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A Day with Luisa Willsher of Madinter

A Day with Luisa Willsher of Madinter by Federico Sheppard Originally published in American Lutherie #151, 2024   In my constant wanderings, I have from time to time stopped in at Madrid-based Madinter for some needed instrument-making supplies. Over the years, I witnessed the rapid growth of this now-worldwide powerhouse to become one of the premier suppliers […]

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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

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In Memoriam: Eugene Clark

In Memoriam: Eugene Clark

July 11, 1934 – December 9, 2016

by Cyndy Burton, Marc Silber, Brian Burns, Michael Gurian, Jay Hargreaves, R.E. Bruné, Jeffrey R. Elliott and Federico Sheppard

Originally published in American Lutherie #129, 2017

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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In Memoriam: Robert Ruck

In Memoriam: Robert Ruck

August 21, 1945 – August 13, 2018

by R.E. Bruné, Federico Sheppard, and Peter Oberg

Originally published in American Lutherie #135, 2018

Bob’s passing was quite a shock. I had always thought he’d write my obit, given his healthy lifestyle and dedicated yoga mastery.

Bob Ruck at the 2006 GAL Convention flamenco open mike. Photo by Robert Desmond.

We first met in 1972, introduced by our mutual friend, flamenco aficionado and wood dealer, the late Hart Huttig II of Miami. Bob and Hart were studying flamenco with Elena Marbella. For Bob, flamenco was a core part of his being; the key to understanding his approach to the guitar. He also studied classical guitar with Juan Mercadal in Miami. Juan introduced a very young Manuel Barrueco to Bob, as Manuel needed a better guitar than the one he was playing. When I went to visit Bob at his home, he was stringing up a guitar he had just finished, an experiment and exploration of the Ramirez 1a model. Manuel loved it and used that instrument for many years in countless performances and recordings.

His connection with Spain was an important part of his art. He would travel to Spain in the summers to study flamenco in its own ambiance, studying not only guitar but also dancing and singing. Bob’s love of flamenco was reflected in his taste in guitars; he studied every good Spanish guitar he could get his hands on. His knowledge of Spanish makers and their instruments was deep and thorough, and Bob was one of the few whose opinions regarding their details I knew I could rely on. His eye for detail was extraordinary to the point of obsessive. We frequently shared notes and information over the many years of our friendship.

I’ll fondly remember our many expeditions in search of the perfect wood. The fruits of these expeditions still reside in both of our shops. Bob would call, usually late at night, to tell me about some stash of fantastic wood he’d found out about. I’d meet up with him and we would be off on a road trip, hoping to score logs of rosewood, cedar trees, or other great stuff. One of our “finds” was a pile of rosewood logs, which had been imported back in the 1950s, lying in a brickyard. We loaded these 32˝ diameter whole logs into his truck, which blew out both back tires. With a new set of rubber, we drove them back to his house where we discovered they were so heavy we couldn’t get them off the truck. We called a local tow truck who used a chain to drag them off, which, of course, bent and destroyed the tailgate. Once we had them on the ground, our plan was to cross cut them with a chain saw and split them with wedges. With our ear protectors on, Bob fired up the chain saw and put it on the chalk line. He got about 1/2˝ into the wood with nothing but blue smoke coming from the stressed saw chain. “Lean into it, hombre!” I yelled over the noise, and he replied, “I AM!” At that moment we realized that our bargain rosewood was going to be a bit less of a bargain than we had envisioned. Eventually we shipped the logs to a sawmill in California for resawing, but a fire destroyed the mill. Surprisingly, the fire didn’t even singe the logs, so once the sawmill recovered (ten years later), the whole pile was cut into sides and backs. When we added up all the costs and divided by the puny yield of sets, these “bargain” logs ended up costing us about three times as much as the first-class, AAA grade Brazilian stuff Hart was selling.

Wood harvesting adventures with R.E. Bruné in the 1970s. Both photos courtesy of R.E. Bruné.

On another adventure, we traveled to the mountains of British Columbia to get western red cedar. We met up with a fellow with no teeth and no electricity who was eking out a subsistence for his family by harvesting cedar blocks and splitting them into shakes. His most valuable asset was a cow which he milked every day. We worked out a deal for him to act as our guide in finding the trees, but we would do the actual cutting and we’d pay him for the value of the shakes that he could have split and bundled. He probably thought we were the two dumbest flatlanders he had ever met, and since we figured our yield cost at about $.50/top we had similar thoughts about him. In an intense day of logging we quickly used up our water and drank the five gallons of unpasteurized cow’s milk he had brought with him. That night we soaked in a hot spring and unleashed an explosion of fauna in our guts which graphically illustrated the reason governments require milk to be pasteurized in the modern era. The cedar from that trip is still being used in our shop.

We would laugh together about these exploits and how we had acquired some really amazing top-quality woods as well as some really mediocre wood. Lutherie for Bob was not about the money, it was about the experience, and man, did we get experienced.

