Meet the Maker: An Interview with Classical Guitar Maker Hermann Hauser III
By Armin Kelly
The following interview first appeared in American Lutherie magazine no.51/Fall 1997, which is published by the Guild of American Luthiers. Guitars International wishes to thank both the editors of American Lutherie for allowing us to reprint this interview and Cyndy Burton for her valuable assistance. (Reproduction of this interview in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).
I spoke with Hermann Hauser, III in Amherst, Massachusetts in the summer of 1994 when he and his family were visiting the United States for the first time. To say our common language was English is an exaggeration. A mutual friend kindly helped translate when neither of us was able to quite understand:
I want to first ask you about your training -- formal and informal. How did you learn to make instruments?
I first started guitar making when I was sixteen. My father said, "Hermann, you must go to another workshop to see how to make an instrument." I went to a workshop of one of his friends for about two and one-half years. I was attending a vocational school studying carpentry at that time. After that I attended Mittenwald, the department for string instruments, which includes guitar, lute, violin, and so on.
When my father became ill, he said, "Now it's time for you to come back." I returned home on weekends to practice in the workshop with my father. He would say, "Hermann, what you learn there is not enough to make a Hauser instrument. It's necessary that we work together on weekends, so you can see the difference."
After he worked with me some years he became more sick and lost his voice. It was a very hard time for me, because I was very young and I had to speak for my father. I knew the things I spoke about, but it was difficult speaking to older persons about guitars -- a teenager. Some people don't accept a young person's knowledge.
In the last years I said to my father, "You worked so much in your life, maybe it's not necessary now, because you are ill." He kept working, though. He showed me all the things to do, wrote them down on paper so we could communicate. Then a short illness came and he couldn't see well enough. He died in 1988, so I make the shop alone. My grandfather died in 1952, October. Since I was born in 1958, I never knew him.
Did you continue in the same tradition as your father and grandfather?
My ideas are in the tradition. I think maybe a person who starts fresh has it much easier, because he can do what he likes. I have always had the tradition in my head. So maybe in some things I'm not so free.
Did your father work alone or with assistants?
One. He has been with the Hausers for over thirty years, a long, long time. His name is Hasie (Franz Hasenfratz) and he is also a very nice person. He is not only an assistant; he helped me in hard times, not only as a worker and friend. He's like a surrogate father. Recently he broke his leg, so he is not working with me right now.
When Hasie was helping, what kind of work would he be doing?
He doesn't make the tops or any construction on the body. He does finish and fingerboard work.
My older brother Eric also works some with me. (He also attended Mittenwald and won a gold medal in guitar making.) He works with me when he has free time. Normally he works for BMW in their carpet department. He comes and helps me out a little bit with finishing, because time is short; I have only two hands and sometimes I need six.
What kind of finish do you use?
The standard is to French polish the top and use nitrocellulose lacquer on the rest. Nitro has improved a lot since the '60s. It used to be too hard and it always cracked. I like it better than shellac in some ways. It needs not so much time to dry as French polish. You can sand it two or three days after spraying it. It saves money. The price of a high quality classical guitar is so high, and shellac (French polishing) makes it higher. We have found that shellac is not better than lacquer for sound, but some players like it better -- some like the feel of it. It's hard to explain the difference. If you have to compromise, making the top shellac and the body nitrocellulose is good. Maybe it's old thinking that a classical guitar of high quality must be shellac. It is not so bad to think about new things. For example, instrument makers have problems getting Rio (Brazilian) rosewood. So it's necessary to try alternative woods.
Let's talk about woods for a minute. Do you have a plentiful supply of what you need?
I have a lot of wood in stock. Some tops are between eighteen and one hundred years old and Indian and Rio rosewood sixty years old. I also have cocobolo and some bubinga.
Have you made any guitars with cedar or Sitka spruce tops?
Yes, cedar when I have an order for it. I don't like Sitka. For the sound of the guitar I prefer spruce from the Bavarian Mountains or the Alps. And I like Indian rosewood very much, although the future may show the same scarcity with Indian as we have now with Rio. I have very old wood from my grandfather and father.
