FRETS.COM Field Trip

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I pay a visit to Super Mario!
Mario Martello
© Frank Ford, 8/23/98; Photos by FF, 8/09/98

Update, 2006.  Mario has passed away after battling cancer for some months.  Please read his obituary written by Richard Johnston.

Here's my old friend, Mario. He's by far the most productive single instrument repair person in Northern California. For most of the last 40 years, Mario has helped some of the finest instrument shops build and maintain their reputations for elegant repair work. During the important formative years of the 1960s and 1970s he did a majority of the work for Jon Lundberg's shop in Berkeley, and Satterlee and Chapin Music in San Francisco.

Whenever I see a repair job that's been sitting around my shop for too long, I always ask myself, "What would Mario do?" That's usually all I need to get the push to start the job. . .

Mario was born in Northern Italy, in 1924, and his family moved to Argentina when he was very young.

His father had his own woodworking shop and built cabinets, architectural woodwork and some furniture. Working at his father's side, Mario gained proficiency in the traditional woodworking and finishing techniques.

"My father did mostly carpentry and fine woodwork for the inside of buildings.

At the age of 33, Mario moved to New York City with his wife and son. He landed a job in a furniture factory, making and repairing reproduction period style furniture.
A friend suggested that he contact John D’Angelico to see about getting a job making and repairing guitars, but D’Angelico said he didn’t need extra help right then. After a year and a half Mario's father died and his wife wanted to return to Argentina.

“But I didn’t stay long because I see the situation and I say, 'No I don’t want to stay here.'"

A short while later, Mario came back by himself to the United States, eventually deciding that San Francisco was the place for him.

“I didn’t like the weather in New York. It was too cold.”

By the time he sent for his wife and son to join him, her visa had expired and it would be a year’s wait before she could reenter the U.S.
In 1960, while Mario worked at sofa manufacturer in San Francisco, a coworker told him he wanted to make a guitar. His friend went to Acoma music on Market Street, and bought some guitar making supplies and wood. He told John Paul, the owner, that his friend, Mario, was going to help him. John Paul said, “If your friend knows about making guitars, why don’t you send him over. We need some help here.”

“John Paul had traveled a lot in Mexico, and spoke some Spanish, so I we could talk together. He handed me over this big book with instructions about making violins and cellos, and asked me if I understood these things. ‘I said, I'm sorry I don’t know much about cellos, I do mostly guitars and things like that.’ He said he would take me over to see Harmon Satterlee because he needed a helper in his store. He took me there because that's where he took all his jobs - repairs on violins, basses, guitars, everything. He don’t do repairs. Acoma was a real nice store. Got a lot of business. Satterlee tried me a couple of Saturdays, and I got the job. I worked on a lot of violins, guitars, harps, all kinds of instruments.”

He worked for Satterlee for seven years, doing all kinds of repairs on every sort of stringed instrument.

John Lundberg brought repairs to Satterlee and Mario would do them there. He asked Mario why he didn’t just work for himself and pick up repairs. Mario thought about it and quit Satterlee, setting up his shop in his garage. “After all, most of the time I worked for myself when I ran my father’s business, so it came natural. Since the days I worked for Satterlee, I've always worked for myself.”

“I got so much experience working for Satterlee I could handle any kind of instrument. With experience, you're not afraid to start a job. Once you get started and work careful, then everything goes fine. You can't let the work sit around.”

Click here to see Mario's latest guitar, the "San Franciscan"

Mario lives in a quiet neighborhood in Martinez, California. His two-car garage shop is always neat and tidy. He keeps his power tools on casters so they can be stored in the corner when not in use:

Notice the green painted floor. It's swept clean so he can find the smallest wood chip or small part that might fall during a repair operation.

There's a simple table in the center to hold jobs in progress:

A couple of instruments hang outside the "clean corner" where he does his French polishing and other finish work:

At the end of his workbench is the ever handy glue pot:

Mario uses the classic hide glue for most operations

Behind his workbench is a crowded board with all manner of hand tools:

Like many of us, Mario believes that repairing instruments is best done working by hand. A large number of Mario's hand tools are ones he made or modified himself. He describes his experiences working in his father's shop as essentially a nineteenth century style of business.

"If you don't have the tool you need, you make one. If you don't have the parts you need, you make them, too."



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