Antonio de Torres

The Birth of the Modern Guitar
The Birth of the Modern Guitar

To date, I have covered most of the major schools of guitar construction/design, and some of their contributions to the evolution of the gut/nylon-string guitar. In the April ’96 issue of VG (much to my resistance), I listed what I considered at that time to be the top 10 collectible classical guitars. My decision was based solely on a historical perspective – the big picture, if you will – not on what happens to be currently in vogue, or highly priced. Naturally, I took heat for the obvious and perhaps not-so-obvious omissions. I knew this would happen, but mercifully, most guitarists have rather short memories.

Beginning with this installment of “Guitars with Guts,” I’d like to look, in-depth, at each of these makers, and discuss some of my reasons for their selection to my top 10 list. Of course, Antonio de Torres is number one for many reasons, the chief one being that his model is the genesis of the modern classical guitar. For just about 150 years, the Torres has been preferred by classical and flamenco players, making it the most popular and longest-enduring model in the entire history of the guitar. No electric, jazz, steel-string model or gut-strung model has ever been as enduringly popular and enjoyed the continual widespread usage the Torres model guitar has enjoyed. This is a remarkable fact when one considers Torres was a simple carpenter from a small village (Almeria) in southern Spain, and probably had very little (if any) contact with any of the major contemporary European players of the era.

How was it possible he created such a popular model? Why didn’t this happen in one of major musical capitals of Europe, such as Berlin, Vienna, Paris or London? Why did it take almost 100 years for many makers outside of Spain to successfully emulate his guitar? In order to answer these questions, one must look beyond the confining definitions and labels we have come to apply to music and musical instruments, which often cloud the question rather than clarify it.

Before proceeding, I must recommend you read and carefully study José Romanillos’ biography on Torres (unfortunately out of print at the moment, check your local library). In addition to biographical and historical information on Torres and his life, there is an enormous amount of additional important information not found in any other books relating to other guitarmakers and their instruments. It is not my intent to rehash José’s excellent research, but to add some of my own to it.

Recently, I have again seen comments in the popular guitar press referring to the “genius” of Torres, and his invention of the Torres model, as if this somehow is a priori justification for musicians to accept a “new” model today. To be honest, Torres didn’t invent anything, save for his own particular proportion of body outline. There are many different specific outlines used by Torres, but they all obey the same mathematical set of proportions I described in my January ’97 VG article. While I have not yet found any guitars prior to Torres’ that precisely fit this mathematical model, I certainly wouldn’t want to go out on a limb and say that Torres invented it, because when it comes to inventions for the guitar (cue the chorus), very little is new under the sun.

As for some of the other “Torres inventions,” such as machine heads, fan bracing, bridge design, 650mm scale, wider body, 2″ wide nut, 12 frets to the body, metal frets, the tornavoz and so on, only a fool would argue their attribution to Torres’ invention. So, why the big deal about Torres? If he was such a numbnut inventor/plagiarizer, why is he the “father of the modern guitar?”

Good question, and the answer lies in understanding the essence of the guitar – it is a tool for the musician. No more, no less. It would be appropriate to make the analogy with gourmet cooking, where the great luthiers are like fine chefs creating new flavors from the same ingredients. Once in a while, a chef will create something entirely new from the most common ingredients, and with luck perhaps be remembered for that creation. Such was the “genius” of Torres, who did not invent the souffle, but did invent the Torres souffle.

Torres had the good fortune to be cooking when an entirely new musical genre appeared, nearly in his back yard. I am speaking of flamenco, which began to be played in public around 1848, in what were known as Café Cantantes which sprung up in southern Spain (Andalucia) right when Torres began to get interested in making guitars.

Practiced primarily by illiterate gypsy musicians whose families were concentrated in a handful of Andalucian cities and villages, flamenco was an overnight sensation with the non-gypsy public who flocked to the cafés to hear this new genre of outrageous, flamboyant music. Every café impresario scoured the gypsy barrios looking for new talent to sell tickets on, and each guitarist with a potential gig looming looked for the certain “edge” that would give them their propio sello (individuality), and especially something that would allow them to be heard above the din and roar of the crowds.

