IN THIS SERIES, LOCAL SUN PROFILES LIKE-MINDED BUSINESS OWNERS IN THE HOUSTON AREA. In his Montrose Studio, Stephen Marchione crafts handmade guitars for superstars like paul Simon and Mark Knopfler.
Stephen Marchione always dawdled on his way to elementary school.
Walking through curving cobblestone streets in Bergamo, Italy, he was drawn to a local instrument maker’s workshop. Every day, he’d peer through the window with fascination, watching the luthier carve guitar necks and string violins.
Over the next few decades—and continents—what began as a boyhood curiosity evolved into a full-blown passion for music and instrument making. From his Montrose workshop, a three-story studio he built specifically for stringed instrument-making, Marchione now designs and builds high-end handmade guitars and violins. He ships his acoustic, archtop and electric guitars to top musicians and collectors around the world.
Marchione’s clients, musicians like Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler and Mark Whitfield, have shelled out anywhere from $6,500 to up to $40,000 for the pure, smooth sound of a Marchione guitar, which takes around 300 hours to build. It’s been 27 years since Marchione made his first guitar. He has repeat customers, a long wait list, and his market continues to expand. Recently, interest in his guitars from Asia has exploded.
“When people want a Tiffany ring, they want a Tiffany ring,” says Marchione. He’s sitting at a workbench on the second floor of his studio using a cheese cloth to apply thin layers of French polish to a classical guitar. “Those are my customers,” he says. “The musicians that come to me, they want a Marchione guitar. I’m into good sound and materials that speaks for themselves, not bling.”
A guitar a week
Marchione’s instruments are unique because they’re made by hand from high-quality wood; his guitars have no plastic parts. He and his team of five handpick and mill the wood themselves. He develops his own tools, and also uses files and chisels he inherited from his Sicilian cabinetmaker uncle. And while many big instrument manufacturers use yellow glue to hold their instruments together, Marchione uses hot hide glue. It holds up better against time, and heat.
“When I design a guitar, I research all the models that people like the most,” Marchione says, “their features, what works well, and then I make the best version, my version.” His designs are inspired by Italian and Spanish guitar makers.
Work for Marchione, his two shop foreman and three apprentices starts at 7 a.m. with a team meeting over cups of coffee. They end the day with a beer. His German shepherds linger in the studio, chewing on bones. Flamenco, Texas rock and jazz tunes mix with the sound of instruments being tuned, saws slicing wood. The shop puts out 50 guitars a year, and typically one or two violins. At any given point, up to 20 instruments lay across worktables in various stages of completion.
So far, while Spain, Italy and even Canada boast top female instrument makers, Marchione has yet to have a woman apply to work at his shop. “Why?” he says. “People don’t show kids, and especially girls, how to use tools anymore. It’s that simple.”
Marchione sees a need to remedy that. He teaches, though he focuses on older students. He’s taught at Rice University, and this summer will lead guitar and violin making workshops for graduate students at Pacific Lutheran University. In Houston, he’s also played guitar during mass at the University of Saint Thomas, and for flamenco dancers at local shows.
Carving in the Hill Country
Marchione was born in Boston and lived briefly in New York and Houston before his family moved to Italy. He and his family returned to Texas when Marchione was eight. At summer camp in the Hill Country, he enjoyed carving birdhouses and walking sticks. In the 80s, he learned how to play guitar from Erich Avinger, one of Houston’s hottest jazz guitarists.
He ended up at Lamar High School, and then the University of Houston—where he joined the school’s jazz ensemble on guitar. In 1990 he found himself in New York City working at Pensa-Suhr, a company that made handmade electric guitars for rock stars. In his spare time, he played jazz guitar around the city and made his own guitars and mandolins, seeking out advice from local instrument makers.
“I would go to the best people and learn from them,” he says. “I’d bring a bottle of wine, buy them dinner.”
In 1993, he opened his own studio in New York and in 2001 moved back to Houston, searching for a less hectic way of life. “Houston has great people and great art, and winter, fall and spring here are sublime,” he says.
Keeping it local
While Marchione orders much of the sustainable maple, spruce, rosewood, ebony and mahogany he uses to create his instruments from Europe, he keeps it local when he can. He’ll buy wood from Clark’s Hardwood Lumber Co. in the Heights.
His Houston-born clients include guitarist Mike Severson, an HSPVA grad, who in recent months toured with the highly respected Robert Glasper Experiment, and Mike Moreno, also an HSPVA grad who’s known as one of the leading voices in the jazz guitar world.
This year, Marchione has been busy developing a new acoustic guitar, the OMC. He’s also working on a new violin modeled after a Guarneri, one of the most famous violin models aside from a Stradivarius. It’s a design he’s worked on for years. “Guarneri shows a lot of tool marks in his carving, and I have a lot of fun with that,” he says.
Over the years, Marchione has developed his business to mimic that of a European workshop model, one that’s steeped in history and tradition. It’s the model he grew up with, and one that that takes him back to the streets of Bergamo. In Montrose, each of Marchione’s foreman has honed his own skill. The apprentices learn from everyone.
“I have no interest in running a factory or in working alone,” Marchione says. He checks his watch. It’s almost time for the team’s 4:30 p.m. beer. “The way I do it is like working with friends. Everyone has a different specialty, but we’re all working together, and it’s a lot of fun.”