Articles

The following article written by Paul Fuller originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal. All photos used in this webpage were taken by Jason Yoshida.



If It Ain't Baroque . . .
Jack Sanders tries to capture the Strad magic

For the past 500 years, the guitar has been the most popular instrument in Western culture. Originating in Spain in the Late Middle Ages, it quickly became the instrument of royalty across Europe. Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were avid guitarists; in 1812, Napoleon gave Empress Marie-Louise a guitar made by Pons Fils. During the Baroque era (1600-1750), there was more music published for guitar than for any other solo instrument.

As the Baroque period was peaking, so was the greatest name in lutherie. Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) ranks supreme in the stringed-instrument community; the rarity (and high auction prices) of his instruments has created an intense mystique surrounding the grandfather of Western lutherie. Not too long ago, at a Christie's auction, the famed "Hammer" Stradivarius violin sold for a record $3.54 million.

Not only did Stradivari make violins and cellos, but he also made mandolins and guitars, which embody the same precision, tone and craftsmanship of his other instruments. But, because there are only three surviving Stradivarius guitars (and just two mandolins), most people don't know about them.

Jack Sanders, a well-known performer and head of the guitar-performance program at Pomona College, is one of few luthiers in the country who build replicas of Stradivarius guitars. Recently, he invited me to his Southern California shop to talk about the genius behind Stradivari's guitar design and a rebirth of the music that started the European guitar craze.

A few years ago, Sanders was a guest faculty member for a semester at CalArts. A group of fellow students and I heard that he was a builder, so we twisted his arm to teach a beginning lutherie class. Each week, he would bring in different instruments to demonstrate building and repair techniques. One week, he brought in his first copy of the Stradivarius guitar.

To learn Stradivari's construction techniques, Sanders had visited one of the surviving guitars at the National Music Museum (formerly known as America's Shrine to Music Museum) in Vermillion, South Dakota, on a research grant awarded by Pomona College. While there, he was given access to all the museum's records of the guitar, including X-rays of the instrument's bracing pattern.

The NMM instrument, now commonly referred to as the "Rawlins" Stradivari, has a comfortable 640-millimeter string length and is the most refined and beautifully detailed of the three survivors. Built at the beginning of the "Golden Age" (1700-1720), the Rawlins guitar has a beautiful ebony and ivory veneer on the back of the neck, elegant headstock veneers and an ebony decoration on the lower soundboard that gives the guitar a certain feminine charm.

strad

The other two Stradivarius guitars--one at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, the other at the Stradivari Museum in Cremona, Italy--are larger than the Rawlins and were constructed during the builder's "Brescian" (early) period, likely for Roman musicians. At that time, Sanders explains, the fashion in Rome was to play very low-pitched instruments--a genuine Italian baritone-guitar fad!

What first drew Sanders to these period instruments was the music, and how can you blame him? Baroque guitar music is intoxicating. The music can dance joyously, like a sort of European fiddle tune, or slowly sing a sweet melody fit for a king. During my visit with Sanders, he was playing some beautiful Baroque guitar music on his stereo, and as the music saturated the Port Orford cedar walls of his workshop, you couldn't help but be transported to another time.

"Baroque guitars are just becoming popular again," he says. "Thirty years ago, it was rare to hear this music played on period instruments, and few luthiers were making the instruments. Now, it is becoming commonplace for classical guitarists to perform on vihuela and Baroque guitar, as well as 19th century Romantic guitars."

What started out of necessity has now become a passion for Sanders, and his building style keeps alive the spirit of the period. He shows me his wood stash: giant slabs of flamed maple, which he uses for the back and sides, and 50-year-old Egyptian boxwood, which is hand-turned into the tuning pegs. As I inspect his delicate gold-leafed rosette design, Sanders can only laugh as he explains the three-day process.

Sanders' guitars are surprisingly rich and full-bodied for their size, and many musicians have taken notice. Despite a busy performance and teaching schedule, he has already built guitars for Andy Summers and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The time and attention to detail it takes to create a Stradivarius replica is daunting, but it also helps explain what makes the ancient Stradivarius guitar so special. The shapes are elegant, and the proportions are flawless.

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"He built in a very refined manner," Sanders explains, "with excellent joinery, design and aesthetics. His sense of style is unmatched."

Before long, Sanders offers to play me some of his favorite pieces, taking me on a tour through his various instruments. He plays "Campanas del Alba," by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza, on a modern-style classical guitar, and then picks up a replica of a 16th century Spanish vihuela--the second guitar he ever built--followed by a 19th century, Rene Lacote-inspired 10-string guitar. Finally, Sanders demonstrates his Baroque guitar technique on his very first Stradivarius copy.

As the gut strings ring out and fill his small basement workshop with sound, it suddenly seems very likely that Stradivari's designs will last another 300 years.

Here is a link to Jason Yoshida's website where he is playing Jacaras by Gaspar Sanz on a Strad copy built for him by Jack Sanders. http://www.jasonyoshida.com/instruments/baroque_guitar.htm