Amalia Ramirez: “This is a profession that is carried in the blood”

By Raul Rodriguez

Very often we use the word “traditional” when we talk about guitars, well, here at GC no more often than “innovation”. Even people like us, that are waiting to see what interesting new thing from a visionary builder will come to blow our minds, do have our little conservative and traditionalist heart. When I went to Ramirez workshop to do this interview I must confess that I was expecting to find a very traditional business run by very traditional people, let me tell you what I found. Amalia Ramirez and her nephews Cristina and Enrique are the fourth and fifth Ramirez generation, do love tradition and work hard for its preservation but without being traditionalist; they look ahead, experiment and love their job and the Spanish guitar. Tradition and innovation go hand in hand in this workshop. They cut the rosette channel all by hand but they also make good use of 21st-century materials like Nomex.
If you want to get the whole picture to spend some time on their website you will understand what I mean. Also, you will find a lot of historical information about the Ramirez dynasty and the Madrid school, most of the biggest guitar builders in this town, past, and present have learned their craft in the Ramirez workshop. Since 1890, when José Ramirez I opened his first shop, they have given so much to the guitar world that a complete book would be needed to tell the story. After him came his successors Jose Ramirez II, III, IV, Amalia, and the fifth generation Cristina and Enrique. All of them worked and work to improve what his predecessor did and to pass it to his own successor, and all those working around them. Some of today’s Ramirez customers, as Amalia commented, say that Ramirez guitars sound better than ever. This is the result of five generations work and what is sure is that, fortunately, it has not reached its limits yet. Here Amalia Ramirez will share with us her thoughts and anecdotes around this craft and the past, present, and future of the Spanish guitar.

Guitar Connoisseur: How and when did you start to work in the workshop?

Amalia Ramirez: As this is a company of men it was assumed that I wasn’t going to participate in it as my brother was the one who was predestined to do so. I grew up between guitars, with the smell of the wood and hot glue, this was part of my life and I loved it. When I was between 20 and 22 years ago, I told my father that I wanted to learn how to make guitars and he said, “Ok, come to the workshop”. I learned the craft and then I take the decision to leave, thinking that it had already complied with my wishes and with the family tradition. After a time my brother suggested me to help him to run the business. In the beginning, I had doubts because I had my life and my own projects but in 1988 I made the decision to join my brother and I have been in business continuously until today. This is a profession that is carried in the blood, I do not know of anybody who is not engaged in this if it is not by passion. For me, seeing how my nephews continue with the family tradition with pride, dedication, and joy, is a whole satisfaction. When my brother died, I had the option to continue or leave the company, but I am very happy with my decision to continue with this. I have always seen in my family a great love for this profession, which has occupied the life of my father, my brother and myself.

GC: I guess that being the manager, public relations and guitar builder must keep you busy.

AR: It is varied and beautiful. This is a special world of artists and musicians of all kinds, not only of classical and flamenco genres, in addition, the traders of guitars are special, business people who love both the guitar and music.

GC: This is a business, that as in any other, you have to balance the numbers at the end of the month, but as you were saying, is moved primarily by passion.

AR: We need to go ahead, do your work as best as possible, continue investigating, enjoy and do enjoy others with music, which is a good thing for oneself and the world. In this business, the romanticism is very present.

GC: How many people are currently working in the workshop?

AR: In the workshop are Ricardo and Enrique, who are the master builders. There are also Carmelo, Carlos, and Nixon. Carmelo is the son of a guitar builder that worked here since he was 14 years old up until the age of 65. I no longer work in the workshop on a regular basis, now I have to deal with different issues. What I do, is to help at specific times and review all the guitars before they leave the workshop with what my role in the workshop is, mainly supervisory. I am also in charge of the design tasks as well as to investigate new techniques, materials and how they affect the acoustics to get more sound projection, but always maintaining the essence of my father’s traditional model.

GC: Does this mean that for anyone who is familiar with the old models it will be easy to identify the actual ones?

