A Look at French Guitar Making Since 1850

By Daniel Friederich 
Translated by Robert Page 
Thanks to Danielle Ribouillault for permission to reprint this article. 

This article is adapted from a longer piece which appeared in Les Cahiers de la Guitare, Numbers 41 and 42.

In 1950s France, you could count on one hand the professional guitarists capable of giving a one-hour concert,and accomplished guitar makers were just as rare. Just as the general level of guitarists has soared in the past five decades, that of the instrument builders has also gone up. Never in the last hundred or more years have there been as many original and talented luthiers in France as there are today.

To understand where French guitar making stands now, it is important to understand its history.

In the middle of the 19th century, Paris was the uncontested capital of cabinet making and instrument making in France. Pianos, organs, fine string and wind instruments were constructed in large quantities. But the production of guitars was much smaller.

For guitars, it was only in the little town of Mirecourt in the Vosges Mountains, ancient center of stringed instrument manufacture, where large numbers were made. At the same time, working in Paris were two very famous luthiers who dominated guitar making of the 19th century. Rene Lacote and Etienne La Prevotte were two of the most prominent of a small group of guitar makers who carried on diligent research that would pave the way for future developments.

The guitar of that time was a bit smaller, and can be compared to what today is known as the romantic guitar. With a smaller body, a shorter string length, gut strings and a narrower neck, it was easier to play but possessed a sound less rich although in some ways clearer than today's guitars. However, the guitar began flagging in popularity because of the rise of the piano.

As the Cottin brothers, popular guitarists, singers and composers of the period, wrote in 1892:

...the principal cause of the abandonment of the guitar was the perfecting of the piano-forte, the study of which attracted all those with musical ambitions, and little by little the guitar was forgotten (Manuel du luthier, in L'Encyclopedie Roret, 1894, p.223)

Around 1850 the modern classical guitar appears in Andalusia

While interest in the guitar was on the wane in France, historic advances were being made across the Spanish border. While the tiny town of Mirecourt continued to produce guitars in the romantic style, it was neither there nor in Paris where the instrument would undergo the changes that would transform it into the 20th century instrument we know today. Rather it was in Andalusia, Spain where Antonio Torres, a good observer and professional cabinet maker, brought together developments in construction already in use by separate makers. In 1853, he introduced his synthesis with some variations. We see in those guitars a body sometimes larger (from 35 to 36 cm), a bridge like today's, a thinner sound board with a fan bracing (created also in Andalusia 70 years earlier) and a wider fretboard.

That guitar had much more body and depth of tone. It was more pleasing and was adopted by such influential guitarists as Julian Arcas and Francisco Tarrega.

That type of construction gradually won the day in Madrid where Jose Ramirez I directed his workshop and taught his younger brother Manuel who applied in his own work the concepts of Torres. One of Jose Ramirez's students was Julian Gomez-Ramirez who went to France and set up shop in Paris (possibly before 1919) to take advantage of the resurgence of the guitar there. (He is mentioned at that date in the directory Musique-Adresses as having already moved into 38 rue Rodier, Paris. This is the earliest trace found of him before his official listing in the commercial register from 1920 to 1940.)

Two guitar styles at the turn of the century

We see then that, along with the still popular romantic guitar, there appeared in France a demand for the new Spanish style guitars. Romantic guitars were still being produced at Mirecourt well into the 20th century, many of them were very well made and had ivory purfling which was then in vogue.

Yet the 1912 store catalogs of Joseph Fissore in Paris and P'lisson-Guinot-Blanchon in Lyon display only modern Spanish guitars. Just before the First World War, the popular catalog of the manufacture of weapons and bicycles known as Saint-Etienne advertised both types of guitars: it was truly a period of transition.

Julian Gomez-Ramirez introduced in Paris the new Spanish concepts which had major consequences for French luthery. He taught Robert Bouchet who had bought a guitar from him in 1938. Bouchet himself started to build guitars after the Second World War. Bouchet passed on his knowledge to Christian Aubin, and later, Aubin would go on to teach the author of this article in 1954.

We have been concerned only with the nylon string classical guitar played with the right hand fingers, which was very appreciated in artistic circles. But other types of guitars with steel strings also had success in France in accompaniment and solo performance for jazz, tango and popular dance music.

