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by Eric Henderson in collaboration with Virginia Mann
I recently had the opportunity of a lifetime to choose a guitar from a collection that was selected for Andres Segovia and kept in a vault by Jim Sherry, the owner of Antigua Casa Sherry –Brener, since before Maestro Segovia’s death in 1987. Jim Sherry had provided Segovia with his guitars for decades, personally handpicking them from his inventory of top-of-the-line Brazilian rosewood Jose Ramirez III’s. Each year he would choose three of his very best guitars from the Ramirez inventory and save them for the Maestro. Jose Ramirez had been the guitar of choice for Segovia and due to Mr. Sherry’s vast experience as an importer of the best concert guitars made, as well as having a close friendship with Segovia based on mutual respect the Maestro trusted Sherry’s judgment in selecting the finest from his ever increasing inventory of Rams. Segovia fondly referred to Sherry as the sultan in charge of a harem of beautiful instruments.
I needed to find a great concert guitar that would project with power and retain a round full-bodied tone. The guitar needed to maintain its clarity and balance of “sweet focus” when I played with all the power my hands could produce, without buzzing or losing the precision of the notes. No guitar I have played yet has this quality except for those made by Ramirez. Jose Ramirez guitars demand a strong, dedicated left hand technique, and many guitarists view the Ramirez III as hard to play because of its longer scale (26-1/8 “ compared to the 25-9/16” of other models). I like the room that the action on the neck affords me to maneuver and articulate with a wider range of dynamics and colors. I also love the power and depth that the base register can produce, retaining its precision without overpowering the treble strings. I look for a transparency and a sense of polyphony when playing three, four, five and finally six-string chords. When a guitar has unbalanced overtones there is a challenge to bring out the appropriate voice of the chords and this can result in a muddy, less-defined sound. This can also wear you out as a performer because of all the energy that you must use to compensate for this flaw.
Let me back up a bit and take you through the process and time that we spent finding a great guitar. I say ‘we’ because I had the benefit of the discerning ears of Chris Amelotte. Chris Amelotte has been around classical guitar for 45 years. He has played concerts and demonstrated the qualifications of great guitars throughout the United States. Chris was the first person to receive a degree in guitar from USC. While he was there he was one of only five students to study privately with Christopher Parkening. Also during that period, he co-authored the Christopher Parkening method book. Subsequently, Chris Amelotte represented Antigua Casa Sherry Brener for five years. During this period, he learned a great deal about the different luthiers and their methods of guitar construction from Jim Sherry, as well as from guitar makers throughout the country. Chris opened a music store in Southern California dedicated to Spanish guitars. He also sponsored a concert series for guitar that spanned thirteen years. During this period, Chris interfaced with most of the finest guitarists in the world. For all of these reasons I was particularly fortunate to have Chris along to help me find the perfect guitar.
August 16, 2011 Chris and I met up in Chicago and went to Casa Antigua to meet with Jim Sherry. I had not seen Mr. Sherry since 1978, when I had just signed with Columbia Artist Management. At the ripe old age of twenty I hadn’t a clue how to judge a guitar. The selection of guitars at Casa Antiqua was, and is, overwhelming; this time I was determined to make the best of this rare opportunity by having the help of Chris’s ear as well as his eye for great wood. Jim Sherry met us downtown at Casa Antigua and we caught up briefly on what had transpired in the last 30 plus years. Mr. Sherry is a true icon of the Spanish guitar. The small amount I know personally about his contribution and influence on the Spanish guitar market in the USA would fill volumes. He provided guitars for Segovia, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, Leona Boyd, Narsisco Yepes, Manuel Barrueco, the Romeros, Ida Presti and Alexandres Lagoya, and other important classical guitarists. He also provided instruments to Sabicas, Montoya and generations of great flamenco guitarists. Jim Sherry sponsored my very first concert tour in this country when I was 18 years old. He gave a whole generation of American guitarists wonderful opportunities to become prominent concert artists.
Thanks to both Jim Sherry and Chris Amelotte I had the chance to choose from the best guitars that Ramirez had made. I also had the help of three other people. My wife, Virginia, came with me to meet Jim Sherry and learn more details about what made the best guitars so unique. Virginia is a speech scientist, who while pursuing her doctorate at MIT had also studied sound perception. Also with us was Chris Amelotte’s wife, Kathleen, a lawyer who accompanied us to guard against the dangers of incurring what would be the equivalent of our national debt from the temptation of being presented with dozens of the finest guitars ever made. The third person that was indispensible is Eva Pardee-Warren, the right arm of Jim Sherry’s Casa Antigua, for her help in narrowing down and selecting the finest of the Casa Antigua collection.
For the backs and sides of the best guitars he made, Jose Ramirez III had sought out the finest Brazilian rosewood; Jim Sherry helped him to find this wood and import it to Spain. For the soundboards, under the advice of Jim Sherry, Ramirez introduced Canadian cedar as an alternative to spruce. It was to become the wood of choice. Mr. Sherry would travel with Paolino Bernabe, the great luthier who at that time worked in the Ramirez shop in Madrid. The tradition of using Canadian cedar for tops owes to Jim Sherry and is unfortunately something for which he has never been properly credited.
