Robert Ruck, USA
The following interview with Robert Ruck, first appeared in American Lutherie magazine #93 Spring/2008 which is published by the Guild of American Luthiers. Guitars International wishes to thank Jonathan Peterson and the Editors of American Lutherie for allowing us to reprint its contents. (Reproduction of this article in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).

Robert Ruck was one of the very first members of the Guild, and one of a handful of luthiers who attended our first convention in 1974. His passion for the music and culture of the guitar, his respect for its history, his hard work and dedication, and his prolific output have put him at the very top of his craft. I met him at our 1992 convention in South Dakota, where he spoke in detail about his building methods at that time (see AL#42 and BRBAL4). Fourteen years later, during the 2006 GAL Convention, we sat down over dinner and had this talk.

Before we get to guitar making, I want to find out what influences first turned you to the light side, the creative side.

As far as being exposed to anything artistic, my dad had a major influence in my life for sure.

Tell me about him.

Dad came from a Germanic background and grew up on a farm. He had been an amateur boxer, he played piano quite well, and he had a strong financial sense. He was a custom-home builder who made beautiful high-end stone houses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But Dad knew he had a bad heart, and he had a project that he wanted to finish, so he set out on a plan to retire by age forty-five. He went into debt and built three four-family apartment buildings. Once they were occupied, there was enough income that we could live a modest lower-middle-class lifestyle, and he began looking for the perfect place to live. He was fed up with the Midwestern winters, and with Milwaukee, which was a big, dirty industrial city. Each summer, from the earliest time that I can remember, my mom and dad would hit the road in a '49 Oldsmobile with my three brothers and me as soon as school was out. We would just wander the country until two days before school started in the fall.

That's really something for a kid - seeing that much country. That has to leave a huge impression.

I think we were in forty-five states. There were no freeways, and there seemed to be a flat tire almost every day. Dad bought used tires.

When I was four and Dad was forty-five, we moved to Riverside, California, which was a suburb east of L.A., so he was always retired as far as I could tell.

You mentioned a project. What was that?

He played piano in the classical style, and he also accompanied pop singers. The singers might want to sing in a different key, so there on the spot he would have to transpose a half-step up or down. He thought that was nuts. Well, my mom's father, his father-in-law, had come from France when he was young, and he played accordion all his life. He had a big accordion with a chromatic keyboard. On the right hand, instead of a piano keyboard, it had three rows of buttons, and he could transpose easily on that. My dad thought a piano should have the same feature.

There had already been numerous attempts at that approach. There was a society that played chromatic keyboards, and some alternate notation systems were being tried. But there were problems with all of these things, and he was determined to make this workable. He would get a piano and do a lot of work on the keyboard, or he would hire technicians. He had an indicator stick that moved on the keyboard, and you could shift it and be in another key. He came up with two different notation systems that went along with that. In one there was no staff line, and every note had its own symbol, a clearly different shape, and some were different colors. The mind could register a note in a very short time, and you could read from a greater distance. That, I think, was highly successful. He transposed a lot of classical works into those systems to show that it was exactly the same music.

Was he doing all of this work at home?

Yes. He had his music room, and he would go in and lock the door. He was very strict, and we were little hellions to an extent. I'd come home after school and he would be in there, so we'd go play catch or go swimming to leave him in peace.

We moved from Riverside to Phoenix, Arizona, and lived there a couple of years. I have great memories of that period. We had a couple of acres, and a horse. There was a group of huge palms growing in the yard - they looked 100 tall to me. Dad built me and my younger brother a tree fort in them that was about ten feet off the ground, then at the thirty foot level he built a major fort for my older brothers, and above that was an observation deck. When he and my older brothers were clearing the old fronds off the palms they disturbed a nest full of baby owls. They were too young to fly, so we fed them and had them for pets until they finally flew away.

That must have been a great time to live in that area. It was so much less built up than it is today.

That was a different time, wasn't it? We lived on a corner lot, and across the street was a grapefruit grove on one side and an olive grove on the other. Kids played outside, and they could ride in the back of a pickup truck. We would go out in the desert on Sundays to a big natural hole with no barricades or warning signs. You could throw a rock in, and it would be many seconds before you heard it hit - who knows how deep this was? There wasn't any garbage service, and people would go out and just throw their trash in this hole.

