Happy Birthday, Don Antonio! Toast the 200th birthday of Influential Luthier Antonio de Torres
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON
Born June 13, 1817, in La Cañada de San Urbano, Spain, Antonio de Torres Jurado changed the shape, sound, and worldwide appeal of the guitar, which is today arguably the most popular instrument on the planet. Here is what a few notable authors have said about Torres:
“The most influential Spanish guitar builder of all time.” —Robert Shaw, Hand Made, Hand Played: The Art and Craft of Contemporary Guitars
“The man to whom we owe the modern concert guitar.” —Maurice J. Summerfield, The Classical Guitar: Its Evolution, Players and Personalities Since 1800
“All modern guitar-makers owe an incalculable debt to Antonio de Torres Jurado, the man whose 19th century guitar designs are still closely followed…” —Ralph Deyner, The Guitar Handbook
Prior to Torres, guitars were very much a mixed bag—some large, some small, some with multiple courses of strings (that is, sets of two strings in combinations of four, five, six, eight or more). Many had gold, silver, precious gems, and other body and neck adornments. Most important is that their sound was rarely anywhere near what we have today.
No less an authority than Julian Bream opined that the old classical guitar, prior to Torres, was “to some extent an ill thought-out instrument” because it was based on the 18th century Baroque guitar, but with single strings instead of pairs, and with an extra bass string added. This would seem to put the guitar into a potentially more demanding role. “But for some reason,” Bream said, “there was little or no compensation reflected in the sound chamber within the instrument in order to resonate the newly found lower frequencies.” That compensation would not occur until Antonio de Torres came along.
Torres’ genius was not that he personally re-invented the design of the instrument, but rather that he successfully brought together several innovations in guitar construction, many of which had been around for decades. Some were the pioneering work of others, but Torres refined them and incorporated them into his own construction process. The result was that his instruments were so strikingly better in overall sound quality, as well as playability, that they sharply changed the Spanish school of guitar construction, and then, the entire world’s.
Take just one innovation as an example: the structural braces that Torres affixed to the underside of his guitars’ soundboards. His system had either five or seven struts (depending on the size of the guitar), arranged in a fan-like configuration, with two more placed diagonally below them. Torres biographer—and outstanding luthier himself—José Romanillos describes them as a kite-like configuration. One could also describe it as like the front view of an old-fashioned steam train, complete with cowcatcher. Other luthiers had used a similar setup, such as Joseph Benedid and Francisco Sanguino in the 1780s, and Louis Panormo in the early decades of the 1800s. But theirs were not as symmetrically and harmonically arranged as those of Torres. Their soundboards were relatively thick, so the struts had questionable acoustic benefits. Torres’ strut configuration, combined with the use of a much thinner and domed soundboard, and a larger lower bout, resulted in better sound quality and ease of playing.
Torres’ combination of innovations have had an incalculable influence on generations of classical-guitar builders that have followed him: Fellow Spanish luthiers such as Romanillos, Manuel Ramirez, Santos Hernandez, Ignacio Fleta, and Domingo Esteso, and German Hermann Hauser (and his heirs), are just some of the best-known luthiers who have embraced the Torres approach.
But even as they used Torres’ formula as a foundation, luthiers have continued to search for improvements, such as modifying the bracing concept in various ways, or using space-age materials unavailable to Torres, such as carbon fibers and epoxy resins. Sometimes the changes have been effective, sometimes they haven’t. But, as David Collett, president of Guitar Salon International, notes, “It’s hard for a builder to move very far away from Torres.”
