Who Made Luis Milán’s Vihuela? Luthiers Are Escaping from Centuries of Anonymity


Some years ago, in the 1980s, when I was staying for a day or two at Julian Bream’s magnificent house in the English countryside, the great luthier José Romanillos joined us for dinner. After a wonderful meal, prepared by Julian himself, and several glasses of excellent claret, our tongues and our spirits were liberated and an intense discussion followed.

José Romanillos at that time had not published any of his remarkable studies of luthiers and guitars. But his point of debate was essentially that throughout history the makers of instruments had been sold short. While there were innumerable biographical studies of performer/composers, such as Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, etc., where were all the books about the men who created the musical instruments for these great players? Going back further, who made Luis Milán’s vihuelas, or John Dowland’s lutes, or the guitars of Francesco Corbetta, Robert de Visée, and Gaspar Sanz?

When one thinks about such things the questions multiply. José’s argument was that whereas eminent performers played for patrons, mainly aristocracy, and were thus identified with the ruling dynasty in a feudal society, instrument makers were often regarded as artisans, hardly worthy of the attention of scholars, historians, and critics. The musicians themselves and their compositions were considered to be of greater value for study and attention than the instruments on which music was produced.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, it may not have been possible to earn a living making vihuelas, lutes, or guitars. Instruments could be made by carpenters and furniture makers to order, though some of the results may not have been of the highest order. As we know from experience these days, fine instruments can only be created after a long period of apprenticeship, trial and error, and possibly a fortuitous combination of lucky circumstances where improvements gradually evolve to achieve a kind of musical perfection.

Unfortunately, vihuelas, lutes, and early guitars were not durable instruments. They were easily broken or discarded for one reason or another. The high-class guitars of the 17th century, greatly ornamented and expensively crafted for the aristocracy, were another kettle of fish. They tended to be preserved in museums in the long run, their marvellous ornamentation in inverse proportion to their ulterior musical potential.

But some instrument makers were indeed revered and loved above all others. The Amati family of violin makers, operating from Cremona, Italy, in the mid-16th century was rewarded by having the coat-of-arms of Charles IX of France on the back of their instruments. Next came the great Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644–1737), who is said to have studied with Nicolò Amati as a young man. Altogether, about 650 of his instruments have survived and are now among some of the most valuable artifacts on the planet, including one of his beautiful guitars.

In 1987, Romanillos’ amazing work of scholarship Antonio de Torres: Guitar Maker—His Life and Work (Element Books) was published, giving for the first time a comprehensive account of the life of a great guitar maker as well as a description of every extant guitar created by Torres.


José Romanillos wrote the definitive book on Antonio de Torres and is a highly respected luthier himself.

In a foreword, Bream commented: “It is my own personal opinion that the old classical guitar used by Sor and his contemporaries was to some extent an ill-thought-out instrument. Its pedigree was based on the 18th century Baroque guitar, in itself an admirable instrument particularly for songs and dances of a light, frothy character. . . . The sound texture of a Baroque guitar, moreover, was largely that of an alto instrument.” With the discarding of paired strings and the addition of an extra bass string in the last decade of the 18th century, the Spanish guitar “evolved almost miraculously overnight—The metamorphosis was pretty dramatic, from a light alto instrument to a seemingly profound bass one, its tessitura corresponding roughly to that of the violoncello.”

The two “mid-wives” who “finally brought the guitar into the romantic era” were of course Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) and Antonio de Torres (1817–1892). Though Tárrega received torrents of biography, analysis, and adulation, it was Romanillos who redressed the balance by directing our attention to the luthier without whom Tárrega’s genius (and the subsequent history of the guitar!) would certainly have taken a different path.

In the more egalitarian world we now inhabit, guitarists have an enormous respect for the immensely creative work that luthiers achieve. We can no longer regard guitar makers as anything less than who they really are—the bedrock of the guitarist’s art. Their instruments mold our playing and develop our artistic destinies in subtle and wonderful ways.

First, they have unique skills to produce from pieces of wood a living, singing, responsive instrument. Second, their personalities imbue their creations with their own unique emotional and intellectual characteristics. In marvellously diverse ways, a fine Spanish instrument represents the passionate qualities of the Spanish nation, an English guitar spells out understated attributes of logic and order, the six strings of a high-class Japanese guitar often echo in some magical way the ancient timbres of chordophones from Asian culture, Australian instruments explore the boundless spirit of adventure and innovation of that great continent, etc.

However, even now things are not always what they seem. While at an International Guitar Festival in Corfu, Greece, some years ago, I sat on a beach with an American guitar-maker, armed with a few beers to keep us cool. A few miles away, Albania was visible—a mysterious and somewhat alien country at the time—and out in the bay an American submarine on the surface acted as a sentinel for whatever reason.

The guitar maker provided one of his guitars as a prize at the festival. We began talking about the pecking order that prevails at such a gathering. Meals were laid out in the open under canvas and you had to be careful where you sat in order to be with your friends and not find yourself isolated among a group who spoke only Greek or Turkish or German. The star performers of the Festival were the brightest and most attractive personalities, the glamorous set who scintillated at every turn.

“I’m at the bottom of this particular hierarchy,” said the guitar maker sadly, “the lowest in the pecking order!” I sympathized with him but disagreed. There was a lower category I felt—myself—who was offering a mere one-hour talk on the course (though perhaps promoted up a notch by being a member of the jury for the competition).

Later I recalled the words of José Romanillos, spoken 20 years previously, about the inferior status of so many instrument makers throughout history. Do some luthiers still feel disadvantaged in some way? Was this an instance where the famous epigram of journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890), was applicable: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”)? Surely not, one would think, but I leave it to our wise readers to come to their own conclusions on such matters.