Ramirez & Classical Design Evolution

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Rare Bird, July 1983
ALTHOUGH MANY guitarists think of the classical guitar as a thoroughly traditional instrument that has remained relatively unchanged since its refinement in the mid 1800s by the Spaniard Antonio de Torres, the modern classical guitar has evolved significantly in the period since 1960. Most classical guitars are conservative in ornamentation and body shape but almost every facet of their construction has been the subject of experimentation. Whereas the classical guitar traditionally had been considered an intimate "parlor music" instrument modern makers have attempted to produce a concert instrument with greater power and more projection.

The classical guitar remained relatively unchanged in design from the Torres pattern until approximately 1960. During the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, exceptionally fine instruments were produced by makers such as Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso, and Marcello Barbero. However, these luthiers adhered to the basic Torres design. If any one maker can be said to be the father of the modern concert classical guitar, it would be Jose Ramirez III. In about 1960 he designed a guitar with a longer scale length, larger body, and asymmetrical bracing. This guitar was designed to have the power and projection needed to play solo concerts in large auditoriums or to play with an orchestra.

At about the same time as the introduction of the concert guitar, Ramirez enlarged his shop and hired skilled craftsmen to produce fine guitars on a production basis. Prior to this time, all fine-quality Spanish guitars were produced in very limited quantities by individual luthiers. The Ramirez shop became a focal point of innovation in guitar design. Many of today's most respected Spanish makers received their training in the Ramirez workshop. Some, such as Paulino Bernabe and M.G. Contreras, have developed distinctive designs of their own and have earned considerable recognition. Today many luthiers are contributing to the evolution of the classical guitar, but Jose Ramirez III deserves credit for having initiated the most significant change in classical guitar design since Antonio de Torres.

Classical guitarists tend to be more conservative than luthiers: They are often reluctant to use new-design instruments. Ramirez concert guitars received a great boost by virtue of their association with Andres Segovia. Obviously, this association was not a result of haphazard circumstance. Ramirez worked diligently to produce instruments that would meet Segovia's requirements, and Segovia in turn would not have used these instruments in his performances if they were not of exceptional merit.

The two guitars illustrated in this article are radically different from each other. The first instrument was personally handmade by Jose Ramirez III in 1950. It is of a traditional Torres design and is a fine example of the early work of the maker. The second guitar is a fine handmade instrument and an excellent example of the concert classical design. The two guitars differ considerably in dimensions and basic structural specifications (see chart below).

The 1950 Ramirez is a smaller instrument than the concert guitar. It has a beautiful romantic, lyrical sound and is physically easy to play. This guitar would perform very well in the studio or for an intimate recital. It is not as forceful as the concert guitar and might not project as well through an orchestra, but it has a quality of tone which is exceptionally well-suited to traditional guitar and lute compositions. Examples of Jose Ramirez III's personal work are extremely scarce, While Mr. Ramirez remains very active in designing guitars and running the company, he has chosen to concentrate his efforts in those areas rather than personally building guitars. Many guitarists and collectors are unaware that Jose Ramirez III ever made guitars personally, which is unfortunate, since his instruments are historically significant and are of great merit.

The 1970 Ramirez is designed for power and projection rather than for physical ease of playing. This is not to say that it is uncomfortable to play, but the action is stiffer than the 1950 model, and the longer scale length necessitates greater stretches. The fingerboard is beveled thinner on the bass side to give higher action in this area and enable the player to achieve greater volume without string buzzing The ebony reinforcement bar in the neck was introduced in the mid 1960s and is a standard feature on modern Ramirez guitars; it has since been adopted by many other modern luthiers.

Cedar tops for classical guitars were also introduced in the mid 1960s. Ramirez was the first major maker to utilize this wood, which has become a favorite of many modern luthiers. Cedar is readily available and gives excellent bass response. Cedar-topped guitars seem to produce a mature tonal quality more quickly than those with spruce tops, although many guitarists continue to debate the relative merits of spruce versus cedar. Spruce ages very well, is harder and possibly more durable than cedar, gives a crisp, more focused sound, and provides excellent treble response. Today, Ramirez offers a choice of cedar or spruce tops.

Prior to the early 1970s, Ramirez classical guitars were built with a Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Since that time, high-quality Brazilian rosewood has become very scarce and expensive. Most Ramirez classical guitars since the early 1970s have been built with Indian rosewood. There is debate among musicians as to which wood is superior--some feel that Brazilian rosewood produces a deeper, mellower, and smoother sound. Ramirez currently offers a choice of either type, although Brazilian rosewood instruments are more expensive. The 1970 Ramirez is quite different in tone and response from the 1950 guitar. Each is a very fine instrument, exceptionally well-suited for its intended purpose.

While the concert classical guitar design remains very popular. Jose Ramirez III is presently very active in experimenting with new approaches. Ramirez classical guitars are available in a variety of scale lengths, spruce or cedar tops, Indian or Brazilian rosewood backs and sides, and are even available with built-in pickups. Recently Ramirez has built a number of prototype experimental steel-string guitars in a variety of different, highly innovative designs. Ramirez has been and continues to be a major contributor to the ongoing evolution of the guitar.

A Comparison Of The 1950 And 1970 Ramirez Classicals
Specs & Materials19501970
Width lower bout14-1/4"14-1/2"
Width upper bout10-9/16"11-1/8"
Body depth at end block3-13/16"4-1/4"
Scale length25-9/16"26-1/8"
Width of board at nut2"2-1/8"
Width of board at 12th fret2-3/8"2-1/2"
Angle of headstock20 9
Wood, topEuropean Alpine SpruceAmerican Western Red Cedar
Neck reinforcementnoneebony bar
Wood, back Brazilian rosewoodBrazilian rosewood
Wood, sidesBrazilian rosewoodBrazilian rosewood, reinforced w/cypress
Bracing of topsymmetrical fanasymmetrical--stiffer on treble side