Apr
11

Tonewoods

excerpted from ‘Antonio Torres: Guitar Maker – His Life and Work’

Cypress, rosewood, and maple are the three main types of wood Torres used for the ribs and backs of guitars. It is difficult, however, to ascertain whether or not Torres had any special preference for any particular type of wood, as only about one-fifth of his total production has survived. The existing instruments suggest that rosewood was his first choice followed by maple, then cypress, mahogany, walnut, cherry, and locust woods.

The rosewood used by Torres is the Dalbergia nigra variety originating from Brazil and is different from other species of rosewood as Dalbergia latfolia from India, or Dalbergia cearensis (kingwood), on account of their special characteristics and the contrasting differences in color, figure, and smell. Brazilian rosewood must have been used for the manufacture of musical instruments shortly after the discovery of America in 1492.

In an inventory of musical instruments carried out in 1566, mention is made of lutes and cornetti made in “Brazil-wood” and guaiac wood. It is possible that this “Brazil-wood” could be Caesalpinia echinata (Pernambuco), a member of the leguminosae family like the true rosewood and used for obtaining dyes for the textile industries. It was imported in vast quantities into Sevilla where it was known as Palobrasil. In the sixteenth century some rosewood came to Spain from Santo Domingo and was selling for 306 maravedises per quintal. In the following century exotic woods were imported to Spain through Portugal, when that country still belonged to the Spanish crown, and had its retail price fixed by royal command at one-and-a-half reles per pound.4 The scarcity of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century guitars/vihuelas by Iberian luthiers (only four are known to survive) precludes a true assessment as to how much and what type of rosewood was used in guitar-making. The earliest attributed Spanish guitar/vihuela dated around the mid-1600s is made partly in kingwood.6 However, the dating and provenance of this instrument is still questionable, but there can be little doubt that, in the seventeenth century, kingwood was used by Iberian and other European instrument makers. The seventeenth-century German maker, Joachim Tielke, used kingwood extensively for lutes and viols, sometimes in veneer form and other times in solid strips.

The veneering of rosewood onto other woods was common practice in the seventeenth century and continued well into the nineteenth century. Pages in Spain, Lacote in France, and Panormo in England all made guitars with veneered backs, a technique that indicates that rosewood was used not so much for its acoustic properties as for the attractiveness of its configuration and color. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the supply of rosewood became much improved (at least in England, as the import tax was removed on rosewood in 1845), the best guitars had both back and ribs made out of solid rosewood. This made veneering redundant and makers must have welcomed the amount of time saved from the use of solid rosewood backs and ribs. The veneering of rosewood onto other woods was a cheap kind of marquetry in which the beauty and contrast of the woods overcame the more costly and difficult medium of using ivory, ebony, and tortoiseshell for outside embellishment of the instrument. Rosewood was originally introduced into guitar making more on account of its beauty of figure and its close resemblance to ebony than any intrinsic merit in its acoustic qualities, for these must have remained unknown when used in veneer form. Before rosewood was established as the ideal wood for the construction of guitars, the European guitar makers differed widely in their choice. The different materials employed in the making of the seventeenth and eighteenth century instruments give us an interesting perspective on the lack of acoustical tenet applied to their construction. Apart from spruce or fir, pine, and in some cases cypress, which were generally accepted as the best materials for the soundboard, almost any type of wood and other materials such as ivory and cane were considered for the back and ribs of the guitars.

Cedar, ebony, rosewood, maple, walnut, and cypress were all used in the eighteenth century for guitar making, but it was not until the work of Torres became well known from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that rosewood was universally accepted as the best wood for classical instruments. In Spain, Pablo Nassarre stated his preference for walnut on account of “its acoustic qualities and for being temperately warm and human and, also, for coinciding with the maximum auditive power and the air for being under the influence of Jupiter.” Ebony was not a good choice because “its qualities are not what they are supposed to be,” having been used for musical instrument making more for it “exotic origin than for its acoustic qualities.” He was very happy with the choice of “Pina Avete,” whose porosity made it a suitable wood for soundboards, which must be even-grained and thin to maximize resonance in the cavity box. Maugin selects rosewood for guitar making not on account of its acoustical properties but for its price and looks: “Maple, spruce and ebony are, as it is the case with violin making, the main woods employed in the construction of guitars. However, depending on the looks or the price, other woods like mahogany, rosewood, satinwood or American maple are used.” Albert Jacquot, a member of a long dynasty of French luthiers, mentions the fragility of rosewood, so easily split, and he was very aware of this weakness for he comments that “rosewood guitars are very fragile; those of satinwood and plane (maple) are best for the tone.” Aguado recommended maple as the best wood for guitars, even to the point of recommending that the soundboard should also be made of Acer wood (maple).

