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In Memoriam: José Luis Romanillos Vega

In Memoriam: José Luis Romanillos Vega

Madrid, June 17, 1932 — Sigüenza, February 12, 2022

by Don Federico Sheppard, Kevin Aram, Josep Melo I Valls, and Mónica Esparza

Originally published in American Lutherie #146, 2022


The mortal essence of noted guitar maker, historian, and author José Luis Romanillos has passed from this earth. I was privileged to get to know him well over the last twelve years, first having been invited by him and his wife, Marian Harris Winspear, to their home to study the museum collection devoted to the workshop of Santos Hernández and other great Spanish makers of the 18th–20th centuries; and later to organize concerts and bring young guitarists to spend some time with the master, and to get autographed copies of his masterpiece dictionary of Spanish guitar makers. His invitation to sit at his right hand for the concert of Canadian guitarist Jeffrey McFadden, marking his 85th birthday, is one of the great honors of my life, and one I shall not soon forget. I am indebted to the GAL for inviting José to Tacoma in 1995 where I, along with many Guild members, were able to meet him, “up close and personal.”

José at his shop in 2012, when students attending his last workshop visited one evening. He’s holding a quilted maple guitar called “La Culé,” owned by Josep Melo. Photo by Mónica Esparza.

I came along a little too late to attend one of his guitar-making classes, but I have had the opportunity to present a few of my guitars to him. It is not often that you meet someone in their late eighties who has the enthusiasm of a sixteen-year-old, but that was José as I knew him, when seeing fresh new work. We share common friends in Geza and Tini Burghardt, and to be honest, when warmed by a fire in his living room, I can’t recall talking about guitars at all; our conversations instead revolved around historical figures, our common friends, and unsolved mysteries of guitar history.

And then along came Filomena! For those of you who do not follow Spanish news closely, Filomena was a once-in-a-century snowstorm that buried the northern half of Spain in two feet of heavy snow. José and Marian’s boiler decided to quit just when it was needed most, and the tiny village where they live has no snow removal equipment. Panicked phone calls went out for help, but most of the country was literally frozen. It was only with the good luck of having a caring neighbor that wood was hauled to the living-room woodstove, saving the old master and Marian from freezing to death. The back-and-forth phone calls eventually calmed my nerves, but also brought me to the realization of the level of dedication that brought José back to Spain late in life to do some of his best work, documented in the recently published book by Josep Melo. He spent his last years living in “España Duro y Profundo” (Hard Core Spain).

The last concert I was able to facilitate in Sigüenza featured Czech guitar master Pavel Steidl. Pavel’s guitar needed a small adjustment and José offered his workshop, located in another house in the village. José was feeling the weight of his years, and we navigated the rough streets very carefully. It was the last time I saw him in his workshop. As we walked back to the house, I saw the two masters deep in conversation and gave them a wide berth. When we returned to the house, Marian produced their 50th wedding anniversary guitar, a remarkable instrument with several distinct features, including a rosette with double arches, four-piece sides, and exquisite rosewood salvaged from wood originally cut for bandurrias. José began the finishing process with egg white, and so happy was he with the sound, that he halted further French polishing for fear of damaging the instrument’s sound. Pavel must have played that guitar for an hour. We all realized what a special moment this was, and not a word was spoken. Everyone in the room was drowning in tears. As I drove Pavel to the airport, I found the courage to ask him what he had discussed with the master, walking, with difficulty, back from the workshop. Pavel replied “He said, ‘I am going to fight all the way to the end.’”

José’s flower-bedecked tomb on a mountain in Spain. Photo by Federico Sheppard.

