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12 Apr 2011

Francisco Tárrega's Guitars

Feature Articles

excerpted from Antonio Torres: Guitar Maker – His Life and Work (Pgs. 79-93) by Jose L. Romanillos

Tarrega acquired his first Torres guitar in Seville in 1869, FE 17, a guitar which, according to Emilio Pujol, Torres had made for his own personal use. He was later to acquire two more Torres guitars, one made in 1883 (SE 49) and the other one in 1888 (SE 114). His first Torres guitar had its back and ribs made from flamed maple and although the maple used by Torres was of good quality, the flame pattern was somewhat irregular, particularly in the figure used for the back. The soundboard was made of the finest quality spruce, although slightly uneven in the arrangement of the annual rings, which varied from eighteen to thirty-four per 25.4mm (i.e. per inch). This delicate soundboard was so thin that even in the outer parts of the lower bout it did not exceed one millimeter thickness. It had his standard system of seven radial struts together with two diagonal struts in the lower part of the lower bout and a tornavoz, and although it still retains the two harmonic bars on both sides of the soundhole, it is almost certain that the lower of these two bars was inserted, without apertures, by Enrique Garcia in 1897 when he completed the apertures, by Enrique Garcia in 1897 when he completed the repairs after the soundboard had caved in. At that time it was Torres’ practice to include a harmonic bar with apertures and a tornavoz in his finer guitars.


According to Pujol, Tarrega played this instrument until 1889 when, due to constant use, he was forced to replace it with another instrument from the same maker. Tarrega, who found himself extremely reluctant to part with such a beautiful instrument, had entrusted it to the guitar maker Garcia so that he might carry out the necessary repairs but his first attempt was unsuccessful. Years later, Garcia succeeded in restoring the guitar to its playing condition, thereby fulfilling the wishes of the guitarist from Villarreal.

Enrique Garcia’s label in the guitar reveals that he “took the back off and repaired the interior,” without giving any specific details about the interior repairs which undoubtedly comprised the reinforcing of the soundboard and the insertion of one harmonic bar. This label shows that these repairs took place in 1897 and probably at the same time the fingerboard was replaced and the silver frets replaced with T-shaped metal frets. Twenty-five years of playing, with constant tension on the strings, coupled with the rubbing and scratching of the nails produced the cave-in of the soundboard. A deep groove on the soundboard was produced by the action of Tarrega’s right thumb and nail dragging along the edge of the fingerboard. 1 Although there is evidence that Tarrega’s preference was for the rosewood guitar made in 1888, there is no doubt that the guitar made in 1865 had been his favorite for many years. In 1917, just before this instrument was sent to Juan Carlos Anido, father of Maria Luisa Anido, it was taken to Miguel Llobet by Tomas Prat so that Llobet could compare it with his own 1859 Torres. According to Tomas Prat, the intermediary who obtained the guitar for the Anidos, was in no doubt.

A few days ago Maestro Sr. Llobet compared your guitar with his: it seems that he is in love with his guitar, so much so that after much comparing one against the other, he said that both were superior instruments and very similar to each other, but for me, yours is the best. Pujol, in his biography of Tarrega, drew a precise account of the looks and qualities of that instrument which he had heard played during his classes with Tarrega:

It was made from maple, with the soundboard in spruce, the neck and the head in cedar and the fingerboard in ebony. The size was slightly smaller than the usual one. Its soundhole and contours were bordered with the finest of inlays of a pale green shade with double herringbone purfling; on the head, the back, and the ribs was an exquisite rectangular meander inlay. In addition to the spontaneity of the sound, perhaps due to its tornavoz, there was its clear, warm timbre as if it were of gold. The balance between bass and treble was proportionally exact in volume and the duration of its vibrations equally generous throughout the fingerboard. It sufficed to finger a perfect chord in order that, by plucking only the three bass notes one could clearly perceive the harmonics of the other strings.

The rectangular meander inlay that Pujol refers to was the classical decorative meander that Torres had introduced into guitar making and which he had used to decorate some earlier instruments, and its inclusion in the guitar resulted from his search for new methods of incorporating classical designs to enhance the guitar. Torres used extremely white beech for the thin line and dyed black wood for the broader line, employing the end-grain method of inlaying. This pattern was enhanced by the subtle greens and half herringbone motif that formed a part of the central design on the back and rib purflings. Besides the very fine, well-finished herringbone motif that Torres had inserted into the rosette, he also included a highly original minute wood lozenge which, I say from personal experience, required great care and patience to make. All in all it was an instrument harmonious in both form and in quality of sound.

