A new Top Hat: Junior Joey Arlotta designs his own guitars

The three-year wood shop student sees his inspiration in Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead


Mr. Bradley was amazed.

  “This was by far the most complex, in-depth project I’ve had anybody attempt,” the woodshop teacher said. He has been teaching for five and a half years. This particular student project, by all accounts, is certainly ambitious, but junior Joey Arlotta is all about ambition: he is at the final stages of custom-building two guitars: one for himself and one for his dad.

  Inspired by Jerry Garcia, Arlotta sees in his guitars as a mirror to the great improvisational guitarist, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Garcia’s six-string guitar was known as Top Hat.

  An extremely customized piece, it might seem impossible to replicate, but it is coming together to be an impressive remake. Arlotta is a “rock n’ roll” fan and enjoys great guitarists.

  Arlotta loves the guitar greats, especially Jimi Hendrix. “If you watch some of the guys,” he said, “they don’t even look at the guitar while they play.”

 Though he doesn’t have all that much experience playing, he says his brother played guitar around him a lot when he was younger, and that gave him an appreciation for musicianship.

  As far as building guitars, the idea came up last year. Mr. Bradley said it took a lot of planning and coordination, but about three or four weeks into this school year, Arlotta started saying he wanted to get serious about it and make one. “So I said ‘have at it,’” Mr. Bradley said.

  And Arlotta has been working diligently ever since.

  Mr. Bradley said Arlotta is willing to do anything he needs to do to get the job done. “If I ask him to do something, he’s always more than willing to do it,” Mr. Bradley said. “He helps his fellow classmates all the time. So if I had five more Joeys, I’d be a happier camper.”

  Around the classroom, it’s not difficult to find Joey helping out with a smile on his face. When he isn’t working on his two guitars, he’s helping others with projects, utilizing the experience he has gained through three years of the course.

  The direct inspiration for the project was a man named Stephen Cripe, who built boats for a living before turning to guitars. He’s best known for making “Lightning Bolt” and “Top Hat” for Jerry Garcia.

  Arlotta said he finds it interesting that Cripe came from something else and he made something that was so boutique and so hard to make. “He ended up making it just because he was a fan of how Jerry played,” Arlotta said.

  So what’s in Arlotta’s future? He plans to be a police officer. He wants to help serve a community, but if not, he would consider a form of woodwork.

  Is another guitar in his future? “Absolutely,” he said. “I feel like I can build a better one with even better quality wood and parts.”