For both of us, Spanish cypress was a nearly sacred wood, being the local wood of southern Spain, the wood usually used to make guitars for the flamencos, having the aroma and terroir of southern Spain. We had both agreed to make special cypress guitars for each other, as a way to honor and respect our love of this art and its origins, and we traded guitars some years ago. I still play and treasure the guitar Bob made for me, which I consider among the finest of all guitars I have played.

Photo courtesy of R.E. Bruné

As a teenager, Bob studied woodworking with a traditional Irish pattern maker named John Shaw who taught him to handle and sharpen hand tools. I was a self-taught luthier and I was woefully behind in these skills which Bob generously shared with me. We often traded many things: ideas, materials, instruments, and other aspects of the art and profession.

When J.R. Beall conceived of the Guild of American Luthiers and had the very first meeting at his “Farkleberry Farms” in Newark, Ohio, back in 1974, Bob and I were among the attendees. Even in those Dark Ages of the nascent beginnings of the modern lutherie movement, Bob’s work was head and shoulders above the rest of us. He was inundated with questions from fellow budding luthiers, which he very graciously answered. Bob was a mentor and inspiration to countless luthiers around the world, and an extremely prolific maker who made over a thousand outstanding guitars in his lifetime, a remarkable output by any measure.

Most importantly, Bob Ruck was a kind and gentle man who strove for perfection in everything he did. I will miss very much our camaraderie and collaborations. My condolences to his family and many, many friends and colleagues.

R.I.P., primo.

— R.E. Bruné

Bob with José Romanillos at the 1995 GAL Convention. Photo by Robert Desmond.

Don Robertito Rook has left us and joined the ancient ones, leaving behind a grieving family and friends and a body of work unrivalled in our world. At age sixty-nine he walked the five-hundred miles across Spain in summer heat with his daughter Amber and dropped by my shop. It must have been the wine, the walking, the sun, or all three, but the next morning she could not get out of bed for three days. Or was it four? Anyway, in that time Bob and I shared many laughs and stories about guitarists, wood hunting, and guitar makers. He even shared a few secrets. But Bob always wanted to make you work to think your way out of a problem, and gave up his secrets sort of unwillingly, like an organ donor regretfully gives up the needed part. He had a deep spiritual facet to his life and I am quite content that he is off chasing comets, doing yoga on one of the rings of Saturn, or craning his neck to catch a flamenco lick from one of the greats in some seedy Spanish bar up there in heaven someplace with anchovies on his breath and a silly smile on his face.

He will be missed.

— Federico Sheppard

At the 2006 GAL Convention with (seated from left) Jeffrey Elliott, Alfredo Velázquez, and Manuel Velázquez. Photo by Robert Desmond.

In 1996 I was working for Ervin Somogyi in his Oakland, California, shop when the phone rang. It was Bob Ruck calling Ervin to see if he knew of anyone he could hire as an assistant in his shop. When Ervin got off the phone and told me about the conversation, I lit up inside. One if the top classical guitar makers in the world was looking for an assistant, and I was the first to hear about it. I told Ervin I would have to contact Bob, and he very kindly said, “Go for it.”

As I remember it, a few weeks later I flew north and stayed with Bob, Cheri, and Amber at their house in Hansville, Washington, where they put me up in their guest house. Those two days were spent getting to know one another over meals and shop time. But most importantly, Bob hired me on the spot. My wife and I packed up everything we owned and moved to Poulsbo, where I spent almost two years working in Bob’s shop.

Bob never held anything back from me. The only procedures he insisted on doing himself were thicknessing and bracing the top, and carving the neck and head profile. Everything else he trained me to do, and ultimately trusted that I would not ruin a part or worse yet, an instrument. This was a tremendous challenge for me. I had been doing woodworking since the mid ’70s, and (erroneously) thought of myself as reasonably accomplished. Working with Bob was trial by fire; I had to raise my level of workmanship exponentially and do it quickly. Bob was an amazing teacher, and his confidence in me allowed my accelerated growth in skill level. To this day I think back about the things he trusted me with, and not just in the shop. In 1999 he built another guitar for Manuel Barrueco. A few days after it was finished I was playing it in the shop, and Bob suggested I take it home for the evening.

There was nothing exotic about Bob’s system. Some of his fixtures and jigs were ingenious, but others were straightforward. Routing for bindings was for me a hair-raising task, as we did it freehand with the body loose on the bench. However, his machine for shaping the end of the neck to match the curve of the body was very cleverly built and quite efficient. The body sat inside a revolving belt that traveled over the area where the neck attaches, and the neck moved forward on a carriage such that when you pushed the neck against the body, the contour would be sanded accurately on the end of the neck/heel. This machine came about as a result of Richard Brune’s trip to the Asturias workshop in Japan in 1985. (See AL#15, Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Two, p.86). Richard had already been using a machine he had built to perform the same task, but after seeing the Asturias machine, he built another that incorporated some of the design elements of the Japanese one. Richard and Bob collaborated on many jigs and fixtures, in the process making multiple versions and working out the bugs in order to gain efficiency in their building.

