Another first for our 7 Questions With series, this time we chat with Howard Paul; accomplished and extraordinarily busy musician, as well as President/CEO of Benedetto Guitars! How does he make it all work? “I don’t sleep,” he says. We believe it.
1. How do you balance your playing career and musical life with your business one?
I’ll tell you, I don’t sleep. I typically maintain a performance schedule of around 200 gigs a year, and I try to combine business and playing together as much as possible. For instance, if I’m heading out of town for a gig that I’ve booked already and there’s some Benedetto business that can be done there, like delivering a guitar that’s ready to a customer rather than having to ship it, or conducting a workshop at a university music program, I’m happy to do that. Or going the other way and booking performances around events I’ll be attending for Benedetto, such as the NAMM show and other tradeshows or M.I. functions.
2. You went from ordering your first Benedetto in 1996 to being named President/CEO 10 years later – clearly making quite an impression during that time! How did you begin to get involved in the company?
It was a confluence of several things; After an introduction to Bob and Cindy Benedetto by Benedetto Player Jimmy Bruno, I placed an order for my first 7-string Benedetto. While waiting for my guitar, I started helping Cindy out with organizing and producing the Benedetto Players in Concert series. I received my first Benedetto guitar in 1998, had ordered a second, and became a minor Benedetto Player by working with Bucky Pizzarelli, Jimmy Bruno, Jack Wilkins, Frank Vignola and other players. By 1999 Bob had entered into a licensing agreement with Fender, but we continued our friendship and saw one another frequently. By 2006 the Fender collaboration had essentially run its course, and Bob was anxious to regain control of his brand, but didn’t necessarily want to go back to being an independent luthier spending day-in and day-out on a workbench. I was in a place in my career where I was able and interested in making a change, and Bob presented me with an opportunity to write a business proposal, raise private equity, become his partner and run the business while he supervised the production. I was more than happy to be able to step into that role. Bob and Cindy moved to Savannah, GA where I was already settled, and we built our workshop in a leased warehouse. When Bob retired in 2014, his longtime apprentice, Damon Mailand became our master luthier and production manager, and my close friend/Benedetto investor/director Dave Miner was able to step in financially allowing Bob to retire. Today we have a dozen employees and build 120+ hand-crafted guitars a year.
3. Which Benedetto model is your personal favorite, and why?
The 16B model. At the time I joined the company, it wasn’t a standard model we regularly produced, but was essentially the custom-order version of a “little” Manhattan at 16” x 2-1/2” – like the ones Bob had built for Jimmy Bruno, Chris Standring, Joe Negri, and others. It differs from our Bravo Elite in that the 16B has a narrower upper bout and a more shallow cutaway. I have two of them currently, one 6-string and one 7-string, with very custom features like traditional f-holes, maple binding, and violin tailpiece, which are my primary guitars. The 16B allowed us to offer a more affordable – but great playing and sounding guitar – with plainer materials and appointments than our most expensive models.
4. Benedetto archtop electrics are among the finest in the world. What is key for you in an amplifier, and which Henriksen model is your favorite?
In regard to the Henriksen amps, I think I have all of them! Back in 2006 when we started Benedetto in its present form, Bud Henriksen and I became close friends and hit the road together for guitar shows around the country. At some point Benedetto wound up with several Jazz Amps, which are still used at our final assembly and quality check workbenches in the workshop. The new Bud and The Blue may be the ones I use daily for most of my gigs. In a typical week for me, such as this one, I may be playing on a Wednesday night in a jazz trio, followed by a B3 organ trio the next night, a guitar/bass/drums group on Friday, and an all day recording session on Saturday followed by a gig that night – and I take my Bud to all of them – including flying it up with me for my Friday gig in Pennsylvania and studio and club date in NY. They’re fantastic amps, and I think every guitarist, especially jazz guitarists, should have at least one Henriksen amp! Portable, reliable, honest, and with extra headroom. What else is there in an amp???
Key to me is an amp’s ability to make the guitar’s acoustic sound simply louder, as faithfully as possible. I feel like you can tell when an amp is good by accurately representing the guitar’s sound when set flat. I often just play through my Henriksen combos, but will use external speakers when necessary for larger shows, and for the most part am able to keep the EQ flat, dependent on room attributes and other acoustic considerations.
5. What do you consider the ideal pickup system or interface between a primarily acoustic instrument and an amplifier?
For me, a floating magnetic pickup on an electric archtop with X bracing is the ideal for pure acoustic sound; it keeps the warmth you’re looking for in a jazz guitar tone but conveys the full acoustic quality of the instrument. But like most players, amplified sound without feedback is necessary, so a compromise by using a carved archeo with built-in humbucking pickup seems to be the ideal compromise. Building on more classic designs that have been tweaked over the years by a small handful of builders, we use proprietary pickups that are made to our specifications by Seymour Duncan, both a floating mini-humbucking S6 model and a built-in double humbucking pickup – our A6 and B6.
6. What functions of your musical or business career inspire you the most – playing in front of an appreciate audience, the ideation of new products, or something else altogether?
It’s the same element for both the business and playing side – in a nutshell, communication with other musicians. I get to interface and work with some of the world’s best jazz guitarists and convey feedback from them to our luthiers, from the player’s perspective. Our master luthier, Damon Mailand, is himself a fine guitarist, but not a jazz player (his very popular band is named “Damon and the Shitkickers”). It’s my job to communicate the desires and thoughts of our clientele to our team to keep honing our instrument designs and offerings. Likewise, in jazz the whole point is communication and conversation with other musicians. If you can’t get on a stage with several other guys and have a give-and-take, you should probably find something else to do!
7. If you could step into the shoes of any musician for a day, living or not, who would it be?
Because they were innovators, hugely popular artists in their day, composers that left far reaching legacies, and were able to move across racial, economic, cultural and language barriers almost as a force of nature, I think it’d have to be Duke Ellington, or Dave Brubeck in his heyday. But for the record, I am so fortunate to have a remarkable balance of music, business, family and friends. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.