At some point Dad decided that the place to live was Florida. He wasn't feeling that well, and he had a dream that if he lived by the ocean he could swim every day. But California wasn't it because the water was too cold. So he traded this beautiful Arizona ranch home, sight unseen, to some lady for a house in Florida that he saw in a little magazine. When we got to Miami, it was this terrible duplex that she had been renting to college kids for years. It was just completely trashed. They never cut the grass in the yard, so he said, ``We'll take care of this!' and he lit it on fire. He just burnt it off!

(laughs) What did the neighbors think?

Our place was in the city, but Miami was quite undeveloped at that time. The blocks were all laid out, but there wasn't any city to speak of. There were only maybe six houses on our street. But those were good days, and he was really into his piano thing.

Did you learn his new piano system?

He had me learning the standard keyboard on an accordion that had been laid out with the buttons on the left, the keyboard on the right, and a mechanical air supply. A piano teacher came to the house and gave me and my younger brother lessons. We weren't really interested, but we had to do it - Dad says so. He told me, "This is just to warm you up, because I want you to be my prof. and learn my keyboard. You have a fresh mind, and you haven't learned too much of the other system. You'll be able to take this and demonstrate it."

Well, he finally perfected the thing. He announced that he had worked out the last bug and that he was done. He had worked on it night and day for the last year or so. He just had this mind set. He had a goal and a purpose that he had to fulfill. He crossed the final hurdle, and he copyrighted the whole thing.

We spent the summer in Milwaukee every year to do maintenance on the apartments which funded us. So we took off in a travel trailer for a five-day trip through all the old Southern cities. It was fun for us kids, but the next morning after we arrived Dad was feeling really bad. He'd had minor heart attacks, and he'd always had angina. We didn't know. Kids never know. They called the ambulance, and that was it. He died on the way to the hospital.

Mom didn't know what to do. She wasn't a business person, she was a housewife. She thought that she would sell the apartments, although there was still a mortgage on them. But Grandpa said to keep them. These were Depression-era people. My mom, my dad, and the grandparents had lost almost everything earlier in their lives, and it taught them to be very frugal.

So we carried on. By then it was 1957. I was ten, and my big brothers were six and eight years older than me. As soon as Pop was out of the picture they had motorcycles, they were smoking, and they got tattoos. They were imitating James Dean and Marlon Brando. (laughs) Miami was a loose and wild place at the time.

So your musical career really started with your dad's project to revamp the piano.

I was brought up listening to classical music. That's all my dad would allow. He didn't allow TV, and he didn't allow telephones. When Dad died, my mom had a TV within two weeks, and my brothers had their record player and 45s of Hank Williams. The piano project sat there in the house for years and years.

That period was pretty rough for me for a few years. I just didn't have much direction, and it wasn't until I was around fourteen that I heard the guitar - heard it in a different way. My older brother came home with a record of Carlos Montoya. I heard that record one time and I was completely addicted. It just pulled me to it, and I played it over, and over, and over. Looking back, I think that growing up with three brothers means that you can't cry, you've got to be tough, and any softer emotions are repressed. There's all this rivalry. I think that music filled an emotional void for me.

When I was in third grade I saw a TV commercial where a woman was luxuriating in a Roman pool, and an achingly sweet pentatonic guitar riff was floating over the whole scene. There was something emotionally charged about it that had to do with the sound of each note. Today I understand it as a characteristic of the decay of the note; the way that the fundamental falls away and leaves the upper partials suspended. To me that sound suggests expansive space and intimacy at the same time.

For me it was flamenco - the sound of the guitar, and what was being expressed. A short time after I first heard that, I hit on a Segovia long-play record, and I heard what you are talking about. I played that record over and over.

We had moved to Miami when I was seven. There wasn't much for entertainment, but it was a tropical environment, and the ocean was always there. We lived close to Biscayne Bay, which was full of fish and relatively unspoiled. I grew to love swimming, skin diving, snorkeling, fishing, and spear fishing. I was kind of a beach bum. I had no interest in school. Mom didn't have time to hammer us on the homework, and the public school system wasn't very good.

I really enjoyed working with my hands. I worked with hand tools that were left in the house by my dad. When I found a high school with an industrial arts program, I signed up. Cars were interesting, so I took an auto mechanics course for a year. During break time I would see the guys next door in the machine shop. That really looked exciting, so during my junior year I switched over. I finished high school doing three hours a day in the machine shop. That was just great. I had a natural affinity for working metal. I knew how to get what I wanted out of the machines, just intuitively. I liked the demand of cutting threads accurately, or taking something down to exact size. We were given blueprints and we would have to make some object, but we could also work on our own projects.

What sort of things did you make?

