The Guitar as Tool and Artifact: Inside the Harris Collection at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Harris Collection Guitars, Nathan Martinez plays the Masaru Kohno 1976 and the 1930 Santos Hernández guitar

by Jeff Kaliss

LEFT: Nathan Martinez  plays the 1976 Masaru Kohno
RIGHT: The 1930 Santos Hernández guitar

Of the many instruments that are taught, learned, and practiced at the renowned San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there’s only one that you’ll hear, if you’re lucky, as you enter from Oak Street into the crystalline light of the three-story atrium. It’s the classical guitar, which enjoys the unique privilege of permitted practice within that shared space.

“It sort of has become the soundscape of the place,” says L. John Harris, whose Harris Guitar Foundation has established a supportive relationship with the Conservatory. “And that’s not inappropriate, because the guitar department is highly important to the school.”

Last year saw the installation of an impressive glass case, just off the atrium on the mezzanine level, where 14 instruments selected from the 40 in the Harris Guitar Collection, plus one representing a living luthier, form a rotating display, beautifully lit, humidity-controlled, and secured against both acts of nature (braced for any earthquake) and criminal acts (watched over by security and departmental staff). But the instruments, representing two centuries of lutherie, are not just there for their sinuous beauty.

“The guitar is a real tactile instrument, one of the only ones where you’re touching the strings with fingers of both hands,” notes David Tanenbaum, chair of the guitar department. Tanenbaum, the only person besides Harris with keyed access to the priceless display, was eager to arrange for Harris to join him in the atrium once a week to put those guitars in the hands of students, seated on benches and chairs in front of the case.

“I take the students progressively, chronologically, and carefully I should add, through the collection, from the oldest to the newest guitars,” Harris explains. “The oldest guitar is from 1810, and I have quite a few from that first half of the 19th century, which led up to the birth of the modern guitar. But I start the school year with the 1888 Torres, and I may explore a theme. The guitar has always evolved, and I don’t think it should stop evolving. But it should stay in touch with its traditional sound.”

Harris grew up in Los Angeles with a love of guitars, but later put them aside while attending the University of California, Berkeley, as a writer and visual artist. He followed other whims, becoming a publisher of cookbooks, and provided for financial security with wise real estate investments, (a field in which he’s still involved). After selling his book business, he made a couple of his own films, one of which helped bring him back to the guitar and into contact with the expatriate Spanish guitar dynasty of the Romero brothers, who live close to each other in northern San Diego County. “I was divorced and I wanted a new guitar. They were the source for Rodriguez guitars, and I loved the ‘traditional’ sound,” Harris recounts. “I became one of the regulars at their house, where we’d sit around and play.” The late, great Celedonio Romero, paterfamilias of the dynasty and founder of their performing ensemble, had coined the term “guitarradas” for such spontaneous melodious gatherings of players, luthiers, composers, dealers, and students.

John Harris with Celin and Pepe Romero at Guitarrada VII

John Harris with Celin and Pepe Romero at Guitarrada VII

“The Romeros’ collection of guitars was inspiring,” says Harris, “and seeing old guitars from the 19th and early 20th centuries for the first time was a revelation for me. You could hear stuff that you couldn’t in new guitars. It was in their homes that I first heard a Torres, and a Hauser I. So after I made that film about them for PBS [Los Romeros: The Royal Family of Guitar], I had the financial means and the collector mentality, and I really started to collect guitars in earnest.” Among his early acquisitions was a “bright and loud” Miguel Rodriguez that Angel Romero had used for both touring and recording.

“Collections become almost like children,” Harris says. “You take care of them and house them, but then you become proud of them and want to show them off.” He started inviting conservatory faculty guitarists Tanenbaum, Marc Teicholz, and Richard Savino, all of whom lived near Harris in the East Bay (near San Francisco), and they became collectively involved in decisions about buying and selling instruments. With the regular participation of Pepe Romero, they also launched annual public guitar festivals, borrowing (with the permission of the Romeros) the term Guitarrada for these events, held at the conservatory.