So on August 17, 2011, Chris, Kathleen, Virginia and I found ourselves tuning guitars in the summer heat of Chicago, inside a special section where Jim and Eva kept their best instruments. They had painstakingly narrowed the selection down to 25 guitars. Chris and I each took a dozen to tune to pitch, Kathleen sat and listened patiently and Virginia took it on herself to try to master the code of the tags that Jim had meticulously attached to each guitar. Chris started in on examining the woods used in each guitar. I was getting a crash course in recognizing the qualities of Brazilian rosewood and cedar tops; Chris taught me about slab cuts and the differences in quality of Brazilian rosewood by grain consistency and color. Here I would also like to acknowledge the fact that some of my education on wood had come from Michael Fowler, the head of guitar at Tulsa University. What Chris and Michael taught me was to look for a uniform grain on the soundboard, and a center cut wood for the backboard, which gives a constant level of power and sustains all notes from the first fret to the last and highest. This lends uniformity to the level of pressure one employs on the left hand fingers.
We began our search in mid-morning. I would try a guitar out by listening first to the high E from open string to the highest B going up the neck chromatically. I would use only my right hand index finger so there was an absolute consistency in tone without the risk of the sound being compromised if I were to alternate between my i and m fingers. My first impression was that the guitars seemed to be a little on the quiet side; I had been used to playing an instrument that was typical of most guitars being made these days in that it had the illusion of power and projection. This was due to ringing overtones and a raucous voicing that was at best uneven and at worst uncontrollable. It had been a number of years since I had played and performed on a Ramirez guitar and I had forgotten how much they allow the guitarist to be in command of the tone, the color, the shading and the uniformity from the low end to the high end of volume. The more time I spent at Casa Antigua playing their ‘harem’ of guitars the more I gradually came to remember the joy and ease of being the one to choose what the voicing should be. I felt this wave of relief as I began to remember the feeling of being able to project and not have to hold back the power of my hands and to play with all of the power I desired.
Each guitar had its personality; they came into their own as they were being tuned to pitch and being played. I was looking for that balance of projection, sweetness and ease of playing, especially for the left hand. I would pick up a tuned guitar from its case, play the high E string and then go through the other strings and play some passages: linear, polyphonic and chordal. Based on the clarity and quality of tone – that is, a combination of singing sweetness, precision and power – I was able with Chris’s help to start narrowing things down. There were cases where Chris would put a guitar aside on the basis of the quality and consistency of the grain of wood on the top and back. Here I would like to comment about what I observed and came to learn: to me the best guitars had a grain on the soundboard that wasn’t too tight nor too wide. I ended up choosing a 1974 guitar that had such a consistent uniform width of grain on the top that it almost looked like it was painted. Totally amazing. The back had old growth slab-cut Brazilian rosewood – again, the uniformity and beauty of the grain was outstanding.
About three months after choosing this guitar I was to use it in concert for the first time. I will never forget walking out and playing; the hall had a very guitar-friendly acoustic, but what struck me was how utterly obedient the guitar was to every whim of tone, shading and dynamics that I chose to express. I was literally laughing inside from the first piece to the last. I felt that I had come home and a familiar peace and ease was reawakened in me. Instead of feeling worn out and exhausted from trying to constantly compensate for ringing unbalanced tones that were not my intention, I felt inspired and invigorated. I realize now how absolutely important it is to have a great instrument, not just because it makes things easier to convey, but because that becomes the starting point for growing to new levels of interpretation, command and tone.
I would like to close with an anecdote from a recent concert. I was to headline for a benefit, the first half of which included a number of performers all using amplified sound and electric as well as miked acoustic guitars. I thought this was an odd combination they were trying to pull off, as I play primarily Spanish classical albeit an eclectic program. I reluctantly decided that, despite my dislike of electrically modified sound, it would be necessary to at least slightly amplify my sound with a mike set up as subtly as possible as I was following this louder music and the ears of the audience would be accustomed to a louder decibel level. I was afraid it would be too much of a contrast for the primarily young audience. The hall was full, and as I began to play the first piece there was a loud pop like a small explosion but I ignored it and went on. Unknown to me the PA system for the hall had gone out, and this resulted in my playing my entire set without any amplification. After the concert, people came back stage and raved about how wonderfully clear and audible the tone and clarity of the guitar sounded from the front row all of the way to the back of the hall. Somebody commented how pleased they were that I had not stopped when the PA system went out. This was the first time I realized that I had played my entire set acoustically.
I feel so fortunate to have acquired a guitar of this caliber. I am so grateful to Jim Sherry for his kindness and generous. I will remember always the graciousness and time that Eva, Chris, Kathleen and Virginia gave to me so willingly. I am pleased to say that in the upcoming months I will start recording a new album on the Jose Ramirez III that I thankfully found at Casa Antigua. I expect that this guitar and I will have a long productive relationship.