On the death of Tarrega in 1909, his family came into possession of three Torres guitars but, although for sentimental reasons they felt attached to them, in 1917, possibly due to the economic difficulty they were facing at the time, they decided to sell one of the three Torres instruments. The first guitar to be sold was one of the three Torres instruments. The first guitar to be sold was the one constructed in 1864 (FE 17), probably because it was the most worn and because, according to his wife, Tarrega’s favorite guitar was not this one but the one made in 1888. According to Domingo Prat he acquired this instrument directly from Spain but in fact it was his father, Tomas Prat, who did all the dealing with Vicente Tarrega, the brother of Francisco Tarrega. On 26 March 1917 Vicente Tarrega replied to Tomas Prat’s letter naming the price for his brother’s guitar.

Dear Sir and good friend, I am in receipt of your kind letter and I am grateful for your wish to obtain the prodigious instrument that I life belonged to my good brother Paco [term of endearment for Francisco used in Spain}. We would be very pleased if such an invaluable guitar should fall into your son’s hands as the guitar is worthy of being played in as masterly a way as he knows. We would deliver this guitar to you for four thousand pesetas. Waiting for your decision and with greetings from Maria and a strong embrace from your good friend and obedient servant. VINCENTE TARREGA

This guitar left Barcelona aboard the ship Balmes on 6 August 1917, costing thirty-two pesetas for the freight all the way to Buenos Aires and three hundred and fifty pesetas for the insurance. The guitar went to ten-year-old Maria Luisa Anido, and was not to be played by Domingo Prat, as Vicente Tarrega had been given to understand. According to Domingo Prat, the sale of this guitar had been described as a “national disgrace.” When I interviewed Emilio Pujol in January 1979, he spoke to me about this sale and related with great sadness how he was in contact with Tarrega’s family with the intention of purchasing the finest guitar he had ever heard when Tomas Prat, “acting quickly, intervened and offered the Tarrega family more money than I could pay them and I was left without the guitar.”

Pujol was to come across this guitar many years later, during his visit to Buenos Aires, and he found it in a state of great neglect, “without a case, without any protection, lying on top of a settee.” The result of this negligence was plain to see: a fracture in the rib immediately next to the neck, the loss of a number of pieces from the rosette which, once they became unglued, were probably mislaid and lost forever, and the replacing of the old machine heads with hideous, cheap ones that were unworthy of such a beautiful example of the maestro Torres.

One of the ribs of this instrument gives clear evidence of Tarrega’s passion for smoking. There are several marks where the wood has been burned, probably the result of cinders falling from the cigarettes Tarrega smoked while playing the instrument.6 SE 49 bears these marks, undoubtedly resulting both from the artist’s complete absorption in whatever piece he was playing and from the poor quality of the tabacco and the coarseness of the cigarette paper! Not only the protective coating of varnish was burned but also the very wood. The cigarette tended to burn unevenly, catching alight in some parts and not others, causing particles of smoldering tobacco to fall onto the upper rib of the guitar. In one photograph published in Pujol’s book, Tarrega can be seen in the middle of a rendition of some musical passage and, hanging from his lips half-hidden under some musical passage and, hanging from his lips half-hidden under his beard is an unevenly burnt cigarette. A compulsive smoker, Tarrega was never without a cigarette, be it during his private recitals or during his public concerts. The music critic for the magazine Ilustracion Espanola y Americana remarked that not only could Tarrega perform passages with only the left hand but he also allowed himself the luxury of smoking while he played.

The guitar was brought back to Barcelona, having been purchases for 1,100,00 pesetas (approximately L5,000) for a private collection. The purchase was made through an intermediary and was bought from Maria Luisa Anido, who had been the owner since 1917. It is a tragedy to see it in such deplorable condition, by any restoration would be extremely hazardous to carry out owing to the general weakening of the wood. However, at least it was returned to the country of its origin, and to the city where it was played and much admired.

