The highest quality classical guitars handmade in the 21st century can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. This is no frivolous expense for a professional player. Put such an instrument in the hands of an amateur and you may not hear much difference between it and a $150 factory-made budget model. In the hands of a seasoned player, a high-end guitar truly sings. Tone resides in the fingers — or 90% of it anyway — but a skilled guitarist knows how to discover and make use of all an instrument’s best qualities. For a musician who makes a living doing so, spending the cost of a car on a guitar makes economic sense (as does a good insurance policy).
The tonal qualities of the instrument below, a handmade classical guitar from 1888, are clearly abundant; it’s also clear that guitarist Brandon Acker — who has appeared in many of our previous posts on the guitar — knows how to exploit them. At times, he brings out such rich resonance, the instrument sounds like a piano; at others, it is almost harp-like. We have a confluence of rarity: a highly skilled player with deep knowledge of classical stringed instruments, and an instrument like no other — so rare, in fact, that it’s valued at over a quarter of a million dollars, roughly the average cost of a moderately-priced house in the U.S., the largest investment most people make in their lifetime.
To understand why the instrument carries such a high price tag, see Acker and YouTuber and guitarist Rob Scallon visit with father-and-son luthier team R.E. and M.E. Bruné at their shops in Illinois in the video at the top. The Brunés are specialists in classical and flamenco guitars. (The elder Bruné tells a charming story of making his first flamenco guitar for himself from his parents’ first dining room table.) In their shop’s storage area, they have ready access to some of the rarest guitars in the world, and they give us a lively tour — starting with a “bit of a letdown,” the “low-end,” 1967 Daniel Friederich concert model valued at $50,000.
In Acker’s hands, each guitar delivers the full potential of its sustain and resonance. Finally, at 16:00, we come to the 1888 Antonio de Torres guitar valued at $275,000. There are many older guitars in existence, even guitars made by Antonio Stradivari and his heirs. But it was this guitar, or one of the few others made by the legendary Torres around the same time, that revolutionized what a guitar looked and sounded like. When Andrés Segovia arrived on stages playing his Torres, the Brunés tell us, guitarists around the world decided that the old style, small-bodied guitars in use for centuries were obsolete.
There are perhaps 90 to 100 of the Torres classical guitars in existence, and this extravagantly-priced number 124 is “as close as you’re going to get to original,” says the elder Bruné, while his son makes the fascinating observation, “older instruments that have been played a lot, especially by great players… learn the music.” Acker expresses his surprise at the “sweetness” of the very touch of the guitar.
If you had attended the 2016 Guitar Foundation of America conference in Denver, where M.E. Bruné exhibited several of his shop’s rare guitars, you would have been able to play the Torres yourself — or even purchase it for the lesser price of $235,000.
In the video interview above from the GFA conference, M.E. Bruné describes the year plus-long restoration process on the guitar, one that involved some disassembly, extra bracing, and a replacement fingerboard, but preserved the beautiful spruce and birdseye maple of the guitar, wood that “doesn’t grow on trees like this anywhere” these days, says Bruné. It is, he says, “the best-sounding Torres” he’s ever heard. Coming from someone who has heard, and restored, the sweetest-sounding guitars in existence, that’s saying a lot. $275,000 worth? Maybe. Or maybe it’s impossibly arbitrary to put any price on such an artifact.