If the gypsies were hungry for something different, Torres was their willing and eager chef, and this market force was the genesis of his model. He was making a tool for a new genre of musician. Torres had little contact with the “classical” guitar world, which was all but nonexistent in mid-19th century Andalucia. The Diccionario de Guitarristas y Guitarreros of Prat, published in 1934 (only 42 years after the death of Torres), lists only 83 19th century Andalucian guitarists, of which 49, or more than half, are flamenco players. Clearly, Torres did not have the luxury of selling only to literate, classically-trained guitarists, and only one player has emerged as having been influential in Torres’ design work – Julian Arcas, who was also a flamenco player. In fact, Torres was introduced to Arcas by another flamenco player at a flamenco juerga (jam session).

It’s worth repeating that in the days of Torres, guitarists (and makers) did not differentiate between “classical” and “flamenco” guitars. They simply played (and made) guitars. There is simply no evidence that during Torres’ lifetime there were any features that distinguished one from the other, so please, let’s dispel that old myth once and for all.

One of the earliest surviving Torres guitars, which epitomizes his early work, is the ca. 1858 instrument in my personal collection (featured in VG Classics #9). This elegant-but-simple instrument was made for a player of limited means who needed a fine tool. Unfortunately, the label was partially obliterated, probably in an attempt to remove it from the original and put it in a fake, and thus have two Torres guitars for the price of one.

The outline, head, proportions and interior details are all classic Torres work, as illustrated in Romanillos’ book, and it is interesting to realize that at this fairly early date, Torres had already established the design features of his models, which did not significantly vary during the rest of his life. Note the triple-arch peghead design, a signature hallmark of most Torres instruments and the interior details with the kerfed pine linings, seven-fan top design, and pencil lines to mark out the placement of strutting. That the guitar is made of cypress only means that the cost of the materials was probably a consideration, as cypress was the cheap, locally-available material.

Torres remained in Sevilla from 1845 until 1869, doing some of his most creative work. This 1867 instrument was once owned by Roberto Ramaugé (1887-?), the Argentinian painter and amateur guitarist, who was a student of Alais, Sagueras, and Sin”poli, in Argentina, and a friend of Miguel Llobet and Andrés Segovia. One assumes all of these great maestros played this instrument to “test” the tone of a legendary Torres. Later, this guitar passed to the collection of Luis Martn Castellano, from whom it went to a private North American collector. It is also classic Torres work, of the large body size and notable for the typical multi-piece back (wide wood was scarce and expensive in Torres’ day, as it was cut by hand at great labor, so narrower pieces were easier to obtain). The machine heads currently on the instrument are latter replacements dating from the turn of the century. Most likely the guitar was originally fitted with pegs. Again, the use of pegs or machines has absolutely no significance in terms of the intended usage of the guitar.

This guitar still retains the tornavoz which was a conical brass tube attached to the soundhole which flared out as it went down into the body, presumably to gather and intensify the sound as it came out of the soundhole. Unfortunately, sound doesn’t work that way in a guitar, and today, the tornavoz is one of those curious 19th century patent devices no one wants to take credit for, as it was a miserable failure, like the Gibson Flying V.

Spain experienced a major civil war from 1868 to 1875, and as civil wars are famous for doing, it disrupted those at the bottom of the social ladder the most severely. Anybody who guessed that gypsies were standing on that rung can go to the head of the class. Therefore, it is not surprising that Torres (who was already experiencing major competition from non-royalty paying imitators) decided to retire from guitar making and open a china and crystal shop in his sleepy hometown of Almeria, far from Sevilla and his core market. By 1875, the bullets had stopped flying, and guitarmakers such as Torres emerged from their foxholes to resume lutherie.

