Historical hints (C.7): Andrés Segovia’s Manuel Ramírez guitar and the artisan workshop

Jan 2, 2018

Historical hints (C.7): Andrés Segovia’s Manuel Ramírez guitar and the artisan workshop

It was 1913 when the young Andrés Segovia went to Manuel Ramírez’s workshop in Arlabán Street; his intention was to get a high-quality guitar for a concert he had agreed to give in the Ateneo of Madrid.

His entrance into the guitar shop should have been impressive due to his clothing – a black velvet waistcoat crossed to the neck with silver buttons, striped trousers, black patent leather shoes with big buckles, he covered himself with a scarf with generous flounces and he was also wearing round glasses, a wide-brimmed black hat and a walking stick – as well as for his unusual request to rent a guitar since he could not afford to buy one.

Andrés Segovia’s visit to Manuel Ramírez’s guitar workshop

Segovia tells the story of his visit with the following words:

“I went into Ramirez’s shop and when he glanced up at me, he was unable to hold back a mocking giggle about to burst into laughter. Nevertheless, his surprise did not come to that explosive end; he searched for the funniest and most ingenious digressions of a ‘subtle joke’.

What would you like, Mister?” he asked me with an excessively pronounced courtesy. “How can I help you? You will be treated with the diligence and care you deserve”.

I was on tenterhooks. Staring at him I answered: “My name is Andrés Segovia, I am a guitarist and some mutual friends from Cordoba recommended me to you, Sir”.

He did not take his smile off me but he moderated his mocking countenance and he said reaching out his hand: “The echoes of your name have reached this house. It seems that the whole Seville took to the streets the last year to listen to you”. These words brought back memories of the scarce audience my last concert in Seville had had, in contrast to the crowded concerts I’d had the previous season and I blushed.

Besides, I have begun to be suspicious that Ramírez was excessively flattering me, so I continued as if I was not listening: “I have arrived in Madrid a few days ago and I intend to give an audition in the Ateneo soon. Mr Ramírez, the guitar I have does not satisfy my requirements. I would like that you allowed me to use the best guitar you have at the moment. It goes without saying that I believe it reasonable that you shall stipulate a reasonable allowance for this kind of lease; the way it is done in music shops when they cede concert pianos; I am willing if you want to pay in advance. Furthermore, if the guitar successfully tried is complete to my liking I will ask you to sell it to me. I will soon be able to purchase it if the illusions I bring to Madrid do not turn into disenchantment when I touch the crude reality”.

Ramírez appeared to be hearing my speech with pleasure. I would even swear that he forgot my appearance. He gave me a friendly look and he beat his powerful lower jaw and guffawing with foam at the corner of his mouth he exclaimed: “Good heavens! The proposal is pretty good. So far nobody has asked me such a thing. If Erard, Pleyel pianos and so on are rented to celebrate concerts, why not rent Ramírez guitars?” And opening the little door of the counter, he invited me into the workshop. His best officials worked there, headed by the most worthy Santos Hernández. Ramírez asked him to bring me down one of his best guitars and he handed it to me. (1)

The handmade guitar that Manuel gave to Segovia

It was a guitar originally built with seven strings at the request of a great guitarist of the time, Manjón. The luthier decided not to sell it to him due to some disagreements between him and the artist, so he carried out the necessary changes to turn it into a six-string guitar.

Segovia continues narrating the progress of his visit.

José Hierro, professor of violin in the Real Conservatorio Superior, was in the shop; he was a witness to the instant crush of Segovia for that guitar, for the beauty of its curves, its colour, the harmony of its shapes. He was playing it for a long time, and he understood that this was the guitar that would help him to fulfil his artistic destiny. When he finished his recital, José del Hierro as well as Manuel Ramírez were impressed with the music they had heard.

So much so, that del Hierro wanted to convince him to stop playing the guitar and switched to the violin; he said the following words: “Bravo young man! I like your temperament and your technical ease. It’s a pity that these qualities are fruitless on such a small island as the guitar. Beautiful, if you want, but it is lonely and uncultured, where no talent seeks for home and where you are going to banish the one with which God has gifted you. Do you want to switch instruments? You are still young… The violin will make you famous”.

But Segovia was clear that his passion was the guitar and with respect and great emotion, he said: “Thank you, maestro. I fear it may be too late to switch to another instrument. Besides, I assure you that I could not betray my guitar. She needs me, the violin doesn’t. Compare for yourself the lineage of both instruments and you will guess what I want to say. If moderately talented musicians such as Merula or Fontana hadn’t devoted their love and work to the violin centuries ago, nowadays it wouldn’t be the prince of bowed string instruments”. (2)

It was at that moment when Manuel anticipated Segovia’s petition, which could be already read in his eyes and said to him: “The guitar is yours, young man! Take it with you around the world and may your work make it fertile… On the other hand don’t worry; pay it to me with no money”.

