BY MARK SMALL | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Historically, the skills in a number of different crafts have been passed down in families. In Spain, building guitars has long been a family business. By the late 19th century, some of the most prominent family guitar-building operations had sprouted from small shops around Madrid. Credit must be given to Antonio de Torres (1817–1892) and Francisco Gonzalez (1829–1879) for their contributions to the development of modern guitar design, and building the momentum into the 20th century. Refinements made by Torres—sometimes called “the father of the modern classical guitar”—are well known, but Gonzalez was also important for his “nueva y elegante forma y construidos por un sistema especial suyo” (“elegant design with a special system”) that differed from Torres’s design. The influence of these two luthiers led to the establishment of the Ramírez guitar-making dynasty, the oldest and most celebrated of the lot.
It’s notable that Gonzalez was the teacher of both Manuel Ramírez (1864–1916) and his brother Jose Ramírez I (1858–1923). The brothers worked together in the same shop, but a rift developed when Manuel opened a competing operation. Both initially adhered to Gonzalez’s methods, but Manuel later shifted his loyalties to Torres’ approach. The craftsmanship of both Ramírez brothers was passed down to influential Spanish guitar-builders inside and outside the family.
The Ramírez Legacy
A luthier’s fame and reputation are often tied to the success of the artists who play their instruments. The story has been told many times of how Andrés Segovia obtained his first concert guitar in Madrid from Manuel Ramírez. Segovia had been playing a guitar built by Benito Ferrer of Granada at the beginning of his career. Feeling that his instrument was insufficient, the Maestro inquired at Manuel’s shop in 1913 about renting a concert guitar. After hearing him play, Manuel gifted him a fine concert guitar built in his shop in 1912 by Santos Hernández. Segovia played it throughout the world for the next 25 years.
Although Ramírez left no progeny to continue his brand, he is credited with training top builders Santos Hernández, Enrique Garcia, Modesto Borreguero, and Domingo Esteso. After Ramírez’s death in 1916 his widow continued to operate his shop, and out of loyalty to Manuel, Hernandez and Esteso worked there until the widow’s passing in 1921.
In his book The Art and Craft of Making Classical Guitars, Manuel Rodriguez (Sr.) provides a genealogy of the Spanish guitar makers of the Madrid school. It shows the fruitful lineage of the shop of José Ramírez I and the succeeding five generations that have learned the trade and continue making fine instruments today.
José I made his mark with his Guitarra de Tablao, a flamenco instrument with a larger-than-usual body designed for powerful sound projection. Interestingly, the first classical guitar recordings, made by Agustín Barrios, were done on a 1911 instrument built by José Ramírez I. His son, José Ramírez II (1885–1957), apprenticed with his father but then decided to tour South America with a performing folk group. He settled in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he married and had a son, José Ramírez III (1922–1995). After 20 years abroad, he and his family returned to Madrid in 1925, two years after the passing of José I. José II continued his father’s business, firmly establishing the dynasty.
Continued refinement and design are essential for luthiers, and are hallmarks of the Ramírez family instruments. José Ramírez III, who apprenticed with his father, is noted for making the first guitars featuring cedar tops, increasing the size of the soundbox, and making 10-string guitars. In 1963, after years of playing Hauser I guitars, Segovia started playing José III’s instruments and continued with the Ramírez brand into the final decade of his life. From 1969 to 1980 Segovia played a guitar built in the Ramírez shop in 1969 by Antonio Martinez. José III grew the business and trained such distinguished luthiers as Paulino Bernabé, Felix Manzanero, Manuel Contreras, Manuel Rodriguez, Ignacio M. Rozas, Manuel Caceres, and José Romero.
José III groomed his son, José Ramirez IV (1953–2000), and daughter Amalia (b. 1955), who continued the business expansion. When Segovia chose a guitar built by José IV in 1979, it greatly boosted the young builder’s confidence. José IV later rolled out Ramírez Traditional and Special models. Since his passing in 2000, Amalia has helmed the shop. Among her initiatives are analyzing the template and fan-bracing systems and developing new models such as the SP (Semi Professional) line. She also marked the 125th anniversary of the company in 2007 with a limited-edition professional model. As well, she oversaw a commemorative reissue of the José Ramírez I 1913 Guitarra de Tablao. Amalia’s niece Cristina Ramírez and nephew José Enrique Ramírez joined the company in 2006, representing the family’s fifth generation. José Enrique is apprenticing as a builder and studying law, while Cristina is learning the fundamentals of building but primarily works on the business side of the operation.
