In Memoriam: Eugene Clark
July 11, 1934 — December 9, 2016

Picture of Jim Norris

We finally met in September of 1979. I say “finally” because all through the process of building my first guitar in 1978, with Bill Cumpiano’s excellent instruction, I heard stories. Eugene says this, Eugene says that — all spoken in a tone of reverence. I thought, “Who is this guy?” He was legendary. Michael Gurian was one of Bill’s teachers and employers, and it was Michael who helped spread the word, having known Eugene well from his New York City days between ’65 and ’68. For more details about Eugene’s life and thoughts on the Spanish guitar, I strongly recommend Jon Peterson’s “Meet the Maker” article (AL#65, Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six) and “The Classic Guitar: Four Perspectives” (AL#64, BRBAL6) and other substantive articles on Spanish guitar rosette construction, flamenco guitars, building guitars using a Spanish solera, and French polishing — all published by the GAL. His contributions were always instructive and stamped by the vision and conviction of one whose depth of knowledge seemed boundless. Taken as a whole, they could almost be a book, perhaps the one he said he was working on all along.

Back in September 1979, with my first guitar in hand as a calling card, I visited many West Coast luthiers, looking for a place to land and pursue my newly found life’s work. After stopping at Jeff Elliott’s in Portland, Oregon, I headed south to the Bay Area and Eugene Clark’s. He lived with his family in a second floor apartment on Solano Avenue in Albany, California. There was a pet supply store at street level, and his shop, which I did not see, was located behind the pet store. He welcomed me warmly and examined my guitar. He liked that it was mahogany and Sitka. “Any woods can make a good guitar.” He served us delicious spaghetti for lunch, and sent me on my way. With very few words exchanged, I felt that I’d received the encouragement I needed — a blessing to continue the quest.

I didn’t know he’d mostly given up guitar making and repairing at that time, or that he’d suffered a severe head injury in 1968 just after moving back to California from New York. He had significant memory loss and numbness on the right side of his body. He retaught himself math, reading, writing, speaking, and gradually, over the next twenty years, gained back both his mental capacity and everything but 10% of feeling in his right side. During those years he attended community college to study criminology and received an associate’s degree (two years in one semester); trained as a police officer (which included a great deal of learning codes and maps and physical fitness training), after which he volunteered as a reserve police officer for about seven years; relearned Morse code and became very proficient; overcame speaking limitations and was able to get a good job as a radio operator for ITT and later with the Merchant Marines. Around 1988, he began his own landscaping business, and found that the heavy-duty work ultimately completed his recovery.

In 1996 he was invited to speak at a Healdsburg Guitar Festival and that event marks the beginning of his return to lutherie, his second epoch. He gave up landscaping (“it had done all it could”) and unpacked his guitar-making and repair tools. I met up with him again in Healdsburg a year later at a two-day intensive class on French polishing he gave at the American School of Lutherie. It was an amazing display of organization, knowledge, and teaching skill. I was there to witness, participate, and write an article for the readers of American Lutherie. The result was a joint effort on our part; a long, detailed article that I still highly recommend today to anyone wanting to pick up a muñeca.
The second epoch lasted about twenty years, and he died of respiratory illness in his living room/shop. I don’t know how many guitars he built, repaired, or restored during that time, but I know he shared a great deal of his considerable knowledge in GAL articles, lectures and workshops at GAL Conventions, and individual instruction. We all are the wiser for his extraordinary gifts and willingness to share them.

The following quotes are taken from the previously mentioned “Meet the Maker” and “The Classic Guitar: Four Perspectives” articles. He was truly legendary, and his words live on.

“ my late twenties I did make a decision to pursue one craft. As Swami Vivekananda once wrote, ‘Give up forever this nibbling at things. Take up one thing. Do that one thing wholeheartedly.’”

“To pursue a craft there is something you obey. It’s not different from the martial arts, in which you don’t succeed until you stop imposing yourself. Lutherie is a visceral pursuit, not a cerebral one. It is neither an art nor a science. It’s brujería — sorcery!”