José’s ride up the mountain to his final resting place, overlooking the castle of Sigüenza, was attended by a select group of loved ones, including myself. I arrived with only one minute to spare. I suspected that, outside of the family, I would be the only English speaker there, and I was right. I promised to remember every detail. When the time came to place the casket in the tomb, it wouldn’t fit! One of the attendants shrugged his shoulders and produced a plane from the back of the hearse. He ever-so carefully shaved off just enough wood to allow the proper fitting of the master into his final resting place. A “fitting” end to the life of a master who not only tamed a foreign tongue, but who documented the evolution of the Spanish guitar with a series of books, which, frankly, are not likely to ever be surpassed. I was granted my wish to address the assembled guests in my famously bad Spanish, and all I could think of to say, on behalf of the members of the Guild, was to quote the Paraguayan guitarist Sila Godoy: “Death only takes the perishable man, and allows him to begin living in the eternity of his creations.”

The next morning I was invited to an intimate gathering of the family in the Plaza Mayor of Sigüenza to see the flags lowered to half mast at the Town Hall. It was here, under the tall towers of the Cathedral, still riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, that José in years past shared with me his painful memories of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It certainly helped me to understand why he had abandoned Spain for the UK for a large part of his life. Marian relieved the tension with the story of José’s first guitar, sharing the fact that the first one sold for a mere fifteen pounds! Son Liam, who carries an incredible likeness to José, provided a stoic reminder of the introspective nature of José. Son Ignacio shared the details of José’s life as a fourteen-year-old boy. For an entire year in his training as a furniture maker, all he was allowed to do in the workshop was sharpen tools, all day, every day. I imagined what a treat that would be were I to have a future master of José’s caliber sharpening my tools! As son José was unable to make the journey on short notice, I took his place at the table, which made me feel like the fourth Romanillos son. The conversation drifted to the future, and the concerts to be held in José’s honor, and while the family returned to the cemetery on the hill, I quietly drove back home through the land of castles, wheat, and wool, marveling at the wonder of it all.

Why I have been so blessed, I can not begin to comprehend. The Guild is Great! The Guild is Good ! The Guild is Great and Good!

Goodbye old friend. Your work on earth has only begun.

— Don Federico Sheppard

José in his Semley shop in England, 1990. Photo by Kevin Aram.

I first went to visit José Romanillos at his workshop in Semley, England, in the early 1980s, and over a period of ten years I visited him there on a regular basis. I wanted to learn how to make a Spanish guitar, and he showed me.

He was a mixture of a Spanish and an English gentleman. When I stayed for lunch it would often be pickled rabbit, but the conversation would be about the weather.

It is difficult for me to explain the effect he had on me. He was very charismatic. When he was explaining some aspect of his work, he would draw me in, and I absorbed what he was telling me almost by osmosis.

He had begun his research into Antonio de Torres for the book that would be published in 1987, and on each visit he would show me his latest findings. He gave me a copy of the plantilla for a Torres guitar that he had just measured and I still use this layout today.

At the end of each visit, I would leave with a feeling of elation and this would feed into my work. After some time I would want to see him again and, like a drug addict needing a fix, I would return to learn more.

After the GAL published my lecture on Julian Bream’s 1973 Romanillos guitar, he was very pleased and, together with his wife Marian, suggested that I might like to write a biography of José’s life. I agreed to do this, but at that time they were moving to Spain and communicating by fax and phone was very difficult. I lost my nerve to write the book and the project never happened. I know he was disappointed by this.

Happily living in Spain, José continued to make his beautiful guitars and also to research and write about Spanish guitar making and history. He published a second volume of the Torres book and a number of other books and became the well-respected academic that he always wanted to be. This was something else about his character: He wanted to be more than a successful guitar maker, and attain a higher standing in society.

At this time he started holding summer schools to teach his methods of making to a wider audience. They were hugely successful and he taught hundreds of people to make guitars in his way, which was the Spanish way.

A wonderful man, he will be sadly missed by many people throughout the world.

— Kevin Aram

The beautiful cypress trees facing the tomb of José Romanillos. Photo by Josep Melo.

To the Maestro: With your disappearance we have lost one of the last, if not the only defender and great fighter for the authentic sound of the Spanish guitar, the sound of Antonio de Torres and of Santos Hernández.