The Italians arrive

During the 1930s, the guitar was played by such popular musicians as the singer Tino Rossi, and a jazz artist like Django Reinhardt took it to the highest level of esteem and created a demand which was satisfied by the new luthiers who came with the cabinetmakers from Italy to Paris during the 20s. Some of them came from Catania, Sicily, a manufacturing center which furnished a lot of cheap instruments for the popular music market.

The first to open a workshop in Paris was V. Jacobacci whose workmen were to become many of the luthiers of the future.

These new arrivals were named Pappalardo, Di Mauro, Amico, Anastasio, Busato, Bucolo, Castelluccia, Favino, Oliveri, Burgasssi, Martella, Grizzo, Rossito, Petilio, etc. They built mandolins, banjos and guitars in large quantities.

They worked hard and produced very fairly priced instruments. Some of their sons, like Pappalardo, Favino, Anastasio and Castelluccia, still carry on their family enterprises today.

One of these emigres had a remarkable international destiny. His name was Mario Maccaferri, born at the beginning of the century near Bologna.

Having studied guitar playing and guitar making with Luigi Mozzani in that city, he moved to Paris in 1919, then to London (according to Tom Evans) and began a career as guitarist, luthier, engineer and business man. Around 1930 he developed three guitar models for the French firm of Selmer: classical, jazz or orchestra, and Hawaiian. The classical and jazz models had a unique appearance and featured a large cut-away on the upper bout so the left hand could easily reach the highest notes.

Classical guitarists did not adopt that feature, but jazz players made it a great success, Django Reinhardt first and foremost. The production of these guitars by Selmer lasted only a short time because of a disagreement between the two partners. The design eventually entered the public domain and was taken up for many years by the Italian luthiers of Paris.

Just before the Second World War (1939-1945) Maccaferri emigrated to the United States and started a successful company that made clarinet and saxophone reeds. Shortly after 1954 he invested a lot of money in the manufacture of plastic guitars which were cleverly designed and very affordable, but they proved to be a failure. However, his ukuleles made of the same material became a huge success and more than nine million were sold.

The 1930s

The Italians of Paris were not the only guitar makers in France at that time. Large numbers of mandolins, banjos and guitars, among other instruments, were being made by Frenchmen in Mirecourt.

Construction methods were very similar: in most cases everyone used curved plywood backs and sides with sliced veneers of fine woods. Between two layers of this rare wood was sandwiched a layer of slightly stronger ordinary wood like poplar or mahogany. By gluing and clamping the wood sheets a curved guitar back that was strong and inexpensive was formed in a mold, thus avoiding the time-consuming work of joinery. The necks and bridges were prefabricated by specialists in Mirecourt or Paris, while the soundboards were made by the various luthiers according to their designs.

Guitarists who wanted a solid wood instrument made from rosewood or other sawn woods (not sliced veneers) had to pay much more and could order from Julian Gomez-Ramirez (1879-1943) on the Rue Rodier in Paris, whose construction was of high quality.

Guitars from master Spanish luthiers were bought by a few devoted amateur and professional players, among them the well-known animal trainer Martin Guerre who owned several fine guitars including one by Francisco Simplicio. (It was a Simplicio guitar that I tried to copy briefly in 1955 to make my own first guitar.)

While instruments by Domingo Esteso, Santos Hernandez, Torres and Manuel Ramirez were highly appreciated in France, guitar dealers sold mostly guitars made in France. That afforded regular work to many builders, though it was poorly paid. These habits changed progressively beginning in 1955 and the opening of the common market.

In 1940, war came. People stayed at home and traveled less. However, a few guitar circles existed during that period such as The Friends of the Guitar, organized by Andre Verdier, which met on the Rue Saint-Louis-en-loile in Paris. Several classical guitar teachers such as Romain Worchech, Jean Borresdon, Jean Lafon and Martial Farrail gave basic instruction, but it wasn't until after the war and the advent of nylon strings that the popularity of the classical guitar grew swiftly along with that of the steel string guitar.

