The guitar has long been a symbol of Spain, and while Andre's Segovia, who died recently at age 94, carried the instrument into the international limelight, another Spaniard, Jose Ramirez III, diligently strived to perfect its construction. To date, this master instrument-maker has made so many significant contributions to the guitar's structural evolution that among masters of the instrument his name is often linked with the hallowed likes of Stradivarius.
The on-again, off-again relationship between Segovia and the House of Ramirez began back in 1912, when the 18-year-old Segovia needed a guitar for a concert in Madrid. On the eve of a brilliant career, but broke, he wanted simply to rent an instrument from Spain's most renowned guitar maker of the day, Manuel Ramirez, great-uncle of Jose Ramirez III, who, with his son Jose IV, today carries on the family craft.
"With Manuel that day was a very good violinist of the time," recounts the younger Ramirez. "Both were astounded by Segovia's virtuosity; but at the time, the guitar commanded little respect. 'Why are you playing that instrument?' the violinist chided Segovia. 'You should be studying the violin!' Greatly offended, Manuel replied, 'The violin? No, senåor, the guitar. Would you like a guitar? Here, take this one. It's a gift. I'm sure you will repay me.' "
Today, four Ramirez generations later, 65-year-old Jose III, a stoic, commanding figure, dressed always in black, continues to reinvent the guitar. Why? "Because I am convinced that there is much ground to cover before the guitar reaches its maximum potential as the violin did with Stradivarius," he replies. "This matter of making guitars is like a poison. Once it takes over, you cannot escape it. First come the difficulties, then the challenges, then the research and experimentation."
In 1940, he began working and experimenting in his father's workshop. After absorbing all he could, he went on to study acoustics and physics, devouring every scientific book he could find that would shed some light on his luthier's vision. There followed a string of guitar models.
"I could write a whole book describing the countless experiments I made, the great majority of which ended up being utter failures," he recalls. "A very few were somewhat positive, but many did not contribute any appreciable changes at all, which was most frustrating because they opened no paths for me to follow. I much preferred a failure, since that meant that progress might lie in the opposite direction."
Among his successful innovations is the Model 86 guitar (introduced last year). It distills a thousand and one details into a package of perfect proportions, says Ramirez, and one that he considers a considerable advance because, despite a shorter string length making it easier to play, the 86 achieves superior tone. Segovia had one of these guitars among the three he kept closest at hand at the time of his death. The other two were also Ramirezes.
In the 1930s, however, Segovia began playing German Hauser guitars. In 1953, the sight of Segovia returning to Madrid with a Hauser only added fuel to Ramirez's inventive fire. Each year thereafter, the luthier paid the maestro court with a new guitar designed to eclipse the rival Hauser and bring Segovia back to the Ramirez fold. Finally, after seven years of wooing, Segovia agreed to use the 1960 offering for a series of concerts in Australia. But not until 1963 -- a half century after carrying his first Ramirez into the international limelight -- did Segovia again begin to use a Ramirez consistently, alternating with Fleta guitars. In the early 1980s, he returned completely to the Ramirez fold.
For more than a century, the Ramirez dynasty has shaped the evolution of an instrument whose earliest known ancestor is the four-string lute brought to Spain by the Moors in the 12th century.
"Although we don't know the exact year that our family began making guitars," explains Jose IV, "we do have a document indicating that in 1882 my great-grandfather Jose Ramirez I was already a recognized guitarrero. At that time the luthier's craft was notoriously low-paying, and my great-grandfather was fond of saying that the guitar maker that did not die in a social welfare hospital simply did not have the means to get there."
The family penchant for bucking tradition began with Jose I's brother Manuel, who set up a rival shop in Madrid around the turn of the century and began introducing modifications that lured customers away from his brother. After Manuel died childless in 1916, Jose I's son Jose II adopted many of his uncle's ideas. Today, Manuel's maverick legacy lives on in Jose III, who from 1940 until his father's death in 1957 stuck closely to his workbench, defying his father's directives to stop daydreaming about the perfect guitar.
With Jose II's death came the burden of managing the family business. Settling on a basic guitar model, Jose III tackled bookkeeping problems -- along with figuring out the ideal distance between frets. Today, at his five-story workshop in Madrid's Ramon Aquinaga Street, 10 luthiers, familiarly called "oficiales," turn out, to Ramirez's specifications, some 500 handmade guitars a year.
In the workshop basement, the wood is dried and aged, sometimes for years. Once cured, it is cut to size and shaped. After inspection, a supervisor groups the pieces to be used for one guitar and passes them on, in lots of four, to a single man for assembly. Over a two-month period, 14 coats of varnish, each sanded down by hand, are applied to the assembled guitars. Then the frets and hardware are installed, and the finished instruments are hung, row after row, like fine cured hams, to await the Ramirez signature and an identification number. From start to finish, the process takes four to six months.
