Luthier, Lutherie and Hand Crafted Guitars

In my view, the most important aspect to consider when deciding how to have your hand made guitar crafted, is not your choice of wood, but the Luthier you choose to build it for you. Two luthiers with a remit to produce the same guitar from the same elements may deliver two quite different results, much in the same way as two guitarists of equal ability will get different sounds from the same instrument.

The dictionary defines a Luthier as someone who makes or repairs lutes and other stringed instruments. This craft covers most types of stringed instrument that are bowed, plucked or strummed including guitar and lute makers. The word luthier is derived from the French word luth, which means lute.

Luthier Antonio de Torres

The design of today's classical and flamenco guitars in both their shape and materials, were innovated and redefined by luthier Antonio de Torres (1817 – 1892). Torres was born in Almeria on the coast of Southern Spain (about 100km east of where I live in La Herradura). Although in his early years he trained as a carpenter, he moved to Seville and it wasn't until the 1850's that he began making guitars professionally after encouragement from local guitar virtuoso's, who recognised his talent.

In that era, guitars were much smaller and shallower in body and a lot less powerful than those we are accustomed to today. Antonio de Torres introduced many innovations, including a larger and deeper body and the arched top and fan strutting system that is still in use by most luthiers today. He also appears to have clearly differentiated between classical and flamenco guitar construction systems and materials.

He built guitars in two periods, 1854 – 1869 in Seville and 1875 – 1892 in Almeria. In all he made 155 guitars that we are aware of. His instruments essentially rendered his predecessors efforts outdated and his guitars were so superior to those of his contemporaries that their example changed the way guitars were built. This change was apparent initially in Spain and then throughout the rest of the world and Torres, were he alive today, would probably be bemused and surprised by his legacy.

Torres was a beautiful craftsman, some say he was a genius and he seems to have worked according to his customers ability to pay. This meant that he chose from a wide range of materials, some very ordinary, whilst at the opposite end of the scale, downright elaborate, indicating that he would use his skills to build for simple street musicians and rich collectors alike.

In Spain, his influence and that of succeeding great Spanish luthiers who introduced further refinements, can be traced over the last 150 years from master to apprentice, in successive generations. Manuel Ramirez, Jose Ramirez I, II and III, Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso, Marcel Barbero and Manuel Reyes to name but a few, have continued the Torres tradition, so that the guitars most makers build differ only slightly from the ideas, elements and artistry of Antonio de Torres.

Contemporary Classical Guitar Making

For years, Brazilian Rosewood was the guitar industry standard as the preferred wood for the backs and sides of classical guitars. Unfortunately, due to unsustainable harvesting, the species is now protected by CITES and therefore the export of Brazilian Rosewood has been rightly severely restricted. It's significantly inflated price means that many luthiers are searching for viable alternative tonewoods.

There are many other excellent woods available from wood suppliers and some that are as yet, almost unknown, that are likely to make beautiful and tonally excellent guitars.

Interestingly, in surviving Torres instruments, the most common back and side wood used was maple. Many of todays guitars are built using Indian Rosewood because it is a close substitute for Brazilian Rosewood, is readily available in high-quality and has similar characteristics as a tonewood.

There are many other excellent, alternative woods with the necessary characteristics to make excellent guitars such as: African Blackwood, Bubinga (African Rosewood), Cocobolo, Ebony, Honduran Rosewood, Maple, Spanish Cypress (used almost exclusively for flamenco guitars), Satinwood, Ziricote, among many others, are excellent choices for backs and sides.

Contemporary Innovations

Lattice braced guitars, Double-top sandwich and composite-top and other modern changes are discussed in the following article.

Guitar making is a fascinating and fabulous craft and with so many fine luthiers available to build your dream guitar in most parts of the world, maybe it's time to stop dreaming and make this a reality for you?

Viva la guitarra!


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