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In Memoriam: David Rubio

In Memoriam: David Rubio

December 17, 1934 – October 21, 2000

by Paul Fischer

Originally published in American Lutherie #65, 2001 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

Born in London, David Rubio was educated at Whittingham College, Brighton, and then studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, but gave up because of color blindness. His other abiding interest at the time was the guitar, and in particular, flamenco. Self-taught, he spent time playing in London coffee bars before deciding to go to Spain, where he played with traditional singers and dancers.

To supplement his meager income, he began trading wood between guitar makers and, in the process, learned something of the craft and art of guitar making. The hours spent in these workshops was not wasted, and what he witnessed and experienced, further enhanced by his photographic memory, would be put to good use some years later.

He was invited to go with the Rafael de Cordoba ballet company on a tour of New York in the early ’60s, and on completion of the tour, Rubio remained in New York, having met Neste, who later became his wife.

He had been born David Joseph Spinks, but during his time in Spain had acquired the sobriquet “Rubio,” a reference to his pale north European complexion. He later Hispanicized his second given name, Joseph, to José.

It was during this period in the early ’60s that he decided at first to repair guitars, then quickly moved to making them. Working from a garret in Greenwich Village, he built these first instruments on a chest of drawers using tools purchased from Woolworths. The guitars carried the label: “José Rubio Constructor de Guitarras.”

A stroke of good fortune occurred when Julian Bream brought him an instrument for repair and was much impressed by a flamenco guitar just finished.

By the mid-’60s Rubio had made numerous guitars and had a reputation as “the gentleman guitar maker,” a reference to his habit of working in smart clothes. When I joined him in 1969, he still wore a velvet crimson waistcoat and bow tie while working. The connection with Bream led to an invitation to return to England and to use a recently renovated barn on Bream’s estate as a workshop. Rubio warmed to the idea, and in 1967 moved all his equipment (by then very professional) across the Atlantic and took up residence in rural Dorset.

Photo courtesy of Classical Guitar Magazine, UK.

Much influenced by the instruments of Simplicio, Santos Hernández, and Bouchet, by the time he was settled in his new workshop in England, Rubio’s guitars had taken on an identity very much their own, and now carried the label, “David J. Rubio, Luthier.” Working closely with Bream, his reputation and confidence grew rapidly. But it was Rubio’s desire to have his own workshop, and by 1968 he had found a property in Oxfordshire requiring much restoration, but ideal for his purpose. With his usual concern for detail, a 15th-century house with barn was sympathetically converted into an ideal workshop and residence.

Since his early days in Greenwich Village, Rubio had moved back to England, changed workshops twice, and established himself as a leading guitar and lute maker in just five years. That, by any standards, was an impressive achievement and perhaps enough for most people, but not Rubio. At that time, the early music scene was burgeoning, and there was demand for good copies of historical instruments. This was why, in January 1969, I presented myself at his door, informing him that I was a qualified harpsichord maker seeking to extend my experience into fretted instruments. To my surprise and delight, he said his next project was to make harpsichords. When could I start?

Grass never grew beneath Rubio’s feet, so with my experience in harpsichord making, we began an instrument almost immediately and presented it to the customer some months later. Other instruments soon followed — theorbos, vihuelas, citterns, pandora, as well as lutes and guitars.

With the rapidly increasing demand for all instruments, two makers could never hope to satisfy demand, so the decision was made to build another workshop, specifically for harpsichords, and to use the existing one for small fretted instruments. The workforce was increased from two to nine, inevitably putting great pressure on Rubio’s time, so I became manager, which freed him to concentrate on his next project, bowed instruments.

Creating yet another workshop for himself, in 1972 he began making Baroque violins and cellos, later followed by viola da gambas. With his increasing interest in bowed instruments, only a limited number of guitars and lutes were made by him personally; most carried the initials P.F. and a smaller number, the initials K.S. (Kazuo Sato).

By the mid-’70s, Rubio’s thoughts had turned to his long-term future and a desire to return to working solo. In 1979, he left Oxfordshire for Cambridge. As the market for harpsichords declined, his interest turned to the modern violin, and these he continued to make until the last few months of his life. Parallel to violin making, he undertook research into the varnishing techniques of the Cremonese masters, as well as acoustic testing for guitars and other instruments. For this work, Cambridge University conferred on him an honorary master’s degree.

During his years in Oxfordshire and Cambridge he made a relatively small number of guitars and lutes, but come the ’90s, his restless energy brought him full circle and back to his first choice, this time to something of a hybrid among guitars, the 8-string guitar, but not in its more usual form. In collaboration with the guitarist Paul Galbraith, an instrument using an asymmetric fingerboard and bridge, such as was used on the orpharion of the 17th century, was developed and christened the Brahms guitar.

The many and varied instruments made by David Rubio will, of course, remain as a testament to his creative energy and talent, and so will the many younger makers who were influenced by his ideas, inspired by his achievements, and encouraged by his example.

David Joseph Rubio died of cancer in his workshop on October 21, 2000. He is survived by Neste, and his daughter, Benita, from an earlier marriage.