On the 6th May 1913, Segovia gave his concert in the Ateneo of Madrid with Manuel Ramírez’s guitar, who, of course, attended the event to enjoy the beauty of his work in the hands of a great talented artist. After some days, seeing that Segovia didn’t come to visit him, he sent him a message inviting him to come back to his workshop.

Segovia tells that this caused him great fear as he thought the guitar maker hadn’t liked the concert and he would want to recover his guitar, but he was pleasantly surprised to listen to the following words from the luthier: “What a power! How passionate! I was profoundly moved to feel how the four planks of wood I had put together were transformed into beautiful music, and I had never been so proud of the miraculous result of my work. When I saw the enthusiasm of the audience I was about to shout: Address some of your applause to this side, I also have the right to participate a little in this success; if it were not for me, I’m sure it would be harder for you to listen to this young artist and his music would not seem to be so clear and sung in such a nice way. The next morning I congratulated my officials, especially the most taciturn one – he said pointing to Santos Hernández – who collaborates assiduously with me” (3).

The authorship of the guitar by Andrés Segovia

I wanted to start this paper with Andrés Segovia’s words, narrating his encounter with my uncle great-grandfather Manuel, because I want to go into a ground sowed with confusion. (4)

Some people claim that the legendary guitar I’m talking about was created by Santos Hernández. There have been even people that have drawn Manuel Ramírez out of the game and say that the aforementioned guitar was Santos Hernández’s, without reference to his master, which was, moreover, his employer at the historical moment in which all these events took place. This is very short-sighted about the way artisan workshops work and results in misinterpretations that it is right that we should clarify and correct.

After the death of Manuel Ramírez, Santos Hernández continued working in his workshop for the widow of his master, until 1920, the year when he set up on his own. Sometime later, in 1922, Segovia took his guitar for him to repair it. And Santos, assuring that he had constructed this guitar, tried to replace Manuel’s label with his own; Segovia refused to do this and at the most he allowed him to put his label next to Manuel’s; doing this he held the responsibility of the repair.

J. A. Pérez-Bustamante de Monasterio tells this anecdote with the following words:

Several years had passed since Ramírez had given away the aforementioned guitar to Andrés Segovia, the instrument needed some minor repair, and the master sought the services of the great constructor, Santos Hernández, to carry out the adequate reparation. When he saw the guitar, Santos Hernández explained to Andrés Segovia that although that guitar had Manuel Ramírez’s label, the true constructor had been him, that at the time worked as a guitar maker official in Ramírez’s firm.

That was the reason why Santos begged Segovia to authorize him to remove the original label and place his own one as Santos Hernández; he said that some years before he had established his own account in the Aduana Street in Madrid. Segovia was shocked by such a curious explanation and such a controversial vindication, and he refused Santos’ pretention to change the label, but he authorized him to write in the original label: “Repaired by Santos Hernández”, suggesting that the guitar maker finally accepted reluctantly” (5).

But I am not going to discuss who made the guitar at issue because it is completely out of place, the facts we are going to see below will show why. The truth is that Segovia did not allow the original label to be removed, not only because of his loyalty and gratitude to Manuel, but also because he knew the way guitar maker workshops worked at the time, their structure required a master, but also officials and apprentices; he states this in a letter addressed to my father that appear in his book Things About the Guitar p. 221 of its new edition “Ramírez has given rest to his constructor’s hands and, surrounded by excellent workers, he has devoted himself to manage, supervise, modify and correct the work, increasingly efficient of his workshop” (7).

We have also read what Segovia tells us about Manuel himself, that the day after the pieces of wood he had put together was transformed into beautiful music; this is an open declaration of his authorship of the aforementioned guitar.

But even in the event, he hadn’t put together these ‘four pieces of wood’ with his own hands, there is not the least doubt that the work had been done in his workshop, with his stencils, his designs, his materials, his directions, his supervision, and was the result of his knowledge… and the responsibility of the final result of the work was his, the master, the patron, the owner of the workshop, whose experience and investigations were the foundations of everything his helpers learned from him.

How to work in a teacher’s workshop

That happens in every workshop where there are apprentices and officials whose function is to help the master to carry out his work. This is what having apprentices and officials means. And this is the way we still work nowadays.

Traditional guitar workshops have always been governed by these rules. They are quite logical if we stop and think for just one moment. And this is not only true in guitar workshops but also in architecture studies, and in the studies of some of the greatest artists, for example in the Renaissance.