As you use this wood are you purchasing wood for future generations?
It's necessary to take wood now to replace what I use so I can hand it to my children who may like to make instruments one day.
Did your father teach you about what to look for in trees?
Yes. We often went to the forest on weekends when I was a boy. He taught me to look at the kind of tree, what conditions a tree must have, and its age. I found it very interesting. I now take my children in the forest, in the Alps and Bavarian Mountains. In the summer when it is not so cold we look for mushrooms, for eating. And we look for trees, too. It's very hard to find the right tree.
Is there a problem with acid rain?
Yes. The quality of the wood is not the same. I can say this because I have the old wood and I see the difference in the new woods. If you find a good tree, you must cut it in the winter time, and it's very difficult. And it must be treated right or it will turn blue inside, which will ruin it.
Have you ever tried African blackwood?
Do you mean for fingerboards?
No, for the box.
What about maple?
I have a lot of maple. Of course maple has been used traditionally for lutes and violins. But sometimes the white wood doesn't look so pretty. Maple guitars have a brilliant treble, a warm go-to-the-heart sound. Maybe it's not so bad as people think. For Spanish music it may need a little bit harder sound like Indian rosewood produces. You can experiment with it; make it thicker and get the same quality of sound as rosewood. But people don't accept it.
Because of the color or the sound?
More the color, I think.
The dream guitar you showed me last night was Brazilian rosewood with maple in the center of the back. Could you tell me more about that?
I wanted to make a point to guitarists about the scarcity of Brazilian rosewood, the destruction in the rainforests. The Brazilian pieces are no longer big enough to make two-piece backs. Also a guitar made with Rio rosewood has a very hard sound in the treble, much harder than one made with Indian rosewood. If you don't like it so hard, the combination with the maple can cut the top off the hardness.
In other words, you're blending the sound by introducing another wood; you're shaping the quality of sound that comes out of the instrument. You've done this with Brazilian and maple, have you tried mixing other woods?
Yes. This is a very good idea to make experiments to find out the characteristics of sound. Maybe this is a way we can look to the future more than now.
What other kinds of experiments have you been doing on your instruments? Have you tried different box sizes and depths?
Yes, it is necessary. I very often think about instruments in a new way. I'm not a man who is saying, "This is tradition. Only this is good." I already know the results of the many experiments my grandfather and father did. I know what they tested so it's easier for me to make a special line of testing. If my grandfather tried something and found it not very good, it is not necessary for me to make the same experiment again.
Do you make more than one instrument at a time?
I work in a period of a year. It can be that I make eight instruments one year and fifteen the next. It is not always the same. My father and grandfather worked in the same style.
Do you have any idea how many guitars your father and grandfather made?
In a life a guitar maker can make without an assistant maybe 500 or 600 or as many as 800. My grandfather made also zithers, Vienna construction guitars, violins, and viola d'amores. He didn't number his instruments, but I know he must have made 150 to 200 classical guitars. My father kept numbers. He started with the number 500 and ended with about 1150.
Can you tell us more about your process?
First I select the wood for ten or fifteen instruments. Then I make the bodies and begin the finishing. Finishing takes a lot of time, so I may not finish the instrument the same year. Sometimes a body is glued two years before it is finished. A new instrument ready to be sold can have a label that is three years old.
Is that the case with the guitar you showed me for Julian Bream?
This is meant as a test model for Julian. I have also made a second one. I will show him the first when it is finished, find out if it is good or not. The instrument with the experiment I do not sell. I keep it for myself to see how it changes over time. How stable is the top? How do the neck and back change? It is necessary to control an instrument a minimum of five or six years after an experiment. An experiment needs time. Some people may think an experiment is for the moment. You test the model and say, "OK, this model is good," and make it every year, always this one. You have no control instrument.
So you have a collection of some of your experimental instruments?