About five years ago, Harris wondered, “What am I going to do with these guitars when I’m no longer able to play them, when I’ve gone upstairs, to the Harp Department? And I decided, I’d like to see these guitars stay together, within a foundation, where they’d have a role to play at the conservatory.” Tanenbaum readily agreed to the plan, which required that Harris first create the Harris Guitar Foundation as a nonprofit foundation, with a mission statement to support the conservatory. Harris added a second supported foundation, the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, presenters of the Bay Area’s premier international guitar concert series.


In April 2014, the first 14 guitars from the Harris Guitar Collection were transported to their glass-enclosed temporary home at the conservatory. In December, in connection with his extended family’s Los Romeros concert at the SFJAZZ Center a couple of blocks away, Pepe Romero  Sr. visited the collection and, along with Harris and faculty and students from SFCM, incorporated some of its instruments in the presentation of the eighth annual Guitarrada.

“Pepe really worships the collection, as do we,” enthuses Tanenbaum, who also serves on the Harris Guitar Foundation Board. “There are certainly other guitar departments that own guitars, but there’s nothing like this, where students have access to vintage guitars, and the art of lutherie is really a part of their experience. I believe this is the only thing of its kind in the world.”

“I want guitars in the collection that I love playing,” says Harris, “though sometimes I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been filling in a few things that I didn’t have, and I’ve been lucky, because they’ve just come my way. Recently, a Benito Ferrer came my way from Granada, because a fellow had shown it to Pepe Romero, and Pepe said, ‘John Harris would love this.’ The first guitar Segovia ever played was a Ferrer, when he was a kid, and Manuel de Falla used a Ferrer to compose his Homenaje. This one is from 1917. There’s a kind of network of small collectors around the world, often guitar builders or players who have a side business, like Richard Bruné, Aaron Green in Boston, and Bruce Banister, who lives part-time in Spain.”

It’s important to Harris that an individual guitar’s story and provenance as a valuable artifact not obscure its function as a musical tool. Although he follows a chronological line in his Wednesday afternoon sessions with students over the academic year, he’s inclined to skip around a bit and to discuss “schools” of lutherie. “Some people like to talk about a French School of guitar-making, like there’s a Madrid School, a Granada School, and a German School,” Harris offers. Representing the French School in the collection are a Bouchet and a Friederich.

As for the Germans, Harris points to the Hauser I on display. “I naturally had to have in the collection both a Hauser I and II, but I usually don’t show both at the same time,” he says. “Julian Bream used the expression ‘Teutonic engineering principles’ to describe Hausers. The cliché is, ‘Hauser is perfect for playing Bach because they’re not Spanish-sounding.’ When Segovia went from playing his Manuel Ramirez [also represented in the collection] to a Hauser, it was a huge shift, a political decision [repudiating Franco-controlled Spain], and he didn’t go back to Ramirez guitars till later in his life. Hauser tried to impress Segovia for years, and he was influenced a lot by Torres and by Santos, and was trying to make guitars that would appeal to Segovia’s Spanish side. But you’re affected by your own time and place.”

Harris owns guitars made in 1878 and 1888 (the front and back are displayed below) by Antonio Torres, who “deepened the body of the guitar somewhat, but also broadened the plantilla, and gave us what we recognize as the modern guitar.” Torres was, of course, also luthier to Francisco Tárrega, credited as the father of modern guitar-playing. The Santos in the collection is from 1930 and “still has that power and quality of age.” From almost a century earlier, there’s an instrument built by Manuel Gutiérrez, “before the Torres influence had taken hold. Some contemporaries of Torres were accepting his influence, others were resisting. The shape here is like the Baroque guitars [with a narrower plantilla], but it’s even deeper than the Torres.” 