The guitar flourishes in the 1950s

Several guitar styles came into fashion during the 1950s. Andres Segovia performed regularly in Paris: his concerts were well attended and drew critical attention. Many singer-songwriters appeared accompanying themselves on the guitar (the new troubadours) and quickly became famous like Henri Salvador, Felix Leclerc and Georges Brassens. The public discovered with rapture the Ballets de l'Amerique latine which visited Paris in 1952 accompanied by the Quatre Guanis with their charangos, guitars, cuatros and harps playing new rhythms with sonorous names: Bailecito, Chacarera, Zamba, Carnavalito, Malambo which remained popular for 25 years performed by the uncontested masters Atahualpa Yupangui and Eduardo Fal.

There was also the music for the film Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games also known today as Romance or Spanish Ballad) played by Narciso Yepes that everybody wanted to play. And the duo Presti-Lagoya enjoyed a triumphant career up until the tragic death of Ida Presti in 1967.

The flamenco guitar was not to be outdone and Robert Vidal presented a weekly radio broadcast called Sortileges du Flamenco (Flamenco Magic). He also founded the Concours International de Guitare on the radio in 1958.

Just as at the beginning of the 19th century, Paris welcomed classical guitarists from around the world.

In 1954 Spaniards like Jose-Maria Sierra and Ramon Cueto played almost every night in a little basement spot called Club plein Vente (42 Rue Descartes) where the excellent French guitarist Christian Aubin also often performed on his fine Torres. Other foreign arrivals were Antonio Membrado, Miguel Castaos, Manuel Carrion and Alberto Ponce who won first prize in the Radio France and many other competitions.

They all came with their Spanish guitars and the first Ignacio Fleta guitars showed up in Paris in 1955 in the hands of Sierra and Cueto. They were immediately greatly admired and gradually caused the guitars of Torres, Manuel Ramirez, Esteso, Simplicio, Garcia, etc. to be put back in their cases.

Other makers, such as Conde Hermanos, Mateu, Vicente Camacho, Arcangel Fernandez and De la Chica, found a place on the French market where they sold hundreds of their instruments.

French builders generally could not produce this type of guitar in solid wood of the highest quality which required special techniques as well as special procedures for the marquetry and the purfling. They were accustomed to simple neck joints and rapid manual operations and so left that higher quality construction to the Spaniards. To satisfy the great demand, they turned out countless moderately priced guitars both at Mirecourt and in Paris.

However, a few determined Parisians decided to construct high quality instruments along the lines of the Spaniards. None of them were originally luthiers.

The first was Robert Bouchet, a painter and illustrator who had played the guitar off and on for a long time and who had watched Julian Gomez-Ramirez at work in Paris (and afterward Marcelo Barbero shortly before his death in 1956). A sharp observer and very clever with his hands, he produced guitars, using poor quality materials, starting in 1950 and these were surprising for their good sustain and generally fine characteristics.

Ida Presti, around 1958, was won over, as were Alexandre Lagoya (who met her at Bouchet's workshop) and Julian Bream. Orders then began flooding in from all over and a happy time began for him. He perfected his original bracing system for his soundboards preserving the traditional seven-bar fan but adding a small transversal brace under the bridge (which he had noticed in his 100-year-old Lacote).

The second was Christian Aubin, a young professional guitarist who gained his technical guitar making knowledge from Bouchet. In 1952 Aubin had completely taken apart and reconstructed his Torres guitar which he had dropped. He was bitten by the guitar making bug and started making copies of his restored guitar that were very easy to play and close to the original.

He had the kindness to initiate me in turn in 1955. He spent several hours teaching me the general principles of Spanish style construction. That is to say: how to join the neck to the body by making two saw cuts on either side of the heel where the guitar sides are inserted, how to glue the braced soundboard to the end of the neck at the top of the heel, then after inserting and gluing the sides, as well as the bottom lining, the backing of the sides and the small blocks of wood to which the top is attached, proceeding to fit and glue the solid wood back, all done in an exterior mold containing the instrument.

Already established as a cabinetmaker, at the end of 1959 I launched my career as professional guitar maker and decided to show one of my guitars (it must have been the fifteenth) to Robert Bouchet who welcomed me with his usual cordiality. The instrument must have been quite rudimentary, but he gave me advice without discouraging me and afterward I paid him visits which were both educational and friendly .

In 1962 Alexandre Lagoya introduced me to the musical acoustics laboratory of the University of Paris VI. Our guitaristic directions at the time were moving in separate directions. I was 30 years old and still had much to experience, but like Robert Bouchet, I built my first guitar for my personal use lacking the money to buy one and possessing a burning curiosity.