So that attributing the authorship of one guitar to one of the employees in a workshop would be equivalent to saying that the Pórtico de la Gloria was not the work of the master Mateo, but of one of the collaborators that worked with him; or that the Sagrada Familia was not really created by Gaudi, but by one of his employees. The master does the project, directs its development, supervises the process and in the end, he signs it, if something goes wrong in the construction the responsibility rests with him, the same happens with the glory if the work deserves it.

Maybe the example of the Renaissance artists I am referring to is largely parallel to the way artisan guitar workshops work. Because in the master’s studio his assistants worked, they had learned in his school and they helped him to carry out his work, which was always supervised by him, always projected by him, with his techniques, his sense of colour, of light, using his materials, his pigments, his formulae… No one doubts the validity, the legitimacy of the master’s signature on his work, as was the case with El Greco; due to the high volume of orders he received, an important number of his works were made in his workshop by helpers that, under his management, would follow his drafts.

Manuel Ramírez also had a high number of orders, so in his workshop, he also worked with helpers. He was also the luthier of the Real Conservatorio of Madrid and that probably implied a large quantity of extra work. Whatever the case, he followed the same school as his brother and master José, he had several officials and apprentices, his descendants also follow this tradition, my father, José Ramírez lll was the one who had the higher number of assistants to respond to the high demands for his guitars.

I often receive emails asking for information about the officials of my father, José Ramírez lll. Their initials – later replaced by numbers – are stamped inside his guitars. I recognize that there is a touch of romanticism in the pride of possessing a guitar with the exact initials that connect it with instruments that were played by Andrés Segovia, maybe thinking that being the same official the guitar has to sound the same way too, but this is a mistake.

How Ramirez guitars work in the Ramirez guitar shop

According to our tradition, we build our guitars in turns of four. Because in many of our operations, when the fourth guitar is done with the glue, the first is already dry, although there are glueing operations, such as the ones for the borders, which need to rest for one day. But this is the way we work.

The truth is that even being the four guitars built by the same official, using the same materials (even the wood from the same tree), each guitar is different. All of them have the same characteristic ring, but all of them have different nuances whether in the power or the colour. And sometimes it happens that one of them stands out among its sisters. Nobody knows why. But it is so.

It is important to take into account that we admit employees to work in our workshop because of their skills and manual dexterity, the same as it was done in the workshop of my ancestors. They start as apprentices, and they reach the second official category and after that first official, after going through some exams that demonstrate that they are at the level required to reach this grade.

They are proud to pass these tests, as a result of their interest and effort in learning the job in our workshop, and this is the way they enter our particular history. And this is part of the way traditional artisan workshops work. So I am not trying to detract from their work in any way, I want to make it clear that they are carrying out the work of their master, not their own.

In fact, in the same way, that Manuel Ramírez congratulated his helpers after Segovia’s concert in the Ateneo, every time one of our guitars is praised I communicate it to my collaborators so that they can feel proud of their job.

Indeed, when any of these officials leaves our workshop to establish by himself, then, he is the one to develop his own stencils, his designs and he is responsible for his work, and if he is ever responsible for apprentices and officials, they will help him to carry out his job the same as he did with his master and patron.

There are also situations where some guitar makers meet in the same venue, but in a way that each of them is independent, with their own work, stencils, designs, etc. so it is entirely legitimate for each of them to sign their own guitars since there is not one patron, but a kind of association to share the same place and without interferences among them.

My first handmade guitars

Not long ago I lent a guitar made by me in the year 1997 to a friend guitarist, we were repairing his guitar and he had committed to giving some concerts and he had to take a recording and he did not want to use any other instrument different from a Ramírez.

At the same time, we did not have any other guitar to provide him as a temporary replacement; I lent him mine, the one I usually kept in our collection. It is a classic guitar made with Indian rosewood at the sides and back and with a spruce top.

The truth is that the concert guitarist was really excited about the sound of my guitar, its gentleness, its warmth, and its balance. He said that it was the best guitar he had ever played and that it reminded him of the ones Andrés Segovia played. Of course, I feel flattered that a guitar made with my own hands is so much praised; but I also know that I only should be given credit for constructing it right, because the quality of its sound is only due to the knowledge transmitted by my masters: my father and my brother (this year my brother was the master, the patron as my father had died); and also to the fate of musicality, its woods, and I always owe it to the mysterious part that comes from someplace we don’t know to make the guitar acquire special magic.

One of the sisters of this guitar, which had also a beautiful sound, had a wolf note and its owner was patiently working until he could make it disappear. The truth is that it was born with it. I don’t know the way that guitar continued to develop, but certainly, it was really different from its sister.

It is also true that having been constructed by Ramírez’s hands adds significant value, I don’t deny it, and that is supported by the recognition of the work accomplished by the person that someday will manage the workshop.

