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In Memoriam: Joseph Wallo

In Memoriam: Joseph Wallo

1921 – 2009

by Mike Ashley (With help from Robert England, Richard Bruné, David LaPlante, and Charles Vega)

Originally published in American Lutherie #108, 2011

On Wednesday, May 6, 2009, we lost Joseph F. Wallo, “Internationally known maker of the finest in concert guitars.” Joseph was an eminently practical fellow who loved his work, an entrepreneur by nature, available and artful conversationalist, at least as opinionated as the average luthier, faithful friend and guide.

Joseph was born in 1921 in Michigan and raised on a farm in Virginia where he worked as a lumberjack and in millwork. At an early age he achieved prominence as a restorer of antique furniture. That was before he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

After the war, Joseph moved on to Chicago where he spent three years doing violin and guitar repair work, studied guitar, music, and voice at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and made “a few violins” working under Italian luthier Alfio Battelli. During that time he embarked on his guitar-building enterprise. He took great pride in having made instruments for George Yeatman, Aaron Shearer, and Charlie Byrd who did many of his recordings using a Wallo classic. Joseph didn’t seem to be saddened by the fact that he couldn’t make a living building guitars. To his knowledge, only “factory workers” did that. He was a repairman with more work than he could handle who moonlighted building guitars and selling materials.

From Chicago, he made his way to the Violin House of Weaver in Bethesda, Maryland where he worked until he retired. The three generations of Weavers at the Violin House hold fond memories of Joseph.

Like many luthiers of my generation, in 1968 I spotted Joseph’s How to Make a Classic Guitar in the Vitali catalogue, where, incidentally, it is still listed. It was the first of its kind, published in 1962. My 1965 edition included drawings for both classical and steel-string instruments as well as his catalogue. His “KIT NO. 1” included everything—plans, book, absolutely all materials, sandpaper, strings, sealer, pore filler, varnish, brush, rubbing compounds and polish—for $146.75 with the 10% discount. This was no ordinary “kit.” In fact, it was a kit in name only. Nothing was bent, thicknessed, or joined. It was, though, his finest Brazilian rosewood back and ribs and European spruce soundboard, Honduras mahogany neck, handsome rosette, ivory nut and saddle, and black plastic binding.

Photo courtesy of R.E. Bruné

A few years later, I told Joseph I had foregone the plastic and was making my own wood purflings and bindings. He paused for a moment and said he had once done bindings in wood, but couldn’t understand why any builder would do it a second time. Why, after all, would anybody go to all that extra work — drudgery as far as he was concerned—for something that didn’t make the instrument a whit better? He insisted that the black plastic, properly finished, looked just like ebony. I should wise up. I didn’t argue.

Joseph was generous with his time, knowledge, and frank observations. Richard Bruné tells of setting out on his guitar making career with Joseph’s book in hand. By 1968, as Richard says, he was “finally getting some grip on the art.” He visited Joseph in Washington, D.C., proudly opened the case holding his fifth guitar, and presented the instrument to Joseph for his inspection. As Richard says “Joe looked over his glasses at me and asked if I wanted praise or criticism.” Praise he could get from his mom, so after an 800 mile drive, he opted for criticism. The list of “obvious” problems was so exhaustive that even this promising young luthier was tempted to doubt his calling. It was quite a surprise, arriving home, to learn that Joseph had lined up a customer in Virginia who ordered his own Bruné. I expect Joseph was confident that his advice had made all the difference.

A talk with Joseph was always fun. One of his favorite stories had to do with marketing. A classical guitarist came into his shop and sampled his instruments. He played at some length and really liked the feel and sound of a Wallo guitar. He asked the price, and Joseph—this was many years ago—said $1500. The potential customer was disappointed. He left the shop saying he was actually interested in a $3000 instrument. So, as Joseph put it, from then on he had a shop full of $3000 instruments.

His mail-order business kept him busy. He had ongoing irritation with his wood suppliers. Occasionally, in an order from him I’d find a warped or cracked fingerboard or bridge blank on which Joseph had scrawled a note. “Can you believe the stuff they send me?” or “Maybe you can find a use for this. I can’t.” His “S&W Italian Guitar Varnish” was another story. He had sold it for years. I’ve used it and in fact still have a few cans of the stuff. It’s wonderful. When his supplier died, Joseph asked his wife if she knew his source or the formula for the product. She didn’t, but said if Joseph stopped by maybe he could figure it out. What Joseph found was a stash of the half-pint cans and labels, a funnel, and a gallon or two of a Sherwin Williams oil varnish. It was S&W all right, minus the Italian. Joseph and so many other luthiers had been so happily had by this scam. So, Joseph sadly changed the label.

In his later years, Joseph lost the love of his life, his wife Cecile. He then suffered a serious bout of shingles. He was one of the victims for whom the pain becomes chronic and virtually untreatable. Knowing I was a pharmacist, we had frequent conversations about possible drug interventions and any other treatments that might show promise. Life was hard. Through it all, he remained the same guy. Many of us miss that guy.