One day my older brother said, "Why don't you make a power head?" He had worked for a company that ran oil rigs off of Corpus Christi, Texas. In his spare time he would hunt these gigantic Goliath groupers under the oil rigs. They could grow to over 600 lbs. He and a friend were spearing them with Arbolettes - spear guns that use large rubber bands - but these huge fish would just drag them around for a while and break free. They met guys at the dock that were landing them with a power head, basically a 6 foot long shotgun mounted on the end of a 6 foot pole. The shell is held away from a firing pin by a spring, and when you jab the fish, the firing pin sets off the shell while it is in direct contact with the fish.

So, day by day for a month or so I'm making the parts for this thing. The shop teacher would come by to see what I was doing. I would say, "Oh, I'm just practicing cutting threads and knurling." He had thirty students, and he really couldn't control everything. So I was making this major zip gun, on school time, and getting credit for it! (laughs)

My other older brother was into drag racing Harley Davidsons, so he had me making stroker plates, and I made him a lightweight aluminum hub for his front wheel. Those were great projects.

When I was fifteen, I had decided that I was going to learn to play flamenco. I went to buy a flamenco guitar, and they sold me a flattop Gibson acoustic! (laughs) They said, "Sure, you can play flamenco on that!"

I was beginning to be interested how a guitar is made. With my shop background, I could look at any part and know how to go about making it. The guitar looked pretty simple compared to many of the things I had been making.

By the time I was seventeen or eighteen I had owned a bunch of guitars, and I had figured out what a flamenco guitar was. My flamenco teacher had a David Rubio guitar and a Manuel de la Chica. The de la Chica came up for sale and it was only $300, which was a good sum, but it was reachable. I wanted to buy it, but my teacher said, "No, you should buy one from John Shaw. He will make you a much better guitar than this." So I looked up John Shaw, and he said he would make me a guitar for $500. He was the first guitar maker I ever met - well, he had made one guitar. (laughs)

So this is $500 in, what, 1962 dollars? That's a lot of money for a kid going to school - and it was only his second guitar?

Yes, it was a stretch, but I was always working a part-time job, and Mom said she would make up the balance. And I saw the guitar he had made. It was beautiful. He had used an Esteso for a pattern.

Tell me about this guy.

John was an Irishman from Belfast, and he was an incredibly talented man.He had a background as a pattern maker and machinist. If you wanted a Michelangelo-style drawing on the wall he could do it freehand - the foreshortening and everything was just child's play for him. He sculpted in wood, and he would incorporate very fine joinery that seemed impossible. For instance, he would make a spiral faced with all of these different woods, so it would display this fantastic joinery along with the lines of the sculpture.

He had come through a long, hard apprenticeship in Belfast, and he grew up surrounded by fine English and Irish furniture and cabinetry. He was just steeped in the Old World culture. So when he saw these Spanish guitars - which were nice, but kind of rough - he said, "Oh, I can do that." He had a very confident attitude.

John was very charismatic, but he needed a family, and we adopted him. I would clean the shop and help out. He was doing interiors of high-end yachts as one of his gigs, plus machine work for a little shop that made stuff for Cape Canaveral. He would read poetry, sing bar songs, and tell stories with this black Irish humor. He practiced judo and was deeply involved in Zen. He was curious, energetic, and enthused about everything, and wanted to share it all. I was just soaking it up.

I watched him make my guitar over a period of about a year, and that's how I learned the process. He built in the Spanish style. He was friends with David Rubio, and he knew violin makers, so the process came across to him somehow. But making guitars was not going to be a serious endeavor for him. This guy's skills were way beyond guitar making. Anyway, the guitar he built for me was incredibly beautiful.

Do you still have it?

I don't, unfortunately, although I had another of his guitars for years later on. It was too hard to make the $500 bucks. That guitar was kind of a crossover between classical and flamenco. I had ordered a flamenco guitar, but he said, "Well, you are playing a little classical, too." At any rate, it didn't have quite the bite that I wanted, so I thought that I would have to make my own guitar. I said, "John, I would love to learn to use hand tools like you do, and I'd like to make a guitar." That is how I got started.

John took me under his wing and taught me about hand tools. He had this tremendous collection of English chisels, saws, and handmade planes, and he was very fussy about them. You could only lay the chisel on one side, and the bench had to be clean - no oil on the bench from the sharpening stones. He had a very rigid way of going about it that he demanded of me, which was great. He would cut out an elaborate head design for a guitar with just a straight chisel and a gouge. It would be perfectly crisp, with flowing lines, fair curves, and just as square as can be. That was an eye opener, coming from my machinist background that really registered with me. He put it this way: "There are two types of woodworkers:" There are file-sandpaper-rasp people; and there are sharp-cutting-tool people. The rasp guys can never do what we can do with fine edge tools." It is a whole different world. Everything is crisp, and clean, and square. So that is the kind of fine woodworking that I was introduced to. We did everything with just a few hand tools.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I decided on a career as a classical guitarist. I had met a great Cuban guitarist named Juan Mercadal. He became another life-altering person for me.

