In a light-filled studio behind a small house in Houston’s historic Montrose district, Stephen Marchione and his team of artisan woodworkers craft some of the finest guitars in the world. You wouldn’t know it, driving down the tree-lined residential street where he makes his music magic. You wouldn’t know it if you ran into Marchione walking his dogs around the block—he’s affable and down-to-earth, never mind that he’s received special orders from musical icons like Paul Simon and Mark Knopfler.
Here’s how you’d know it: By hearing one of his instruments in action. Marchione guitars are things of beauty, aesthetically and sonically. The two go hand-in-hand. Marchione builds his guitars from hand-selected pieces of solid wood, much of which is locally sourced, giving each instrument a polished look and a rich, warm sound. Take apart another professional-quality guitar—a $3,000 Gibson 335, say—and you’ll find… plywood. To Marchione and his clients, nothing can beat the real thing. And that’s not all. Every detail of a Marchione guitar, from the fit of the neck to the feel of the frets, is engineered for maximum performance.
“My guitars feel like driving a Porsche compared to most guitars, which feel like driving a Toyota,”Marchione explains. “In a really good sports car, things feel tight and accurate and very excitable. It’s not just that the guitar looks good, it actually functions really well. Great materials, exciting to play—it gives musicians an oomph and an edge.”
“And now I’ve been making guitars for almost thirty years,” he adds. “So that’s a lot of practice, too.”
To see Marchione at work today, a master in his studio, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was born with a lathe in his hands. In reality, he learned his craft at a camp in the Texas Hill Country that he attended as a boy. He and his fellow campers would pass the day working on various projects for woodshop. He was always interested in music, and in high school he began tearing apart guitars and putting them back together. Somewhere, something clicked.
Marchione enrolled at the University of Houston, absorbing all he could about musical theory and instruments for three years before heading to Boulder, Colorado to further his studies. Having earned his music degree, Marchione did what generations of artists and musicians before him had done: He moved to New York.
“I had my music degree and I wanted a job as a guitar-maker, so I went out and got one, apprenticing,”he remembers. There followed an impressive run in New York City. He opened his own studio in Manhattan in 1993 and made his way as a businessman and master luthier in that largest and most competitive of cities. But as the years passed, the New York he loved started to fade. What was once a vibrant neighborhood full of guitar- and violin-makers slowly gave way to retail and office space.
I do feel an obligation to keep the tradition alive. I want to train people to do higher-level work.
“It’s all gone now,” he shares. “All the makers I know have moved—either up the Hudson River Valley or way out in Brooklyn or New Jersey.”
When it came time for Marchione to move, months after the September 11 terrorist attacks devastated the city and prevented him from reaching his studio for two and a half weeks, Houston—and Montrose, in particular—was a natural choice. “Montrose is very much like the older, lower Manhattan that I loved. It feels a lot like the East Village and West Village in the late ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says.
He’s been here ever since. These days, he runs a small operation consisting of two seasoned woodworkers and an apprentice or two—an integral part of the studio system, particularly for someone who’s seen his craft, and the opportunity to learn it, disappear in an increasingly digital age.
“There’s a lot less hands-on stuff for kids today,” Marchione laments. “I come from a generation where there used to be so much shop class! I think it wired my brain to understand how to make things. I do feel an obligation to keep the tradition alive. I want to train people to do higher-level work.”
In the meantime, his instruments are coveted throughout the industry, fully worth a price tag that can run into the tens of thousands. Houston-born jazz guitarist Mike Moreno is among Marchione’s most devoted clients. The moment he picked up one of Marchione’s creations, he knew he was holding something special. “When I first played Marchione’s Semi-Hollow electric guitar, it was the weight and width that was the main difference I noticed,” Moreno explains. “It’s half the weight of a Gibson 335. Then the way the woods connect and vibrate when you play it…. The sustain and balance of the guitar is very special. A chord rings like it does on a piano. It’s a pure sound.”
My guitars feel like driving a Porsche compared to most guitars, which feel like driving a Toyota.
The guitar he’s referring to—the ‘59 Burst Semi-Hollow Maple Top—is Marchione’s spin on a classic Gibson 335, and his most popular product. But all kinds of variations come out of his studio—archtops, acoustics, basses, and even the occasional violin to keep him honest. “My real teacher was Guy Rabut, a violin maker in New York City,” he says. “Even now, I build a guitar like I build a violin—it’s that precisely glued.”
But guitars are where his true passion lies. “There’s a lot more creative leeway with guitars,” he explains. “I’ll take a few basic parameters, but I have the flexibility of making my own shapes and f-holes and headstocks.” He grabs a ‘59 Burst from off the wall and gives it a strum. Anyone could see that he’s right at home.
Featured image courtesy of Marchione Guitars.