The Rodgriguez Clan
Returning to the Rodriguez book, we see that in addition to training his son, José Ramírez I trained Rafael Casana, Julian Gómez Ramírez (no relation), and Antonio Viudes. Manuel Rodriguez Perez (often referred to as Manuel Rodriguez I) served as a varnisher in the Ramírez shop and began the Rodriguez family dynasty that continues to this day.
Manuel I began training his son Manuel Rodriguez Fernandez (Manuel Rodriguez II) when the boy was just 13 in the workshop of José Ramírez II. Manuel II sold the first guitar bearing his signed label in 1945. He became a master builder and established his own shop in 1955. After moving operations to Los Angeles in 1959, orders for his guitars began to pour in. Among his innovations was a moveable bridge to improve intonation. He returned to Madrid in 1973 with his wife and their two sons: Manuel III and Norman. Manuel I trained both sons, who took over the business upon Manuel I’s passing in 2008. They have expanded their offerings beyond concert instruments to produce guitars in greater numbers for the student market and for players of popular music styles, utilizing both the family’s manual building practices and mechanization. Seeking to further develop their brand, they forged a deal with the capital firm Grupo Empresarial Sostenible, S.A. Sadly, that union resulted in a dispute and the unhappy exit of Manuel III and Norman from the company. The brothers are currently working to recover the family brand from Sostenible, which has continued to operate MR Guitars without the family’s input.
Manuel Contreras of Madrid (1926–1994) also trained in the Ramírez shop with José III for three years before going out on his own in 1962. He is noted for developing a double-top guitar with enhanced tone and volume, and the model was embraced by members of Los Romeros. Contreras later developed an unusually shaped guitar for Abel Carlevaro of Uruguay featuring double sides and back and no soundhole. His most popular instruments, though, were more traditionally constructed in the Ramírez style. He trained his son, Manuel Contreras II (1957–2011, a.k.a. Pablo Contreras Jr.), who continued his father’s work with traditional and innovative building methods. Victoria Velasco came to the shop as a business assistant and PR specialist in 1989. When Manuel died of cancer in 1994, Victoria and Manuel II continued the shop with their team of luthiers. Manuel II died in 2011, and Velasco continues to operate the shop with luthiers he had hired.
A Different Rodriguez Dynasty
In Córdoba, 389 kilometers from Madrid, Miguel Rodriguez Beneyto (1888–1975), known as “Miguel Sr.,” established a successful shop. His instruments reflected the influence of Torres and are noted for their small body sizes and lyrical sound. He trained his twin sons, Rafael Rodriguez Serrano (1921–1965) and Miguel Rodriguez Serrano (1921–1998, also known as “Miguel Jr.”). Jose Rodriguez Alamo (1949–1996, also known as “Pepe”), the son of Miguel Jr., later worked with his father.
The instruments they produced during the 20th Century are highly sought-after. The famed “Church Door” guitars, made by Miguel Jr. with wood from a church door during the 1970s, are known for their quick response, large sound, and striking blend of light and dark wood on the sides and back. The Romero family championed Rodriguez guitars for decades. Pepe Romero has performed extensively on a 1973 Church Door model, which he dubbed “La Wonderful.”
Segovia was always interested in the work of various luthiers, and met German luthier Hermann Hauser (1882–1952) in the 1920s. Hauser sent him various models before his famous 1937 instrument connected with Segovia, who hailed it as, “The greatest guitar of our epoch.” After Segovia’s 1912 Manuel Ramírez cracked, the Hauser became his primary instrument from 1937 until it was damaged in 1962.