Just before the civil war had begun, a young upstart named Francisco Trrega wandered into Torres’ shop in Sevilla and left with Torres’ personal instrument, an 1864 maple-bodied guitar (built when Trrega was 12 years old), which he took home to Barcelona to show to the other locals. At that time, the guitars made in Barcelona looked more like French and northern European guitars than like the Andalucian Torres models, so this instrument in the hands of a great young player captivated the musical sensibilities of sophisticated cosmopolitan Catalan players who began switching to this model en masse. Almost overnight, the models made in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and London became extinct, at least in Barcelona. Around the same time, waves of emigrants were leaving Spain for what was destined to be the New York of the classical guitar world – Buenos Aires, Argentina. And they took with them the Andalucian Torres models which were the cutting edge at that time.

Trrega was so pleased with his first Torres, he eventually bought two others, and his lifelong fidelity to the instruments of Torres resulted in what we luthiers call the “lemming effect,” where all the students, followers, admirers and hangers’ on of a famous player want to express their artistic individuality in exactly the same way as their idol, by playing the same kind of guitar. Among the vanguard of this lemming movement was a young Andrés Segovia, who began his playing career using a Benito Ferrer guitar (from Granada) but jumped at the chance to receive a magnanimous gift of a top model recycled, rebuilt guitar which Manuel Ramrez gave him in 1912. Guess what model the Manuel Ramrez was? All who said Torres go the head of the class.

That players such as Trrega, Pujol, Llobet, Segovia, and others would find satisfaction in a model of guitar that had originally been evolved to satisfy the gypsy flamenco players is quite remarkable and speaks not only of the universality of Torres’ design, but also the apparent lack of musical apartheid between the two arts that was later to come as a result of Segovia’s mortal fear of the successes of players like Ramon Montoya, who was making concert appearances in the same legitimate theaters Segovia was playing.

Following the 1936 release of Ramon Montoya’s album of solo flamenco guitar music, which immediately garnered high critical acclaim from the same critics Segovia was courting, Segovia began his campaign to rescue the guitar from what he euphemistically called “rudimentary folkloric divertissements” Later, he became even more blunt, simply referring to his mission to “rescue the guitar from the nervous hands of the flamencos.” Throughout his career, Segovia only played guitars with dark rosewood sides and backs, and this association became so firmly entrenched in the minds of his followers, that any guitar which didn’t have this look was immediately rejected as not being a “proper” classical guitar. God forbid it should happen to have cypress. Even today, many “classical” players when confronted with a cypress guitar will back up and make the sign of the cross.

Trrega’s favorite guitar, according to accounts of his heirs, was the famous 1888 Torres (Segunda Epoca No. 114) which is one of a few Torres guitars made with expensive rosewood sides and back, although the back was in three pieces. Comparing the interior view of the linings and brace with the 1858 instrument, it is quite obvious Torres was extremely consistent in his execution of certain details. The famous photograph of Trrega, taken by Segura in 1901, shows him playing this very instrument.

Finally, in the twilight of his career, we find that Torres came full circle to return to his flamenco roots with what may have been one of his last guitars, made in 1892, the year of his death. This small-bodied cypress guitar is nearly identical to my ca. 1858 instrument. The white plastic golpeador is a late-20th century addition, and means the guitar was probably owned and used by a flamenco player at some time in its life. Most likely, Torres had assistance when making this instrument, as his health was failing, and the rigors of making a guitar by hand at the age of 75 would have been fairly taxing.

Torres remained a big fish in the pond of Andalucia, and lived to see his reputation grow in other parts of Spain, but it was not until well after his death, and nearly 100 years after the appearance of his first models in Sevilla that non-Spanish makers began to successfully emulate his model. That will be covered in my next installment.

Richard Bruné began making guitars in 1966 and is a former professional flamenco guitarist. He has written extensively for the Guild of American Luthiers for over 20 years, and has lectured at many festivals and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His work has been displayed by many museums, including the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., and his clients include such diverse artists as Andrés Segovia, The Romeros, and Earl Klugh. For many years, he has been a collector and dealer of fine-quality gut and nylon-strung guitars. He is currently at work on a book about classical guitarmakers.

Photo by R. E. Bruné.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’97 issue.