To the friend: With your loss we feel a great nostalgia for the blood sausages, that with fried potatoes and red wine, would accompany our infinite and nocturnal talks around the mahogany kitchen table.

And in your resting place, the magnificent and impressive cypresses, trees of welcome, trees of eternity, whose wood you loved so much, stand perpetual guard and remind us all of your open hands and the wisdom that you did not hide. And we feel a profound pain that only the sound of your guitars is capable of soothing.

— Josep Melo I Valls

(L to R): Marian and José with Mónica Esparza at José’s vihuela workshop in 2010. Photo courtesy of Mónica Esparza.

The Madrid-born luthier, José Luis Romanillos, was more than a guitar maker. He was a researcher, writer, teacher, collector of historical instruments, and he loved being a poet. Very few people knew this side of José.

In the Spanish-guitar, or classical-guitar world, he was considered the authority on the Antonio de Torres guitar. He spent most of his guitar-making career studying, pursuing, and creating what he knew and understood to be the Spanish sound. He based his studies and decades of work on the sound that the Torres guitars produced. He would add that the Santos Hernández guitars would be in the same category and both were considered the true representation of what is known as the Spanish sound.

He always believed that the Torres guitar was the true essence of the Spanish guitar. He went on to say that the Spanish guitar not only encompassed an inner part of the maker, but it represented so much of the social and cultural value of its homeland.

José was always in pursuit of knowledge of not only fine guitars, but he also researched and built historical instruments from such periods as the Renaissance and the Baroque. He had built lutes and vihuelas aside from guitars.

In 2010, I was honored with José’s invitation to the grand opening of the guitar museum, Casa del Doncel, in Sigüenza. He had insisted and advocated for so many frustrating years to convince his nearby town of Guadalajara, and the University of Alcalá, to help him create a museum that could proudly display a huge part of Spanish history embodied in a collection of guitars and vihuelas. It now also stores a great part of the Romanillos-Harris instrument collection.

He was one of few (or maybe even the only) Spanish guitar builder who was such a huge advocate of the guitar in his country, and perhaps the world. He was always so willing to share his knowledge and hands-on experience in making guitars with all of us inquisitive minds, who would go to him and participate in his summer workshops.

In his workshops I not only built a guitar under his day-to-day guidance, but he would share with us his interests, findings, and other explorations of all his curiosities relating to these stringed instruments. He oozed the passion for the guitar and strongly lamented his country’s lack of interest in preserving the historical treasures Spain had to offer.

Every visit to José’s would be filled with overwhelming new knowledge of jigs, fixtures, and the construction of the guitar. He would always be filled with enthusiasm and smiles. He loved to joke and got great pleasure and fulfillment in helping all of us who gathered around him and were hungry for answers and inspiration. He gave us his hard-earned experience, and taught us what a marvelous instrument the Spanish guitar is and will always continue to be. He made us feel welcomed and gladly opened the doors to his personal shop and home.

José tuning a vihuela at his 2010 workshop. Photo by Mónica Esparza.

He was a man with many curiosities, talents, and loves. I considered him to be a kind, gentle, and very giving, wonderful friend. As José so eloquently ended his poem that he wrote for the guitar-makers’ workshop of 1995 titled, “El Guitarrero” (The Guitar Maker), he writes:

Deja tu banco quieto. Vete en paz por tu senda

Y escucha tus pisadas que van marcando el son
Y las maderas nobles que usaste en tu empeño
Repetirán: “Has hecho una cancion!”

Leave your bench still. Go in peace along your path
And listen to your footsteps that are marking the sound
And the noble woods that you used in your endeavor
They will repeat: “You have made a song!”

José’s favorite wood was a fine cypress, along with a highly figured bearclawed Swiss spruce. It is no surprise that his grave is now mournfully facing the most spectacular cypress trees.

José, I am forever grateful to have been your student and loyal friend. You will be immensely missed, and may you rest in endless peace.

— Mónica Esparza