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In Memoriam: Jim Forderer

In Memoriam: Jim Forderer

March 24, 1943 – June 12, 2016

by James Westbrook, and John Doan

Originally published in American Lutherie #128, 2016

I first spoke to Jim Forderer in 1997, when I had heard about a 1930s Hauser with a carved-relief headstock and I was curious to learn more about this seemingly rare feature. Beverly Maher, at the Guitar Salon in New York, told me that Jim had seen the guitar and that I should talk to him. So I called long distance from England and we immediately hit it off. Our mutual interest in guitars meant that we could have chatted all night long, so I thought it would be cheaper to talk to him in person. So just a few months later I flew out to Los Altos Hills, California.

His guitar collection at that time was quite modest, mainly consisting of 20th-century classical guitars. But he did have the odd Panormo and such, which, by coincidence, he had obtained via a dealer from auctions I ran in London. Like his family, his guitar collection grew and grew. It also began to reach much further back in time; that was probably my influence. I had well over fifty trips to the Bay Area to visit my best American friend and also to see his children who I also got to know very well — all twenty-seven of them. Jim founded the Bridge School with Neil Young in 1986, and every October I would help him with his children at the Bridge School benefit concert. Plus, I would come out whenever he was asked to exhibit his collection, sometimes going south to La Guitarra in San Luis Obispo, other times very north to the GAL Convention.

Jim was one of the most generous, kind, and sincere people I knew. His only fault was that he was very stubborn about limiting the time he should be behind the wheel. This resulted in witnessing many near-fatal accidents in his RVs. Driving from San Jose to Tacoma was no stroll in the park, but he would insist on driving until after he had fallen asleep. So my job on the trips to the conventions was to make sure we both got there alive, but more importantly, that the forty-odd guitars he was exhibiting got there without damage. One time he drove onto a freeway the wrong way. Another time he drove all through the night, forgetting to put any lights on the trailer we were pulling. And another time he parked on a mountain top and forgot to put the brakes on. The vehicle went off the edge, but luckily was stopped by a tree. There was, however, one trip in 2008 that I couldn’t make, and during that trip he crashed. Any sane person would have turned back, but he still made it to the GAL Convention, hiring a van and transferring all of his instruments over.

Jim’s uniqueness as a collector, for he was certainly no scholar, was his readiness to share his collection. Besides lending the odd guitar to professional musicians, he would take his collection to The People. I think if he was offered to preserve them in a museum, within glass cases, he would have declined, for his collection was very much hands-on. The only down side to this was their preservation: like the time he reversed his RV over his original and very rare Mozzani case; luckily he had forgotten to put the guitar inside! He was a truly remarkable man, who touched so many guitars, and so many lives.

— James Westbrook

Photo by Anne Newsom

For anyone who loves the history of the classical guitar and getting up close and personal with significant instruments from the past, meeting Jim Forderer would have been a peak experience. I had that pleasure many times over the years. My first encounter was when he and Dr. James Westbrook visited my home en route north to Tacoma for a GAL Convention. His 30´ motorhome was an impromptu guitar museum on wheels. We sat on a couch that converts to a bed as he opened up one piled case after another, pulling out rare guitars by Panormo, Fabricatore, Lacôte, Mozzani, and other legendary builders.

Wait. Aren’t these supposed to be untouchably encased in humidity-controlled glass enclosures, safe in some far-away instrument museum? What was hard for me to get my mind around was that all of these precious historical artifacts were precariously traveling through time and space in an aging Winnebago parked in my gravel driveway!

Jim was not known for writing highly annotated guitar research books or articles, but as each instrument was lovingly pulled from its tattered wooden case, he freely and passionately discussed the intimate details of its construction and materials. He knew about each of the makers and their nuanced place in history. His knowledge was not solely reliant on books. Rather, it was the sort that comes from holding each instrument in his arms, from hours of carefully inspecting their surfaces, from inhaling at the soundhole the scent of a distant workshop, and from plucking a string that would send him dreaming of where it had been and of who played it. All this was augmented by his close interaction with Dr. Westbrook and other players and scholars.

