Documenting history as well as my experiences with repairing and restoring vintage guitars.

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I had the pleasure of talking to Mr Bernard Forcillo, former general manager of the United Guitar Company and son of luthier Frank Forcillo,...

Interview with Bernard Forcillo

I had the pleasure of talking to Mr Bernard Forcillo, former general manager of the United Guitar Company and son of luthier Frank Forcillo, on March 4th, 2022. While I lacked the preparation to record our conversation, I did take notes which I'll attempt to piece into a cohesive narrative. I'll add any further correspondence to this article

Frank Forcillo was an Italian cabinet maker who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. He worked for John D'Angelico for a while and was offered a position as partner of the firm. Frank, evidently, had more interest in producing guitars on a larger scale and declined.

Some time earlier, Oscar Schmidt divested their guitar making division to focus on their promising autoharp business (oops). About 7 or 8 former employees of Oscar Schmidt got together, each put up $100 (which Frank wasn't able to come up with), and started their own musical instrument firm. What Frank Forcillo may have lacked in cash, he made up for in skill. His experience as a woodworker and instrument builder was a highly valued contribution to the new company and he set out to construct the jigs needed. When I asked Bernard if they had brought any tools over from Oscar Schmidt, he quickly agreed and recalled a specific bandsaw that had been taken from the factory. 

Frank also built the forms used in forming laminate arch tops. An employee would lay out veneer, apply glue, and place it in the press which would heat up and set the wood into its new shape. Bernard recalled firms in New York that had large duplicating machines, you would bring your desired form and they would carve duplicates for you. 

Bernard Forcillo was offered the job of general manager by Peter Russo, son of Tony Russo who was one of the original founders. He started in 1959 and worked at United for about 15 years. 

The United Guitar Company was a union shop that employed around 40 to 50 employees. Bernard was proud to explain that they primarily hired immigrants and people just entering the workforce. Employees made around 65 cents an hour. The instruments were assembled with animal glue that was heated on 'gas stoves' and one could glue twenty instruments and by the time they finished the first would be ready for the next step. Some employees would trace the neck template onto a blank and cut it on the bandsaw while others would install hardware and string the guitars. John, a former Steinway employee, polished finished guitars on a stand buffer.

United never had a distributed catalog but instead worked directly with wholesalers such as the David Wexler company. Those wholesalers would either provide a stencil or decals that would be attached to the finished instrument.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, United had no problems with sales and actually struggled with getting supplies to fulfill the orders they received. United produced 200 guitars per day and about 120 of those were 'beginner type' as that is where the most money was. Most of those were intended for steel strings but some had slotted headstocks and nylon strings. The rest of the instruments were archtops, electric guitars, mandolins, and mahogany baritone ukuleles. Saturdays were a half day at the company and they built 60-80 instruments. 

I asked Bernard about the stencil guitars and he told me that they did have Old West and patriotic stencils that were sprayed through on top of the guitars. He said those didn't sell that well. 

When asked about the hardware they installed, he told me about a trip to the Waverly factory which produced the tuners and tailpieces used. He said that he was surprised to see the factory was running on 'belts and gears' and that the factory was quite primitive. They later switched to the import tuners coming from Japan.

I also inquired about the D'Angelico necks attached to United bodies. John would come over to the factory and pick up the bodies, which were polished to a higher shine and fitted with binding, and attach his own necks onto them.

The elusive company Code (pronounced Co-day) was also brought up. They were formed in the 1970s, while United was struggling to compete with the Japanese imports, by former United president Frank Colonese and general manager Leonard Defilippis. Unfortunately they only lasted a few years before coming back to United.

In the 1970s, United also tried selling guitar kits with all the materials provided. Bernard traveled to schools in New Jersey to pitch the idea but the skill necessary to finish the instrument was too high and they didn't sell well.

Eventually Oscar Schmidt reabsorbed the United Guitar Company shortly before they themselves were bought out by another company.

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