1888 Antonio de Torres

The 1888 Antonio Torres

The collection also showcases the influence of the makers’ choice of wood. “[Some believe] that cypress guitars are meant for flamenco and don’t have the tonal properties of rosewood, and are therefore not suitable for classical,” says Harris. “But I’ve wanted students to play this cypress Torres, to see that you can make beautiful music on a cypress guitar. Pepe Romero Jr., our current featured luthier, can build in rosewood, maple, and cypress, and what’s also unique is that the neck is made of maple, not cedar. Historically, he harkens back to Santos. But when Pepe picks up a guitar, he wants to be able to play anything.”

As Harris’ “children” are removed from their display case each week in the conservatory’s atrium, some of the students gazing at them and stroking them inevitably fall in love. “They’re hearing the nuances and beauty of tone of some of these 100- or 150-year-old guitars for the first time,” Harris has observed. “And what’s even more interesting is that they fall in love with different ones. There are the colorists, and some guitars, like the Bouchet, may have the color but not the power. Then there are the [people] who want to play really strong, powerful music, and there are other guitars that turn them on. The Santos is particularly powerful, as is the Miguel Rodriguez.”

Kyle Sampson, who came to the conservatory as a student after performing with a Seattle punk band, credits classical guitars, and the older guitars from the collection in particular, with transforming his life and his approach to music. “When I started playing on Romantic or Romantic-copy instruments, my fingering changed completely,” Sampson says. “All of a sudden, big, ridiculous glissandos sounded really fantastic and easy, and the top line in the melody would come out better, separate from the arpeggiated bass line. And the Romantic guitars can respond to my emotional feeling, whereas I feel I’m just fighting that on modern guitars.” Now a teacher in a charter school, Sampson has conveyed his historical revelations to his own students.

But it’s also important to Harris, in the “Featured Luthier” portion of his display, to showcase living craftsmen “who have deviated from Torres. The hot thing now is to have experimental bracing systems, raised fingerboards and sound ports in the sides,” and to incorporate man-made [non-wood] materials. The first two “Featured Luthiers,” Alan Perlman and Pepe Romero Jr., have not only loaned representative instruments, but have shown up to “present the case” for modernization to curious students.

Another goal of the Harris Guitar Foundation is promoting new repertoire to be performed on its instruments. Along with conservatory faculty member Marc Teicholz and New Music USA, the foundation has commissioned a concerto from Clarice Assad, daughter of Sergio Assad, also on the guitar department faculty. The piece will premiere at the conservatory in January 2016, as part of the International Guitar Competition Maurizio Biasini. Teicholz will perform the piece on one of the guitars from the collection, which will also supply instruments for student performances. Harris will speak at the event.

In the meantime, Tanenbaum’s curriculum at the conservatory will continue to benefit during the school year from hands-on access to the collection. “A lot of education is teaching context,” Tanenbaum notes, “and we are giving a palpable sense of it, what the instrument felt like in 1823 or 1890.”

SFCM student Nathania Isnandar enjoys trying out the Hauser II during a Harris Collection Wednesday session

SFCM student Nathania Isnandar enjoys trying out the Hauser II during a Harris Collection Wednesday session

Further on, Harris envisions a student competition on instruments from the collection, performance videos by visiting virtuosos, acoustic and structural analysis of the instruments (which Sampson and luthiers Alan Perlman and Greg Byers are currently compiling), and even a standardized glossary of terms for describing the universe of sounds of guitars.

But the core of Harris’ love for his favored musical source lies in his sense memory of the sound of a plucked string, which first entranced him as a child. He cites the words of Celedonio Romero, grandfather of the collection’s latest Featured Luthier, as spoken in historical footage in Harris’ film about the family. “Celedonio says that when you pluck a guitar string, the sound energy goes down into the guitar, comes out as beautiful music, and continues for eternity. That’s the sound I’ll always be happy hearing.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Classical Guitar.