During that time in Paris there was also a talented man who built high quality guitars in his dining room. His name was David Enesa who was destined to pass away in 1957 from a throat ailment.

A little before 1960 Antonio Luis-Lopez, a young luthier from Granada and nephew of De la Chica, set up shop in Paris. Having to contend, like French luthiers, with the Spanish competition he gallantly took his chances and worked hard up until he passed away from an illness in 1990.

In Marseille Arthur Carbonell II was actively producing fine guitars until he ended his very full career in 1975. His father had been a guitar maker in Valencia before he opened a workshop in Marseille around 1922 where he taught his son the craft. After the second world war the son turned to the construction of concert guitars (numbered from about 300 to 580). He taught the craft to Joel Laplane who took over the workshop in 1975.

Around 1960 in Lyon, Alexandre Boyadjian, who had been a cabinetmaker and played a little guitar for some time, began building. He set up a professional workshop in 1963 and still makes guitars today.

Here ends the list of the principal high quality guitar makers whom I am familiar with.

1960: the decline of Mirecourt and the success of Spanish luthery

At this time the workers at Mirecourt were leaving their jobs. After centuries of earning a well-deserved reputation as violin and guitar makers, they were still being badly paid and so gradually they left to work at the American military base in Etain or elsewhere. French guitar dealers had developed a taste for the instruments imported from Japan, Spain, Germany and Czechoslovakia and the last two large factories in Mirecourt closed in 1967 and 1969.

In 1992, after all those years of instrument making, there were only four artisan guitar builders left, the two Gerome brothers, Claude Patenotte and his assistant, along with five or six violin makers. The school of luthery which was started a few years ago in Mirecourt so far offers training only in violin and bow making but there is reason to hope for a renewal of interest in guitar making there.

The 1960s saw the triumph of fine Spanish guitar making and its leading masters. Ignacio Fleta and his two sons in Barcelona hold the first place for quality and fame. John Williams, Alberto Ponce, Turibio Santos, Oscar Caceres, Eduardo Falu, Segovia, and J�rgen Klatt were their ambassadors.

Nevertheless, the guitar was still very popular at that time in France and the demand was met by the so-called Italian makers of Paris along with the workshops of Chauvet, Mouly, Segalas and Fontaine (who specialized in 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 sizes and was notable as a pioneer in France for his total investment in semi industrial production which reached approximately 6,000 guitars per year!), as well as the brothers Gerome, Louis Patenotte, and Henri Miller at Mirecourt. They all constructed large numbers of moderately priced folk, jazz and classical guitars.

As for high quality instruments, Antonio Ruiz-Lopez, a luthier belonging to the Paris Academy of the Guitar, around 1964-65 taught Francois Perrin who had just finished his violin making apprenticeship at Mirecourt. Perrin worked for the guitar academy up until 1968 when he opened his own workshop and produced fine guitars until 1974, then he went back to successfully making bowed string instruments.

Ruiz-Lopez also taught Guy Daurat who later turned to building viol de gambas and other instruments of that family.

1970: expansion of Spanish luthery

Around this time a guitar builder in Madrid, Jose Ramirez III, saw his fame grow from year to year when Yepes, Segovia, Lagoya, Ghiglia and hundreds of others started using his instruments. He had a great worldwide success and was able to meet the demand while not neglecting the quality of construction nor the newly developed, very durable polyester varnish of his best model.

Several of his workers set up shops of their own, Manuel Contreras in 1962, Paulino Bernabe in 1969. Madrid became an important center for high quality guitar making. Granada also saw an exponential increase in its guitar makers, while the mass production of guitars stayed traditionally concentrated in Valencia.

These contemporary guitars are more difficult to play and are heavier than earlier guitars, requiring better technique but giving more power, nuances and variations of tone and dynamics.

At the same time Victor Bedikian, Pierre Jaffre and Daniel Lesueur in Paris started building high quality guitars. The sons of the so-called Italian luthiers of Paris, like Antoine Papparlardo, Jacques Castelluccia and Jean-Pierre Favino, became interested in making finer guitars.

