About the Collection by Jeff Wells

Having accumulated dozens of guitars over the years and recalling my own disappointing experience studying the history of the instrument, I came up with the idea to display the guitars and tell their stories in a manner that might help to advance guitar scholarship. This website will serve to present the collection with the goal of creating both an educational and visually compelling experience for the serious student and enthusiast alike.

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Jeff Wells, creator of the Austin-Marie Collection

I always thought of myself as a performer and had no serious scholarly ambitions. The most powerful memories from my university days are the master classes, playing for Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, Oscar Ghiglia, José Tomás, and others. I enjoyed music theory, composition, and history; my classes were absorbing and well taught – but not so for the guitar. I remember sitting in the back row of guitar history class, bored, glancing at the clock, and often fighting to stay awake.

The course textbook, Harvey Turnbull’s The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day, was a 125-page mini-tome that aspired to cover 500 years of guitar history, packed with over 100 small black-and-white photos and prints. Considering Turnbull’s book was one of only a few available that attempted to cover the long history of the guitar, it was a noble endeavor. Regardless, I had taken the course to fulfill a requirement and thought nothing more of it.

None of this should have been too surprising considering the state of guitar scholarship in the 1970s. The instructional materials available to university professors were limited. This was, after all, a time before the internet; the classical guitar was somewhat of a novelty trying to be taken seriously in an era of electric guitar dominance, with relatively little written material to show for it.

After graduate school at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was accepted into the PhD program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University to study under Aaron Shearer. I saw this as a tremendous opportunity as a host of outstanding guitarists had studied with Shearer, including Manuel Barrueco and David Tanenbaum. So you can imagine my disappointment when I received a call from Shearer – just a few weeks prior to the start of the term – to let me know he was leaving Peabody! I was stunned. I suddenly found myself faced with having little time to make a life-changing decision. I ultimately chose to take the road “less traveled by” and decided not to go; and as fate would have it, within a year I had begun an improbable career in the investment business.

Jeff playing for Andres Segovia at age 19 (left) and at 24 (right)

A decade later, I was married with two young children and still actively playing and performing. I produced and recorded a guitar duet album, A Virtuoso Christmas, with the late, great guitarist and fellow San Francisco Conservatory alum, John Stover. We had come up with the idea over a beer one night: a collection of virtuoso renditions of holiday music would have recurring appeal. We spent the next two years arranging and recording. I built a recording studio and climbed the steep learning curve of working with digital audio software and samples in the early days of the technology. A Virtuoso Christmas met with success, receiving nationwide airplay and positive reviews in many of the national dailies.

I purchased my first historical guitar during this time while visiting my good friend and former classmate, Robert Grossman, in the small Swiss town of Samedan, not far from St. Moritz. Robert had immigrated to Switzerland in the 1980s after earning his PhD in musicology at the University of Indiana. We traveled to Zürich to visit an instrument dealer friend of his and that’s where I bought a German-made, 1820 Joseph Rieger guitar, for no other reason than it looked exotic with its bridge mustachios, unusual tuning machines, and smaller size. 

I continued to accumulate older guitars, including a striking, heavily ornamented Coffe-Goguette and a few unlabeled Mirecourt instruments that hung on my dining room wall as objets_ d’art. I was fascinated by the various sizes, shapes, and decoration of early guitars compared to their plain, unadorned modern counterparts.

Jeff with Christopher Page, James Westbrook, and Robert Grossman at Sidney Sussex College Chapel, Cambridge

To this point, no one can argue that the variation in appearance of guitars built before the mid-nineteenth century is not often dramatic. Most serious guitar classical guitar collections tend to focus on the modern-era makers including Torres, Ramirez, Hauser, Bouchet, Fleta, Rubio, Friederich, Smallman, Romanillos, Connor, and many more. These legendary luthiers produced (and in some cases, still produce) wonderful sounding guitars dating from the late nineteenth century to the present. Yet, if you line 20 of them up against a wall and step back 20 feet, you can barely tell them apart. Place a Fabricatore, Panormo, Stauffer, and Lacote side by side – all from, let’s say, 1830 – and even from a much greater distance, you can immediately see the differences.

It wasn’t until my chance encounter with James Westbrook, a leading authority on historical guitar luthier techniques and the author of several books and articles on the history of the guitar, that my interest in early guitars blossomed beyond curiosity. I became interested in the makers, the materials they used, and the players who played their instruments. I began to acquire guitars with defined goals in mind, filling in missing pieces in the process of forming a coherent collection. James was invaluable in helping me select and source guitars in this quest, and the rewards have been immensely gratifying.

My understanding and appreciation of the guitar’s rich history became a reality when, for example, I acquired a Giovanni Battista Fabricatore from 1785, possibly the earliest extant six single-string guitar; or when I was offered the earliest known guitar by Louis Panormo, England’s greatest guitar maker of the nineteenth century; or when I was able to find an 1834 C. F. Martin, one of a dozen or so extant instruments from Martin’s first year of guitar making in America.

As my collection grew, I focused on quality examples and provenance, never venturing too far from the main path of guitar development. Harp guitars, guitars with double and triple-necks, experimental guitars with true-temperament fretboards, etc., have intentionally been left out of this collection. I do own an “English guittar,” which is not a guitar as we know it, but this cittern-shaped instrument was immensely popular at a time when the guitar fell out of favor in the eighteenth century. 

I also own a “Heptachorde,” or seven-string guitar, but this slight detour was allowed because of its significance as an example of the famous maker-player collaboration between Pierre René Lacote and Napoléon Coste in the first half of the nineteenth century.