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By Kenny Hill

Antonio de Torres, A Modern Guitar Maker

From ACOUSTIC GUITAR, August 2003

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In the middle of the 19th century Antonio de Torres redefined the guitar. He was the deciding innovator of his time, bringing various elements of guitar making together in a new design that has shaped the work of every guitar maker since, and even shaped the growth of the guitar as a concert instrument on stages and in concert halls world wide. Torres himself might be surprised at how important his life's work still is today. Even now, the vast majority of classical guitars are quite close in design to the Torres formula, and even the most experimental builders start from the design that Torres intuitively perfected a hundred and fifty years ago. Even concert guitarist owe their work to Torres, regardless what brand guitar they might play, because with the Torres breakthrough the guitar became a more viable concert instrument, giving a new range of power, dynamics, color and expression for new generations of performers and composers to exploit. In the 20th century it was Andres Segovia who took the classical guitar into the spotlight of the concert stage world wide, playing guitars based directly on the Torres tradition, as carried on by Manuel Ramirez and later Herman Hauser.

Antonio de Torres was born in 1817 in Almeria, on the southeast coast of Spain. He left his hometown to eventually settle in the legendary Andalusian capital of Sevilla. He was first trained as a carpenter. Although he may have dabbled in guitar making earlier, his first professional instruments start to appear in the 1850s, when he was in his mid thirties. He was encouraged by local guitar virtuosos , especially Julian Arcas, who recognized his talent, and he took up the career of guitar making. This can't have been an easy or common career choice then, any more than it is now. Yet there obviously was a market for these guitars. Though there was a thriving classical guitar culture in other parts of Europe and Spain at this time, the Spanish classical composers and teachers such as Tarrega , Llobet and Pujol didn't emerge until later when Torres' work was fully formed. What was going on at the time, especially in Seville where Torres was working, was the emergence of Flamenco as the popular, though serious music of Andalusia. Though he was a consummate craftsman in all of his guitars, his choice of materials and decoration ranged widely from the most elaborate and painstaking, to simple work with ordinary materials, like leftovers. This suggests that he was working according to the customer's ability to pay, and that he could build exquisitely for the poor itinerant musician gigging at a Cafe Cantante, or for an aristocratic collector investing in a prestigious show piece. It also suggests that his instruments were not aimed strictly at what we think of as classical musicians today. In mid nineteenth century Andalusia the distinction between classical, flamenco and popular music had not yet prevailed over the guitar - these are distinctions that wouldn't dictate audience prejudices and guitar builders designs until the twentieth century. In 1858 he entered an instrument in exhibitions in Sevilla , won a bronze medal, and it wasn't very long before guitar makers everywhere were adopting his overall designs as the new standard.

By 1854 Torres was working as a serious guitar maker. This is really the commencement of his first epoch when he did most of his best work. He was sought after by important guitar players in Spain. His instruments made the guitars of other makers before him obsolete. Then, in 1869, after 15 or so years, he apparently stopped building guitars. This stoppage was coincident with a civil war and depression going on in Spain, which may well have shut down the night life and cultural life that guitarists and guitar makers needed. Maybe he just wasn't making enough money. There is a lot to indicate that he struggled with lack of funds for most of his days, in spite of his relative fame. Regardless of the cause, it ended his first epoch. It wasn't until 7 years later that he resurfaced as a guitar maker once again, after moving back to his hometown, Almeria. In 1875 he resumed guitar making, beginning his second epoch. We don't know for sure why he quit in the first place. We also don't know why he returned to guitar making, but he did finally get back to it, and did it up until the time of his death in 1892. The majority of his instruments that still exist are from his second epoch. Over his lifetime he made around 155 guitars that we know of.

Torres was truly a modernist. His guitar designs may seem obvious how, or at least familiar, but when he did it, it was new, untried. As with many wonderful discoveries, Torres didn't really invent anything. He simply put things together in a new way. He pulled together the best practices of his predecessors and contemporaries, put them in proportion and created a new equilibrium in guitar design that looks, sounds and feels as good today as it did 150 years ago. In fact maybe better, because now these fine qualities have been proven over several generations. If you look at the guitars that come before Torres they all look a bit strange to the modern eye. They might be characterized by a narrow waist, similar upper and lower bouts, maybe small body size, shallow depth, an odd numbers of strings and primitive interior bracing. However a Torres guitar can and would blend in visually with any collection of modern guitars today, even after a hundred fifty years of trial and error. Then again, it's not the Torres that would be blending in, but rather all of the others mimicking the Torres (as the sincerest form of flattery). The elegance of the lines, the calm balance and integration of the design elements, together bring a poise unique to Torres guitars.

Here are some of the design features that came together in his work, which together can be thought of as "Torres."

