I never imagined that I would one day be collecting antique guitars, let alone studying their histories and provenance. 

I thought of myself as a performer, not a scholar. 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 didn’t dislike music theory, composition, and history; my classes were absorbing and well taught – but not so for the guitar. I remember the monotony of sitting in the back row of my History of the Guitar class, disengaged, watching the clock approach the hour, and wishing I was in a practice room working on my tremolo. The uninspiring curriculum was somewhat tedious. 

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 ever written up to this time on the history of the guitar, it was a noble endeavor. Regardless (through no fault of Turnbull’s), I wasn’t much impressed. I had taken the course to fulfill a requirement and thought nothing more of it. 

None of this should have been 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 when there was no internet; the classical guitar was somewhat of a novelty trying to be taken seriously in an era of electric guitar pop bands, and 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 Conservatory at John’s Hopkins University, but as fate would have it, I had a Robert Frost moment three weeks prior to my departure: “I took the one (road) less traveled by” and decided not to go. Shortly thereafter, I fell into an improbable career in the investment business, still played and performed, accumulated a closet full of modern guitars, and eventually got married and had children.

As the years passed, I added a few historical guitars to my patchwork collection. I bought my first in Zürich, Switzerland – a German-made 1820 Joseph Rieger – for no particular reason other than it looked exotic with its bridge mustachios, unusual tuning machines, and smaller size. I continued to accumulate guitars along the way including an eye-fetching, heavily ornamented Coffe-Goguette guitar and a few other unlabeled Mirecourt instruments that hung on my dining room wall as objets d’art. My interest was strictlyvisual;I was drawn to the varied sizes, shapes, and decoration of early guitars compared to their plain, unadorned modern counterparts.

To this point, no one will argue that the variation in appearance of pre-Torres guitars is not often dramatic. Most serious classical guitar collections tend to focus on the modern-era makers including Torres, Ramirez, Hernandez y Aguado, Esteso, Simplicio, Hauser, Bouchet, Fleta, Rubio, Friederich, Smallman, Romanillos, Humphrey, 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 Lacôte side by side – all from, let’s say, 1830 – and even from a much greater distance, you can immediately see the differences.

It was my chance encounter with James Westbrook, the author of several books and articles on the history of the guitar and a leading authority on historical guitar luthier techniques, that planted the seeds of my collection two decades ago. The process was gradual and arbitrary at first, as I would only occasionally purchase a guitar and when I did, I never considered its importance or context in a broader collection. But over time, I began to take an interest in guitar history, provenance, construction materials, makers, and players. I started acquiring 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.

To own a Giovanni Battista Fabricatore from 1785, arguably the earliest extant six single-string guitar, is to own a critical part of guitar history. To have the earliest known guitar by Louis Panormo, arguably England’s greatest guitar maker of all time, is uniquely special. To hold an Alexandre Voboam from 1652, and to ponder its long journey to the present, excites the imagination. To possess one of a dozen or so extant Martin guitars from 1834, his first year of guitar making, allows me to own part of a rare American legacy. To find the only definitive Furnielas guitar ever made is like discovering a new species of dinosaur. 

As my collection grew, I focused on high quality examples and provenance, never venturing too far from the main path of guitar development. Harp guitars, triple necks, experimental guitars with true-temperament fretboards etc. have intentionally been left out of this collection. I do own an “English guitar,” which is not really a guitar as we know it, but this instrument filled in a gap during 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 Lacôte and Napolean Coste in the first half of the nineteenth century.  

Recalling my own disappointing experience studying the history of the early guitar, I increasingly felt that I had a responsibility – a duty even – to right a wrong, and eventually embarked on a three-year- long project to build a website featuring the collection. My goal has been to create an educational and visually compelling experience for the serious student and enthusiast alike. 

I hope you will find my efforts a worthy pursuit.   

Jeff Wells