AR: Our customers tell us that today’s Ramirez guitars sound and feel better than ever. Sons have an obligation to improve what their parents have done. I tell my nephews that they should improve what I have done. Recently a trader asked me, “Why don’t you make a vintage Ramirez guitar.” I told him that actually, I was doing it. For example, the Ramirez guitars of the ’60s were guitars with a great sound but difficult to play. My father created these guitars based on the preferences of Andres Segovia. My brother made the same guitar but improving the string action, tone and sound projection with a scale length of 650 mm, the end result was a better and easier to play the instrument.
So a vintage Ramirez guitar would be a guitar very similar to the ones we make today but uncomfortable and difficult to play.

GC: Do today’s guitar builders have access to better quality tonewoods than in the ’50s and ’60s?

AR: The worst years were those after the war as wood had to be imported in logs. My father bought large amounts of material, some of which we are using today, this wood is very dry and of excellent quality. Nowadays is easier to buy good quality woods, but some of them are under restriction as for example, Brazilian Rosewood. My father told me that my grandfather saw workers warming up making bonfires with this wood in Argentina, which of course made him very sad. My father was very concerned about this issue, he saw that this wood was being logged without any control and nobody was doing reforestation. He bought much of this wood because he was expecting that at some point it was going to be very difficult to find, fortunately, the logging and trade of this wood are now under very strict regulations. These actions are very positive for the preservation of this and other species. We had wood of this species, which was bought fifty years prior to these laws but, unfortunately, it was not documented so we had it sealed for ten years and a great part of it broke down, which hurt us greatly. We had to go to the tribunals by the complaint of an environmental group, but finally, we won the case. I would like to comment that the use of wood by guitar builders is very small when compared to other industries, what really scares me is the cheap and disposable guitars.

GC: Can you tell us about the main features of the professional models that you build in your workshop?

AR: We make the “Tradicional” model, is a classic pure Ramirez tradition. The “Auditorio” model is a guitar with a lot of projection and sustain, we use Nomex in the soundboard, with this material you can obtain a much better projection without affecting the quality of tone. I found a way to use this material without losing our sound. I recommend this guitar for large concert halls. The “Flamenco” model, this one stays as my father conceived it. We are going to make a reproduction of the “Tablao” guitar that my grandfather built. The flamenco players of the time asked him for a guitar with more projection, for which he increased the size of the body. Interestingly enough, classical guitar players really like this guitar. Maybe, we will add some minor modifications but for now, it will be a faithful reproduction.

Our latest model is the “Conservatorio”, this is a more affordable guitar that is completely hand-built in our workshop. It is a high-quality guitar with a very affordable price. It is a very innovative concept in guitar construction by the technique used, more simple and different than the one used in our professional guitars. The Conservatorio guitar has a very elegant, simple ornamentation, with first quality wood for the sound although its appearance is not as beautiful as the professional ones, in order to economize in its price. We have found an assembling method that makes the whole building process faster. We don’t use any kind of kerfing for joining the top and back to the ribs, something like the method used for violins, also it lets the top vibrate more freely. We are having very positive feedback about the playability and tone of this guitar, without any doubt it is superior to the semi-professional model that we have been building until now. This is not a cut down version of our professional models, it is a whole new concept.

I had the opportunity to playtest this guitar and in my humble opinion, I think that it is a very great idea because it feels like a good professional guitar and it is more affordable It only lacks ornamentation, the most evident is that there is no binding, but ornamentation doesn’t contribute to acoustics, right? Otherwise, first quality tonewoods are used and the assembling method gives a somehow more lively sound with a faster attack. Cristina said that some players that have tried the French polished and spruce top version commented that this guitar had some characteristic in the sound similar to a Vihuela.

The “Camara” model is a guitar with very clean sound and note separation, a great guitar for recording. My father developed the “chamber” in order to eliminate wolf notes and he had great success at it. In the original design, the chamber was made using rosewood, later I started to experiment using the wood for the top as what gave more projection to the guitar. I also tried with Nomex but the results were not as expected.

GC: How much of the work done in your workshop is by hand vs. machinery??