So this was still in the power head days.

(laughs) Yes. Juan had toured all through South America, playing with the best symphony orchestras. He had a degree from the Havana Conservatory, but he couldn't make a living in Cuba, so he emigrated to the U.S. in 1960. When he got to Miami he had a wife and two young children, a suitcase full of music, and a suitcase full of their clothes. That was it. He was virtually unknown in the States, but very soon his talents were recognized. He was given an honorary masters degree from the University of Miami and started teaching there. Juan told me that his studies at the Havana Conservatory had been much more rigorous than what was expected of students in the United States.

He was a very charismatic individual, and he drew a circle of young admirers who aspired to play guitar. He was macho, cultured, worldly, and gregarious. He filled a lot of holes in our lives - lacking culture, lacking strong parenting, perhaps. For me he was a teacher, older brother, father figure, and devil's advocate all rolled into one. Juan was happily married, but he was always talking about how to woo the babes and telling dirty jokes. But he was always very serious about the music. He was a tough teacher, and I was a serious student. I studied with him for several months.

Juan had a unique sound. He played handball, and he said that if he broke a nail he couldn't concertize, so he just didn't use nails. But his fingers were very callused on the tips, so he got a bright sound, and he had a very powerful attack. He was used to playing with symphonies, without amplification, and he prided himself in having a big sound.

I wanted to study music seriously, but I didn't want to do all of the academics. I knew about the Wisconsin Conservatory from the summers I had spent in Milwaukee. I had friends there, and I knew my way around, so I moved to Milwaukee and studied with James Yoghurtjian, who was the Midwest's best guitarist at the time, a student of Segovia. So I was studying guitar, dabbling in guitar making, just enjoying a life of music, woodworking, and flamenco.

I finished my first guitar while I was there, and I strung it up with my flamenco buddy Tom Johnson. He said he had to have that guitar, and he would buy it on the spot for a hundred bucks. Well, I was overjoyed! The rent for my room was $7 a week. I could live for two months on a hundred bucks, and I could build another guitar!. So I launched into my second guitar, and about halfway through, it really grabbed me. I said to myself, "This is it!" I was twenty, and I was going to be a guitar maker. I had that fixed in my mind, and I went at it tooth and nail.

Did you seek out further lutherie tutelage?

I didn't feel I needed it. I just wanted room to build. I had "Guitar Construction from A to Z," which was an issue of the old Guitar Review. I knew the guy who wrote it, Hart Huttig II, from Miami. I had Sloane's book, and there were a couple others that weren't very good. That was it. I couldn't afford to go to Spain, and I was an American, so they weren't going to take me in even if I did. I had sold my first two guitars, and I knew someone who wanted the third, so all of my energy went into just doing what I could do. The techniques weren't a problem. I knew how to make the guitar!

There was one other builder that I met around that time - Neil Ostberg. Neil was a very influential figure in my life. He is only ten years older than me, but he started building in the early '50s. In addition to being a fine luthier, Neil is a highly respected amateur archeologist and a tremendous blacksmith. His reproduction Kentucky rifles are magnificent!. We had a great camaraderie. He was always quick to show you what he was doing, and he was always thinking ahead. If he was making a part, he would say, "Let's make six of them so they will be there when we need them."

Neil lives in an old farm house on a hundred acres of land that the Pabst Brewery family trusted to him. These people had a serious music habit, and a lot of historic instruments. Neil maintained their collection for them, and they set him up. His only obligation is to keep up his crafts. They left him a nice collection of Romantic-period guitars and violins, so he has a Stauffer, and a Panormo, and a Lacote.

He puts the whole guitar together with string and some wedges - no clamps. He would say, "I want to keep these techniques alive, so that's how I do it. I want to show other people that you don't need to be bound to high-tech approaches." I have two of his guitars, and both of them are Torres reproductions. He is building a 10-string Torres reproduction right now.

When I was about twenty-two I dropped my studies at the conservatory and moved back to my mother's duplex in Miami. I took up my guitar studies with Juan again. I had already made ten or fifteen guitars, and they were sounding pretty good.