“...I learned from guitars, not from books. There weren’t any books. My work is influenced almost solely by the work of Manuel Ramírez and his two students, Domingo Esteso and Santos Hernández. For me, those makers define the Spanish guitar. All guitars make tones, but few have a voice. Those are guitars with a voice, with clarity, and with presence.”
“French polishing is part of my way of life. There’s hardly a more beautiful way to spend my time in this presumably one human life that I’ve been allotted — to be in the quiet of my shop with nothing but the sound of the pad going over a piece of wood. It’s really quite beautiful. This is the kind of thing you don’t have to run away from to go fishing; it’s at least as good as fishing.” (laughter and applause, live audience, 2006 GAL Convention)
             Cyndy Burton

One day, about 1962, I was in the back of Lundberg’s Fretted Instruments Shop here in Berkeley. Jon Lundberg came back and asked me if I could go up front as a guy had made a nylon string guitar and wanted to sell it or get feedback. Jon said, “Marc, you have a better ear than me, and also it is a nylon string guitar, not something we feature here.” So I went up to the counter and there was Eugene Clark with a guitar. This guitar was beautifully crafted and so I innocently asked Eugene, “How many guitars have you made?” He answered that this was his second, and the first did not turn out very well. He went on to say how he had made the first one “upside down” meaning with the top facing upwards until he studied a Spanish-made guitar and decided that they were made with the top facing down, and the back put on last. All this came from him noticing that some glue had run in that direction inside the guitar showing the position that was used to originally make it.

I had always felt that nylon strung guitars had a weak G string (3rd) but this guitar had a bold voice throughout, and so I began asking Eugene questions. And he always had the answers, all these years. These answers from Eugene remained useful and pertinent.

I was lucky to run into him when I was very young and just starting my path along the trail of music making. In November 1963 I opened my Fretted Instruments Shop in Greenwich Village. A few years later Eugene moved to New York with his family. He worked in the repair shop at the back of my store for a while, and soon had his own location, on 24th Street I think. The West Village had a lively scene of guitar making with Freddie Mejia, David Rubio, Michael Gurian, David Santo, Lucien Barnes, and others. We all learned from Eugene, more or less. For me it was more!
We had long talks about music with flamenco being Eugene’s favorite style. He was a very good music maker; he never played much and so had limited chops, but he had great ideas. My background was in American roots music and we compared the rhythmic ideas and lyrics of flamenco and blues. We each learned a lot by doing that. Eugene was also very fond of Bill Monroe and his bluegrass music.

I am proud I was able to encourage Eugene into his “second phase” of making guitars after he had quit for many years. His second coming exposed a much larger audience for him and his ideas concerning this craft. It was the depths he went to when investigating ideas that was so impressive and valuable.

Eugene will be missed as a great guitar maker, a great teacher, and for me, a close and valued friend.
With deep gratitude,
             Marc Silber

Eugene Clark was a difficult person that you couldn’t help loving. By turns charming and irascible, he could easily have fit into one of the Reader’s Digest articles “My Most Unforgettable Character.” If you can inherit charisma, it’s clear where Eugene got his. His father was a preacher with the Science of Mind church in Los Angeles. My in-laws used to attend, and thought highly of Eugene Emmett Clark.

I looked up Eugene in San Jose, California, in the spring of 1963 at the urging of my flamenco guitar teacher, Freddie Mejia. Gene, as he was then called, had just finished a guitar for Freddie, and it was a cannon! With lumberyard spruce back and sides and European spruce top, it was as light as a feather. Freddie was playing it at The Old Spaghetti Factory Café in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, along with Dave Jones (David Serva). We hadn’t yet discovered that California cypress was great back-and-sides wood.