AR: The use of machinery we keep to a minimum, we only have a small bandsaw and a belt sander, just for some minor cuts and bone sanding, for the rest of the work we use traditional methods. I believe that people put their soul in what they make but machines don’t, I think that this is the way to build an instrument that reaches people’s heart. ( The workshop looked busy but I didn’t hear the sound of machines at all for two hours, also when looking around I could only see the two small machines that Amalia commented and plenty of traditional hand tools and fixtures)

GC: What about the internal reinforcement, do you use kerfed or solid lining and/or zoquetillos (tentellones), do you have a preferred choice?

AR: With the exception of the Conservatorio model, on all of our guitars we use zoquetillos for joining the top to the ribs and lining for the back.
We are building a reproduction of the guitar that Manuel Ramirez gave to Andrés Segovia, you can see this guitar in the Metropolitan Museum of N.Y.
This guitar top is joined to the ribs using “refuerzo Picado” – Kerfed lining – in order to make a lighter joint.

GC: Do you use zoquetillos mostly for that reason?

AR: They make a difference sound wise but also they add to the quality of the building process, every component adapts to the other in a better and lighter way. In the flamenco guitar is even more noticeable in the sound, because we left a bigger space between them.

GC: What materials and techniques do you use for finishing?

AR: My father did a lot of experimentation in this area, he pretended to get away from shellac because it doesn’t offer much protection and dries in the form of small crystals that doesn’t help for good sound transmission. Once, my father tried some oil finish and, as always, his “guinea pig” was Andres Segovia and there is a funny anecdote here.
This kind of finishing material takes a long time to fully cure, my father even used infrared lamps to speed up the process but Andres Segovia was too impatient waiting for the guitar to give it a try, so he continuously asked my father, “Ramirez how is the guitar going?”. One day my father touched the guitar and said, “ok, it’s ready, time to call Maestro Segovia”, so he gave it to him, after few days the guitar was back on the workshop and, surprise, one of the ribs was full of Segovia’s arm hair, the finish looked like it was cured to the touch but it softened with corporal heat as it wasn’t fully cured. This was my father’s first and last experience with an oil finish. One day, an umbrella seller came into the shop and when my father touched the handle of one of them, he looked at the finish and said: “this is what I want for my guitar”. This person put my father in touch with the chemist that was doing this varnish so with his help and after some modifications he obtained the finishing material he was looking for. This varnish had great elasticity and dried in wide crystals, after years of using it some of the components used for its formula were prohibited, so my father had to look for new material. From then we have been using a special polyurethane formula very similar to the previous one. There are people that prefer the sound of the guitars finished with shellac and the French polish technique, it does respect the natural sound of the wood but it doesn’t add anything at all to it, unlike our varnish that if applied properly and with the pass of time it melts with the wood itself and makes the guitar sound better with use. The finish material that we apply is specially formulated to be used on guitars and we use traditional techniques that have nothing to do with the ones used on mass produced guitars and furniture industry. I am convinced that every guitarist with his playing, leaves a personal footprint on the soundboard.

GC: So, do you believe that a properly applied polyurethane finish, if correctly applied, it is superior compared to shellac?

AR: Yes, it gives better and more durable protection, contributes more to the overall sound of the guitar. But that is my opinion, for that reason we offer French polish finishing to any customer that may ask for it.

GC: What are your thoughts about the situation of the Spanish guitar globally and here in Spain?

AR: I believe that the classical guitar has a very delimited market, that if it grows it is little by little. Spanish guitar enthusiasts are very passionate, this is a people’s musical instrument and it will be always present everywhere.

GC: Do you think, being this funny enough, that the Spanish Guitar has more promotion abroad than here in Spain?

AR: Yes, without any doubt. Once, we went to Italy with other Spanish guitar builders for a conference. In the first rows, there were a few Italian colleagues and when we finish the conference, they came to talk with us. One of the questions they made was “How much institutional support do you have?”, we have to say for their surprise “none”. In other countries like, for example, Germany there are building schools that are supported by the government.

It would be great to be able to create a center dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Spanish guitar and also to impart classes about history, building and playing. A place for the exchange of scores, courses, concerts, and exhibitions. The Spanish guitar is our culture, identity, tradition, and art, we should take great care of it.

GC: What is ahead for you in the near future?

AR: Right now, we are much involved with our latest “Conservatorio” model, but there are some projects and ideas on my mind that I have to work on.

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