Surprisingly, no one in the Ramirez family or among the staff of oficiales actually plays the guitar. "One either makes guitars or one plays them," Ramirez III says. As a result, he has always relied on the input of master musicians to bring his experiments to full term. In recent decades, both Segovia and Narciso Yepes have worked closely with him.
But caprice and intuition, too, have played their part. For example, one day it occurred to Ramirez to adapt the second set of strings of the antique viola de amore to the guitar. "I wanted to impart their very agreeable resonance to a new instrument," he recalls, "so with my own hands I made a guitar with a second set of six internal strings. It was very well-received, but it had one problem -- the internal strings would continue to sound long after they should have stopped. Segovia said to me, 'This is very interesting, Ramirez, but clearly you must solve this problem. Let's see what you can do.'
"I then showed the guitar to Narciso Yepes, who also liked it very much but said, 'This problem must be solved.' Immediately, he began offering suggestions. 'If we add four external strings tuned a certain way, we can achieve the same resonance without the problem.' So it was that in 1964 I designed the 10-string guitar that Yepes and his disciples now use exclusively."
For many years, Segovia's pet peeve was "wolf" notes -- the weak notes that plague all instruments made of string and wood, including the piano. While most concert artists resigned themselves to this seemingly inevitable imperfection, Segovia never did.
"Time and again, he listened to all my thoughts on the subject without discussion or comment," recalls Ramirez, "but he would invariably complain that this or that note was weak or had, in his words, 'a snubbed sound.' " Spurred on by Segovia's stubbornness, Ramirez studied the behavior of sound waves and hit upon the idea -- which he has since patented -- of introducing a wooden baffle, or fin, paralleling the whole contour of the guitar and creating a second internal chamber. Today he reports that after perfecting his de camara guitar in 1983, Segovia never again complained of "wolf" notes.
In his Madrid shop at 5 Concepcion Jeronima, Ramirez enjoys matching musician and instrument. Evenings often find him ushering customers down a long staircase, flanked with the press clippings of a long and fruitful career, to a cosy basement of terra cotta tiles and wooden ceiling beams. Here, amid an informal family collection of antique guitars dating back to the 17th century, Ramirez goes about "providing every customer, whether concert master or budding aficionado, with an effective instrument for studying, learning, and enjoying."
Not long ago, a disgruntled client was in the basement complaining that his new Ramirez would not stay in tune. Ramirez placed the ailing instrument on the basement worktable and began examining it with one esoteric instrument after another. He then pulled out a dossier of intricate design specifications and made his diagnosis: A minor adjustment to the bridge was needed, and the guitar could be picked up the next day.
Ramirez has, from time to time, been dubbed a charlatan by other members of his profession. Case in point: the introduction of the transverse bracing bar, which has something to do with the theory of mass vibrations but even more to do with the quality of the instrument's sound. At first, his fellow luthiers deemed this innovation a heretical transgression; today, most embrace it as an eternal blessing.
Following his father is the jovial and loquacious 33-year-old, Jose IV. Between balancing the books and ordering wood, he is carving his own experimental niche with the acoustic guitar, which he added to the Ramirez line in 1982. "This is difficult for a Spanish guitar maker," he explains, "since the acoustic, or 'western,' guitar is automatically identified with the United States. But I haven't found one yet that completely satisfied me, and I won't give up trying to build one that does."
His father, however, disagrees with the notion of guitar nationalities. "To say 'Spanish' or 'American' guitar is like saying 'Italian violin' or 'French piano,' " he says.
Nevertheless, Italian guitarist Oscar Ghiglia claims it is precisely the "Spanish flavor" of the Ramirez guitar that he values most. "It is a particular sound -- not the flamenco flavor, but something very special, almost like meeting a person with a mystery. Like aged wine, the Ramirez guitar has a mystery."
American concert guitarist Christopher Parkening, who owns eight Ramirez guitars of various vintage, harbors a special fondness for those made in the 1960s with Brazilian rosewood sides and back and a cedar top: "These guitars have a beautiful, warm, round, clear sound that is rich and creamy. The treble is clean and the basses are clear and expressive."
Prized among the guitars in the Ramirez family collection is a 1967 Ramirez used by Segovia for two years that now, 20 years later, sounds better than ever. After playing it recently, Parkening pronounced it "possibly the greatest instrument I've touched in my life." Fellow American guitarist Eliot Fisk says that while other guitars might carry better, none can match the "sheen, luster, power and depth" of the "burnished, sweet sound" of a Ramirez.
The selection of handmade Ramirez instruments includes classical, flamenco, acoustic, and "romantic" guitars, plus a number of period instruments, such as the traditional Spanish bandurria and the lute. Depending on the materials used, the degree of adornment and added extras, these instruments cost from $500 to more than $5,000. Ramirez also carries estudio, or student, guitars, manufactured to his strict specifications, for as little as $100.
About 95 percent of Ramirez's clientele are foreigners, and a number place mail orders through his catalogue.
F. Lisa Beebe is a free-lance writer based in New York.