Carpenter to Luthier
The son of a tax collector, Antonio de Torres was trained as a carpenter and became a member of the local guild by the time he was out of his teens. But because the young man had a growing family, he sought to earn extra money by also making guitars on the side. In the 1850s, when Torres was in his early 30s, the famed virtuoso guitarist Julián Arcas (1832–1882) became very interested in a new career: guitar construction. Arcas heard one of Torres’ guitars played at a flamenco event and sought out its maker. Upon meeting him, Arcas encouraged Torres to go into the profession full-time. Torres followed Arcas’ advice and, over the years, managed to build a significant reputation. The problem was that, in order to survive financially, a luthier had to make less-expensive instruments for non-professionals, as well as fine guitars for professionals. Logically, this would mean that cheaper guitars, built for the masses, would be built faster and with less care. But for Torres, the primary difference between the two was in the materials used. Yes, there was some corner-cutting, but overall, all of his guitars were well- built, no matter whom the customer might be. An analysis of surviving Torres guitars bears this out.
Alas, even with this concession to economic realities, by the early 1870s Torres found he was not making enough money to support his family so he decided to forego guitar-building to run a china shop. Fortunately for the guitar world, however, within a couple of years, Torres was back to building instruments. He numbered his guitars during this post-china shop period, or, as he called it, his second epoch, and today, that is how Torres instruments are designated: first epoch or second epoch, with a number approximating their chronological order.
It is noteworthy that while many of the earlier influential guitar-makers worked in the major economic and artistic centers of Europe—René Lacôte in Paris, Johann Stauffer in Vienna, and the Panormo family in London—Torres spent most of his life in rural southern Spain. Yet, this man had more impact on the art and science of building classical guitars than any other single individual. It may be a perfect proof for the old maxim that if you can build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a pathway to your door… no matter where that door lies.
That is precisely what happened with Torres, thanks in large part to three successive guitarists: Arcas, Francisco Tárrega, and Miguel Llobet. When Arcas first heard that Torres-built instrument in Sevilla, he not only encouraged him to go full-time into the profession, but also challenged him to develop a guitar with a better sound and volume than the ones Arcas had been using for performances. The guitarist had no doubt seen and heard a wide range of instruments throughout his career, touring all over Europe.
Those Torres-built instruments then caught the ears of others, including the young Francisco Tárrega, who had heard Arcas play his Torres in concert in Castellon de la Plana, some 440 miles northeast of Torres’ home in Sevilla. Tárrega traveled from his home in Barcelona to Torres’ workshop, seeking a guitar similar to the one he had heard Arcas play. Initially, Torres offered him one of his less expensive guitars, but once he heard Tárrega play, he brought out his personal instrument and offered it to the young guitarist.
Although Tárrega was not widely known at the time, his popularity would later soar, and he would spread the gospel according to Torres—his guitars—throughhis many tours of Europe as a virtuoso guitarist and teacher. Also, as Romanillos speculates about Tárrega, “He played that instrument for over 20 years, and it is not too adventurous to suggest that Torres’ guitar was the basis for a new awareness of the possibilities of the guitar as a serious musical instrument.” And besides being a great player, Tárrega would go on to greatly increase the repertoire of the classical guitar, not only with his own compositions, but also by transcribing the works of others, including Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and Albéniz.
Among Tárrega’s pupils was Miguel Llobet, who would tour throughout Europe, South America, and the United States in the early 1900s playing a Torres guitar, further spreading the knowledge of the Torres concepts. In 1913, for example, Llobet gave a performance in Germany attended by a local luthier named Hermann Hauser. Hauser was intrigued enough that he studied Llobet’s guitar and soon after applied many of its attributes to his own work.
And so it would go. A guitarist might hear the pure-sounding Torres guitar owned by a performer and ask where the player purchased it. Or a luthier might ask to examine the instrument and copy some of its qualities. Over time, the word was passed along. So, while Torres himself was not a resident of major centers of art and culture, his instruments were frequent visitors to such areas. It was Andrés Segovia who would later take the classical guitar to major worldwide popularity, and the best guitars he used were made by Manuel Ramirez, Hermann Hauser, and Ignacio Fleta—all, to some degree, “students” of the Torres school of guitar construction.
An Enduring Legacy
How many instruments did Torres himself build? Nobody knows, exactly. Romanillos estimates the number at around 320 guitars. Eighty-eight had been located by the time Romanillo’s still-definitive biography of Torres was published in 1987, and several other guitars have been located since then. Legend has it that Torres even built a collapsible guitar that he could assemble or take a part in a few minutes. Did such a guitar exist? Is it one of the 200-plus instruments that have either been destroyed, lost, or remain hidden away? It’s always possible that somewhere, gathering dust in an attic or basement, another Torres is waiting to be discovered.
