I'm delighted to have Amalia Ramírez from José Ramírez, Madrid, Spain.
Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?
Actually, our history is too old and long to summarise here. Our workshop is the oldest in terms of Spanish guitars, handed down from from parents to sons. The founder was my great-grandfather, José Ramírez I, who learned this business when he was 12 in 1870. However, the latest research shows that there is a possibility that his father, who was a member of a woodworkers' trade union, as well as all the other guitar makers of that period, might have been also a guitar maker given that his three sons, José, Manuel and Antonio, were guitar makers. José taught guitar making to his younger brother, Manuel, as well as to his son José (Ramírez II). José (Ramírez II), in the same way, handed his knowledge down to his son, José (Ramírez III). And then, José (Ramírez III) handed it down to my brother José (Ramírez IV) and me. Currently, I manage the business and am teaching this business to my nephews (sons of José Ramírez IV): José Enrique (Ramírez V) and Cristina. Many great guitar makers originated in the school of my family such as: Santos Hernández, Domingo Esteso, Enrique García, Modesto Borreguero, and others. The truth is that our workshop played a fundamental role in the guitar makers of the Madrid school.
Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?
I think a guitar should be rich in nuances, colour, with a great capability to respond and adapt to the playing style of a guitarist. The guitar should evolve with the player. The volume is important but it shouldn't be traded off against sound quality. I enjoy listening to guitarists who are able to produce multiple colours from one guitar as if he was painting with his music. To achieve this sound, I follow the guide of my ancestors, particularly my father, Ramírez III, whilst always respecting the foundation upon which I work. They made a mark on their work and research, adding details that helped them to evolve their guitar building. The Ramírez sound is very characteristic. Conserving this sound is of fundamental importance to me within the scope of our innovations and changes.
Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?
In the time of my father, our guitars were known for being "guitars for huge hands" and it was necessary to learn how to play them. My brother has made an effort to improve playability by lowering the action, making the neck slightly narrower and introducing a mount system that has brought greater stability allowing all the guitars to have a more similar structure. However, it is not so easy to change people's impressions once our guitars were labelled as very large instruments; there are still people who think our guitars are difficult to play when it is not true. A guitar which is easy to play has to have the right action striking a balance between gaining major comfort and avoiding buzzing. Also the width of the neck is important as well as the scale. Our guitars with 650mm scale are more comfortable to play than 664mm scale, though 664mm guitars still have more projection. My brother achieved that 650mm scale instruments have more volume than previous guitars of the same scale. Our measurements and proportions are almost 100% accepted by our clients. However, it is important that our clients know that they can come to our workshop so we can do more personalised adjustment according to their requirements: action, playing style, personal taste. It is not common but we offer this as an option.
Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).
We use both varnishing techniques. However, we are more in favour of synthetic varnishing, at least, of the one we use. In fact, because French polish hardly protects the wood, it is necessary to be renewed periodically, particularly the entire neck because it deteriorates through use, whilst our synthetic varnish does protect the wood. The crystals through the crystallisation process of French polish are too small, thus it doesn't improve the transmission of sonic waves throughout the grain of the wood, whilst the synthetic varnish that we apply is rich and flexible, resulting in spacious crystals that assist suitable transmission of sonic waves.
Moreover, though the pores are covered with the initial primer, the varnish improves the sound of the instrument after some time, by being mixed up with the resin of the wood. Vibration on vibration on the soundboard is going to be "printed" according to the way the guitarist plays the instrument; when the guitar is played again and again in a certain way, the sound of the guitar will be merged with the own sound of the guitarist. This phenomenon is more noticeable, in my opinion, with the synthetic varnish that we apply in comparison to French polish.
Q5. Please tell us your opinion regarding shorter-scale guitars such as 640, 628 and 615mm in terms of playability, design, sound quality and volume. Is there an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?
The short-scale guitars are easier to play, but as the scale becomes shorter it can lose its quality and, of course, power. There is, indeed, demand of short-scale guitars for smaller-handed players, and because of that we eventually decided to offer the option of 638mm scale. Within modern guitars, it still keeps an acceptable quality in terms of sound, but its projection is lower. In the case of early instruments, with a suitable proportion, the sound can be very beautiful though their projection is more of an intimate character.
Q6. Many readers say they end up being very confused after trying many guitars. Could you give us some advice on how to examine the guitars' sound quality and playability at a shop or luthier, from the guitar-maker's point of view?
The best advice, in my opinion, is that you choose a guitar that makes you feel better following your heart. If you test many guitars, you will, no doubt, end up getting confused. In that case, I'd suggest that you reflect overnight. Let, at least, one day go by and choose the guitar that keeps you awake.
Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?
Of course. After-sales service is fundamental. Satisfaction of the clients is not only that they take a guitar that they like but also we offer them any necessary adjustment. If a guitar suffers any accident, we also repair it and it will be left as new. We advise clients, without entering any commitments, on what is most suitable for the guitar. However, we always include advice on the best preservation of guitars in a pamphlet (also available on our web). It is very important that owners of the guitar read it carefully to avoid possible problems.
Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?
We have replaced Brazilian rosewood with Madagascar rosewood, which is very similar in density and appearance. In any case, we have to adapt to anything that life brings us. However, as far as possible, we continue to be somewhat "prehistoric" in many aspects of our way of guitar making. Because we like interacting with the wood using the tools we have been using through generations. It allows us feel close to the guitar. We like the touch, and the attention we pay to the guitar which is taking its shape in our hands.
Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?
I think what is made with love and knowledge will always find its path to move forward. So I'm optimistic.