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Born in North Tampa, Virgil Guitars blend style, substance (w/video)

The luthier plays the blues on one of his creations. Each design starts with Adobe Illustrator.
Published Mar. 9, 2014

TAMPA

Up until a few years ago, Virgil Mandanici had only dabbled in woodwork. • A few home projects here and there — a rack to hang his instruments on, a podium — nothing complex. • So when he decided to build his first guitar in 2010, he didn't have high expectations. • "Your first build is supposed to end up in the garbage or in a closet or under a bed," he said. But after a year of work on the instrument, Mandanici, 50, realized he might be on to something. • "This guitar was supposed to be for me," he said, "but it ended up being too gorgeous to keep." • Dubbed "Dueling Dragons" because of the intricate inlay work depicting two dragons on the guitar's exotic wood body and up the fret board, the first Virgil Guitars creation sold for $17,000. • It wasn't a fluke. His second guitar sold for $12,000. A third, less decorated guitar sold for $6,995, and so on. • "I've just been nailing it," Mandanici said. "I can't explain it. I think it's mojo."

A guitar teacher, Mandanici began building guitars after the father of one of his students — a cabinetmaker — noticed his art and encouraged him to try woodworking.

He spent hours researching the process online and watched countless how-to videos. The Dueling Dragons guitar was an experiment in just how far he could go.

Dozens of rare and exotic materials went into its making, he said, including abalone, mother-of-pearl, 14-karat gold, prehistoric sand shark teeth and Hawaiian koa wood — all of which contributed to the price.

Besides creating a visually appealing instrument, though, he concentrated on its sound.

"There's a stigma that the guitars are too gorgeous or too expensive," Mandanici said. "A lot of people think they are gimmicky or too flashy until they are able to hear them or try playing them."

John Silva discovered Virgil Guitars on Facebook, where Mandanici posts about the status of his builds, and fell in love with the designs. The Auburn, Wash., resident purchased Mandanici's 12th guitar, "Red Head," named after the burled redwood used on the body.

"His guitars really are something amazing," Silva said. "It's not just beautiful in my eyes, but it also plays awesome."

Every creation comes out of Mandanici's North Tampa home, where he converted a screened back porch to a woodshop and filled it with more than $40,000 worth of equipment.

Though he didn't always know it, his guitar-building skills have been in the making for years, thanks to a diverse background that includes experience as a photo engraver, standup comedian, Web and logo designer, video editor and salesman.

"It all came together when I started doing guitars," he said.

Mandanici starts the design process on his computer. Using Adobe Illustrator, he lays out the shape of the guitar and creates an inlay design.

The carving of each piece and fitting them onto the guitar can be tedious and time consuming, Mandanici said, but it gives him a chance to dream up his next creation.

Every guitar he creates is one of a kind and can be customized to a customer's specifications.

A base model starts at $3,500, with the price increasing as options are added. The most expensive guitar Mandanici has built? It's on the market and can be yours for nearly $25,000.

"I didn't mean for this to become a business," he said, "but it just seems that people want to buy my guitars."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

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