But in the rare event that a Torres guitar does come up for sale and you’re tempted to bid on it, be prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a little reminiscent of the prices obtained for violins built by another Antonio—the Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (c. 1644–1737). Fewer than 600 of Stradivari’s violins survive, and their price tags soar into the millions of dollars. But collecting old classical guitars did not get seriously underway until the 1950s, while the market for older violins has been strong since the early years of the 20th century. So perhaps in the coming decades, we may see a Torres sell in the seven figures.
One might reasonably wonder: Do these instruments bring such a high price because of their history in the development of guitar design, or because of their provenance? Or is it truly because of their ability to make beautiful music? Provenance, after all, seems to be very important to some people. In November 2015, for example, a 1962 Gibson J-160E went for a cool $2.4 million—not for its musicality, but because it was owned by John Lennon in the early years of the Beatles.
Instruments by Torres and Stradivari likewise have noteworthy histories, but clearly, it is their sound that makes them stand out. We know that the reason Arcas, Tárrega, and Llobet were each attracted to the Torres instruments was their sound. And even today, according to those with well-trained ears, a Torres does not sound like any other guitar. Upon hearing a performance on a Torres guitar, one reviewer in 1889 gushed, “Each string carries the voices and modulation of a thousand angels, his guitar is the temple of emotions, the Arcanum of abundance that moves and delights the heart escaping in sighs from those threads that seem guardians of mermaids’ songs.”
Sheldon Urlik, who has four Torres guitars in his private collection, and is the author of A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present, describes one of them—more than a century and a quarter after the luthier built it—this way: “The clarity of tone, purity of timbre, and concentrated quality of the music from this guitar seem miraculous.”
Players have spoken of how easy Torres guitars are to play, how responsive they are when a string is plucked. David Collett says it well: “Torres guitars allow you to think something, and the guitar does it.”
Also, both Antonios—Torres and Stradivari—achieved a level of individual artistry that, arguably, cannot be totally duplicated. Stradivari violins have been studied with x-rays, electron microscopes, spectrometers, and dendrochronological analysis, all in an effort to find the special element that makes them sound better than other violins. The results have been disappointing. Torres’ instruments have been similarly analyzed. While the successful Torres recipe of specific innovations was soon copied by others, there always remained something missing that could not be precisely copied. Some felt—as with Stradivari—that there must be some other secret ingredient or tool that allowed this man to produce responsive guitars with such beautiful tone. Romanillos relates a story which offers the luthier’s own thoughts on this:
A dinner party had been arranged for Torres by the local clergy, at which the luthier was asked to divulge his secret, “and not to take it with him to the grave.” In response, Torres supposedly said, “It is impossible for me to leave the secret behind for posterity; this will go to the tomb with me, for it is the result of the feel of the tips of the thumb and forefinger communicating to my intellect whether the soundboard is properly worked out to correspond with the guitar maker’s concept and the sound required of the instrument.”
Torres was stating that the key element of the success of the guitar is the soundboard. At the same time, it is the luthier’s sense of feel, developed over decades of trial-and-error working on woods of various types, honed to various widths and flexibilities. Romanillos notes that an analysis of soundboards on Torres guitars found that they “are thicker in the central area…than in the periphery, averaging 2.5 mm around the central axis and in the upper part of the sound hole, to about 1.4 mm in the periphery. This pattern is consistent in all the guitars we examined, with small differences of a few tenths of a millimeter.” An amazing feat, working with hand tools and measuring the thickness of the soundboards with “the tips of his thumb and forefinger.”
It’s not surprising, that for those well-heeled types who collect Spanish guitars, owning a Torres—or even being its temporary custodian before it is eventually passed on to the next person—is the ultimate. As for the rest of us, at least we can still hear them played by a master guitarist.