French luthiery picks up the challenge

Happily for French guitar makers (well-named guitarreros in Spanish) imitation and conformity has not been the rule. Previously, when Segovia or another famous maestro changed his guitar, he brought along a whole camp of followers, amateurs or professionals, who had to have the same guitar. That state of affairs is much less apparent today. Guitar teachers and professional musicians try to find the instruments that suit best their tone, their attack, and work best for their style of playing.

That has given more opportunities for today's luthiers. In France the network of high quality builders has grown and extends to almost all parts of the country. Some of the new names who should be mentioned are: Olivier Fanton d'Andon in Chateaudun, Bruno Perrin in Toulon, Michel Donadey and Joel Laplane in Marseille, Dominique Delarue in Carpentras, Thierry Jacquet and Martine Montassier in Montpellier, Pascal Quinson near Montauban, Antonio Arroyo in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Richard Caro and Jean-Luc Joie in Bordeaux, Maurice Dupont in Cognac, Pierre Abondance near Nontron, Jean-Marie Fouilleul near Rennes, J.C. Malherbe in Ploughgauven, Alain Raifort in Tours, Dominique Field, Alain Quequiner, Dominique Bouge and Vincent Corbiere in Paris, and Corbelari, Bertrand Martin, Vincenti and Maurice Ottiger in neighboring Switzerland.

Today there are some 70 workshops in France for the repair and construction of all sorts of classical guitars. As I said at the beginning, the general level of quality has much improved. One reason for this was the acceptance of classical guitar makers around 1980 in the Concours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France Competition). That allowed many luthiers to be rewarded along side the winners of the Concours International des maitres guitariers (International Competition of Master Guitar Makers ) organized by Robert Vidal.

A Short History of the Concours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

To create a chef-d'oeuvre so as to gain the title of qualified craftsman (called compagnon, or companion, in the past), to arrive in time at the level of mastery needed to open a workshop and be recognized by the older masters of the craft is a practice hundreds of years old.

Henri IV in 1599 established precise statutes for the incorporation of music instrument makers in Paris which included apprentices, craftsmen and masters. According to these statutes the sons of master craftsmen could take on their fathers titles without producing a chef-d'oeuvre and the fathers, in their role as master-judges of works submitted, awarded such titles less and less frequently. The result was that master craftsmen were selected from a more and more narrow circle, sometimes just from within families.

As a result, beginning in the 16th century artisans sought to organize themselves more closely than before independent of their employers. Brotherhoods of craftsmen took on more importance and became organizations designed for struggle, solidarity and the professional and spiritual education of its members. Quasi-religious rules evolved which embraced obligatory celibacy, baptism and attribution of a new name, rigorous customs, initiation ceremonies around an altar and belief in Christianity.

Little by little the various fraternities of artisans developed their own networks in France and established for members aspiring to the title of companion their own requirements above and beyond the obligatory production of a chef d'oeuvre.

But opening a workshop of one's own remained just as difficult of attainment and just as costly.

By the end of the 18th century the winds of liberty were felt blowing and in 1791, in a spirit of equality, the Constituent Assembly completely eliminated those corporations and forbade masters and companions from entitling themselves either presidents or secretaries, from associating with one another, from keeping registers, etc. It declared that everyone was free to exercise whatever profession, art or trade they pleased.

However, crafts societies were reborn after the Restoration in 1815 and they reached a peak in 1848. The dawn of the 20th century saw these organizations again put to the test by the growth of industrialization and unionism.

During the 19th century the right to work at the profession of one's choice remained in effect but to have the title of compagnon was still an advantageous and honorable distinction.

Certain requirements of the old crafts societies have been retained by the Best Craftsmen of France Competition and its parent organization, the M.O.F.

Founding of the M.O.F

In 1924 the French government decided to reward excellence in manual work by giving the title of One of the best workers in France to creators of hand-made articles chosen by a jury in order to improve professional education, strengthen the corporate spirit, develop the taste and the attachment of the worker, the craftsman and the technician to their occupation, to allow each one to express their personality, taste, initiative and enjoy the benefits of their labor. (First article of the general regulations)

The entry must be a very traditional instrument as described in the competition's official instructions. Obviously not all the luthiers in France can compete at the same time, but all instruments worthy of the M.O.F. designation receive their rewards. Each contest can have one or several or no outstanding guitars. A luthier who is awarded the title of M.O.F. becomes officially qualified as master.