I was about halfway through my first guitar, and had just decided to get serious about guitar making, so I drove down to San Jose from Palo Alto, and Eugene and I ended up talking for several hours. He was living on less than a shoestring with what Zorba called, “wife, kids, the whole catastrophe.” His workshop was one bedroom of his house, about fourteen feet square. We would often visit Warren White who lived across town in a trailer with three Sheltie dogs. The aroma was terrific!

Eugene had a guru in India named Gopal Singh, and was a strict vegetarian. He offered me an unpaid job, partly because he had recently been to a group meeting with a clairvoyant. You passed some personal object up to the “seer,” and got a prediction. Eugene sent up a key ring with some keys on it, and got the prediction that a man would come to him that “understood tools.” In my ignorance I was all for using a portable belt sander to speed up production. So I bought one, and against my advice, Eugene tried it out on a spruce soundboard. He almost wore a hole through it in about twenty seconds!

In those days secrecy was the norm. Nobody knowledgeable would tell you anything, and the only thing written on guitar making was A.P. Sharpe’s little thirty-two-page booklet Make Your Own Spanish Guitar. It served to get me hooked, and I’m grateful. The GAL changed all of that, and I’m really grateful! Otherwise we consulted violin-making books, and Eugene became fascinated with oil varnishes. He always French polished his instruments, but in later years added walnut oil to his shellac for durability. I suspect that those violin making books had a lasting effect.

Eugene had one condition for taking me on — that I was not to open a shop within five-hundred miles of him when I went off on my own. I accepted gladly. Our association lasted six or eight weeks before it became apparent to me that I was more of a pain to him than a help. Rather than wait to be fired, I quit, and moved to Claremont in Southern California. I was ready to get out of the Bay Area anyway, so it was no real hardship.

So did I learn things from Eugene that I still use? You bet! How to make an elegant neck from 4/4 stock; how to joint tops and backs with a block plane; how to make a double-bladed veneer scraper for traditional mosaic rosettes and purfling; and much more.

In the last few years we would have long phone conversations once or twice a year, and I will miss those. Eugene will always remain for me, the most unforgettable character I ever met.
             Brian Burns

I recently found out about the death of Eugene Clark from Jay Hargreaves and was truly saddened by the loss. Jay brought Gene to a recent Seattle Luthiers meeting and we had a chance to catch up with some of the times spent in New York.

It was in 1965 or ’66 that I had the opportunity to work with Gene and Lucien Barnes IV in the Carmine Street shop. I had just taken over the shop when Lucien and Gene needed exit money for California. At that time Gene was mostly making exceptional classical guitars, mostly for local players like Karl Herreshoff (lead player in Man of La Mancha). We spent the month talking about different techniques in building instruments and sounding them. At that time he was strictly building Spanish-style instruments while I was more involved in two-piece construction, each of which had their advantages. We talked about all aspects of hand tools, materials, glues, and finishes. To the three of us, it was the age of enlightenment, for we all had something to give to each other at a time when the few builders that existed were not too willing to share any information regarding construction, material acquisition, or anything else.

Gene was exceptional in researching all the necessary aspects of instrument construction and related topics. This, I believe, was the basis of his ability to come up with methodology dating back to when hand tools were the dominant force in building, and the supply of materials was limited. We talked extensively about how important it was to feel the wood in every aspect from the planing of the top, back, and sides to the final calibrations in order to make adjustments towards accomplishing the sound desired as you were building the instrument. We both concurred that the builder unconsciously registered that information for use in the future construction of instruments. This, as far as I know, has been Genes’ mantra to this day.

Though over the years we saw little of each other, I still regarded him as a friend and am forever indebted to him for the little time spent with him in New York. I regard Eugene Clark as one of the finest builders of our times and know the legacy which he left in instruments and knowledge will be cherished.
             Michael Gurian

Eugene Clark was an excellent craftsman, a meticulous teacher, and a crusty old fart to boot! I first met Eugene in 1996, walking down a dirt road to see a flamenco performance that was part of the first Healdsburg Guitar Festival. We bumped into each other at the next couple of Healdsburg festivals. He was genuinely happy that so many people remembered him and were glad to see him. At that time he was living in California. He then moved to the south end of Tacoma, within walking distance of Pacific Lutheran University where the Guild of American Luthiers holds its conventions. Thereafter I saw him at each convention and we became friends. I studied with him one-on-one to learn French polishing. Shortly after that he coaxed me to continue my studies with him to learn how to build a flamenco guitar.