Jim freely shared his collection with whomever showed interest. Once at the GAL Convention, he had placed all the instruments on a few tables not just for display but for anyone to grab and inspect, no white cotton gloves required. I arrived early to the exhibit hall and found his collection unattended. There was one burly guitarist taking a flat pick to an extremely rare harpolyre built by Jean François Salomon in Paris, 1829. I couldn’t contain myself when this guy let loose with a G run and had to appeal to him to perform his licks pickless. When Jim arrived he didn’t seem to mind. To me it was a chaotic free-for-all of blues riffs and spontaneous renditions of “Stairway to Heaven,” but Jim just smiled at the joy others were getting from the priceless opportunity to play these rare guitars.

He was a humble man. He didn’t quibble over exact dates or chronology or insist on others agreeing with his narrative of the guitar’s history he had come to know. He was open to learning from others, yet was confident in what he knew from the years he had spent with the instruments. His knowledge was personal and intimate.

Jim was not a wealthy man as the world might measure him. When I last saw him he was living in a trailer park in Northern California. He had a modest income from caring for numerous foster children, several of whom had disabilities, and he provided a nurturing home to many who had been misunderstood and neglected. Where most people will put away funds in a savings account, Jim acquired rare and aging instruments, many in need of repair. In many ways, like the children he cared for, he offered these forgotten instruments a safe harbor from the ravages of time.

With dogs barking and teenagers shouting across the loosely knit group of mobile homes, I came to visit and ultimately buy his harpolyre. He initially had trouble locating it, searching under beds and behind furniture. Then out of a closet, deep behind a wall of hanging clothes, came a huge freight case made to withstand the punishment of the most callous luggage handler. We cleared a patch of shag carpet, tossing old newspapers and a plastic area heater to the side. As the light from a lamp atop of a chipboard side table filled the velvet-lined case, we stood around it in awe. He and Dr. Westbrook had purchased it from a collector in Berlin who in turn acquired it from a failed instrument museum in Switzerland. It was peripheral to his guitar collection, so he was willing to pass it on to me. He pulled it out of its enclosure with fondness and pointed out the cartouche in the middle of the headstock that read “Salomon Brevete” (“Patented by Salomon”), noting that most of these instruments did not have labels and that this was proof of its provenance. I had recently recorded Fernando Sor’s music for harpolyre and was impressed by how much Jim knew about the instrument’s tuning and other features.

This was the last contact I had with Jim. I will remember him for his kindness, generous spirit, and deep passion for collecting fine old guitars. Unlike some collectors of means who might store away their treasures in vaults and private galleries, Jim openly shared his only possessions of value. Ultimately, Jim cared more about people and the joy they derived from his collection than the instruments themselves. He touched the past, and enjoyed how others could join in the aura of discovery, reverence, and mystery with him.

— John Doan

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Review: Lyre-guitar: Etoile charmante, between the 18th and 19th centuries by Eleonora Vulpiani

Review: Lyre-guitar: Etoile charmante, between the 18th and 19th centuries by Eleonora Vulpiani

Reviewed by John Doan

Originally published in American Lutherie #99, 2009

Lyre-guitar: Etoile charmante, between the 18th and 19th centuries
Eleonora Vulpiani
Two volumes (Italian and English) plus CD
Rome, 2007

No one can question that the guitar has great popularity today and that the lyre-guitar is little known and all but forgotten, but few realize its past significance and the important role it played in the early days of the birth of the classical guitar. Rediscovering an instrument from a forgotten tradition brings with it many intriguing surprises, which is what Eleonora Vulpiani presents us in her self-produced book Lyre-Guitar: Etoile charmante, between the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a small window into the grand world of the lyre-guitar.

For those not students of history, let’s back up to the last quarter of the 18th century to a time when Western culture was entering into a Neoclassical era, both intellectually and artistically exploring aesthetics and values of a Graeco-Roman world. It was nothing short of revolutionary (note the American and French revolutions at this time) putting aside notions such as the rule by kings and various religious beliefs, and wanting to be guided instead by principles of reason based on evidence and proof. There was a flourishing of the sciences and a rise of the middle class at a time when people surrounded themselves with Greek inspired art, architecture, and literature. The music of this time celebrated clarity, simple structures, and folk-like melodies that were to be graceful and elegant.

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