Jose Romanillos and the Evolution of the Spanish Guitar

By Brad Mahon

Originally Published in our Classical Issue

Through a deeply successful professional career—one that includes the titles: luthier, musicologist, author, and pedagogue—Jose Luis Romanillos (b.1932) has earned an important place in the history of the classical guitar. The legendary builder has produced many significant instruments following in the great Spanish tradition—a mold cast by Antonio de Torres (1817-1892)—and has been called “The Most Important Builder of the 20th Century” and “The Stradivarius of the Spanish Guitar.” Guitar Connoisseur was fortunate to secure some of the Master’s time to discuss his influences, inspirations, Torres, Julian Bream, and his historic roles as a builder, scholar, and teacher—a full life that recently resulted in Romanilllos receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Alicante, Spain.

Guitar Connoisseur: Regarding your early days: who were your initial influences? Can you talk about who or what specifically inspired you? Why did the art of guitar building call to you?

Jose Romanillos: I was not inspired by anything in particular, but being Spanish I was naturally drawn to flamenco music and wanted to learn to play the flamenco guitar. Unable to buy a guitar, I decided to make one. That decision changed my life, as after six months of work in my spare time, using the kitchen table as a bench, I finished the instrument. What followed was my decision to investigate the development of the Spanish guitar, how it was made, and also by whom.

GC: Early in your career, Julian Bream championed your instruments; tell us about your professional life before Bream in comparison to your life after Bream’s endorsement—how impactful was he in your career?

JR: Before I met Julian Bream I had already made some guitars in London, Madrid, and Berwick St. James, which had been used in concert work by Carlos Bonell and Gilbert Biberian. At the time I met Bream I was working as a cabinet maker in Salisbury and making guitars in my spare time in Berwick St. James, a village about 20 miles from Semley, the village where Bream lived. On our return to England from Spain in 1968, my wife Marian had found a house in Stapleford without knowing that Julian lived nearby. A photograph in the local press of a Spaniard making guitars in the area brought me to the attention of a musician in Salisbury. He bought one of my guitars and managed to arrange an interview with Julian. He tried one of my guitars and asked me if I was going to make any more. I answered that I was working on four guitars. He asked if he could try them when I finished them. I took the next four guitars I made to show him and he kept one for a month. Although he did not buy this guitar he asked me if I would like to work in the milking parlor where David Rubio had worked for a few months. In 1970 I became a professional guitar maker.

GC: What was your relationship with the maestro? Do you still communicate?

JR: He used my fourth guitar, which was made in Semley in 1970, for the premiere of the piece, Paseo, composed by Peter Racine Fricker, at the Aldeburgh Festival. Three years later he bought the 1973 guitar that he has described as “The finest guitar he ever had…a magnificent guitar.” He used that guitar to make the best and the most recordings of his career. He was a great teacher for me at that time in my early guitar making career. He inspired me, without telling me, just by watching and listening to his deep commitment to looking for beauty in every musical note he played. I found the Parnassus in guitar making with his help. I met writers, poets, musicians, painters, actors, guitarists, and guitar makers. I played cricket with the Bream eleven, and with my own eleven. Twenty years of my life, that seen from a distance, appear as an invisible mirage. We are still in touch with Julian but distance and age came between and we have not seen him for several years.

GC: Antonio de Torres has been called “the most important builder of the 19th century,” and some have called you “the most important builder of the 20th century;” do you see similarities in your respective careers?

JR: Not particularly. He formalized the structure to produce a masterpiece. All I had to do was to understand how he did it and stick to traditional materials.

GC: Your book on Torres is authoritative and so well researched—it is a treasure; how did the idea of the book come to you?

JR: The idea came after I made my first guitar in 1961. I read that Torres was the guitar maker who developed the Spanish guitar and in one trip to Almería in 1973, I visited La Cañada de San Urbano, the district outside the capital of Almería where Antonio de Torres worked in the latter part of his life. I met one of his granddaughters and asked her where I could find the tomb of her grandfather. She did not know where it was, so the following day I returned to La Cañada de San Urbano to see if the local church kept a register of deaths. There was a register but there was no information about Torres. On my return to England, I decided that as soon as I could go back to Almería I would try to find where Torres was buried.

GC: How long did you research your book?

JR: After fourteen years of research, and with my wife’s help, I published my book on Antonio de Torres in 1987.

GC: Your interest in Torres has resulted to three editions/revisions of your book, and much of what is known today regarding the iconic builder comes to us thanks to your research efforts; is there a fourth edition on the horizon?

JR: No fourth edition of my book is planned for at present. There is a lot still to be researched about Torres but that task corresponds to the new generation of organologists.

GC: After all of your explorations of Torres, what do you appreciate most about him as a builder?

JR: His vision to develop the Spanish guitar using the structure of the guitar he found without disturbing the traditional morphology of the instrument. His description on how he used his fingers to “tune” the soundboard follows the Spanish proverb that is “no ciencia sino experiencia”, that is empirical knowledge, the fundamental maxim to follow in guitar making.

GC: Turning back to your guitars, how would you describe the voice of one of your instruments?

