Note: I hesitate in publishing this series of articles because without doubt it will be critized as being self-serving. The object of this article is to help the advanced student and performer in the procedure of selecting a concert instrument. The guitars involved in this series of articles were from the old workshop of Jose Ramirez, in Spain.
It is with deep regret on my part that I was so prejudiced toward the Ramirez guitars that I did not stock in quantity the other great guitars of our time such as, Ignacio Fleta, Herman Hauser, Miguel Rodriguez, Jose Oribe and Jose Rubio. The guitars made by these luthiers were equal and many times superior to the Ramirez guitar. As you read on you will notice that the choice was based on the law of averages of possibly one fine guitar from a choice of ten. Ramirez had the advantage of eight makers to one Fleta, one Oribe, etc. I am sure if I had had an equal amount of these other luthiers' guitars the selection event would have been more rewarding for both the artist and myself. —James Sherry
This article is the first of a series concerning any three decades of fortunate association with the great guitarists of our time. The endless pursuit for the utmost love ... the perfect guitar. These artists will not appear as they do on the concert stage, for selecting a fine instrument is a painstaking, grueling, intensive event. I will try to convey the atmosphere of these events in the most intense detail. The participant's mood can span the spectrum, from boredom to fascination, as they search for the perfect guitar.
The first guitarist to be featured in his quest for the perfect guitar is Christopher Parkening, December, 1978.
I received a call from Christopher that he would be in Chicago the coming weekend to look for guitars for himself and advanced students. He asked if I would make the preliminary selections for him. I told him the task would be difficult, and asked if he would object if the editor of Guitarra, Catherine Lawrence, who was making an intensive study of the dynamics of the guitar, assisted us in the selection process since it is virtually impossible to play one hundred guitars without becoming completely confused.
Christopher agreed and we prepared to select
the best guitars possible. All the guitars to be tested were at least one year old. It takes a year for the glue and varnish used on the Ramirez guitars to crystalize. During this crystallization the character of the guitar will change month to month. For this reason a concert artist would never consider a new guitar.
In past years, I along with virtuoso Michael Lorimer, had developed a fast fool-proof technique for sorting out choice instruments from mediocre ones. We had made a visual check looking for guitars with the best grade of top wood, back, sides, etc. Usually the darker tops (only in cedar) are considered superior in sound mainly because these tops are cut from ancient trees. The wood is brittle as glass making it extremely resonant.
The visual procedure narrowed our choice to about 45 guitars. These guitars were then tuned up and let set for about eight hours. Ms. Lawrence played the guitars and we listened, commented and eliminated 18. This is a crucial process that must be done in a free spirit by a guitarist who can hear and produce beautiful sounds. Many concert performers cannot hear and do not know sound either in a guitar or in their own production of sound. Fortunately, Ms. Lawrence does not fall into this category.
When Christopher arrived we were ready. We were prepared to pool our information, ideas, statements and experience for a great final result. Christopher, always high spirited, played guitar after guitar vigorously. What he was looking for now were obvious flaws; dead notes, usually the treble E string is the telltale string. If the E string is perfectly balanced, that is to say, equal resonance on all notes, the rest of the strings usually fall into this "perfect" state.
During this process, Christopher, produced some of the most beautiful sounds that have ever reached my ears. He was constantly saying this one is great for Villa Lobos, this one for Bach, this one for Scarlatti.
This process eliminated six more guitars. The next procedure is to check for projection. This simply means how wide the notes, in sound, are between the 4th fret and the nut; of course, the wider the better, this requires very intense listening.
Our next step was for volume, full bodiedness, and freedom of tone, the last being the most difficult to differentiate. In fact, few guitarists even know what it is. I first heard of it many years ago from Segovia and his wife. If you ask me to describe it in words, I cannot; however, I can detect when a guitar has it.
After much debate three more guitars were eliminated which were "too tight" in sound. We were left with 18 guitars to be divided into categories; first choice and second choice. This is a hair splitting decision, no more guitars would be eliminated. This step was done by Christopher playing the Villa Lobos Prelude No. I and No. 3. We listened and commented, Ms. Lawrence played and Christopher and I listened and argued. Finally we sorted the guitars into six first quality and twelve second quality.
Then Christopher played the 12 guitars and graded them first choice, second choice, 3rd choice. Our last and most crucial test was the six remaining guitars. Out of these we were looking for one great guitar, the one out of 100. This test was for the guitar with no percussion, no wood sound whatsoever, crystal clear descending notes, evenness, volume, freedom of sound and soul. The piece played for his test is always the Villa Lobos Prelude No. 3.
This final test took the most time. Christopher played phrase after phrase, first on one guitar then another, repeating the same phrases. Finally Christopher made his choices No. 1 thru 6. Ms. Lawrence reversed choices No. 1 and 2.1 also reversed No. 1 and 2. In an honest selection of guitars there are no "yes" men. The opposing view is always welcome. Whomever the guitarist; Segovia, Bream, Ghiglia, Fisk, all views are accepted and weighed. The two guitars in question were played again and on one the second string was changed. This change made a difference in guitar No. 2. Villa Lobos, Bach and Albeniz were then played. Christopher finally decided that guitar No. 2 was the best choice because the music of all three composers sounded equally as well, even though the guitar he had originally chosen as No. 1 was better for romantic music.
The process used left no doubt in our minds that the best choice was made, in fact, a month later the six guitars were played again and the choice remained the same.
(Next time: The colorful Julian Bream in his quest for the perfect guitar — year, 1969)