One singular work of the late French master Robert Bouchet, whose influence in the world of guitar making was enormous, is an exceptionally fine and well-preserved example from 1967 – the same year famed French classical guitarist Ida Presti passed away.
Guitars by Bouchet are exceedingly rare; he made fewer than 155 instruments in his lifetime, so few have ever had the privilege of seeing or playing one. I have owned a number of Bouchet instruments from the 1940s through the ’60s, and this is one of the finest and best-preserved of them all.
Bouchet’s work is divided into two (sometimes three) periods of stylistic construction by most experts, and this instrument clearly falls into his final and most typically evolved period of design, having the five-fan-strut pattern with the central nodal bar located directly under the bridge saddle, and carefully fitted over the five fan struts. This device was most likely an original Bouchet innovation, although there is similarity to an obscure patent obtained by Hermann Hauser for a similar design concept.
The Bouchet instruments of this design are probably the most highly regarded by players, and highly sought by collectors who consider them the most original of all his designs, but his instruments are so rare and difficult to obtain that this has had little bearing on the prices they typically bring, regardless of period.
The musical result of this Bouchet innovation is distinctive and (at the time it was introduced around 1956) stunningly different from the earlier Torres derived models he had made up until that point. The net affect of the central nodal bar is to stiffen the top considerably across the grain, and this creates an instrument that is considerably more brilliant and harder edged than the older Torres model, which was much bassier and rounder-sounding. Bear in mind that around 1956, when Bouchet first began using this feature, players were only a few years into the conversion from gut strings to nylon. Nylon is not as dense as gut and in order to produce a string that has the same tension as the gut strings previously in usage, it was necessary to use a slightly larger diameter of nylon, resulting in strings that were not as bright. Consequently, the makers of the 1950s had to alter their designs in order to achieve the brilliance in their instruments that guitarists were accustomed to hearing. This was Bouchet’s response to that demand.
In order for the instrument to still have a balanced response, Bouchet retained the openings cut into the lower transverse bar of the top, which he had also been using in previous models. Whereas in the pre-1956 instruments the sound was very prejudiced to the bass end of the instrument, with this new nodal bar design the balance of the instrument dramatically shifted toward the treble, firming up the basses. In recording studios across the planet, engineers of the era gave a collective sigh of relief, as this new pattern also produced an instrument of remarkable evenness, devoid of the quirky hot spots that in those days were fiendishly difficult to control in recordings. Overnight, many of the top classical recording artists such as Julian Bream, Presti and Lagoya, Manuel Lopez Ramos, and others were hauling their Bouchets into the studio and making recordings of remarkable clarity and color.
Details of Note
Typical of Bouchet’s instruments, this has a very square-shouldered outline, which makers of the Spanish tradition find offensive. The sides exit the neck at a 90-degree angle, which, given the general roundness and feminine form of the instrument, give it a very severe shoulder. According to Bouchet’s personal manual created to keep track of his methodology, the slots cut into the neck were cut at 90 degrees, and the visual result is unique among contemporary guitars. As I pointed out in my previous installment on Bouchet, he was a graphics art instructor and never actually made instruments as a full-time profession, preferring to make them in his own time and way, and selecting his clientele very carefully. His training amounted to observing his friend, Julian Gomez Ramirez, at work in his Paris shop, and imitating some of the features and methods of Gomez’s work.
The rosette of this instrument (and all Bouchet rosettes) is fairly crude and basic, made of surprisingly bold and coarse lines. As was more typical of his later instruments, it consists of simple concentric rings bordering a central mosaic of very simple repeating geometric design. Bouchet used numerous different patterns in theme and variation in these rosettes, and typical of his instruments, this one also has a matching mosaic inlaid into the central tie block of the bridge surrounded by a one piece ivory border.
The heads of Bouchet’s guitars were always the same distinctive bold pattern, with the head being grafted to the neck. In the case of this instrument, the neck is made of beautiful old Honduras mahogany of very deep color, probably salvaged from old furniture as was often done by makers of that time. The original machines of this guitar are missing, having been replaced by a set of silver plated Landsdorfers which have mother of pearl buttons. The original Bouchet machines were notorious for not holding up well mechanically despite their resplendent appearance. Bouchet used a very cheap set of poorly designed French-made tuners with reverse gears, which he etched, plated in silver, and changed the plastic buttons for hand-carved bone or ivory buttons. If the instruments were regularly played, the machines were the first to go, and since no one had access to replacement gears, once the sixth-string gear gave way, there was no option but to replace, usually with Landsdorfers, as they came close to fitting the original machine size.
Internally, the strutting and bracing of this guitar is typical to nearly all Bouchets, with very strong, deep, back cross struts made of old mahogany, and an exceptionally wide cross-grain center seam reinforcement. All the internal bracing stock is made of beautiful old Honduras mahogany, a very luxurious use of this expensive material. The top is attached to the sides with individually cut glue blocks and a careful examination of the grain of these reveals that each was cut from the original shaped stock and then individually glued around the side perimeter in order, a very tedious and unnecessary technique. The back is attached to the sides with a continuous kerfed lining cut out to receive each cross strut precisely. The cross struts are barely scalloped where they meet the sides, and the end of each cross strut, both top and bottom is supported by an elaborate cross grain shaped pillar of mahogany which is calculated to allow the sides to move with weather changes.
Bouchet varnished his instruments by the “French polish” method where shellac dissolved in pure grain alcohol is applied very carefully and gradually with a pad using a bit of olive oil to lubricate the pad and prevent it from sticking. Ironically, in France this method is called “vernis a tampon,” and in Spain is called “goma laca” for the shellac used. It was the English who coined the phrase “French polish,” but whatever you wish to call it, this is a superior method to varnish fine guitars, and Bouchet excelled at it. This guitar retains all its original polish, warts and all, and has a beautiful deep-golden amber, still very transparent after nearly 40 years of handling, and totally free of any sweat stains or fading.
This guitar was made at the peak of Bouchet’s popularity and abilities, and represents the pinnacle of his artistic development as a guitar maker. His influence extended not only to the entire city of Granada, Spain, where today nearly every well known and successful maker working builds instruments derived or inspired by the Bouchet instruments of this design, but also to the worldwide lutherie community. Today, due to his universal fame and recognition, the demand for his guitars from collectors has priced nearly all of them beyond the means of working professional players, who rely instead on copies and derivations of the many contemporary luthiers influenced by this giant of the art.
1967 Bouchet. Note the severe square shoulders, the result of cutting the neck slots at 90 degrees to the centerline of the instrument.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.