Bob had plenty of machinery and used it to speed up the process in places where there was simply no reason to do the task by hand. His wide belt sander got used extensively and he built a number of jigs for it. One held veneers and laid-up herringbone strips, and could sand them accurately to within a few thousandths. There was a jig that held bridge blanks such that pushing them through the sander put the correct arch on the bottom. Another jig put the appropriate taper in thickness from one end of the bridge to the other. I remember that sander pretty much being disassembled and rebuilt by Bob. There was not much he could not do. He was also skilled as a machinist, and a pretty darn good flamenco player. He built many superb flamenco guitars.

Not long after I started working with Bob, he told me something one of his early mentors had told him. I have to paraphrase, but it went something like this: “You have to decide if you are going to be a file/sandpaper/rasp kind of guy, or a sharp-edge-tool kind of guy.” The meaning was quite clear, and the admonition has stuck with me ever since. You can achieve much better, and often faster, results using chisels and planes that are well-tuned and sharp, than you can using files and sandpaper. I knew it didn’t apply to every task, but ultimately made perfect sense.

Above and beyond the creative thinking and execution of the fixtures and jigs was Bob’s ability to do hand work. He would start the day sharpening chisels and plane blades, so as not to be interrupted during the work flow of the day. We routed the rough profile of the head, but the exact line was finished with a Japanese paring chisel. If you’ve ever tried this you know how difficult it is to pare down and stay perpendicular to the face, in addition to paring curved lines. He pared down also to establish the profile of the heel at the back, and did so quickly and with great skill. I remember one day watching (when I could) Bob carve four necks before lunch. That includes the heel and the transition between the neck and the back of the head. His ability to focus on his work was remarkable, and it showed in his output. He was extremely prolific, and his work was absolutely uncompromising.

Bob felt strongly that Indian rosewood was the best material for backs and sides. He eschewed using Brazilian, saying its propensity to crack was just too problematic. Necks were always Spanish cedar, and bridges were always Brazilian. He often used a type of pine for bracing — not your ordinary soft pine, but a very stiff and close-grained one. He built rosettes on a mandrel, and they were not of a simple design, often incorporating various types of herringbone. This was a revelation for me, joining 6˝–7˝-long mosaic-tile logs, and building the whole thing up around the mandrel in several glue ups. I think those logs yielded thirty-five or forty rosettes.

Bob was also quite an innovator. When I started with him he had just begun using the wide-brace system, and with great success. He had another nine-brace system, and a seven-brace with a diagonal bar that he would use occasionally, but he was interested in developing and refining the wide-brace system. During my time with him he drilled the first holes in the upper bout to act as soundports. To my knowledge, it was Bob who took the plunge in this area. I don’t mean historically, but rather among contemporary builders. (See AL#91.) It was a huge departure from the traditional way of building a guitar. His approach to integrating the dynamics between neck angle, bridge design, top doming, and fingerboard shape was a huge revelation to me. It was Bob who taught me how to understand the way the guitar works, and the parameters to stay within.

Sometime in 1999 Bob got this crazy notion to build a guitar with the bouts reversed, that is, putting the wider lower bout on top and the upper bout on the bottom where the bridge is. At the time I thought it was just banter — from time to time we would discuss all manner of things, guitar-related and otherwise. I’ll be damned if he didn’t just decide to go ahead and do it, and he built that guitar in less than a week, inspired and excited by the idea the whole time. It was great to watch him knock that guitar out. When he finished the woodworking he put a basic shellac finish on it, put on the bridge, and strung it up. It was amazing how good that guitar sounded. I remember the character of sound being different than I had ever heard, but the thing worked! He named it “El Bolo,” and sold it pretty quickly. I have no idea where that guitar is today.

He also developed a triple-top system, with three layers of wood. I don’t think he wanted to go down the double-top road, at least not the way it was being done at the time. I do think he built some “traditional” double tops, but wanted to take the approach and go somewhere new with it. He was constantly thinking about how to improve the sound, and was not afraid to try anything that made sense to him.

Bob had some really interesting instruments. I remember one in particular that I really liked. It was a Torres-style guitar built by Neil Ostberg, with a small, shallow body and a very pure sound. It was simple and unornamented, and I think the back and sides were cherry. He also had a koa and European spruce guitar that he had built for his wife. I thought that guitar was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The sound was exquisite.

Bob was a deep thinker. His interest in the Chinese internal arts got me started with Qigong. He would practice his Tai Chi routine daily before work, and I’m sure this helped reinforce his ability to focus and maintain such a high skill level. I remember calling him about eight years ago to ask about what form of Tai Chi he might recommend I study. He told me he no longer did Tai Chi, and was practicing yoga, specifically Bikram yoga. He said he had found a practice that was so complete that he didn’t need any other. I’m certain he did it at the same high level as he did everything else in his life.

Bob was an extremely gracious, kind, and generous person. He was an especially important mentor for me, and I remain grateful and forever indebted to him for the opportunity to learn what he taught me. He was creative, engaging, and had a quick wit with a great sense of humor. Though the world is greatly enriched by his instruments, there is an empty place left behind by his passing. My deepest sympathy goes to his wife, daughter, and family.

— Peter Oberg