Possibly no name is more associated with the classical guitar than that of José Ramírez (1858-1923), the founder of a long dynasty of Madrid makers dating from the late 19th century through the current era.
Important not only for the large and varied production of instruments that have come from their shop, the Ramírez family is also remembered as much for the quantity and quality of makers who trained in their shops over the past century – a list much too lengthy to reiterate here. According to popular legend, it was José Ramírez I who taught his younger brother, Manuel (1864-1916), to make guitars. Most aficionados now are familiar with the legend of Andrés Segovia and Manuel Ramírez, who provided Segovia with his first really good concert-quality guitar, an instrument now residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Long before this instrument was constructed, however, the two Ramírez brothers had ceased speaking to each over Manuel’s failure to follow through on a promise to establish a Paris branch of the family business, choosing instead to open a competing shop close to José’s. Adding further insult to injury, Manuel began making guitars in a style more derived from the work of Antonio de Torres, whose Sevilla models were finding favor with many of the migrating flamenco players arriving in Madrid to take advantage of the growing marketplace for commercial flamenco in the tablaos there.
José had come from the shop of Francisco Gonzÿlez, located at San Gernimo 15, where he began working for the Gonzÿlez widow in 1880. The Gonzÿlez guitars were characterized by a heavily domed top and back, a form of construction known as “ahuevada,” or egg-shaped. Although many writers attribute this feature to Francisco Gonzÿlez, I’ve observed it in mid-19th-century Andalusian guitars by makers such as Manuel de Soto y Solares, Francisco Moriaga, and Antonio Lorca, among others. It is not entirely clear where this idea originated, but suffice to say that José I was an ardent follower of the concept, which was also known as “guitarra de tablao” or “barroom guitar.” This type of instrument was primarily popular with flamenco players of the era, although its use also extended to classical players such as Agustín Barrios from South America (“Guitars With Guts,” July ’02), who made the first classical guitar recordings using a 1911 José Ramírez guitar of identical form and size.
This exceptionally well-preserved instrument was made in 1904 at the Concepci”n Jer”nima No.2 shop in Madrid where the Ramírez operation had been established since at least 1890, and possibly earlier. It is a full-size deluxe model made of the finest materials and construction, and according to the catalog of José Ramírez issued circa 1916, this is most likely either a Model 26 or a custom order, which would have sold for anywhere from 150 to 500 pesetas, the equivalent of nearly half a year’s salary for a skilled tradesman in those days. It was originally fitted with wooden pegs, as can be seen in the head slot details, but sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, it was skillfully converted to mechanical tuning. The Ramírez catalog prices are based on wooden friction pegs as standard equipment, machine heads cost anywhere from 10 to 30 pesetas extra – a significant cost, considering that the first five models of guitars José sold in the catalog each cost 10 pesetas or less!
Most importantly, I believe this instrument was actually made by José Ramírez II, as it shows evidence of two stamps, one placed underneath the label which is now faintly visible telegraphically, the second identical stamp located on the back below the lower left corner of the label. José II’s full name was José Simón Ramírez de Galarreta Pernias, and it appears this intricate stamp is a amalgam of these initials. Certainly there is a tradition of the Ramírez shop using initials to identify the maker of an instrument, and José II was definitely working in the Ramírez shop during the year this guitar was made. He would have been 19 years old, and this instrument was made before he emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina. To date, it is the only instrument known to me with this monogram stamped internally, and this stamp is a highly important documentation of the continuity of the Ramírez tradition from father to son.
It’s interesting to note that this guitar is typically braced with nine fan struts, which perfectly hold the very domed shape of the soundboard. And these struts are not shaped at all like those of Torres and his followers. These are taller than they are wide – a very intelligent use of the strength of the material. Furthermore, they are mortised under the edge of the lower cross strut, and locked in place by the individual tentellones connecting the top and sides of the instrument. The doming of the top appears to have been achieved by gluing the fans and top bracing to the top using a dished-out workboard that allowed the thin soundboard to be flexed out in an exaggerated domed shape. The workboard (“solera” in Spanish) most likely was shaped exactly to the inside outline of the guitar, and the braced top was trimmed exactly to this outline. The sides were then bent and fitted around the outside perimeter and clamped in place against the top outline, and the individual glue blocks (tentellones) were then fitted around the inside perimeter of the top/side joint. Once dry, the overhand of the sides was trimmed down to the top, and the purfling could be fitted quite readily after installing the back linings and back. This method made fitting the compound dome of the soundboard to the side assembly mindless and foolproof. Even after over 100 years, the instrument still shows a perfect top dome, free of distortion.
In terms of body dimensions, this instrument is a colossus – bigger than most modern classical guitars. The lower bouts measure 15″ wide, the upper bouts are 111/16″ and the scale is 253/4″ long (many Spanish instruments of this era were made using English rulers marked in inches). Curiously, José’s catalog lists the dimensions in metric, but in only gross approximations. For instance, the lower bout width of this model is listed in the catalog as being 38 centimeters, but in actuality it is 38.2 cm. I’ve consulted with several other Spanish guitar experts such as Eugene Clark, Robert Ruck, and others who are in agreement that it was most likely that the rulers, and in some cases actual tools used by these makers, came from English suppliers and were marked in inches, not metric measurements. The catalogs probably listed nominal metric measurements, which would have been familiar to their clients.
Typical of Spanish instruments, the bridge was set with no compensation, and is actually placed a little bit too close to the fretboard, a mistake acceptable only because the action is still in its original low setting, which by today’s classical guitar standards is too low (less than 1/16″ at the 12th fret). This type of action set up was the norm at that time, and today continues to be the typical flamenco setup. What we consider a normal classical guitar action is strictly a 20th-century phenomenon that gained popularity with classical players since WWII.
The fingerboard is made of rosewood, although it would be debatable to suggest this was done for economy. Rosewood may have been less expensive than ebony, but it’s also less dense, and hence has slightly less sustain. In terms of sound, it might have been considered the superior medium for making a fingerboard, especially for a player who wanted more explosion and less “hang time.” And this would have definitely been a consideration for the typical flamenco player of the era. The celluloid golpeador (tapping plate) was probably added by a former owner. The catalog itself makes no mention of golpeadores, nor does it illustrate instruments with golpeadores, even for those instruments which are listed as intended for flamenco players, so it is my strong suspicion that the subject of the golpeador was left to the individual player to decide the shape, material and style of coverage they desired, if any. The presence of a golpeador strongly suggests that at some point, this instrument was used by a flamenco player despite the fact that it is made of beautiful figured maple rather than cypress. For Spanish players, the wood never defines the instrument, only the player can define what an instrument is.
The novel bridge arms were typical of José’s work of this era, the 1911 instrument owned by Barrios had a nearly identical bridge. Unfortunately, the small rhomboids of mother of plastic were added later, as Jose would have only used real mother of pearl. But the instrument still retains its original nut, saddle, and frets, allowing us to see the original low-action setup typical of instruments of the era. The varnish and ground is still original – a small miracle given the cavalier treatment so many of these older instruments experienced in the hands of modern Madrid luthiers and their quickdraw spray guns. Except for a few minor crack repairs and a conversion to mechanical tuning, this guitar has survived the past 100 years in entirely original condition. It is a pinnacle of the art as established by the founder of Spain’s most famous dynasty of guitar makers.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.