You were telling me the other day about a break that really launched your professional career.

Juan had a 1927 Domingo Esteso and an Ignacio Fleta, but his love was a 1965 Ramirez. It was a big cedar-topped instrument, with a long scale and high action. He could really dig in, and it wouldn't break up. Whenever I had a new guitar, Juan would play it, then he would pull out his Ram¡rez and blow my guitar away. Power was the number one thing for him; first it had to have the power, and then he would consider the tonal properties, playability, and so forth.

Sometime in 1971 I came to a lesson with two new guitars, and one of them clearly blew away the Ramirez. It was entirely devoid of finish - maybe that's why it was so damn loud. He said, "I'm not going to let you go home with this guitar, Bob. I am going to play it tomorrow night in a concert." So he played this unfinished guitar in a small concert, and he introduced me to the audience. I put a finish on that guitar and he kept it. He played Ruck guitars from that day until he passed away 1998. He sold the Esteso and the Ramirez. He said, "I have one wife; I only need one guitar."

By this time Juan was well known. Good players and influential people were coming through and visiting him on a regular basis. Juan would talk up my guitars to them, and all of a sudden I had a clientele. His students were selling their guitars and ordering my instruments.

But my big break came in 1972. Juan called and said, "A former student of mine would like to see a guitar. He is a tremendous talent." So this very polite seventeen-year-old Cuban kid shows up at my door, and he has a huge Afro hairdo - way bigger than a basketball! (laughs) His name was Manuel Barrueco, and he was playing a guitar by Miguel Company. Miguel was Cuba's foremost builder at the time, but he was a good maker in a poor country. He and his son mostly just cranked out inexpensive instruments in big batches. Barrueco's guitar had an action that was impossibly high. He sat down and played incredibly, phenomenally! At seventeen, his technical abilities were 98% of what they are today. When Barrueco made his first tour, the classical guitar world was just abuzz. This kid's technique was so fluid, so easy, so clean, and just lightening fast. He set new technical standards. He startled the guitar world!

I had just one guitar to show him, a cedar-top with a huge sound. The guitars I was building back then were basically exaggerated Ramirez designs. That's what everybody wanted. Mine had a large body, but thinner plates and a very thin finish. Those guitars were clear, and the sound jumped out. In the hands of Manuel Barrueco, they put me on the map. My order list grew and grew. I give credit to Juan for that. I am still building some guitars exactly in the style of that 1972 instrument.

Your lutherie mentors were an eclectic artisan who had built two guitars, and a retro craftsman, and you really hadn't built that many guitars. How did you decide what and where to tweak in the Ramirez design?

I am an opportunist. I look at an instrument, and if there is something about it that really functions, that's for me. I don't have to figure it all out myself. But there was a push from the craftsmen who were my biggest influences, John Shaw and Neil Ostberg, that your work has to be your own. You have to draw your own plantilla, make your own head design, come up with your own bracing, your own rosette, and so forth. But you learn from the things you are exposed to. Fine guitars were showing up all the time for repairs, so I was working on guitars built by the best makers in the world. If a material worked well for a certain application, or if a bridge or a brace shape seemed to be optimally functional, I would adopt that. It was more like taking from tradition and giving it your individual stamp, rather than riding on the back of another maker.

Like the choreographer Martha Graham is supposed to have said: "Of course I steal, but only from the best!"

That's what I was up to. If you asked me to look at one of your guitars and I saw what I thought was a good idea, I would try it. I would alter it enough &(laughs). Devious plagiarism, we all do it. In those days we felt that you shouldn't just copy the other guy, but today, that is something that I highly advocate.

So you've come 180 degrees from your early attitude?

I give young luthiers totally different advice than what I built my own ideas on. I say to be a copyist, for a few instruments at least. Get a guitar that you really respect, and copy it faithfully. That will put you through the paces of what that master did. If you do what feels natural, you tend to not demand of yourself to move beyond that.

How have your instruments changed over the years?

I've gone through different phases, basically out of insecurity. I felt that any day my market would dry up, so I had to develop new markets. I've never given up that notion, even though it turns out I was wrong.

At one point I rejected the idea of the large-bodied cedar-topped guitar. Tastes were changing. With the passing of Segovia, Ramirez guitars dropped in popularity. There was an emerging opinion that the Ramirez design was too big, the scale was too long. People were leaning toward the earlier Spanish models - the Hauser approach - with smaller bodies, spruce tops, more clarity, shorter scales, and greater ease of playing. The sound of Segovia playing a Hauser is what I had in my mind as the ideal classic guitar sound. I tried to build that kind of clarity into my cedar Ramirez-style guitars, and I built a lot of smaller spruce-topped guitars, too.