  • The plantilla, the shape of the body: He came up with outlines that are both visually pleasing and subtle, and that also fit nicely to the physical size of most guitarists. It is larger than most of his predecessors. The size proportions between the upper bout, the waist, and the lower bout are still followed by nearly every classical guitar maker working today.
  • The body depth: The depth fundamentally determines the air cavity inside the guitar, which is a major factor in the guitar's voice. It also affects the comfort of holding the guitar.
  • String length: The 650mm string length that is commonly accepted today is near what most of his instruments were. This affects not only the left hand reaches, but also very importantly affects the tension with which the string pulls on the bridge and sound board. This is an essential element of tone production. In Spanish the term for string length is tiro de cuerda, the pull of the string.
  • The fan bracing: Torres didn't invent fan bracing, but the way he laid it out on the sound board just makes so much sense. And maybe it behaves like it's namesake - abanico - a fan, pulsing air toward the listener.
  • The thicknesses: Torres worked the wood quite thin. This made the guitar very alive, although maybe more delicate.
  • The arching of the top and back: The strength that is gained from this arching helps enable this extra thinning of these plates.
  • The bridge: The bridge is an architectural study all by itself. The length, width and height, the length and thicknesses of the wings, the elevation of the bone saddle above the slot, the lower elevation of the string tie holes; all of these details had been grappled with by generations of guitar makers before, but with Torres things fell neatly into place.
  • The neck angle: This is one most important points in the engineering of a guitar. It must take into account the fingerboard thickness, the sound board arching, bridge height, and the bridge saddle/tie hole differential. The neck angle determines the string action above the frets and the character of the sound influenced by the angle of the strings pulling against the sound board.
  • The materials: He took special care in the selection of the sound board wood, but didn't seem too concerned about matching, or other cosmetic issues. Also he used cypress, maple, rosewood and other woods for the back and sides, without clear preference.
  • Decoration: He could do the simplest rosettes and bindings, or he could do the most elaborate, but it was always just right in the context. And probably just what the client paid for.
  • Etc.: Every other element counts - the neck thicknesses, nut width, shape of the neck, carving of the heel, peg head angle, string spacing, combination of materials, tuners or pegs, finish, etc., etc.

There exist today enough fine examples of Torres guitar to offer a window into the world of his sound, sound that distinguishes Torres guitars from any others, including his best imitators. There is a genius in that sound that is more than the sum of the parts. Although he was a gifted craftsman, with work impeccable and exquisitely balanced, there is a sound to a fine Torres that transcends the design, materials and craftsmanship. And that is the genius.

When listening to an old instrument, finding the special beauty of sound that can't be found elsewhere, it's a kind of time travel that raises as many questions as answers. Is this sound from it's age, something that's grown with time and seasoning? Were materials vastly superior then, all virgin timbers, aged for generations? Have our ears, our ability to hear, changed with the bustle that civilization, industry, technology, and ambition assaults us with? Have our standards been lowered with the distractions of the whole world at our fingertips, have our tastes been dumbed down with blunt concepts like loudness, brightness, power? Did those old guys know something we don't know? No answers here. All we can do is play the instrument, drink deep of the liqueurs it offers, and take away what ever we have ears to hear.

Torres guitars have been appreciated since the beginning, and in fact he's been vastly imitated, even counterfeited. Manuel Ramirez, Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso are maybe the best known of the Spanish makers from the early 20th century, and later Herman Hauser in Germany essentially copied Torres, gradually refining and tightening up elements of the construction of the guitar. The guitar as Torres redefined it gradually became specialized, though probably not until after his lifetime. Classical guitar music, as apart from the more popular music and flamenco playing of his day, gradually became a separate thing. Guitars have gotten segregated through specialized use. It was the players who steered the developing history. At first it was likely the Flamenco guitarists of Sevilla that influenced Torres. Later, Arcas, Tarrega and Llobet were Torres contemporaries who's opinions mattered, and they went on to use the new expressive power of the Torres guitar to take guitar music in a classical or romantic direction. This new guitar was a resource that helped to shape the music. those Spanish teachers and composers influence the following generations. It was with Segovia, and later Julian Bream, becoming the most influential classical interpreters through recording and worldwide touring, and through their power as performers and their contacts with composers that the guitar gained a world wide audience. These two spent most of their careers playing Torres influenced guitars.

