A Guitar Maker's OdysseyLast Edited:
BUENA, N.J. — With only a handful of basic wood-shop tools, a modest, makeshift work table set up in his living room, primitive materials and devices—plus more than six decades with a passion for wood—Lorenzo Ingegneri is working on one of his new guitars.
Minute fragments of bone blow into the air as dust settles in the folds of Ingegneri’s striped cotton shirt. Inside his quaint Buena home—its walls painted bright yellow; the summer sun shining through the windows; crosses, family photographs, religious figurines and homemade knickknacks adorning shelves, which are homemade themselves—the 81-year-old native of Italy and longtime South Jersey resident has his reading glasses on, staring intently at a cow bone he’s purchased at the nearby ShopRite.
Using an old hacksaw to cut through the bone, soon, Ingegneri will carefully reach into a bowl filled with large shards of clear glass. He’ll choose the right one in order to shave what will become the neck of his next creation—an acoustic guitar.
“I use the glass to shave the wood for the neck.” Without it, says Ingenieri, it is much more difficult to create the optimal size and feel of this integral piece of any guitar.
“I don’t have the proper tools, but I have the passion,” says Ingegneri, his Italian accent still heavy.
What Ingegneri also has is a tremendous gift and a truly extraordinary life story. He's also a self-taught luthier.
“When I was in the old country, maybe about 17 years old, I got a job making furniture,” says Ingegneri, whose love for wood crossed the Atlantic Ocean with him and his extended family when they flew to America in 1956. “And [suddenly], it attracted me, the wood, and what you can do with it. You can do almost anything.”
That flight over from Italy—where Ingegneri’s family lived in a 2,000-year-old town called Adria, named after the Adriatic Sea — and where it’s said that “the Apostle Peter passed through and lost a sandal there,” according to Ingegneri—almost didn’t happen.
The trip came about after Adria was flooded and its residents were forced to move out to begin new lives for themselves. After securing work on a South Carolina farm, Ingegneri’s whole family made the arrangements to come to America.
“Our uncle and his family came with us,” recalls Ingegneri, his memory as sharp as the glass he uses to shave the wood for his guitar necks. “And they had eight children. So, all of us, it was 24 people.”
Ingegneri, 19 at the time, was comfortable moving to America with his father, mother, four brothers and seven sisters. Everything was set, except for the fact that one of the aunts in the family was petrified of flying.
Soon, arrangements were made to travel aboard the ship that was shuttling what remained of the family’s belongings (post-flood) to New York. Thankfully, Ingegneri’s Aunt Mari would overcome her fear of flying and in July 1956, the 24 family members arrived in New York from Italy via TWA. The news media covered the event.
“When we landed in New York, we didn’t know nothing about it,” says Ingegneri. “We couldn’t speak English anyway. The whole [airport] was full of people. There must’ve been about about 400 people there because they knew about us, all the photographers and news [reporters]. And it was in the paper all over afterward because nobody had ever seen such a thing. It was a little bit extraordinary to see 24 people from one family get off the plane.”
After the family took the train ride to South Carolina, Ingegneri and his relatives began settling in the town of York, near the border of North Carolina.
After the flooding in Adria filled the family’s house with water, ruining most of their belongings, they were “considered refugees,” according to Ingegneri. “It was a person from [America] who wrote to us in Italy because we had a disaster. So, over here I guess they heard about us and wanted a family that knew how to cultivate the land and we were good at it. So we came here.”
However, says Ingegneri, “we didn’t find what we wanted." But before some of the family decided to move to New Jersey, to work at Sunny Slope—a peach and apple orchard in Bridgeton—they would face another hardship.
Shortly after the family made it to South Carolina, the owners of the farm rushed into Ingegneri's family's home in a hurried fashion, motioning the Italians to turn on the TV. In black and white, a reporter was describing the sinking of an ocean liner, a tragic event that would go down as one of the worst maritime disasters to occur in U.S. history.
On July 25, 1956, the Andrea Doria, bound for New York, collided with another ship off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. While 46 passengers were killed, 1,660 crew and passengers survived.
