Remembering John Gilbert
John was one of the kindest, most generous people I have known. The warmth of his friendship and guitar building mentorship will be with me forever. I know that hundreds of other luthiers who knew John would be able to share the same. Even before I started building, his writings and thinking man’s approach to classical guitar building already had a huge influence on the way I would build: keep an open mind and make rational decisions based on thought and testing.
I didn’t meet John until five years ago, when by providence, he was seated behind me at a guitar recital performed by his long-time champion Raphaella Smits. Starry-eyed, I introduced myself at intermission and thanked him for all the inspiration and encouragement he had given me. His immediate reply was, “Come over to the shop.” That invitation started a brief but cherished friendship with the only person I can call my lutherie mentor.
The most memorable lessons came when John would inspect and critique my guitars any time I would visit the San Francisco area where I grew up. John literally inspected every square millimeter of each guitar, often probing with feeler gauges in a process he called “taking the guitar apart”. Along the way, he asked questions to see if I could defend my approach and methods, and then he would share his approach and reasoning. At first the experience was a little unnerving, but I can’t think of a better master class by a true master.
In 2010, the Guitar Foundation or America honored John with a well-deserved Hall of Fame Award for Industry Leadership for the way he changed the face of contemporary lutherie, and the guitars and tuning machines that so many leading concert guitarists performed with over the years. During that week at the GFA convention, John presented a lecture where he exhorted all the luthiers in the audience to question conventional wisdom by testing standard practice experimentally. He said with his characteristically sharp Brooklyn wit, “Don’t take my word for it, test it for yourself…and you’ll see I’m right.”
John’s other favorite saying was, “Lutherie is 95% science and 5% art. The art is what you do with the science.” With my own background in science, John’s philosophy resonated with me when I was starting out because it gave me hope that I, like John when he started, might stand a chance to build a decent instrument despite having no formal lutherie training. John’s background as a machinist and later tool designer explained his love for infinitely thin feeler gauges. As he probed my guitars with the gauges (some of which seemed the thickness of aluminum foil!) and impeccably machined straight edges, he would apologize with a laugh saying, “I’m sorry, we both know it doesn’t matter, but I’ve just been doing this for so long!”
John’s earliest guitars give a legendary glimpse into the mindset of the former machinist. He would dimension his soundboards and other parts just as machinists would routinely do with metal: to tolerances of 0.001”. Since he had no instructors, no one told him the tolerances in guitars didn’t need to be so strict. As a byproduct, the uniformity and precision of his craftsmanship resulted in guitars that quickly became known as “Ramirez killers” for the then popular, but comparatively clunky, Spanish guitars that his instruments began to replace. His guitars arrived at a time when classical guitarists needed more consistent guitars equipped with easy action, an arsenal of tonal and dynamic possibilities, and excellent intonation. Later, John realized that controlling stiffness and weight is more important for sound quality than attaining an exact thickness, and became one of the first luthiers to emphasize strength and weight testing of the parts.
In the ‘80’s, nearly every major concert guitarist had a Gilbert. The ceiling of John’s workshop in Woodside, California is wall papered with promotional photos of Gilbert players including David Russell, David Leisner, Fred Hand, Ben Verdery, Raphaella Smits, David Tanenbaum and George Sakellariou. John’s guitars put American classical guitar building on the map with a style that was free from the constraints of the European building methods and traditions. If there is a ‘school’ of American building, it is embodied by John’s bold spirit of construction using methods outside of the box, and is one that has strongly influenced luthiers around the world today.
I was fortunate to speak with John on the phone a few weeks before he passed. As always, my last words to him before hanging up were, as they are now, “John, you always have been, and always are (will be) my inspiration.”
February 28, 2012