Written by Clément Follain for the leading classical guitar French publication Guitare Classique
In the tradition of the greatest
After training as a cabinetmaker, Jean-Noël Rohé graduated with honors from Newark College (in England) in guitar-making. He is now trying to carry on the great French traditions of guitar making. Meeting Dominique Field, who encouraged and helped him, was a decisive moment for him. The renowned French luthier says “He didn’t need me, but I decided to help him move faster, because he was talented.” He was the reason why Jean-Noël, then 28 years old, set up a workshop in Strasbourg. The famous guitar maker Daniel Friederich confirmed Field’s enthusiasm and has given Jean-Noël some valuable advice. The young man, dubbed by the two best representatives of high-quality French guitar-making as one of the most promising young artisans today, started making his own classical guitars. The first official acknowledgment of his talent happened very early: in 2004 he received unanimously the title of “Best artisan in France ”. Then in 2007, at the guitar-making contest of Crémone, he received a special distinction for the high aesthetic qualities and construction of his instruments. Jean-Noël makes only one concert model, which reflects his high standards and his own ideas on instrument-making. “I evolve with a constant need to perfect my instruments. It is impossible for me to even think of lowering my material or quality standards in order to offer cheaper instruments.” I had the opportunity to try one of the young maker’s latest creations, his thirty-fourth guitar.
A natural elegance
Aesthetically, Jean-Noël Rohé’s guitars are direct descendants of the traditional French school of guitar-making (Gomez-Ramirez, Bouchet, Friederich, Aubin, Field…). The elegance and natural beauty of the shapes and lines are obvious. Jean-Noël shows great finesse and a beautiful simplicity in his woodwork (rosette, headstock, purfling). No superfluous decorations overshadow the look of the instrument. The beautiful rosette, inspired by Muslim art, most notably Persian tapestries, is extremely finely cut. It is composed of several precious woods (chequer tree wood dyed in black, amaranth, rosewood, boxwood and maple wood) assembled in a tasteful and sensitive way that shows a search for perfection always pursued by Jean-Noël Rohé. The purfling has the same precise and refined quality, an alternation of maple wood and dyed chequer tree wood that results in an elegant contrast between black and white. The shape of the head, perfect and well-proportioned, was the result of close observation of the cabinet-making motifs found on old doors. This aesthetic conception shows a real historic knowledge of guitars. Jean-Noël has studied the guitars of the great masters, among others Torres, Enrique Garcia and Robert Bouchet, and talks about them with passion.
Priceless building quality
The quality of Rohé’s work is impressive at all levels: one only has to look through the soundhole to see what care is given while assembling the instrument. The building is influenced by Spanish methods and their golden era of guitar-making (Manuel Ramirez, Esteso, etc.). The traditional bracing is fan-shaped with five struts. As with the famous guitar maker Santos Hernandez, the soundboard bracing is asymmetrical and employs the use of a treble stiffener: this allows for a balancing of the instrument’s range by reinforcing the rigidity of the top under the rosette. As a result, one can better control the movements of the bridge as well as the deformation of the top. The top is made of Swiss spruce, a wood of low density and one of his favorites. The back and sides are made of beautiful CSA rosewood. From the same wood are made the bridge and the head veneer. The French polish is particularly shiny and evenly applied: the result of very long and meticulous work. The structural design of the sides are the result of long reflection by Rohé. They are reinforced in cypress and balsa, two light woods that allow for a much more rigid hollow-body than in the Spanish tradition, without making the instrument heavier. It gives much more projection to the sound of the instrument. In total, Jean-Noël Rohé accomplishes an amazing feat: he manages to synthesize and integrate all the methods of the traditional craft, while developing new ideas through his own research. Dominique Field confirms: “Jean-Noël has a very strong personality and doesn’t imitate anyone else.”
Lyricism and beauty of the sound
The sound is astonishing, as one might expect from the quality of the building. Jean-Noël Rohé has succeeded in the goal of obtaining a tone that is at the same time rich, fine and precise, and a sound projection worthy of big concert guitars. Charm and strength reconciled, to bring together these qualities is rare in the world of guitar-making. The basses are supple, spell-binding and deep, while the trebles are melodious and expressive… The guitar is both clear and mellow and has the sustain comparable to the Australian guitars with lattice bracing. The instrument is at the same time sensitive in the pianissimo and extremely reactive in the fortissimo. The beauty of the traditional and aristocratic tone is unified across the full register and in all intensities. This coherence, which is the result of intelligent construction, shows an engaging personality and great class. What should be said about the ease of play? One simply feels like a better guitar player and finds it difficult to stop playing… The smooth right hand playing is amazing: there is real density in the sound that can be worked with and multiplies the creative possibilities. The left hand runs up and down the neck effortlessly. Here is a rare instrument that can totally meet any musician’s requirements.
A promising future
To have created such accomplished work at his age (with at the time of this writing only about thirty instruments) is the sign of great maturity that announces Rohé as one of the most promising classical guitar makers of his generation. “Jean-Noël Rohé is a brilliant guitar maker who has real artistic ambition. He has the soul and the eye of an artist and shows real thoroughness in the internal conception of his instruments … He is a guitar maker who will matter”, Dominique Field summarizes. Jean-Noël doesn’t cut any corners in his work, which means he only makes between eight and ten instruments per year when building at maximum output.
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