José Ramírez, the flamenco guitar that conquered the world

Oct 29, 2022

José Ramírez, the flamenco guitar that conquered the world

There is no doubt that it is to Andrés Segovia that we owe the full diffusion of the Spanish guitar throughout the world, a task that he undertook and concluded with a Ramírez instrument in his hands. Following in his footsteps, a stream of concert guitarists kept the classical guitar in the most select concert halls of the world and, with him, attracted the attention of valuable composers who would endow the instrument with a wider and deeper repertoire of its own.

For its part, the popular sister of the Spanish guitar (“sonanta”), as it was nicknamed, not without a certain contemptuous derision at the beginning, grew in sturdy folk hands. Noble hands, in Andalusia, would devise a peculiar system of techniques, basically thumb and strumming, with which they would create their differential and minimalist repertoire of variations and enchanting falsetas. Feeding on its classical kin, its arpeggios, tremolos, capo, harmonics and harmonies, it would grow, improve, and gain in entity and musical concept.

The so-called flamencos, professional artists of the first rank, have always been performers and creators, solely responsible for shaping and enriching a musical heritage that has been expressed for more than a century with a beginning, middle and end. Already at the end of the 19th century, the eminent Miguel Borrull Castello, Tárrega’s pupil and creator of the first solo guitar piece that remains in our repertoire, the rondeña gitana – apparently composed with a first-generation Ramírez – which was inherited and improved by Ramón Montoya, was struggling to make himself heard as a soloist.

But before Spain, they wanted to enjoy the nineteenth-century solo basses of Borrull, Paco de Lucena, Montoya or Luis Yance in Paris, Argentina or New York. A sad reality that will force our geniuses to throw themselves into the world in the endeavour to win a favourable audience. It was demonstrated that the flamenco guitar players were “Quijotes”  in their land and happy musicians acclaimed abroad.

Our hidalgos de sonanta en astillero these artists who were able to conquer the ears of the planet with their music and put themselves on a par with the eminences of the classical guitar -Segovia first-, performing in the same odeons and on comparable dates, recording for the same record labels and with the same producers, the highest-ranking in each place, were dreamers who launched themselves into infinity with José Ramírez guitars in their hands. They, like Segovia, did with his, put the sonanta into orbit.

Sabicas’ first solo recital

Agustín Castellón Campos, Sabicas, the concert who taught us by correspondence from New York, when the Madrid City Council was about to honour him during a recital in a sacred place and on an important date, 15 May 1987, wanted to reciprocate to the guitar maker Ramírez in this way:

“In the programme of the Teatro Real don’t forget to put, Guitarras Ramírez, because I’ve been playing with Ramírez guitars for twenty or twenty-five years now, and I always announce it in the concerts, ‘guitar José Ramírez’. These are customs from there, from the United States. We’ve never announced guitars, or strings, or anything here, but in the United States, yes. They like it.

A healthy habit that has not yet been extended to the homeland, as is the case with the taste for stopping to listen to a good guitar. Everything will come and go, hope is never lost, but it is still green.

It happened on Friday 22 May 1959 at Town Hall in New York. That first solo recital by Sabicas marked a before and after in his career and the history of the concert guitar. Sabicas proved himself to be the true virtuoso compared to don Andrés Segovia in classical music. This appearance of Sabicas was due to an eventuality, a family mishap of Mario Escudero which prevented him from taking on the performance destined for him, offering it to his compadre. He made the most of it. On a later occasion, Mario Escudero would appear at Carnegie Hall.

Mario Escudero, apart from, in his time, the most intelligent concept of composition, was responsible for the use of ‘black’ guitars in flamenco, the use of classical guitars adapted to the new function. An example is a record produced by Sid Feller, Escudero at El Porche (ABC S 492, 1964), recorded with a classical guitar built by José Ramírez. Guitar Magazine (No. 18. January-February, 1966) was amazed:

“For reasons perhaps only known to him, he uses a classical Ramírez rosewood guitar and not the traditional flamenco cypress guitar.

Sabicas, on the other hand, refused any guitar other than the ‘white’ – cypress. Together in Manhattan produced the best examples of a sonata duo, two sensational albums Sabicas and Escudero. Flamenco styles on two guitars (Montilla Instrumental FM-105, 1957).

From Mario Escudero jr., we learnt about the opening concert of his godfather Sabicas, replacing Escudero: “This was common practice between Sabicas, my father and also Carlos Montoya, when any of them could not fulfil a contract to give a concert“.

Carlos Montoya, standard-bearer of the soloist guitar

And here is the name that was missing, Carlos Montoya, in many ways the most representative of this story, because, qualities aside, it is to him that we owe the speciality of guitar soloist which he remained the standard-bearer until the end.