When I constructed my first guitars, all of them flamenco guitars, my father, the master at that moment, kept two of them, one for my mother and the other for the collection; he sold the rest and told me that a guitar maker could not be considered as such until he didn’t sell his first guitar. And if it was sold, it was because someone had liked it enough to buy it. And all of them, except the ones he kept, was signed by him, my father, my master and my patron.

Nowadays, my officials and apprentices carry out their work in the light of an experience transmitted over the years since the times of my great-grandfather; with all the innovations and changes that have been carried out over time. And they also apply my investigations, modifications and designs, following my instructions. This is my contribution to this living institution that our firm is. I supervise the work and sign the labels thus assuming all the responsibility for the perfection of the construction of my guitars. It has always been done this way.

Manuel Ramírez, a world-renowned guitar maker

Manuel Ramírez was a great guitar maker, recognized internationally as such, and no doubt he was a demanding master that made his disciples learn the excellence of well-done things bringing out their best. That is how his workshop produced great guitar makers with a well-deserved reputation when they established themselves on their own account. But while they were working in Manuel’s workshop the product of their job was the work of their master and patron.

In fact, only one of them wanted to attribute authorship to one of the guitars coming from Manuel’s workshop, and probably because this guitar belonged nothing less than to Andres Segovia. I wonder how Manuel would feel if he knew that the one he referred to in such a significant way as his most regular collaborator, wanted to erase his merit by replacing the label that endorsed his work. Probably, because of the powerful and explosive personality that I know Manuel had, nobody would even dare to suggest such a thing when he was alive.

And I also wonder how he would feel if he knew that his guitar is nowadays in the Metropolitan Museum of New York; with specific instructions that it must not be played at all. Andrés Segovia corresponded by far the generous gesture Manuel Ramírez had, taking it around the world, as the luthier said and making it fertile, and following his words, he paid it with no money and he paid it quite well.

The other guitar by Segovia was inspired by the guitar of Manuel Ramírez

Manuel would also be delighted to know that his guitar served as a model for Hermann Hauser to construct the guitar that later substituted his in the hands of Segovia. My father, Ramírez lll, refers to this instrument in his book, nowadays it is also in the Metropolitan Museum of New York with Manuel’s guitar and with exactly the same instructions that nobody can play it. And he tells it this way:

Via Dr. Rubio I managed to get an interview with Segovia, and there I went, with my last guitar which I was not very confident about, my intention was to know Hauser’s guitar, my father had told me about it because he had heard it some years before and in his opinion, its sound was good but it had ‘German accent’. I know the history of this instrument and I know that Hauser, a prestigious German luthier, had shown him the guitar in the late 20’s or the beginning of the 30’s and the master did not like the sound aspect, but he did like how well it was done and for that reason, he encouraged him to continue working to refine the sound.

It was then when Hauser asked Segovia to let him study Manuel Ramírez’s guitar, and he gladly accepted. For hours Hauser took all kinds of measures and notes about this instrument, and in the following years, every time Segovia would go to Germany, which I believe it was every year, he showed him a new guitar that was becoming closer to the excel the one my uncle Manuel did, until finally, around 1930 and 1937, he provided the master with the instrument he used for more than 25 years of his artistic life.

Segovia himself told me that when he tried this guitar he was shocked by its sound. Then he made use of the help of his second wife, she was travelling with him and being an excellent piano player, possessed an extraordinary ear, so with the maximum distance that the hotel room allowed them, she gave him her opinion, that was completely favourable, and that made him give the concert he had the following day with the new instrument and he continued using it for many years” (8).

We are indeed deeply honoured that Segovia has begun and ended his career playing Ramírez guitars. According to his words “I’ve only had three guitars, equivalent to the number of my marriages, which have remained longer active during my life. Old Ramírez’s one in 1913, Herman Hauser’s in 1937 and now the one by Ignacio Fleta. I’ve flirted with several different guitars constructed by Ramírez, and as an ironic English writer said, the difference between a whim and an eternal passion is that the whim usually lasts longer… which means that in the guitars of the present Ramírez I have pleasantly found permanent qualities”.

And López Poveda concludes by saying that “Andrés Segovia considered that Herman Hauser, Ignacio Fleta and José Ramírez were the best luthiers in the world” (6).


Notes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 belong to the book Andrés Segovia: Vida y Obra, written by Alberto López Poveda, the maximum authority about Segovia, he created the Andrés Segovia Foundation in Linares, and he was his loyal friend, disinterested guardian of the artist’s memory.

Note 5 belongs to the book “Tras la Huella de Segovia” by J. A. Pérez Bustamante de Monasterio.

Notes 7 and 9 belong to the book “Things About the Guitar” by José Ramírez lll.

We thank the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for sending us the photos of the instrument of Manuel Ramírez.

Audio of Andrés Segovia talking about the guitar Manuel Ramírez:

Article written by Amalia Ramírez

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