Every once in a while I would build a guitar for Juan in thanks for all he had done for me. Usually he would say that it was a nice guitar, but that he didn't want to change. He loved the tonal characteristics of spruce - what he called the "density" of tone color - but his cedar-topped '71 Ruck had the volume. Until a spruce guitar with that kind of volume came along, he wasn't going to change. I showed him many guitars over the years, but in '78 I built a spruce-top that had the big sound.

What design influences were you working with?

I was very impressed with Masaru Kohno's guitars. The early ones were very Spanish inside and out, but he developed a bracing system that was a huge departure, an early lattice-style bracing. He had a major cross brace under the soundhole, and about 2" to 2" and ½" below that, he had a very light cross brace. This is somewhat similar to Fleta's two very strong cross braces. Under the bridge, Kohno had a strap about the width of the bridge and at least 1.5MM thick that ran the entire width of the top, and the fan braces were mitered over it. It was like a symmetrical 8-fan-brace pattern, except he left off the outer one on the bass side, so it was an offset 7-fan pattern. Then, below the fan braces, instead of a closing V he had another continuous cross brace. One very rigid fan brace ran under the bass end of the bridge and mortised over both the bridge strap and the lower cross bar. The bracing looks like a grid and is very stiff, but in some ways he frees the top.

Those Kohno guitars sound like pianos! They are very even, with powerful trebles that sing up to the highest notes, and much longer sustain than any Spanish-style instrument. That impressed me. But it was so powerful in its own characteristics that it wasn't as affected by the player. The tone color doesn't change that much, and the dynamic range is limited. It gives you a lot with a medium attack, and that's it. I have one that I practice on, and the sound is great, but it is not particularly malleable. I wanted to incorporate some of those qualities, while maintaining my own vision of a wide range of tone color that is friendly and malleable for the player. When I had that design working well, I built one for Juan with the long scale and wide string spacing he preferred. He called and said, "This just beats the pants off of my other Ruck guitar." Juan played that guitar from '78 until '88. I built a lot of guitars on the Kohno theme, trying to get a piano-like response and yet keep the qualities that we love about the instrument.

By 1990, I had moved away from the 7 strut Torres/Hauser design. I decided that the optimum design was a 6-fan pattern with a diagonal treble cutoff bar. I wasn't alone. John Gilbert was doing that, and I think by that time Manuel Velazquez had adopted a treble bar. Most of the Madrid makers were also using a treble bar and six fans. I did variations on that theme with different loads and thicknesses. I just heard Greg Byers say, "I'm still exploring all that can be done with six braces and a cutoff bar."

I work within a framework like that until I get another inspiration and go off on a different tangent, but I have a set of criteria that I follow that I think define what a concert guitar should have for the musician.

Can you list those briefly?

A range of POWER. Dig in, and it gives you more.

A wide spectrum of tone COLOR. You can shift from sweet and bright to dark and heavy.

DYNAMIC RANGE from the lightest pianissimo to double forte.

EVENNESS. You can count on equal power and sustain from the lowest bass to the highest notes.

TONE QUALITY that inspires, and that the player is enamored with.

One instrument should cover the GAMUT from Renaissance to atonal music. You shouldn't need two or three instruments to express what you want to express.

And finally, PLAYABILITY, or none of the other qualities are accessible.

There are plenty of guitars that are a lot of fun, but that are lacking in one or more of these characteristics. You might like playing it at home, but would you want to walk onto a concert stage with it?

What are some of your more recent tangents?

In the '90s there was a lot of talk about the sensitivity of Torres instruments and whether volume was really an issue anymore because of advances in amplification. I went off on a tangent of trying to build a powerful modern instrument with more sensitivity. What I call my Wide Brace Model came out of conversations with Richard Brune around why those Torres instruments still work. They are a hundred years old, the tops are thin, the bracing is very light, and they still hold up. We deduced that it was because of the structural effect of fan braces crossing a lot of grain lines on the soundboard. They are thin braces, but they are splayed out a lot. If we do that on a modern instrument, with the sizes of modern braces and the thickness of modern tops, the guitar becomes too stiff and strident. So, as you splay the fan braces, you can make the top and the braces much lighter. I did an experiment using three splayed fan braces that were very wide and low: 1" to 1" and 1/8" wide, and about 1MM and 1/2MM thick. And wow! It was a very successful big-sounding guitar, but it had problems with evenness. Three braces were not enough, so I played with adding some very light conventional fan braces. I evolved a pattern with seven fan braces: three wide-and-low braces under the bridge, alternating with four very light conventional braces. It also has a treble cutoff bar. That's what Kenny Hill produces as his Ruck Model.