Eventually guitar makers have tried to further evolve the guitar. Ignacio Fleta made changes with just about everything in the guitar; the bracing, the weight, the neck joint and more, with a unique success. Robert Bouchet made some small but significant changes to Torres sound board design, though the overall concept didn't change much. Daniel Friedrich created a different idea of sound board bracing, and the role of the sides in the instrument. The Jose Ramirez Company took off in their own direction making a guitar with a long diagonal sound board brace, deep body, laminated sides, a very long string length and steep neck angle. Ramirez made and sold thousands of these guitars, establishing for a while a different standard for the guitar buying public. Today there are many innovative contemporary builders who are trying to reinvent the guitar, get more volume out of it, hoping to bring it to larger audiences. Builders like Ruck, Humphrey, Smallman, Damman and many others are trying to make guitars that are louder at least, hopefully with a full range of beauty in the sound, responding to the wishes of the newest generation of virtuoso concert players. But even with all of these new directions in guitar making, the vast majority of guitars made today, worldwide, are very much Torres. And, all along, there have been many fine builders who have used their talents to pursue this classic ideal, and make powerful, beautiful and versatile concert guitars, using the only the design that Torres codified over a hundred and fifty years ago.

I've built many Torres design guitars, with smaller bodies, with rosewood, with maple, with cypress. All of the standard assumptions, like you need a big body for a big bass, that maple produces a soft guitar, that cypress is only for flamencos, that smaller guitars are quiet, and on and on; for me all these assumptions are out the window. It is possible to have it all using a straightforward Torres design.

It's been a while since actual Torres guitars were routinely used in concert. They are in museums, in private collections, prize possessions of individual owners. But Torres style guitars have dominated classical and flamenco performances all along. At the same time, many things about Torres life and work were being neglected, slipping from history. Fortunately the famous guitar maker Jose Romanillos became fascinated with that part of the history of the guitar, and took it upon himself to become Torres' biographer. Romanillos was born and raised in Spain, but in the early 1960s moved to England. He began making guitars there at least partly out of nostalgia for his native Spain. His guitar making caught the attention of the great English guitarist Julian Bream, who played a Romanillos guitar on tour and recordings for around 20 years. In the course of Romanillos' work as guitar maker, he became more and more curious about the roots of Spanish guitar making, and in this, all roads led to Torres. The study and research of Torres life and career became a lifetime fascination for Jose Romanillos, with the full involvement of his wife Marian. They traveled to Spain, looking at old legal records, finding the sites of events of Torres life, trying to bring back into awareness the life and accomplishments of Antonio de Torres. The result is a very impressive biography entitled Antonio de Torres Guitar Maker - His Life @ Work, which is now in its second printing. It is an interesting and well organized study of every aspect of Torres life and work. This book has stimulated many contemporary guitar makers to "go back" to these basic premises of guitar making practice, and see what we can learn from the man who did it first, and some say, best. Another effect of Romanillos' book has been to bring many otherwise lost or forgotten Torres instruments out of hiding, adding a lot of information to the catalog of extant instruments. It's raised the appreciation of Torres among the buyers of instruments, having the net affect of driving the prices of Torres instruments way up. It has also caused a renaissance of interest among players in Torres style instruments, and those of his main stylistic descendant, Hauser. Guitar buying is at least partially a fashion enterprise, and these days there is a fashion swing toward these simpler, fan braced spruce top, 650mm scale classical guitars among guitar players, and consequently among builders, with quite satisfying music results.

In the last few years Romanillos moved back to Spain, and is now living there in a small village outside of Madrid. His son Liam has joined him in guitar making, and in interest in Torres. They have also been giving summer courses in guitar making for a couple of years. As a result of his research and publishing, the name of Torres almost can't be said without also speaking of Romanillos. He did a great service bringing to life the facts about Torres life and work, and consequently rekindling a strong interest, among both builders and players, in the potential of a classically designed guitar with the traditional fan bracing, spruce top and 650mm string length. Though infinite variation is still possible, this Torres design remains an invaluable touchstone of all of our work with the guitar.

I recently had the good fortune to have an early Torres come through my shop for a time, and being around this instrument, working on it, coming under the it's spell has been revealing. This guitar, made in 1856, was around before chain saws, cell phones in restaurants, before movie theaters, 78 records or Walkman, before a few world wars, motor cars and electric lights. If I make a guitar like this today, I can be pretty confident it will come out well. When Torres made this guitar, it hadn't been done like this before, and a whole new instrument came into the world. This is thrilling, hypnotic. The people who have Torres guitars or have worked on them are really in love with them. Torres himself struggled financially his whole life, and could not have had an inkling of the influence his work would have on several generations of guitar makers. We can't know what the future of the guitar will be like, but the present owes much to Torres, and his accomplishment is as relevant, and modern now as it was when he started.

© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA

SUGGESTED READING:

  • Antonio de Torres Guitar Maker - His life & Work by Jose Luis Romanillos
  • Cultural Origins of the Modern Guitar by Richard E Brune, Guitar Foundation of America Sounboard Magazine Fall 1997 issue
  • La Chitarra di Liuteria, Masterpieces of Guitar Making by Strfano Grondona-Luca Waldner

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