All Ingegneri knows is that he and his family are lucky to be alive.
While Ingegneri and his family were initially slated to sail across the Atlantic, due to what Ingegneri believes was “divine intervention,” they wound up taking an airplane instead. However, as there was no room for their belongings on the plane, nine sealed boxes were shipped separately on the same ocean liner that they were initially slated to travel on—the Andrea Doria.
In fact, the family was booked to sit right where the collision with the other ship occurred.
“I think it was the will of God,” says Ingegneri, blowing sawdust off a newly shaved guitar neck. “And would you believe that we saw what happened to the Andrea Doria on that TV? You know how many people died? And do you know where they died? Right where we were supposed to be.”
As Ingegneri and his family watched the news footage and understood more of what the Americans were trying to explain to them, they realized that another disaster had struck. They had lost the rest of their belongings.
The nine tightly sealed crates filled with the family’s belongings were never found.
“All of our goods, they are right there at the bottom of the ocean right now,” says Ingegneri.
“There are no people on Earth more generous than the people in the United States,” says Ingegneri. “If it wasn’t for the U.S., the world would be a mess.
"Thank God that all of a sudden we received things, like pants, shoes, shirts.”
After staying in South Carolina for about a year and a half working as farmers, some of Ingegneri’s family members wanted a change. They were isolated, not learning much English, and on top of that, although the soil was fertile and the crops “awesome,” the family had a hard time making a living as they didn’t have an efficient way to transport the crops from the farm for sale.
All of our goods, they are right there at the bottom of the ocean right now.
That’s when Ingegneri and some of his family moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey. The folks who got them work at Sunny Slope knew them from South Carolina and were familiar with their story.
“They gave us a house, shelter, everything, all for free because they knew who we were,” says Ingegneri. “But it was not a big deal, it was 60 cents an hour, you cannot make it.”
Little by little, Ingegneri started to learn how to speak English.
“Just by listening, talking, looking at the books, and a dictionary here and there, putting two and two together, I learned that way. I never went to school, not even one day," he says.
"When I came over I was almost 20. But I had [my] family with me, the youngest [my sister] who was three years old. I had to go to work and luckily over here there’s a lot of Italian people. I started learning about different types of work, and then I started to work in a factory with social security, all the legal things. First it was a clothing manufacturer in Bridgeton."
By the late 1950s, more and more family members joined the New Jersey contingent and made the Garden State their home. Soon Ingegneri, who would never marry, would start working with two of his life’s loves—music and wood.
“I was musical in Italy, but in Italy, it’s different than here,” says Ingegneri. “When you go there to study music, they don’t do just music, they want you to sing it. And learn [music theory.] And I had a diploma in that, but then after, if you want to go farther you have to get an instrument. My favorite was piano, but it was too late because we came here.
"When we came here I still had a piano, and I used to play it by ear. But in the meantime, when I was working in the factory my boss was a guitar teacher. He nagged me for a year that he wanted me to play guitar. So, for one year we used to work together, he nagged me and he won. I bought one exactly like that one over there for $40 because at that time buying a cheap one, in case you don't like it. Finally I give in, I bought a guitar, and I'm all set to buy a small amplifier.
“After the first day I started playing, I never put it down. I fell in love.”
Ingegneri’s boss gave him guitar lessons and eventually found him a band to do little gigs around the area.
“We played rock ‘n’ roll, anything, how you say, contemporary music, pop, anything that comes along. Because I’m Catholic, I played for four years in church, every Sunday. And I was playing the lead and I got a brother, too, who plays guitar, I taught him the music, everything. Marcello: he’s the only one who’s married of the five brothers.”
After the first day I started playing, I never put it down. I fell in love.
“I started to play with the band in 1965, maybe ’66,” says Ingegneri. “We played a charity concert at a high school in Bridgeton. We didn’t sing, only instrumental music. It was a four piece—lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and another guitar.”
Although Ingegneri’s band never had a name, and he never had the time to go further with his lessons, he continued to play his $40 guitar—until he realized he could make one better.