I have now evolved to another bracing scheme which incorporates an even more widely splayed 9-fan pattern with braces that are more or less conventional in profile and cross section. I call it my Nine Brace System, and it has become my standard bracing design.

Are you playing with any other new designs?

I have succumbed to the composite-top thing over the last six years. I resisted it partly out of not wanting to get into the complications. I love the fact that the traditional classical guitar is relatively simple. I was thinking that all of the composite-top guys are essentially making some version of plywood - layers of stuff glued together - and the early plywood instruments were not successful. The bridge would come off, or they would delaminate, and the sound wasn't great. I found every reason to fault it. But at some point I had to face the fact that my top player, Barrueco, had gone to a composite-top guitar made by a German friend of mine, Matthias Dammann, and a lot of other top players are going to composite-top guitars. These players don't care about my prejudices. I decided I had better start experimenting, and I have developed a model that has qualities in common with other composite-top instruments, and yet it has the tone qualities that I think a guitar should have.

What is your take on the concept?

You are trying to make the top lighter and more responsive. The laminations maintain the strength and create a top that is more structurally uniform than solid wood. A good composite top speaks instantaneously and produces its sound with considerably less effort. The high trebles, which are the weak point in most classical guitars, just sing on a good composite top guitar. The complaint that I have heard from others and that I hear on recordings is that the tone quality isn't there. That is what I have worked to put into my composite-top guitars.

My tops are made from three thin strata of wood. I don't use graphite or Nomex. The core layer is really what makes the difference, and I am using cedar for that. You need lighter woods. Builders are going to light woods like balsa to get the weight down, but I think that western red cedar is sufficiently light.

I've gotten over the notion that they are going to fall apart. Just about everybody is using polyurethane glues or epoxies on these. You are working with layers that are down to 1/2MM, or about .020, and if you put water-based glue on those, they go berserk. I think that polyurethanes are the way to go. I test-glued a piece of ebony to a piece of mahogany to mimic a fingerboard joint, and I had to turn the ebony to charcoal before the glue would let go. These glues have been around for a while, so I think you can count on twenty or thirty years of stability, and probably more.

How do you brace your composite tops?

I have used two of the systems that I use on my solid tops; my Wide Brace System with seven fans and a treble bar, and my Nine Brace System. They both work. A composite top isn't strong enough and doesn't control the sound enough to go un-braced. The bracing exerts its own influence on the sound, so you need to consider the tone and response you are after in choosing a bracing.

What about the extra labor?

My design doesn't really take that much longer to build, maybe 4 to 8 hours. So I bill for an extra day of labor, and if the top fails at some point I will just replace it. It would be possible to design a system to make these tops easily replaceable, perhaps from the soundhole down, maybe using a removable rim, and it could look good. That's just a thought.

I am very happy with where I have arrived with this new technology. The world has moved forward and I am convinced that the composite top is here for a long time - until somebody does something else, and that might be getting rid of the wood altogether.

Because you are making thirty instruments a year, you have developed more mechanized methods for executing your designs. If you had used your current production methods twenty-five years ago, you would have been efficiently repeating errors that you are not making today because you are smarter and understand the materials better. How much of your current success is because of the designs you have developed, and how much of it is just because you have gotten better?

I have gotten better, but my take is that the design is the most important thing. I have sometimes asked my students what is more important: The materials, the design, or the maker? They usually say it's the maker, but if you gave Hauser I, or Ignacio Fleta, or Jimmy D'Aquisto the design for a $50 Stella, it wouldn't matter who made it. If you are the greatest tire maker in the world and you have to make a square tire, it just isn't going to work. A guy who rounds off a stone is going to make a better product.

It doesn't take all that much skill to execute a design and make a good-sounding, functional guitar. You may have joints with gaps, and the guitar may not last as long, but it's going to work. Those things are not going to make it sound bad. But if you leave the top way too thick, all your fine joinery is not going to matter. Some of the old Spanish guitars are just incredible, but a lot of those guitars are pretty rough. A lot of fairly inexperienced modern makers do better cosmetic work than those old Spanish makers, but they knew what was important. They were faithful to designs that played well and sounded great, and that is what a beginning maker doesn't know. A beginner is better off following a good set of plans, and making a faithful reproduction of whatever they think is the greatest sounding instrument. Get out of the way and execute the design. Your personality is going to come through anyway.