In 1945, he tried a small recital at La Meri’s New York studio, and the response was positive, with over a hundred people packing the small room.

In 1948 he decided definitively for concert performances and it was alone with his José Ramírez guitar, that achieved the greatest audiences and interest in the guitar in the world.

In 1964, he improvised his happiest record, Adventures in flamenco! (ABC Paramount ST 90116), with the flamenco Ramírez that he holds smiling on the cover and, after a decade, with another Ramírez he recorded his most ambitious work: Suite flamenca with a full symphony orchestra (United Artist 89128 I). Carlos Montoya’s renowned American student, Anita Sheer, did not want to be less and gave another Ramírez left her recording production.

Long before, when the young Carlitos had to serve as a Spanish soldier in a troubled Morocco at war, instead of shooting, he played the first chords to a legionary who would become a cabinetmaker and father of the great Víctor Monge, Serranito, who besides learning these postures as a child, invented and imposed, at last, the concert guitar in Spain. Always by the hand of José Ramírez and his family. We will come to him.

Juanito Serrano

For the moment, the refreshment of the guitar solo came from Spain. The names of Carlos Montoya, Sabicas and Mario Escudero were joined by that of Juanito Serrano, who opened the doors of the American market with another José Ramírez; the one used in the recording Ole la mano (Elektra EKS-7227, 1962), a record recorded by his friend Theodore Bikel, from the very planetary centre of popular music, the Greenwich Village of the Big Apple.

On 10 February 64, Serrano and Andrés Segovia shared the limelight in the Spanish newspaper ABC, on the occasion of some performances by both of them in Washington:

“Andrés Segovia’s universal, acclaimed guitar and the young, promising guitar of flamenco artist Juan Serrano are at the same time in the capital of the United States. Enthusiastic applause greeted them both”.

The information was accompanied by a picture of the two taken in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1959, where Juan appears with his Ramírez flamenca in hand.

Ricardo Baliardo, better known as Manitas de Plata (Silver Hand)

The French Manitas de Plata, who gained the greatest media attention, rounds off the collection of flamenco guitarists who made the genre heard around the world through New York city platform. Such was the impact of the Manitas phenomenon, endorsed by Picasso and Dalí, that on his American debut even Carnegie Hall gave him an extra day, and Pau Casals chose him in 1965 to represent Europe at the annual UN gala.

The important thing was that he convinced – and not how – a majority of people of the goodness of the art he represented, selling records in quantities similar to or greater than Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd or Carlos Santana. The first and most important, Manitas de Plata. Flamenco guitar (José Ramírez III, 1964), he recorded it, of course with his José Ramírez, for a Village label, Connoisseur Records/Vanguard.

The vinyl was a best-seller and won the Grand Prix du Disque from the prestigious French Charles Cros Academy. Let us say, by the way, that this micro-surco came out in 64 when the first solo recordings by Paco de Lucía and Manolo Sanlúcar were released.

Víctor Monge, “Serranito”, and Manolo Sanlúcar

By then Víctor Monge, “Serranito”, undoubtedly the greatest flamenco exponent of the Ramírez guitars – almost a son for José Ramírez III, a man with a flamenco heart – had already conceived and shaped his repertoire, flamenco and virtuoso to the highest degree, striving to impose the concert guitar in his homeland. With a Ramírez guitar sister to the one used by Andrés Segovia, but adapted to flamenco1 , he succeeded, just as, as a traveller, he would open the doors to the world for his companions. In his wake, the aforementioned Paco de Lucía and Manolo Sanlúcar set out to form the triumvirate that has given us the plenitude of the present day.

Manolo Sanlúcar soon showed his preference for Ramírez, joining his image to firm and, like Serranito, leaving work for the enjoyment of human beings. Many of them were performed as a duo by Ramírez with his brother Isidro Muñoz.

Furthermore: If Paco de Lucía did not use Ramírez guitars publicly -because he had them-, it was out of respect for his father, who had a small disagreement with José Ramírez II, although with the later Ramírez there was peace and harmony.

José Ramírez and his relationship with flamenco guitarists

The list of flamencos who have approached their art thanks to José Ramírez is endless. Among the conquerors established in Manhattan, close to Sabicas and Escudero, we have Paco Juanas from Madrid; he boasts about his Ramírez ’77: “It’s the best one I have“. It was unnecessary in those glorious times of flamenco in the USA to go all the way to Madrid to get a Ramírez. Between 1929 and 1988, the famous Casa Moneo, a micro-hypermarket (sic) of Spanish products where you could get everything from D.O. food to mantillas, records and guitars by José Ramírez, was kept in New York.