Yes, but I have sold some if they pass the test of time. For example, #12 in 1978 I sold because I have seen that the construction is good, the result was good. I sold it because I know the quality is perfect, so I can put my name in it and say to the guitarist, "This is a guitar I built and I stand behind it with my name."
You mentioned last night that you have a collection of your father's and grandfather's instruments. That means you can compare them all. That sounds like a great resource.
I can see how my father's and grandfather's guitars developed. It is very interesting for me to see where they changed construction a little bit.
Do you use different scale lengths and body sizes?
Yes. If a guitarist has long fingers he needs a bigger measurement, and a smaller person may need a smaller measurement. The anatomy of people is different so the instrument must be different. But you must not lose sound quality if you make different sizes and different bodies. My standard model is the Segovia Model with a 65CM scale, although I will make scales as short as 63CM or as long as 66CM. An instrument is always a compromise. I tell the guitarist the same thing. It has to do with ease of play, string height off the fingerboard and off the top, and so on. The compromise starts with the wood selection. You must find for example the top and back which will be the perfect compromise. (You must make a lot of experiments and think before you select the wood.) The better the compromise, the better the instrument after finishing.
For me the separation of voices is important. Even very good guitarists can not always hear the clarity, cannot always hear the difference. I am very happy to work with people who give me inspiration, for example Julian Bream and the Romero family. I also build for longevity. It's a tradition of the instruments made by our family to last. Guitars built in 1915 or 1920 can still be played without a problem.
Do you have one ideal sound that you're looking for?
This may be a thing which one is always changing. It may be best if a guitarist doesn't know exactly what he (or she) likes. Then the best compromise is the standard Segovia Model.
Is it like the '37 Segovia Hauser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
There are small differences; it's not exactly the same.
Do you find a smaller bodied instrument sounds smaller or projects better?
It's only thinking in the head of the guitarist. A smaller body can have as much sound as a bigger one. The treble strings for example are much better with a smaller body. The best is a good compromise. You must find a balance between a big one and a small one for each person.
Body depth is also very important. You need to understand the effects of deeper and shallower boxes. To explain this would take a long, long time. The best is the compromise.
We've talked a bit about your dream guitar, but I'm wondering what are your dreams for guitar making in general? Are there instruments you want to make?
I'm always looking to find a new way but without forgetting the tradition of 200 years, maybe longer. You always have one note which is not so clear, not so perfect on an instrument. One is C and another is C#, for example. One wants a balanced fingerboard. My dream is to make an instrument one day that has no bad sounding notes.
Sometimes I'll make an instrument I'm very pleased with, but it's very hard to make another just like it. You must remember that wood is a living thing, so not every part is the same. I made twin instruments one time -- same rosewood, same top wood (made from sister cuts which I alternated). It's very hard to make two instruments exactly alike even then. If you are experienced enough you know what you are doing, and you will get the result you like. If I experiment, sometimes the result can be a surprise.
I understand zithers are very popular in Germany. Do you make these also?
Sometimes. They are very popular in Bavaria, Austria, and Switzerland. Now there's interest in Japan and in the United States. My great grandfather wrote zither music and my father and grandfather also made them. My grandfather bought a zither firm which was founded in 1835.
What do you see for the future of the classical guitar?
At the moment it's in a small hole, but I think the guitar will have a renaissance. I think it will become more popular again. I think that Julian Bream and the Romeros will push the guitar up again after Segovia.
It is necessary to be sure that the typical characteristic sound of the classical guitar does not get lost. For example the zither has lost its typical character and sounds like a cembalo or spinet now. The electric guitar is a special guitar for special music and has nothing to do with classical concert guitars, because the sound is very different.
Is there anything you would like to tell the readers of American Lutherie? Any ideas or thoughts you'd like to share that I haven't asked you about?
Yes. I feel a person who makes instruments must go his own way. He must find the product he likes for himself and also for the people. If he goes his way he will have success. If he only makes copies, he will not arrive at this point. You have to have the courage to discover your own way.