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John Mello, who has been hand-building guitars for 40 years, taps the sound board to test the tone of the wood for a potential instrument in his Kensington, Calif., studio, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

KENSINGTON -- John Mello, a maker and repairer of steel-string and classical acoustic guitars, plies his trade hidden in a little shop behind a pottery gallery on Colusa Circle, one of this quiet residential community's two small shopping districts.

Visitors walk through the pottery studio and through swinging doors into a skylight-lit sales area that opens onto a shop filled with power and hand tools and wood shavings on the floor.

Mello builds from two to six guitars a year from scratch that sell for $10,500 or $11,500 each, depending on the cost of the wood. However, he spends most of his time repairing and upgrading guitars made by others, from a guitar built by Spanish master Antonio de Torres in 1888, his most famous rehab, to instruments for beginning students.

John Mello, who has been hand-building guitars for 40 years, works in his Kensington, Calif., studio, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area
John Mello, who has been hand-building guitars for 40 years, works in his Kensington, Calif., studio, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

He has "reversed the ravages of accidents, inept repair, and time for thousands of guitars by most of the major historic and contemporary makers," according to the shop's website.

"I get to see some great old instruments," Mello said. "I want to be the ideal person (to buy or repair) your first and last guitar."

Mello began playing guitar when he was 15. The idea for a career as a luthier, or guitar maker, took hold when he became frustrated at not being able to get a competent repair job done on his own instrument.

That idea translated into action when he was looking for an independent study project as a student at the progressive Oberlin College in Ohio and decided to build his own guitar.


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Although the outcome makes him laugh today, he said the project was a good learning experience as well as an inspiration.

"I thought that if it was that much fun to (build a guitar) wrong, how much more fun it would be to do it right," he said.

Determined to learn the craft, Mello found a mentor in Detroit named Richard Schneider, the person he says had the most influence over his guitar making of anyone in the business.

"His craftsmanship was excellent, and he was really imaginative aesthetically," Mello says of Schneider. "He would say things like 'It has to look this good before you move on to the next step.'"

Mello moved on to the Bay Area in 1973 and spent 12 years launching his business in the basement of the Tupper and Reed music store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, supplementing his income by working as a waiter at the now-defunct Narsai's restaurant in Kensington.

When the Tupper and Reed space with its seven-foot ceilings began to seem a little claustrophobic, he relocated to his current workshop at 437 Colusa Ave., near his home of 39 years on Coventry Road.

Mello uses such materials as Brazilian rosewood, European spruce, African and Indian ebony, Spanish cedar and others depending on "the properties of the woods and how I think they're going to fit together."

He takes pleasure in the feel and texture of the wood as he is crafting his instruments. Wood for the tops and backs of guitars is stacked on shelves in the workshop waiting for the right project.

"I love the look of the wood, the feel of the wood that's from so many different places," he said.

Mello sees his role as an intermediary between the guitar player and the audience and used that idea as the foundation for a recording called "My Guitars — Their Music," featuring 21 pieces played by nine performers on nine guitars he built during his first 27 years in business.

Mello donates all the proceeds from sales of the CD to food banks and other charities.

"Every good guitar maker builds a wide range of possibilities into the instrument so the musician can reveal his musical soul," he said. "A good guitar recommends the player to the listener."