If from America came to a Sabicas who became ‘King of Flamenco’, there another outstanding ambassador of our art, the Sevillian Emilio Prados, called himself ‘Atalaya de Flamenco’ because the reign was awarded to him; an Emilio who always spoke through his Ramírez. Before crossing the Atlantic, Prados performed and recorded in Barcelona with another excellent guitarist who played Ramírez and was able to fill Sabicas’ place with Carmen Amaya. We are talking about Andrés Batista, a Catalan flamenco artist who has impressive work.

Equally Catalan is the famous Peret, who as a guitarist accompanied Carmen Amaya and Antonio Gades in the celebrated film Los Tarantos. And on more records he plays the guitar, only as the King of Rumba he is known, setting the rhythm of the ‘fan’ on a splendid Ramírez; see him there, at the Eurovision, representing the nation with the advice, “Sing and be happy”. Peret was challenged for the rumba throne by another Catalan, Antonio González, El Pescaílla, a guitarist of superior ability and world renown for his marriage to Lola Flores. Well, they too played Ramírez.

Far and wide, the most outstanding performers play or have played Ramírez guitars. For example, the much-loved Juan Carmona, Habichuela, and his Granadian companion Juan Maya, Marote, when both revolutionised the guitar scene in the capital at the beginning of the 1960s.

Before that, in 1957, Román el Granaíno recorded in Paris, with his Ramírez, the first anthology of flamenco guitar in micro-groove. And I think of that diamond in the rough that was Niño Miguel, with his “Ramírez de palillos” (with pegs) on the cover of his second album, Diferente (Philips 63 28 206, 1976); the record company, looking to improve his sonority, solved the problem by turning to Ramírez.

Many of those who shared the same path with Víctor Monge, when José María Íñigo announced “Serranito y sus guitarras” on TVE, also took the Ramírez: Manzanita, Ian Davies, Miguel Rivera, Felipe Maya, Monchi, El Entri…, and others very close to him, such as José Antonio Rodríguez or Jin Oki. In the never-ending list of flamenco cultures on Ramírez appear Antonio de Córdoba, Moreno de Herrera, Pepe Tovar, Fernando Pucherete, Martín Perea, Antonio el Muñeco, the Extremaduran Miguel Vargas, Niño Jero, Celia Morales, El Mami? The superlative current guitars of José Luis Montón, Raúl Mannola, José Luis Rodríguez today José Luis de la Paz, Santiago Lara, Paco Vidal, Miguel Ángel Cortés…, and even Ricardo Pachón or the family of Federico García Lorca.

Where does the guild’s fondness for Ramírez come from?

Easily, this surname is responsible for the flamenco guitar model that was imposed from the end of the 19th century, when the professional guitarist played the cafés cantante. At the request of its makers, José Ramírez I conceived the Tablao guitar, with a greater volume of sound in accordance with the wider audience to be catered for.

His brother and disciple Manuel Ramírez, developed the template until the pattern of the current flamenco guitar was outlined; in his workshop learnt to make guitars Santos Hernández, Modesto Borreguero, Domingo Esteso… The continuators of José Ramírez I (Manuel left no descendants), will be his direct family. Now we are in the fifth generation, we had José Ramírez IV and his sister Amalia Ramírez from the fourth generation and José´s sons or Amalia´s nephews Cristina and José Enrique from the fifth generation. They taught successive apprentices who became distinguished masters: Marcelo Barbero, Paulino Bernabé, Manuel Rodríguez, Contreras, Arturo Sanzano, José Romero, Pedro de Miguel, etc., and, indirectly, Miguel Rodríguez, Francisco Simplicio, Arcángel Fernández… Praised world of the guitar.

Ramírez is a surname of cache in the world of flamenco, where it sells at a premium.

Not to mention Tina Ramírez, who in New York was an institution of Spanish dance, we had in Jerez the venerable bailaor Ramírez, Antonio, a mythical man, and his brother, the cantaor Juan Ramírez, has bequeathed us a style por soleá. The current Juan Ramírez inherits his art and nickname from both of them, a portentous native of Alicante who, although he occupies a preferential place in dance, began as a cantaor, when he was called Gitanito de Oro; however, his facet as an excellent guitarist is unknown.

And, of course, Ramírez is the guitar itself. To put it in Sevillian: a ‘arma mía‘ loaded with future.

Author of the article: José Manuel Gamboa.

Author’s notes

1Today this traditional Serranito model is available, which has been taken up by the Ramírez family as a tribute to the maestro and as a tribute to a friendship.

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