The Art of José Oribe, Nothing Left to Chance
By Patrick Read
To walk into José Oribe’s workshop is like walking into an operating room. He doesn’t like disorder. He says he cannot work in a messy place. Each machine has a connection to a vacuum cleaner. Carpets on the floor and tools in their place. He has the latest Apple computer nearby and everything is backed up at least four times. On the wall near the ceiling are photographs of all the many guitarists who have played his instruments, many of them quite famous. Those who play them did not receive their guitars for free. Oribe has never been one for endorsements. As he works he wears a smock similar to those worn by physicians.
When I first saw a guitar built by luthier José Oribe I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. The craftsmanship was unequaled and the sound gorgeous. The guitar belonged to a student in the master class I was holding with the late maestro Manuel López Ramos. This was 1969 and Manuel and I went to Mr. Oribe’s shop, then in Inglewood, California, at the first opportunity to meet him and play one of his instruments. At that time there were very few master luthiers in the United States. José’s fame was growing. I bought my first Oribe guitar and the price at that time was $995.00. For me it was a lot of money, but after owning several inexpensive guitars I decided I needed the best.
At the time I didn’t know much about Mr. Oribe. I just saw and heard the results of his work. On our visit to his shop he brought out a guitar for us to try. Lopez Ramos tried it first and then he asked me to play it so that he could hear it. One of the characteristics of the Oribe guitar is that they have double sides. As a result they project better. But you have to be in front of it for the full effect. We were both impressed and I was determined to own one.
One of the first things you notice about José Oribe is that he has a very definite idea of what he wants in an instrument and how to get it. It is interesting that I had the same idea when I attended Andres Segovia’s class in Berkeley in 1964. Segovia had a very definite idea of how music should be played. Every detail, every note was previously thought out. And once under his fingers there was not much to be changed. José Oribe did his research, spoke to people in the know, traditional luthiers of other instruments, and made up his mind as to what he was going to do and did it just as he planned. No experimentation was necessary once he began.
Oribe is a strong believer in traditional construction of guitars. He has taken into consideration some of the new ideas that are going around today, but insists the old ways are still best. His guitars have plenty of volume to reach the large audiences in the concert halls and the sound we associate with guitars of old. And yet he has developed new methods of building guitars that speeds the process along. He could never build guitars one at a time. That was not economically feasible. His experience as a machinist working at American Electronics accustomed him to fine tolerances in working with metal. This was excellent training for building guitars. He had metal frames made to hold the sides in place as they were being glued and a method of controlling the humidity in the building process. Many of his ideas were set down in a book written by him and designed by his wife Juanita. Later he produced a video in which he talks about his building methods. Both book and video are collector’s items today.
José decided early on that if he was to make an outstanding guitar he needed the best materials. He borrowed money to buy the best woods he could find in the 1960’s including cedar, spruce, Sequoia redwood, Brazilian rosewood, and ebony, among other woods. His wood is stored in locations throughout California to prevent loss in case of a catastrophe. He has enough for several lifetimes. Early on one of his most successful woods for the soundboard was redwood. This is a wood few people would have considered. But the sound and resultant volume from this type of wood are remarkable. His wood was bought in bulk and not pre-sawed or kiln dried. He bought the oldest wood he could find. Subsequently he cut the wood and cured it naturally. Cutting in in thin strips was a major problem at first, especially the rosewood due to its oily nature. He was able to master this problem and store the cut wood so that it could cure. With proper care his guitars maintain their integrity for years to come.
José perfected the use of animal glues with the advice and help of a violin maker. Although there are some excellent glues on the market, José has always favored animal glue, the glue used by most master instrument makers. When he started out he used the over-the-counter glues that we all know. They were convenient and they dried quickly. They were also very strong, water resistant and economical. But a friend, Paul Toenniges, a violin and bass expert, introduced him to animal glues and showed him the art of using them. The advantage of animal glues is their sandability—they do not melt when machine sanded. They are solvent resistant and they have flexibility, among other things.
José and Juanita are considered by many to have perfected the art of French polishing. According to Juanita, José’s wife, one of the most difficult and time consuming aspects of guitar building is French polishing. They are acknowledged masters of that. She says you rub it and rub it and it is very easy to ruin it. Then you have to start all over again. Many luthiers today prefer modern finishes that are easier and faster to apply. Polymerized finishes are more durable and resist wear, but, according to Oribe, can have a somewhat damping effect on the vibrating wood. French polish, on the other hand, is a very delicate finish but allows the instrument to perform to its maximum ability. Shellac used in French polishing is a very soft and friable finish that that allows the vibrating surface to move freely. José is not against these new finishes that are changing daily with new government regulations. He has developed a method of applying them so that the results are almost those of French polishing. Almost. French polishing is a long process but that gives the best results on fine instruments, according to him.
Another aspect of the guitar making process that is both delicate and time-consuming is the rosettes, the colorful design around the sound hole and on the bridge. Each rosette is made by hand by José and Juanita. He designs them on his computer. They are made of very thin pieces of some 18,000 pieces of basswood. These pieces are called plumas, feathers in English. The wood, of course, is of one color. The finished rosette is of different colors. The problem was finding dyes that would not fade with time. This took weeks of trying and proving each type of dye. They solved the problem. On most of his guitars the purfling, the binding around the edge of the body the guitar, is also inlaid with the same wood. On many of the guitars today the wood in the rosette shrinks and raises up slightly. On Oribe guitars I have never experienced this problem.
In the early 1970’s José began issuing a Certificate of Authenticity for each guitar that lists its date, a picture of the label inside the guitar, the woods used, the finish and the dimensions, including the scale of the fingerboard. In the 60’s José numbered each guitar. Later each guitar had a different date that identifies it today. At the bottom of the certificate is a place for the original owner and subsequent owners to write their names, addresses, and date of purchase. This information is kept on file by Oribe.
In all the years I have known José Oribe I am constantly surprised by his intelligence and willing to do things others would leave alone. He built a huge dining room table out of scraps from the wood he uses on his guitars. When he couldn’t get cases that he liked he built his own. He constructs his own shipping boxes in which he ships his guitars. His hobby is photography, an art that he has mastered. He has very strong opinions developed over the years of building guitars. He is also very caring person and devoted to his family. When you have his trust he never forgets that. In his work ethic he never compromises. His guitars are built to the highest standards possible. Like the old violins, his guitars will last through the ages and be cherished by those who own them. Nothing is left to chance.