The Collector: Sheldon Urlik Turned His Obsession with Spanish Guitars Into a Beautiful and Important Book/CD Project
From the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON
If you’ve never heard of Sheldon Urlik, or the impressive private collection of classical and flamenco guitars housed in his Utah home, don’t worry—Urlik keeps a low-profile and his collection is not open for public viewing. However, if you’re interested in seeing what these guitars look like and hearing how they sound, and are fascinated by the most minute imaginable details of these instruments, you’re in luck. Urlik recently published the truly spectacular revised second edition of his long-sold-out 1997 book A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present, adding a number of guitars he acquired in the interim and also an audio component: Three CDs, featuring 76 of the 82 guitars in the book with two discs devoted to classical guitars, and the third to flamenco instruments, all presented, like the book, in mostly chronological order. So, not only is the book an invaluable resource about Spanish-style guitars; it also showcases much of the traditional repertoire, heavy on interpretations of Bach, Fernando Sor, and Francisco Tárrega (among many others) on the classical side.
The only biographical information you’ll find about Urlik in the book itself is one sentence on the jacket flap that describes him simply as “an amateur classical guitarist who has expressed his passion for the instrument by assembling and cataloguing one of the world’s most important collections of Spanish guitars.” When I reach him by phone at his home, he speaks about himself only reluctantly; he’d much rather talk about his guitars and his book.
We’ll keep the biography brief. Urlik grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA, graduating with an engineering degree. “Rather than engineering, though, I went into the Air Force and became a fighter pilot, and after five years in the Air Force, I went into the electrical signage supply business, and that’s what I did until I retired in 2003.” Evidently his business was very successful.
Ulrik didn’t start playing the guitar until he was 40. “Kind of a late start, I guess, but I really enjoyed it and kept at it. Still, I’ve never been anything more than a serious amateur.” The first high-quality guitar he acquired was a José Ramirez 1A that his wife bought him after he’d been taking lessons for a couple of years.
“One day I was in San Francisco and went into a shop called Guitar Solo, and I noticed they had two guitars on the wall that said ‘Not For Sale,’ and that really interested me. It was a [Hermann] Hauser I and a [Ignacio] Fleta, and the salesperson explained that they were valuable and on display just to attract customers. He said, ‘I do have another guitar in the back that is for sale,’ and he brought out a 1932 Hauser I. Fortunately, it was in good condition, because I was too inexperienced to buy a guitar needing repairs. So I bought it, and that was my first real collectible guitar.
Two pages from A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present, and author/collector Sheldon Urlik
“One pivotal evening in 1991, the young broker Tim Miklaucic [who went on to found Guitar Salon International] called at my home to show me three superb instruments, thinking maybe I would buy one. By the end of that night I was the owner of a 1922 Enrique Garcia, a 1969 Daniel Friederich, and a 1980 Jose Romanillos. I had a collection. Tim and a few other dealers—Dan Zeff, R.E. Bruné, and Bruce Banister come to mind—in time, earned my confidence by their square dealing and surprising access to many important guitars. Their acumen was a factor in the collection’s growth.
“As I was starting to think about collecting, I bought a book called The Guitar: From the Renaissance to Rock [by Tom and Mary Anne Evans], that talked a lot about historic classical guitars and also had a time-spectrum breakdown for classical guitars. One of the spectra was ‘From Torres to the Present.’ Of course, there are centuries of guitars before [Antonio de] Torres, but that would have been a whole different genre of instruments. From Torres to the present seemed feasible [to collect]. It’s not a thousand guitars; more like a hundred.
“So I used that book as my guide: If the book had a [Francisco] Simplicio in it, I knew I should get a Simplicio. I knew I should get a Santos Hernandez. For better or worse, when I get interested in something, I really get involved,” he says, adding, “The ’90s were a very good time for somebody building up a collection. There was something of a worldwide recession going on and a lot of guitars came out of the closets in foreign countries to be turned into dollars, and fortunately I was in a position where I could complete the sales. As time went by, too, I learned more and more and I became even more discriminating.”
Through the years, he managed to acquire guitars by most of the essential luthiers since Torres, including generations of the Ramirez and Hauser families, Enrique Sanfeliu, Domingo Esteso, Robert Bouchet, Marcelo Barbero, Hernandez y Aguado, and many others, up to modern masters of the style such as Greg Smallman and the late Thomas Humphrey.
Asked about what he considers the jewel of the collection, Urlik doesn’t hesitate: “The 1888 rosewood-bodied Torres owned by Tárrega. To me, that is the most collectible, precious guitar there is. It has the perfect provenance and was constructed by the most revered guitar maker. Plus, it is a magnificent-sounding instrument, and in very good condition. It’s analogous to Niccolo Paganini’s Stradivari—though not nearly as valuable—in the violin world.
Hear Tárrega’s 1888 Torres guitar played by Kenton Youngstrom, from the book’s bonus CDs. (Capricio Arabe, by Tárrega)
“That great guitar can really transport you,” he continues. “I’ve had guitarists come here and when they played that guitar, some of them got lightheaded! One virtuoso player was here and he started playing pieces by Tárrega on it and he kept commenting, ‘At last, I know how to play Tárrega!’ It’s really something special.”
Urlik says he had an overriding purpose in putting together the second edition of A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present: to thoroughly document this unsurpassed collection of “modern” Spanish-style guitars. Not surprisingly, he devotes more space to the 1888 Torres than any other guitar in the book—outlining its entire history and noting every restoration measure used on it—but all the guitars are covered in extreme technical depth, with the dimensions of every part of the instrument, charts of wood thickness on many different parts of the instrument, bracing diagrams, and detailed color photos showing the full guitar front and back, the rosette, and the interior label. Urlik’s text is mostly given over to descriptions of wood types, bracing, and rosettes, along with anecdotes, insights, and light biographical information about the makers; it is more catalog than history book, though there’s plenty of history, too.
The idea to include music played on the guitars for the second edition came from the outstanding Cuban guitarist Rene Izquierdo: “He came to see the collection,” Urlik says, “and like everyone who loves the guitar, he was overwhelmed. He said, ‘If you write another book, I’ll record all these guitars, no charge,’ And that got me thinking that documentation must include the voices of the collection. In the end, it turned out Rene couldn’t do the project because he had so many conflicts in his schedule. He wouldn’t have been able to do it for a year and a half. So I contacted my former teacher, Kenton Youngstrom, a consummate guitarist who can play it all. He realized that he’d be leaving a legacy if the book was well received, and I gave him the right to use the recorded files for his own commercial purposes. The task was not easy, either. He had to play 55 pieces in two days, calibrating his hand to new guitars for every track. But he did a great job, obviously.” The noted flamenco player, scholar, and luthier Richard Bruné played the 21 flamenco pieces. Both guitarists, mindful of the book’s budget and out of friendship with Urlik, recorded gratis.
Urlik has slowed his acquisition of guitars by this point, believing he has most of what he needs. Also there is this reality: “Guitars have become much, much more expensive. It’s mentally hard for me to buy guitars today, because my memory still is locked in an old price schedule. Prices are probably three to ten times what they were in the ’90s.”
I closed by asking Urlik how new guitars sound to him compared to the older classics. “My book discusses quality of sound and longevity a lot. They can be very equivalent in quality, if they’re really fine, quality instruments. But I could turn the question around and ask: ‘Isn’t it surprising that the old masters made guitars that can still sound as beautiful as the new masters’, with all their better tools and broader selection of materials now?’ You can play surprisingly many of the old masters’ guitars—the old Santos, the old Torres, etc.—and you can successfully compare that sound with the best of more modern guitars, whatever their age or material, or their builders’ approach.”