JR: What I look for in my instruments is a clear singing voice, well balanced all across the spectrum, with a warm tone and a quick response. To me, these are the characteristic qualities of the ideal Spanish guitar.

GC: As you are very aware of the great Spanish guitar making tradition—its history and progress—how has the sound evolved/changed over the years? Additionally, what important landmarks have occurred in Spanish guitar construction?

JR: I am more than aware of the Spanish guitar making tradition and the development over the centuries. I have published two works in English that deal with part of that history: my book on Antonio de Torres, published in 1987 and translated into German, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, and the Dictionary, The Vihuela de Mano and the Spanish Guitar, about Spanish, plucked and bowed musical instrument makers, published in 2002 covering the years 1200 to 2002. The fundamental landmark was the introduction of the system of struts in the form of an open fan as a means to reduce the thickness, that is, the mass of wood of the soundboard which made the lower bout of the guitar more responsive and conserve the energy passed from the strings. A form of fan-strutting in the center of the lower bout can be seen in a vihuela de mano made by Francisco Sanguino in Sevilla in 1759. This strutting system was rapidly accepted and followed by guitar makers in Andalucía to produce vihuelas and guitars. This instrument can be seen in the Haags Gemeente museum.

GC: Similar to the last question, what have you noticed regarding guitar building over the past generations—what has evolved and/or changed?

JR: Personally, I do not think that there has been any improvement in the Spanish guitar since the time of Torres.

GC: What do you see happening in current classical guitar building scene that excites you?

JR: Excitements, none, only curiosity. Every guitar maker should feel free to produce whatever it takes his/her fancy or wish. I cannot comment on the so-called classical guitar building, as I am only concerned with the Spanish guitar. It will be interesting to read the definition that people give to the classical guitar and why. Time and common sense will tell the value of the instruments in the end despite the pressure of publicity.

GC: Staying with current guitar happenings, who are some of your favorite builders today?

JR: I admire and have a personal affection for Manuel Reyes of Córdoba. I love to hear flamenco music played on his guitars, and of course, my son Liam whose instruments carry with them a youthfulness and continue the tradition of the Romanillos sound.

GC: Speaking of the Romanillos sound, are you still searching for a particular sound, or did you make the instrument you always wanted to?

JR: Yes, I always made my guitars for myself and I have achieved that particular sound that I was looking for, and it seems that particular sound has been appreciated by musicians.

GC: Did you achieve your goal as a builder?

JR: Yes, I have achieved more than I ever dreamed. After more than fifty years fate has been generous with me to put in my way La Medio Siglo guitar, made two years ago, that has responded to the experience gained over the years to produce my greatest guitar. It is so free to respond, so generous with energy, so human in its singing and so benevolent with its sound. I made it as a present for my wife Marian and myself for our fiftieth wedding anniversary.

GC: Not only are you a legendary builder, but you also share this knowledge with others by offering workshops and courses on guitar building—you chose to be generous with your knowledge rather than secretive. How did this all come to be? What made you want to share this information? Why teach?

JR: I had no training on anything in my life with only five years of primary schooling. I learned my cabinet making by watching the elders in the workshop. When I was invited to give a teaching course on guitar making in Canada in 1981, I thought that it would be a good idea to explain my guitar making techniques. I like to help in what I can and share my experiences in the hope that they can be of help to others.

GC: Regarding your book on guitar building: you share your knowledge of instrument construction openly via your workshops and courses, yet your generosity as a teacher does not end with these classes and seminars; you’ve also released videos, and now you’re working on producing a method book on how to make a Spanish guitar too. Please tell us about this project: how did it come about? Where did the idea come from? Was it a natural progression from the workshops? Was this always the next step for you as a teacher?

JR: The lack of recognition of the importance of the instrument itself, of those who have made them over the centuries, led me to write and publish, with the help of my wife Marian, a dictionary about Spanish musical instrument makers. The book about my own guitar making method followed on naturally after the dictionary. Four years ago my wife and I opened a Museum, in Sigüenza, Spain, with the help of local authorities, exhibiting 32 vihuelas de mano and  Spanish guitars from the Romanillos-Harris Archive. The contents of Santos Hernández’s workshop are also exhibited in the Museum. We have built up an Archive of information and cataloged more than 600 guitars and vihuelas, mainly Spanish but also from other countries. It is this work, over more than forty years, which has motivated the University of Alicante to honor me with a doctorate honoris causa.

GC: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

JR: The idea behind writing the book about my own method of guitar making was that I wanted to share my experiences and difficulties that I  encountered as a self-taught guitar maker. This book has been on my mind for many years and I have been preparing it for some time. Finally, it has taken place and we hope to see it published this year. I hope that people will enjoy reading my book and perhaps someone might be inspired to live his dream, like I lived mine, to make the perfect guitar.

GC: Finally, you have inspired so many; who or what inspires you these days?

JR: I am very interested in the vihuela de mano, in its history, development, and construction. I feel that this instrument has not received the interest that it deserves from musicologists and organologists. Although it is the traditional strutted guitar that has received most attention by acousticians.

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