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Inside the Harris Guitar Collection

By Daisy Barringer

Harris poses in his Berkeley home, a Bernard Maybeck Italian-style villa filled with music artifacts and assorted curiosities. (Spencer Brown)

Step inside the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Civic Center campus and you’ll find state-of-the-art classrooms, practice rooms, recording studios and performance halls, plus more than 100 Steinway and Yamaha pianos (with a combined value of over $1 million), a harp studio, a reed-making room, and a suite designed specifically for percussion instruments. Of course, while impressive, these are also all things you’d expect to find at a world-class conservatory.

What you might be surprised to find — if you know where to look (in the John and Lisa Miller Alcove off the dramatic Phyllis Wattis Atrium) — is a historical collection of vintage classical and flamenco guitars made by the great guitar-makers of the 19th and 20th centuries. A collection that is unlike anything else in the world because the valuable guitars are not purely meant to be ogled in their glass cases. They serve an interactive purpose: The conservatory’s guitar students have rare access to play and study them

The Harris Guitar Collection is made possible because of the Harris Guitar Foundation, a charitable endeavor with a mission to promote the classical guitar in the Bay Area and beyond. L. John Harris, who serves as the collection’s president and curator, founded it. While there more than 30 instruments in his arsenal, Harris rotates only 14 at a time in the secure, climate-controlled display. The rest reside at Harris’ Berkeley home.

It won’t surprise anyone that Harris began collecting guitars because of his passion for the instrument. What’s somewhat unusual, however, is that his love developed as a teenager in the 1960s,when kids were listening to Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell’s guitar stylings — not, as Harris was, buying tickets to see the great septuagenarian Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia on his world tour stop in Los Angeles. “I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I fooled around with folk guitar and I fooled around with singing, but what I really loved was that I could use the guitar to play the great composers.”

“THERE ARE LOTS OF STUDENTS WHO REALLY GET IT. … FOR ME, THAT’S THE TREAT.”

— L. John Harris, the enthusiast behind the Conservatory of Music’s rare guitar collection

Harris bought an inexpensive model and started taking lessons, but after college, it mostly gathered dust. It wasn’t until many years and careers (real estate investor, author, artist, filmmaker) later that Harris became a collector. His first acquisition: a Miguel Rodriguez guitar from one of the members of the Romero Guitar Quartet, a classical and flamenco guitar quartet sometimes known as “The Royal Family of the Guitar.” “That was the beginning,” he says. “I didn’t think of myself as a collector; I thought of myself as a player, amateur as I was, but I loved the Rodriguez guitar because it was truly a fabulous instrument.”

As Harris got to know the Romero family, he was inspired to make a documentary film about them for PBS. “During the making of that film,I saw all of their collections. They have hundreds of great guitars, andI just fell for it. I was like, ‘I’ve got to have that one, and I’ve got to have that one.’ So, over the course of the next 10 years, I developed a small collection of maybe 10 or 15 guitars, and that was good enough to promote the idea of what the Romeros called a ‘guitarrada.’”

A guitarrada was the name the Romero family gave to their custom of inviting guests over to play and talk about their guitars. Harris wanted to bring that experience to other collectors and classical guitarists. After Harris hosted a few gatherings in his home, David Tanenbaum, the chair of the conservatory’s guitar department, encouraged him to bring the guitarradas to the conservatory, which is how the first salon featuring legendary guitarist Pepe Romero and guitar-maker Richard Bruné came to be.

“We did that once a year for eight years, and it was a charming evening of music and culture,” Harris says. “The public got to hear the romance of the guitar, the history of the guitar, and stories and anecdotes from Pepe and others. It was so successful that I asked, How can we make this permanent? and How can I bring the students into it?” The answer, he realized, was to create the Harris Guitar Foundation. “The essence of the mission of the foundation became that the Harris Collection would be used to teach students of the guitar the history of their instrument from a structural, aesthetic and musical point of view.” It is also Harris’ way of celebrating his grandfather, Sol Harris, who came to San Francisco from Poland in the early 1900s and launched a successful textile company. “His success has made the collection financially possible and my integrating the collection into the conservatory guitar program is my way of giving back to San Francisco in honor of him.”

Today, Harris meets with students once or twice a month in the alcove where the collection resides and gives a lesson in history and craftsmanship before handing them the cultural artifacts to play. He admits that not every student is interested in this unique opportunity, but that most who do come to the sessions quickly realize it’s a great perk of the conservatory. “There are lots of students who really get it, and the ones that do fall in love, for me, that’s the treat,” he says.

Harris allows young aficionados to perform with various showcase pieces. “They get to bond with that instrument, they get to understand it very deeply, and they get to produce beautiful music that the audience loves,” he says.

It’s these moments that give Harris the most pleasure because, he says, he gets to take the guitars and make them tools again. “Being a collector of anything is often putting things away in a closet— whether it’s your stamp collection or your 10 automobiles that you have in some garage somewhere— and then you bring them out for your personal pleasure, to show to your friends,” he says. “But part of the idea of the foundation is to promote the idea of the guitar as a musical tool as well asa collectible item. The students get to experience both.

Meet three of the most important guitars in his collection:

Manuel Ramirez, 1912, Madrid Top: Spruce; Back and sides: Rosewood (pictured with Harris)

Manuel Ramirez (1864-1916) was heavily influenced by Antonio deTorres (1817-1892), considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar. In 1912, a young Andrès Segovia came to Madrid to perform and asked Ramirez if he could rent one of the guitars made in his shop by Santos Hernández. After Ramirez heard Segovia play, he immediately gifted him the guitar. That guitar now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this is a sister guitar with a virtually identical rosette and “an exceptionally resonant and vivacious voice.”

Hermann Hauser I, 1948, Reisbach Top: Spruce; Back and sides: Rosewood

German luthier Hermann Hauser I (1882-1952) made cellos, violins and guitars that did not follow the Torres design, but after hearing Andrés Segovia play, he was determined to make a guitar that would be up to the virtuoso’s standards. They met in the mid-1920s, and Hauser started sending him guitars he hoped Segovia would play, and finally, in 1937, Segovia said, “You’ve done it” and gave up his Ramirez for a Hauser I that isalso now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This guitar was made 11 years later and adheres retroactively in size and constructional details to the guitars of Torres that Hauser had studied in earlier years. The label has Hauser’s handwritten letters “m.p.” (manu propria—“by my own hand”), which Hauser would add to the labels of some of the guitars he made in the late 1940s by himself.

Robert Bouchet, 1961, Paris Top: Spruce; Back and sides: Brazilian rosewood

Robert Bouchet (1898-1986) was a painter who didn’t consider himself a commercial luthier, yet Harris describes him as “the ultimate poet of the guitar.” Bouchet loved playing the guitar and so he made one for himself, and the sound was so beautiful that other guitarists fell in love with it. Bouchet was obsessive about the guitars he made (156 during his lifetime) and would design and carve his own buttons out of ivory and engrave his own gear plates. This particular guitar has an austere but elegant rosette, hand-wrought etched silver tuners, a unique bracing system and a restrained sound that SFCM faculty member Marc Teicholz describes as “focused and singing.”

Visit harrisguitarfoundation.org to learn more about the Harris Guitar Foundation and the Harris Guitar Collection at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. If you’d like to see the collection, please send an email to [email protected].

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