3000 euros (approximately 2,825 - 4,236 USD). “You can find factory-made instruments starting from 50-100 euros,” says Battistelli. “This is the price of my strings.”

His clients, “apart from the young boys who come to get the newest color guitar,” include bassists Dario Deidda, Lino De Rosa (bassist for the Italian rapper Frankie Hi-NRG MC), and Patrick Djivas (bassist for the rock band Premiata Forneria Marconi (P.F.M)). Battistelli considers feedback from musicians to be invaluable, often consulting them about the shape, balance, and sound of the instruments he is building. “To a real musician, an instrument is like a child,” he explains.

And there is one instrument that he will never sell, an elegantly shaped fretless bass that has become like a child to him. “This was made from my own cherry tree,” he says, fingering the dark neck where it joins the body in his signature curl. “My father cut it down when I was two.” Only three blocks of the wood were big enough to make an instrument. One of them is now being plugged into the jack of his speaker tower.

As the infectious groove of Battistelli’s music fills the dim interior of the workshop, it is easy to see what he means when he says that his instruments speak. The sound that spills out from his shop and into the narrow Renaissance alley is the voice of a new generation of instruments born from the ancient tradition of Italian luthiery.

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