From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON
Early classical guitarist and luthier Antonio de Torres (1817–1892) pioneered many classical guitar design elements that are still seen in modern guitars. Here are some of his most notable contributions to the instrument.
Here’s a quick guide with links to the sections in this article:
- HEAD DESIGN
- FAN BRACING
- 650 MM SCALE LENGTH
- SINGLE STRINGS
- RESTRAINED USE OF ORNAMENTATION
The plantilla—the overall shape of the guitar body—was very important to Torres. Most earlier guitars were very slim and had a wider waist than what Torres preferred. Legend has it that Torres’ inspiration for the shape of his instruments was a beautiful woman he saw in Sevilla. He did retain the earlier concept of having the waist located 2/5 of the way down the body.
While Torres did build some smaller instruments, his primary focus was on larger ones, especially for concert guitars. Jose Romanillos notes in his biography of Torres: “From the moment that Torres introduced the large plantilla for the guitarra fina (best guitar) in the early 1850s, the small-bodied guitar prevalent in the early decades of the 19th century became extinct as a concert instrument.”
To Torres, the soundboard was the most important element in the instrument’s music-making quality. He took great care in the wood selection, as well as the shaping and arching of the soundboard. Reducing its thickness allowed it to vibrate more easily when the strings are plucked or strummed.
Torres used a headpiece with three arched points, a larger point in the center, flanked by two smaller ones. Although not critical to the sound of the instrument, this design became an archetype for many classical guitar luthiers, including Hauser, Velazquez, and Romanillos.
With a larger and wider soundboard than most contemporary guitars, Torres had to determine the ideal spot for locating the bridge. He chose a spot roughly in the center
of the lower bout.
Having a soundboard that was thinner and larger in surface area than was typical required significant structural support. For that, Torres chose a “fan” design. Fan struts were initiated by the Andalusian school of guitar makers. According to Romanillos, “This idea can be traced back to Sevilla and to the work of Francisco Sanguino, a master craftsman whose work stands out among his contemporaries.” Torres’ bracing pattern typically included either five or eight struts.
650 MM SCALE LENGTH
As with other aspects of his guitar design, Torres did not initiate the use of the 650 mm scale length; several other luthiers had used it previously. And he did not use it on all of his instruments. But he did favor it for the concert guitars he built for professional musicians. When other luthiers heard the Torres instruments played by those professionals, many copied the Torres in an effort to enhance the playability of their own instruments, and the 650 mm scale was, essentially, part of the overall package. Today, the 650 mm string length is one of the standards.
Again, the production of single-stringed guitars preceded Torres. At the beginning of the 19th century, Agustin Caro was producing single-stringed instruments in Granada. But there were still plenty of luthiers building their instruments with multiple courses of strings when Torres was building. In fact, Torres himself built at least three 11-string guitars during his second epoch. But clearly, the 6-string was his primary focus.
RESTRAINED USE OF ORNAMENTATION
Prior to Torres, guitar builders often covered their creations with silver, gold, jewels and other enhancements. Torres guitars are noteworthy for their simplicity and subtlety, with the primary enhancements being their rosettes and perhaps the purfling.
A cylindrical metal device placed beneath the soundhole, its megaphone-like appearance tells its purpose: to amplify the sound and increase sustain. Torres’ famous “La Leona” guitar (FE 04) is the earliest surviving guitar with a tornavoz, so it is quite possible that Torres himself was its inventor. Although other luthiers picked up on the use of this internal device, Torres virtually abandoned it in his second epoch. Romanillos states that 17 of the 39 known guitars in Torres’ first epoch had a tornavoz fitted, while only two out of the 49 known guitars in his second epoch (as of his book’s 1990 edition) had them. By the 1950s, the device had gone out of favor, though there are still luthiers who employ them.