About The Collection

The Harris Guitar Collection focuses on two pivotal centuries of modern guitar making, the 19th and 20th. The Collection includes the major luthiers from the period in the early 19th century when the classical or Spanish guitar with six strings emerged in southern Spain, through the period of its adoption in Europe, Great Britain, South America and Asia by the mid-20th Century.

The Torres Guitar

It was in Spain where, thanks to the genius of the Andalusian guitar maker, Antonio de Torres (1817-1892), the instrument increased in size, resonance, projection and volume. It is tempting (and common) to label Torres the guitar’s Stradivari. And yes, like with Strads, the best of Torres’ approximately 150 surviving guitars have qualities rarely duplicated by luthiers of Torres’ time, or by the great luthiers that built in the Torres style in the century that followed. The reasons for Torres’ supremacy, although still somewhat mysterious, could fill a book.  And they have: José Romanillos’ “Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker: His Life & Work.”

The Harris Collection has two Torres guitars, one with cypress back and sides and simple decoration (usually, and perhaps inaccurately, associated with flamenco guitars) and one with a maple body and more elaborate decorations. One can read more about these two guitars and Torres’ innovations in the narratives on the Torres guitars in the Collection.

The Stradivarius of the Guitar?

The Strad/Torres comparison is tempting but problematic. Unlike the violin (and the piano), the guitar has never achieved, many believe, a final form, a model about which all guitarists from Torres’ time to the present can say,  “This is it, we are there.” It appears to be the historic fate of the guitar to always reach for more volume, for more presence on the concert stage. Maybe the classical guitar subculture suffers from a collective psychiatric condition one could call (dare I say this?) “piano envy.”

Today’s sophisticated amplification adds an interesting twist. The Collection’s good friend, Pepe Romero,  has said of amplified guitars on stage, “It may sound like a wonderful guitar, but it is not the same guitar.” No one in the last 500 years has said, “We want a louder violin.” Same with the cello, viola and piano, though Beethoven wished for a louder piano than the piano forte of his time.

Today that impulse for a guitar with more volume finds its voice in guitars that have radically deviated from the Torres style with new materials  (non-wood) and  innovative soundboard bracing designs, among other features. Some of these models are very popular on the concert stage today. Perhaps the most vivid expression of the limits of the Strad/Torres comparison is the simple fact that very few classical guitar performers today choose (or can afford) to perform or record on the surviving Torres guitars. There are notable exceptions: Stefano Grondona (Italy), Wulfin Lieske (Germany) and  Pepe Romero (U.S./Spain) among others. But there is nothing in the guitar world like the relationship that exists between investors owning Strads and players who receive them on loan for the duration of their careers. HGF will explore how that model could work, if even appropriate,  for the guitar.

Some contemporary players of note perform on vintage instruments made by the legendary heirs to Torres, such as Francisco Simplicio and Vicente Arias. Pavel Steidl (Czech Republic) and Matteo Mela (Italy) perform on Simplicios (from the 1920s and 30s) and Raphaella Smits (Belgium) concertizes on an Arias from the late 19th century. Our own HGF board member, Marc Teicholz, a member of the guitar faculty at SFCM, has often recorded with vintage instruments, including Torres. These charming post-Torres instruments with their old-world charm are more easily afforded by top players.

In general, however, most performers today play instruments on stage that were built for them by contemporary luthiers. Younger classical players often seek out “a canon,”  a contemporary guitar with huge volume. In the hallways of music institutions and concert halls, there is talk of which contemporary luthier represents “the flavor of the month.”  Meanwhile, the surviving Torres guitars are sitting in their cases, usually in the closets of collectors, dying to be played.

Before Torres

The Harris Guitar Collection includes several very fine early 19th century pre-Torres instruments that were considered  state-of-the-art before the arrival of Torres and his modern guitar. One of our earliest Guitarrada events was devoted to the theme “The Classical Guitar Before and After Torres.” Playing the pre-Torres guitars can produce delightful sound, though not as deep and emotional as the Torres-style instrument, and the projection can be surprisingly potent even in a sizeable concert hall. These instruments, though surprising well-suited for appropriate repertoire, illustrate the huge leap that Torres made with his “Spanish” guitar.

At Guitarrada VII in 2013, the hit of the evening was the 1830 René Lacote guitar, a tiny instrument with a second soundhole in the back of the guitar and a double soundboard. The audience was amazed at how well this guitar could be heard in the back rows of SFCM’s 450-seat Phyllis Wattis Concert Hall.

It is ironic to note that in the quest for greater volume many luthiers today are building instruments with double soundboards and secondary sound holes. What goes around…

After Torres

The great makers of the early to mid-20th century who followed the Torres style, luthier’s like Manuel Ramirez and Santos Hernández in Madrid, Enrique Garcia and Francisco Simplicio in Barcelona, Hermann Hauser in Germany and Robert Bouchet in France created their own schools (their own sound style) but remained faithful to the over-all Torres sound.

By WWII, with the advent of nylon guitar strings, cedar soundboards, longer string lengths and  synthetic finishes, the guitar was, indeed, getting louder. Much of this was the influence of Andrés Segovia and his concert hall needs.  Still, these instruments from the post-WWII era offered the Spanish warmth and beauty identified with the Torres sound.

Mid- to late 20th century luthiers like Hermann Hauser II, Miguel Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez III, Daniel Friederich, José Romanillos and David Rubio listened to their player’s requests for volume and warm, colorful tone and responded with powerful yet beautifully-voiced contemporary Torres-style guitars.

A guitar as loud as a piano?

Talented guitar makers today are producing wonderful Torres-style concert guitars, while others, of a more experimental bent, are making very popular concert guitars that deviate radically from Torres in the name of volume and projection.  Is there a Holy Grail of the guitar, an instrument with, say, the volume of a piano? Perhaps its coming, but at what cost to that Torres sound many of us fell in love with when we started playing the guitar, or making them?

To quote another member of the legendary guitar quartet, Los Romeros, Celin Romero,  “If one wants a guitar as loud as  a piano, why not just play the piano?”

The Featured Luthier Program

Although the Harris Guitar Collection remains snuggly within the Torres orbit, that is not to say that HGF will stop exploring the issues that impact the luthier’s art and the needs of contemporary players. HGF welcomes and participates in the continuing debate over the instrument’s future. It does so most directly by exposing students to the great luthiers of the past as represented in the Collection, and as a counter-weight, through the Featured Luthier program.

Each semester at SFCM a contemporary guitar–either traditional or radical–  is showcased in the HGC display case, and the maker meets with students and faculty to discuss his or her relationship to the guitars in the Collection and to the Torres tradition in general. Through this dialogue and access to these contemporary instruments, students gain an intimate understanding of their beloved instrument, its past, present and possible future. The guitar of the future is in their hands.

–LJH

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See photographs of the entire Harris Guitar Collection and learn about their constructive, acoustical, historical and decorative details.

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