“Once I got an interest in playing guitar, when I got a cheap guitar, I said, ‘Well, I like it, but I got to have something better than that,’" says Ingegneri (whose name in Italian translates into “engineers”). “So, I bought one a little better. And an even better one, and another, until I got to a Gibson—you can’t get any better than that.”
Even with a Gibson Les Paul, Ingegneri wasn’t satisfied.
“I’m the type of guy who always explores things,” he says. “And I wanted something different. Matter of fact, I had three Gibsons—not at the same time—but somehow it did not satisfy, even though I know it’s the best. And then all of the sudden I said, ‘Why don’t I try to make my own guitar?’”
So, fusing his love for wood and music, Ingegeri set off on a journey teaching himself how to build a six-string electric guitar.
Just a year after picking up the instrument for the first time, in 1966 Ingegneri starting making his own instruments. “Who knows where they are now?” he says with a shrug. “I started a long time ago.”
After developing a process to build electric guitars, Ingegneri began selling them to other musicians.
“People, they bought them,” says Ingegneri. “I used to sell cheap, they would always see me working on them.”
Ingegneri’s love for wood dates back to his teen years living in Adria.
“When I was 17, I found a job making furniture,” he says, “and wood has fascinated me ever since. "You look at a tree, you can do dozens of things out of that tree. The guitar that I’m making now is [made with] maple, but the tree [it’s from] could’ve been 200 to 300 years old because maple takes a long time to grow. I was fascinated because almost everything you look around is made of wood.”
By the 1980s, Ingegneri was working at the former Cumberland Lumber facility, not far from his home in Buena. Surrounded by wood, he would soon conceive of a new way to build guitars, namely acoustic models.
“I always wanted to do my own thing and see what comes out,” says Ingegneri, who has since mastered the craft of guitar building. “But the acoustic is another story. The acoustic is all I’m going to get. I’m going to play it till I die, that’s it. There’s a new sound I find every day that I play.”
After trial and error, Ingegneri developed what would become one of the world’s most unique acoustic instruments—a guitar with a square body, two small sound holes on the top, and a simple (yet ingenious) method for applying the wooden bridges inside.
While Ingegneri had perfected his electric guitars by the late 1980s, it was only over the last four years or so since he started creating his signature acoustic guitars, which are so big, one needs to sit down in order to play one.
When he first set his mind on building an acoustic guitar, Ingegneri wondered how he was going to make the shape of a traditional guitar body. Without professional tools to do so, it would be nearly impossible, he thought.
“So, I got the idea and said: ‘Why not make it square? What have I got to lose?’ Sure enough that’s the way, ever since. I’ve been doing this say four years.”
I’ll probably die with my guitar in my hands, in a manner of speaking.
Why does the acoustic have two sound holes?
“For two reasons,” says Ingegneri. “One is funny—for stereo! In order to make a stereo on the radio you need to have two speakers, right? Secondly, which makes a lot of sense, because of the pressure from the strings. If you have a hole in the middle [of the body] and the strings are right in the middle, all that pressure is there, too. That’s why I put the holes on the side, so I don’t have to put any more wood in there; the more wood you put in there, the less sound.”
Ingegneri’s home used to be covered wall-to-wall with his homemade instruments. He sold or gave most them away over the years, he says.
However, he still plays every day and is always looking for old battered guitars that he can recycle and refashion as new instruments. He's even made guitars for members of his family, including his nephews, of Newfield.
Although Ingegneri has always lived alone, the devout Catholic is a strong believer in the power of music and says its healing powers have a therapeutic effect on him. Making the guitars from scratch also keeps his mind and heart young.
“I’m an inquisitor; I like to find out things,” says Ingegneri. “I’m fascinated with the sound, especially of acoustic guitars. And I love to play guitar. I’ll probably die with my guitar in my hands, in a manner of speaking.”
Ingegneri may not be known outside of the area for his musical creations, but there is still time, and folks still drop off old guitars for him to take apart and construct new ones from. One day, his pieces should be on display at a museum or gallery as they are true works of New Jersey folk art in addition to being one-of-a-kind instruments.
“I still got the mind of a teenager,” he says. “I feel like I’m the same age as when I came over here.”
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