I went to see him almost every Saturday for a little over two years. We would have lunch at Reyna’s Mexican Restaurant, then work on the guitar and French polishing for the rest of the day. It was a rare opportunity to learn from a great master, for which I am eternally grateful. I will carry those memories with me forever. And to have that close friendship with Eugene was very special.
             Jay Hargreaves

I was very saddened to hear of Eugene’s passing. We had many interesting conversations at the various GAL Conventions, and I fondly remember being on a panel discussion with him on the subject of “What is a Flamenco Guitar?” In his inimitable wry sense humor he considered a classical guitar to be “...any guitar that a client will pay me $2000 extra to leave off the tapping plate.” I thought that summed it up perfectly. Eugene was one of the great American pioneers to evangelize the Spanish guitar. He will be missed.
             R.E. Bruné

Eugene’s passing saddens me greatly — he was a friend, and one of the very few true icons of mid-20th-century classical and flamenco guitar makers in America. Indeed, together with Manuel Velázquez and Manouk Papazian in the early 1960s, he represented and sustained the European tradition here in the US, helping to usher in the first wave of the renaissance to come. Eugene was an inspiration to me early in my own pursuit of this art and craft, and he taught many others both personally and by his example. I feel fortunate to have known him for the past twenty years, and I consider it a privilege to have served on panel presentations with him twice at GAL Conventions. His presence will be greatly missed, but his guitars, his teaching, and his example will continue to inspire future generations.
             Jeffrey R. Elliott

We mark the passing of a wonderful man. Not one easy to live with, but he was comfortable in his own skin. As hard headed as any man I ever met, including myself, which is in itself quite an accomplishment. He scratched out a living for part of his life making guitars, and then returned to it to fulfill his destiny. A superbly self-educated man, he sharpened his eye and his mind even better than his tools. Generous with words, and with a glaring stare for any student who let their mind drift from the subject at hand, Eugene had a way of infecting anyone smart enough to listen with his passion for the Spanish guitar. For a select few, it seemed to stick.

He infected me for one, with an incurable romantic vision. Of living like the old masters whose time was regulated by the ringing of church bells. Of counting their years by the Spanish calendar, where it is not your birthday that is celebrated, but that of the saint’s day that you were named after. Once I had the dilemma of how to handle the death of a client who was to pick up a guitar he had ordered but died four days before the delivery. I thought “There must be a tradition for this!” So I called all of my teachers. None of them knew of a precedent. But Eugene, practical to the last, responded without hesitation: “Has it been paid for?” A tribute to his lifestyle, about which he quipped to me, “I am so tired of hearing people ask me, ‘Do you build guitars from Inspiration?’ I answer, ‘Hell no! I build them from desperation! I have to eat!’” He had never been to Spain, but absorbed it through his fingertips in the old guitars he worked on, like young skin absorbs the tattoo artist’s ink. You could say the Spanish guitar was tattooed on his heart. But for him it was not just that permanent reminder of a fleeting feeling. The Spanish guitar was also tattooed into his soul.

For those that do not believe in the transmission of divine thought across generations, through the ether, and across as yet undiscovered universes, please explain to me how on the very day that I moved my woods, carefully collected over forty years, into a thousand-year-old church in Spain, now transformed into a guitar workshop, that I learned of the master’s death. It is me ringing the church bell now, lovingly restored for future generations, putting knife to wood, and as long as my health lasts, trying to make the best of the time I have left. Many times I have looked to the stars and shaken my head in wonder.

I miss you, old friend, but your work will live on. At least until my dying breath. Gracias Maestro.
             Federico Sheppard

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