I have had to evolve my tooling systems many, many times. I have always assumed that there is a faster way to get better results. With rosettes for instance, you have to cut the tiles into slightly pie-shaped sections. I was cutting them with a chisel, and I got to the point where I could get it right almost every time. But sometimes I would have to shave it again once or twice, and that was too slow. So I made a simple little guillotine with an adjustable angle. Once I had adjusted it for a given radius the cut was right every time. A twenty-minute task became a five-minute task. I have freed up fifteen minutes, but more importantly, I have more energy. I have done that with all of my procedures. I have a method for whacking out a neck in a few minutes to the point where it just needs refinements, and I made a router fixture that I can run my fan-bracing stock through that removes 80% of the wood that needs to be removed.

To be consistent and prolific is a tall order. In order to produce a consistent instrument and supply a large demand from a small shop - I am now building my 919th guitar - my methodology is the key. When I am in my best state of competence, "in the zone" as they say, I can lay it down. I know what is going on, and I am in control. When I am not "in the zone," I have a methodology that allows me to reproduce those results. It's kind of like making a copy recording of Jimi Hendrix. It may not be totally there, but it is going to be damn good. I am disciplined to work with methods and within tolerances that will reproduce the desired results every time. So first you need the best design, and then you need to create the methodology and discipline that allows you to reproduce it faithfully even when you are not totally on.

The saying is that technique is what you fall back on when inspiration fails.

Exactly! In three years I hope to work off my regular list, and I will be in a position to build what I want to build, instead of just building more. I appreciate the support, and being able to work at my craft, but it has gotten very demanding. I am not planning to retire, as such, but I want to do more of what I want to do. One of those things is to teach guitar building in Spain.

That's carrying coals to Newcastle!

(laughs) I love flamenco guitars. Those are the instruments that inspired me in the first place, and now I have come full circle in that I have broken into the Spanish market with them. Gerardo Nunez, who is one of the truly great players, has one of my guitars, and used it in a recent movie called "Iberia" by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. As a result of my contact with him, a lot of people in Spain have come to know my name as a guitar builder, so I know that I would have participation.

Do you have any reflections on this GAL gathering?

In the last couple of days sitting in on the listening sessions for classical and flamenco guitar, I realized that my perspective is so different from when I was younger. I am much more accepting. We are all drawn and pushed toward trying to produce excellence, and we strive to find the best way to get the optimal result. My Zen background tells me that of all of the possibilities, the best way is not a possibility. Because we know - and physics supports this - that everything is unique. It is only when we artificially set up parameters that we can judge. This glass can't fly, so it's not as good as a bird. Well, the bird can't hold 12oz. of beer! (laughs) They are each uniquely themselves, and each is perfect in its own right. You can try to make something like something else, but you will still produce a unique individual.

The ego is so twisted up in all of this. It is such a dominating force in our lives to assert ourselves and our opinions. I was having a discussion with some guys about this, and one says, "No, I really do improve these guitars. When I am done working on it, it really is better." So I posed a hypothetical experiment with a banana. "I'm going to say the banana is good, and you adopt the position that it is bad." So he says it's a terrible banana, and I say it's great. Well, nothing has happened there. The banana is exactly what it was; we are just laying these opinions on it. You might say that all I have is an opinion, and my opinion serves me, but I think that somehow that takes us away from this direct experience that we can have. In the judging we are trying to mentally fix the thing instead of truly being there with what it is, with what the condition is, and in doing so you miss something.

For example, there was one guitar in the listening session where the neck kind of came out of the treble side of the upper bout. It was very far out. The neck doesn't impede the soundboard, and you can play the top frets easily. The maker said he just did it as an experiment in ergonomics. The tuners are down on the end of the body, the head is cut off, and the bridge is way down by the edge of the instrument in what seems to be a terrible place for generating sound. And yet, after hearing this whole array of guitars - everything from people's first instruments to Jeffrey Elliott's - this guitar was probably 90% of anything in there. There is so much room for one to express oneself. If you had brought John Williams into that listening session and given him any one of those guitars, as diverse as they were, he could play great music. It would come down to an experience of a master musician expressing himself. So how important is it?

In Manuel's Velaquez' talk today, numerous times I heard him say that this is the way he does it, and he likes it that way; it may not be the best way, but he likes it that way. He seemed very content.

There is nothing wrong with experimentation, and striving to shake the world up, but the result doesn't necessarily make the thing better. I think it's enough that we make the effort.
Robert Ruck