The Hauser guitar dynasty began in Munich, Germany, with Josef Hauser (1854– 1939), the father of Hermann. Josef was a zither maker, and Hermann learned about instrument-making in his shop. Hermann was an impeccable craftsman who patented design innovations for joining the body and neck, as well as other techniques that made his guitars extraordinary. Many noted artists played his instruments, including Segovia, Miguel Llobet, and Julian Bream.
Hermann Hauser II (1911–1988) learned his craft from and worked with his father for 20 years before taking over the business in 1952. He continued relationships with his father’s clients. A guitar he built in 1957 is showcased on the The Art of Julian Bream album of 1960.
Hermann Hauser III (b. 1958) began working in the family shop in 1974. He presently works in Reisbach, Germany, where his father had relocated the business. Segovia and Pepe Romero highly praised his instruments, which were informed by deep study of his family’s methods, as well as those of other historic makers. Hermann III also tailors neck shapes and lengths and other characteristics to the needs of the commissioning artist. The family dynasty continues with Kathrin Hauser, who now works alongside her father (and was profiled in the Winter 2016 issue of CG).
Ignacio Fleta came from a family of violin and cello makers, and built a variety of instruments in his own shop in Barcelona starting in 1927. After hearing Segovia in 1955, he turned his full attention to building guitars and made an instrument for Segovia in 1957. John Williams later played Fletas, as did Alirio Díaz, Turibio Santos, and many others. In developing his own approach, Fleta began making heavier and larger instruments and using up to nine fan braces, additional harmonic bars, and cedar tops. The result was a guitar known for its projection in large halls. He trained his sons Gabriel (1929–2013) and Francisco (1925–2004), who continued their father’s legacy. Around 1964, the company name was changed to Ignacio Fleta e hijos (Ignacio Fleta and Sons). Gabriel brought his son, Gabriel Jr., into the business; Francisco retired from building in 1994. With the passing of Gabriel Sr. in 2013, Gabriel Jr. continues as the third generation of Fleta guitar builders.
Other dynasties in the making include Pimentel & Sons Guitar Makers of Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded in 1951 El Paso, Texas, by master builder Lorenzo Pimentel (1928-2010), originally of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The company is now in the hands of his sons Rick, Robert, and Victor. Lorenzo had his own take on guitar bracing, and his sons have continued experimenting with bracing styles that include double-top models made of cedar or European spruce with honeycomb bracing. The company makes concert, flamenco, and steel-string guitars.
Revolutionary guitars built by Greg Smallman in Australia gained worldwide attention when John Williams forsook his Fleta for a Smallman in the 1980s. Miloš Karadaglic, Craig Ogden, and Carlos Bonell are among many now playing Smallmans. Among Smallman’s prominent design features are a thick, carved back, and a thin cedar top supported by a lattice-bracing system; they are known for their tremendous sound projection. Greg’s sons joined the business, and in 1999, a new dynasty was born when Smallman labels were changed to read “Greg Smallman & Sons Damon & Kym.”
Below: JiJi plays a 2013 Greg Smallman:
José Luis Romanillos (b. 1932) is the living patriarch of a developing dynasty. Born in Madrid, Romanillos left Spain in 1956 for London, where he made his first guitar in 1961. Julian Bream greatly encouraged Romanillos and rented him workshop space on his property. Bream owned several Romanillos guitars, and concertized and recorded extensively on his famous 1973 Romanillos. Younger artists playing these instruments include Antigoni Goni, Kaori Muraji, and Stefan Barcsay. Romanillos has been hailed by some as “the Stradavari of the guitar” and lauded as a champion of the methods of Antonio de Torres. He penned a classic book on the guitars of Torres, and also volumes on his own building techniques, a history of vihuela, and guitar builders in Spain.
Romanillos’ sons Liam and Ignacio became partners in his business, and in 1991 the label was changed to “J.L. Romanillos & Sons.” Liam has continued building in the tradition of his father, creating instruments that are sonically balanced with a singing tone and notable clarity. Liam’s daughter Imogen, also a builder, is a third-generation luthier in the Romanillos family.
Today, there are countless luthiers building unique guitars in many countries. Undoubtedly, further innovations will appear, and new dynasties will emerge as parents share with sons and daughters the noble craft of guitar making.