The selection of wood for guitar making in Torres’ case was governed by the type of instrument desired and the availability of woods. At least eight types of wood are known to have been used by Torres and also an experimental guitar made out of paper mache guitar was made to prove Torres’ belief that the soundboard was the fundamental part of the guitar and responsible for the overall sound-quality of the guitar. No written evidence by him exists as to his true intentions in making this instrument but it can be safely assumed, and this is supported by Pujol, that Torres wanted to prove his theory that woods used for back and ribs of the instrument did not contribute much towards the tone of the guitar. Torres’ criterion for utilizing several types of wood for the construction of the resonance box was based on the aesthetic value-or availability of suitable woods-rather than on the intrinsic tonal qualities of the wood itself. The evidence from his existing instruments supports this theory. The choice, for example, of locust wood (certonia siliqua), a locally grown wood, completely riddled with all kinds of knots, blemishes, whorls and short-grained fibers, could not have been selected by Torres as a material ideally suited to produce the best possible tonal response. This wood was selected for its striking visual impact as was the case with the bird’s eye maple used in several existing guitars. It is no coincidence that the most elaborately decorated instruments are those in which maple was used rather than the dark, exotic rosewood. It is obvious that intricate mosaic decorations stand out much better against the white background of maple than against the dark, almost ink-black color of rosewood, although he did, on occasion, elaborately ornament some rosewood guitars. It can be argued that cypress and locust wood also offer a suitable background for such inlays, but maple wood had been traditionally used for centuries in the construction of musical instruments and was universally accepted both for its acoustic properties and its beautiful figure. Cypress wood lacked the aesthetic appeal of maple and was therefore delegated to second choice, as in Torres’ case, who used cypress almost exclusively for cheap instrument, except when absolutely pressed, and at such times he would use cypress for concert guitars, too.

Rosewood

Twenty-four out of a total of 88 existing guitars have rosewood backs and ribs; 17 of these belonged to his first epoch in Sevilla. The remainder were made in 1882 (1), 1884 (3), 1892 (1), and the other two in 1888. The quality and figure of the rosewood varies considerably from guitar to guitar and so does the number of pieces used for the back. For example, FE 09 on first sight appears to be made from four pieces but on closer examination it is revealed that the back had to be “winged” to achieve the required width and matching effect. Torres was making the backs out of more than two pieces, not out of choices necessarily, but largely because he could not obtain rosewood in wide enough pieces to make the back in two pieces and it seems logical to assume that, since Torres made at least nine rosewood guitars with the traditional two-piece back, the introduction of three- and four-piece backs must have been due to a lack of wood with a suitable width. The two-piece back is obviously simpler and quicker to prepare and glue together than a back with three or more pieces, which requires additional dividing strips in between the joints and also internal reinforcing strips over the joints.

Torres most probably bought the rosewood from the commercial timber merchant in planks intended for cabinet-making work and not as matched sets prepared for guitar-making. The existing instruments show that, on a basis of comparison, 17 guitars of his first epoch, that is, more than a third of the guitars made in Sevilla, have rosewood backs and ribs. On the other hand, only 7 guitars out of 49 were made with rosewood in the second epoch. These differences in numbers could be linked to the availability of rosewood, for it was easily obtainable in Sevilla but less so in the provincial city of Almeria, which had fewer trading links with the outside world than Sevilla. However, he must have had access to rosewood in Almeria: even some of his cheaper instruments had rosewood fingerboards, bridges, and bindings. In some of Torres’ early guitars rosewood was combined with maple for the back, possibly to make up the width rather than for aesthetic purposes. This practice of making the backs with different species of wood was often used by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century guitar makers in Andalucia. Several rosewood backs examined while the instruments were being repaired showed thicknesses varying from 2.5mm. in the central area of the backs diminishing to 2mm. around the perimeter. Munoz mentions 1.5mm while Jahnel states the thickness to be 3.9mm. to 3.7mm. which is, surely, an error. The comparison of certain rosewood backs with others of differing woods shows an average difference of minus 0.5mm. which must be related to the varying densities of the woods used. Guitars with backs of locust wood or cypress have thicker backs than those of rosewood to compensate for their lower density. These variations in thickness could be interpreted as evidence that Torres actually tuned his backs to a specific musical note, following the practice among the violin makers to tune the back to within a tone difference of that of the soundboard. If we accept Torres’ axiom that it is only the “feel of the soundboard on the fingers” as the principal that guided him in the final elaboration of the soundboard, it is hard to believe that he would consider tuning the backs a vital procedure for, according to his belief, the back did not contribute to the overall tone of the instrument. There is little doubt, however, that Torres was guided by the principal of wood density and elasticity when he was considering the final thickness of the back.

Maple

At the time of this writing (1995), 17 maple guitars are known to exist; 10 from the first epoch and 7 from Torres’ second epoch. Two types of maple were used: bird’s-eye and flamed maple. The flamed maple used for the backs of the three guitars appears to have the same origin, and there is an interval of nineteen years between the first use of that particular maple and its subsequent use, which implies that Torres must have kept some of his timber for special commissions as one of these instruments was made for Tarrega. These two later guitars made in 1883 closely follow, if not in shape at least in concept, the earlier 1864 guitar so much beloved by Tarrega. The widest pieces of wood in the backs of the three guitars are not only almost identical in figure but the dimensions are also very similar: 140mm.

In FE 17 Torres increased the width of the back by introducing a 30. Wide band of inlay in preference to the later wedge-shaped maple strips he used to supplement the backs of two maple guitars to make up the dimensions required. This shortage of flamed maple would seem to be confirmed when examining certain other guitars. In SE 43 Torres had to make up the width of the top bout by inserting a small wedge-shaped piece by the central inlay. Torres must have had the same problem originally with the bird’s-eye maple used for his two earlier guitars, FE 08 and FE 24, having in both instances four-piece backs. Later guitars in bird’s-eye maple have two-piece backs, which suggests that bird’s-eye maple with the right dimensions had become easier to obtain.

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