Paul Fischer, England

The following article first appeared in Oxfordshire Life Winter/2006. Guitars International wishes to thank Oxfordshire Life, Sandra Fraser and photographer Paul Felix for allowing us to reproduce its contents.

What makes a person aspire to become a maker of musical instruments? Is it a deeply held passion that has to be fulfilled? The answer for one of the world's top guitar makers, Paul Fischer, was much more straightforward. "I didn't have any idea to make musical instruments - it was the music master in the last term at school who said, 'Is there anyone in the class who would like to make musical instruments?' I just put up my hand and said, 'Yes Sir, please sir, me.' It just sounded so exciting, so fascinating to make an instrument and that's all."

It seems a simple enough explanation but the young Paul could so nearly have missed out on what has become a lifetime career as ha was almost blinded by a freak childhood accident when lime dust flew into his eyes. His eyesight, so exceedingly bad when he was growing up, is now exceptionally good at an age when most people have to don glasses for any close work. Back then, Paul, who played several instruments himself, was in luck, as the master asking the question was a close friend of celebrated Headington harpsichord, clavichord and spinet maker Robert Goble and his son. In the way of these things, master craftsmen teaching master craftsmen, Goble himself had studied with Arnold Dolmetsch before the war, a very famous maker and part of the Arts and Crafts movement. It seems fitting that life should turn full circle to the Cotswolds and the Chipping Norton studio where Paul is recounting his life story.

Young Paul got the job, trained for five years and then decided to go to art college in Oxford to learn more about craft.

"I had my education back-to-front," he laughs, adding that the opportunity to work for Robert Goble was too good to miss. These days there are three colleges offering instrument-making courses, but back then, in the 1950s, no such programs existed so Paul signed up for history of furniture-making, design and technical drawing. Then, in a quite deliberate move to broaden his horizons, Paul decided to join the Army, becoming a tank commander in the 11th Hussars, a cavalry regiment, as part of the armored shield between East and West Germany.

"Within a month of returning to civilian life I met a very famous maker by the name of David Rubio, living and working in Duns Tew. I had been told he was a violin maker and wanted somebody to work with him," says Paul.

On visiting Rubio it became clear that he made not violins, but guitars and lutes and among his many illustrious clientele was the legendary Julian Bream.

"He said, 'I do need somebody, what do you do?' and I said I was a trained harpsichord maker and his response was, 'I've always wanted to make harpsichords when can you start?'"

They worked together for a year, then, because of the resurgence of interest in early music, at the forefront of which was Julian Bream and members of David Munrow's Early Music Consort, they expanded the workshop and employed another nine or so craftsmen to satisfy the huge demand for their instruments. John Williams, Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt were among the those to become devotees of the workshop's creations. Over the fifty years Paul has been a luthier other well-known, highly-respected musicians have approached him to make their instruments, including John Mills, Pepe Martinez, the Assad brothers and Jason Vieaux, giving Paul the kind of client list that reads like a Who's who of the century's greatest guitar players. Paul voices hopes, without a trace of false modesty or boastfulness, that in years to come his instruments will become as fine with aging as, say, a Stradivari violin, since the best instruments improve as the wood they are made with ages - provided, of course, looked after properly.

Perhaps the secret of Paul's success lies in his ability to combine a perfectionist nature with an inquiring mind. Each instrument is painstakingly made, no rush jobs or mass production here, and each is exquisite in its combination of woods, detail and, in some cases, its exterior simplicity. Behind the scenes is his Joy, who describes herself as a secretary, but in the way of these things, it is she who runs the household enabling Paul to concentrate on life in the workshop.

Paul Fischer definitely has the skills to produce the instruments, and he clearly has the interest otherwise he would not have remained a luthier for so much of his life, but what remains fresh is his quest improvements to his craft. This led, in the 1980s, for example, to him collaborating with the physicist Dr. Bernard Richardson to work out the science behind a guitar's resonance and how its sound could be naturally amplified without altering its nature or tone. The notion was to enable musicians to play the guitar, long considered a salon instrument, in a concert hall setting. Discovering the ground rules of guitar sound according to physics was Paul's "road to Damascus" as he puts it and he developed a technique for construction that changed the way he made guitars.

Given that the instrument has been around in one form or another for 6,000 years it was a huge evolutionary leap. But he didn't stop there. Ahead of his time and mindful of the need to conserve rainforests, since guitars have traditionally been made, at least in part, from tropical hardwoods, rosewood for example, that were becoming endangered, Paul visited Brazil in 1983 after being awarded a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship, to look for alternatives. He returned with fresh thoughts about guitar production and 10 less rare, more sustainable woods for examination and trial.

Luthiers traditionally keep their own wood stocks for 20 years or more until they want to use them and Paul has such a reserve of hardwoods in his specially-built humidity-controlled store - though he has bought very little in the last 10 years - he reckons he has enough to see him through his working days. It means that in this, his 50th anniversary year, he has plundered his most precious stocks to produce instruments of the rarest woods he has laid by, plum pudding mahogany, Braz. kingwood, Western red cedar and snakewood, for example. He was also given, by a former trainee, three sheets of the most superb European spruce, from the top-most tree-line in the Alps where harsh conditions cause the spruce - a Christmas tree to most people - to grow only fractionally each year, resulting in an ultra-fine, ultra-close grain. In using these materials to their best advantage Paul has turned some of his traditional methods back-to-front and so has serendipitously produced revelations in sound quality - to such an extent that the guitarists who are playing in his exhibition concerts this year have been clamoring to buy the specially-made instruments he is lending them, so exceptional is their sound. It only goes to show that even with 50 year's experience as a luthier there are still discoveries to be made.

Paul's studio is an Aladdin's cave of woodworking tools, many of which might be found in a fine cabinet-maker's workshop. But he also borrows tools from other trades if they suit his purpose - particularly, as he is friendly with a dentist, special magnifying eye-protectors and other implements used for delicate orthodontics. During lecture tours he has noted that more than one surgeon has approached him to tell him that in their spare time they are making a guitar or lute or other fine instrument, making him wonder if there is some connection between their mind-sets. Paul's exceptionally high standards and reputation have led other craftsmen to seek him out - the maker (David Rodgers) of the machine heads on his anniversary instruments being one example, a silversmith another. In Paul's mind it is is a modern-day illustration of how the Arts and Crafts workers sparked inspiration from their admiration for each other.

So what does a man who has worked in wood for most of the last 50 years do for relaxation?

Apart from collecting old, interesting and quirky instruments, he makes fine boxes with delicately inlaid beading and marquetry work, a real busman's holiday of a hobby. He can't envision a time when he won't be a luthier or a time when he will retire, as such. Perhaps there's a wistful note in his voice when he says that neither his son nor his daughter wished to follow in his footsteps, but he brightens when he mentions his two-year-old grandson, Charlie, who is fascinated by all in the studio.

"I'd have to live long enough to teach him, though," says Paul, who was 65 this year.

But besides progeny, Paul has another legacy. He has taught four luthiers in his time, and, though he has no plans to take on another apprentice, he would never say never, provided the person in question had exceptional ability, aptitude and attitude. There are also all the instruments he has made during his working lifetime, each showing that British craftsmanship has a standard and reputation that can match the finest in the world. And though Paul is always striving to make his next instrument just that little bit better it's a mark of the man's dedication to his art that his instruments will be talked of, sought after, played enjoyed, and admired centuries hence.

Paul Fischer