It seems likely that the guitar Torres made for Tarrega in 1883 was intended as a replacement for FE 17; the latter by then being twenty years old was showing signs of wear, and because of the similarities between the two instruments it appears that Torres attempted to make a guitar that would reach the same heights as its predecessor. Like the 1864 guitar, its back and ribs were made from flamed maple, its figure and quality being similar to that of the wood he had used for the first guitar. With regard to the plantilla, this guitar is slightly larger than its predecessor and, although Torres had used the same system of fan strutting he had not inserted a tornavoz. As decoration for the purling and the soundhole Torres had made use of the same ornamental motifs although he had omitted both the meander and the diminutive lozenge, leaving the four-piece back free of any embellishment. This guitar was the last of the three to be sold in 1944. Francisco Tarrega Rizo, Tarrega’s son, sold it to Antonio Secanell for 6,000 pesetas and now it is in the private collection of Juan G. Garcia Escobar, brother of the popular singer from Almeria, Manolo Escobar.

From the correspondence between Tarrega’s widow and the buyer of the third Torres guitar made in 1888, it seems that at least in his final years this was his favorite instrument “because of its excellent sonority and ideal string tension.” There was no tornavoz and the lower harmonic bar was without the apertures that Torres introduced in some of the harmonic bars in his guitars. The rosette pattern was less elaborate, Torres having decided not to employ as the central motif the diminutive checkered patter that he had inlaid in previous instruments, but a mosaic in the form of a chain which he had incorporated in SE 113 made at about the same time. The rosette included the green inlaid strips that were reminiscent of his earlier work. Torres’ use of a far simpler pattern could be an indication of his unsteadiness of hand, for his shaking hands prevented him from carrying out the intricate work required by the more complicated mosaics. The three-piece back and ribs were made from rosewood and were lacking any decoration.

The last guitar made for Tarrega was reluctantly sold to a Cuban guitarist in 1920 and was sold with all the protocol that is conferred upon works of art. The transaction between the partied concerned was carried out with such seriousness that a lawyer was required to attest the signature of Tarrega’s widow on a document in which stated the place of origin and maker of the instrument. The text of the letter that Maria Rizo sent to the future owners of this guitar has been kept together with the other legal documents that accompanied this transaction and is in the possession of Elias Barreiro and, until now, has remained unpublished.

Dear Madam, I received your kind letter dated 2nd of present [month] in which you express your wish to obtain one of my deceased husband’s guitars, an original Torres. Well I answered this to state, for your assurance, that of the two predilected guitars of that maker, I sold one but I reserved the rosewood one, as this represents a true relic as it was the most played by him on account of its excellent sonority and ideal string tension. For this reason it was this guitar that was the most solicited but I never wished to sell. However, I am willing to sell it to you with the greatest pleasure since it is for an advanced disciple of Sr. Roch, and old friend of ours and very much respected. Now it only remains for me to tell you that I do not wish to sell this guitar for less than 5,000 pesetas, accepting, naturally, every condition that you stipulate and I consider fair. Waiting for your prompt decision and with greeting to Sr. Roch I remain your affectionate servant. MARIA RIZO, TARREGA’S WIDOW

The reply from the buyer did not take long to arrive, for on 15 June the contract was drawn and attested to and duly registered by the Valencian notary, Domingo Galopre Gambon.

This bill of sale was meticulously drafted giving every detail as related to the history of the guitar, its maker, and its owner, and it has, jointly with the letter written by Tarrega’s widow, accompanied the instrument as proof of authenticity. The black-edged envelope has also survived to tell us that eleven years after Tarrega’s death his family still mourned his passing. The contract, handwritten (probably by the notary) was signed by Tarrega’s widow, reads as follows:

I, Maria Rizo Rivelles, widow of D. Francisco Tarrega, sell to D. Jose de Jesus Gonzales, for his daughter Magarita Gonzalez Garcia, born and resident in Havana (Cuba) through the intermediary D. Rafael Balaguer Dadia, born and resident in Valencia, one black rosewood guitar made by D. Antonio Torres of Almeria, in the year 1888, 2nd epoch and numbered with the number 114, according to the label of the instrument, which I declare belonged to my husband, the immortal guitarist, D. Francisco Tarrega y Eixea. This sale is carried out for the amount of five thousand pesetas which I received from Sr. Balaguer on behalf and by order of Sr. Gonzalez and I hereby sign this receipt at Castellon de la Plana on 15 June nineteen hundred and twenty. MARIA RIZO TARREGA’S WIDOW

How long this guitar was played by Margarita Gonzalez is not known but, since 1940, the guitar had been stored until it was acquired by its present owner, Elias Barreiro, of New Orleans, U.S.A.

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