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James Lorusso - Performer, Teacher, Arranger, Composer

Letter from New York

September 2008 - Classical Guitar Magazine Article
JAMES LORUSSO has devoted most of his life to the guitar. For the past forty years he has worked tirelessly as a performer, teacher and as a guitar repairman. He has taught at the Music Conservatory of Westchester for thirty-five years, Manhattanville College for thirty-two years and Westchester Community College for fifteen years. His love for Renaissance and Baroque music, arranging works from the piano, harpsichord and lute, to the guitar[1], and his studies with Narciso Yepes led him to play the ten-string guitar in 1978. After placing in several international competitions, he gave his New York Debut in CAMI hall in 1984. He still performs on both traditional 6 and 10 string guitars as a soloist, as well as performing in a duo with his wife, MaryAnn, who is also a guitarist.

James Lorusso with his Humphrey 10-string guitar.For this month's column he offered to share this poignant account of his longtime friendship with the luthier, Thomas Humphrey. It is unique for two reasons: that it is from the perspective of a fellow maker, and that he is an enthusiast of the luthiery craft.

'I first heard of Tom through Alice Artzt in the 7Os - not sure what year - maybe 1977. We met during a guitar concert at Merkin Hall, which at that time was called The Abraham Goodman House. Someone pointed Tom out to me and I just walked up to him, introduced myself and, within a few minutes, he made me feel as if we had been friends for years. I had asked if he would build me a ten-string guitar and he said, "I haven't gotten into multi-string guitars yet, but people keep asking me so I realize it's only a matter of time before I'm going to have to take the plunge."

'When I contacted him again, his price jumped up quite a bit from his earlier estimate, as his reputation was growing rapidly for his innovative designs and craftsmanship. Even though I considered myself a player, I became very involved with guitar repair and this is where our friendship really bloomed. I had been setting up the action of my own instruments for years before I'd met Tom, and I reached the point where I was setting up guitars for friends for free. I received such a good response that I began to think of myself as somewhat of an expert at making nuts and saddles. Then it occurred to me that I ought to start charging for my services. As a starving artist I certainly could use the money and I really enjoyed the work. I called Tom to get his opinion on whether I should advertise as an action specialist or a saddle maker. He told me, "Jim, once you take this step, you will be doing everything. You cannot just make saddles because people will be coming to you with other guitar problems. And then you will really be into it up to your ears. Be very sure you want to do this before you take this step."

'It was like a prophecy. I started to do it my way and, within a short period of time, things turned out exactly as Tom said they would. Before you knew it, I was gluing bridges on, Shaving fingerboards, refretting, fixing cracks, crunches and holes - even refinishing guitars. I also went through my experimental stage, trying to make saddles and nuts out of different materials to see if I could get a better sound. I tried copper, brass, steel, aluminum and other materials.

'Whenever I would do something Tom thought wasn't a good idea, or that he had already gone through, he would say- -Jim. Jim, Jiiim!" He'd said, "I went through an inventive phase, too. Most guitar makers do. I tried everything that seemed like a possibility and, after all that experimenting. I found that the best materials proved to be ivory and bone. Bone is brighter, ivory is sweeter more mellow sounding. This is what the old masters knew. The old makers really knew their stuff. You're not going to outdo what they did, as they probably took centuries to come to these conclusions, Jim."

Thomas Humphrey 10-string guitar.'This was yet another seemingly prophetic statement from Tom, because after all my experimenting, while I'd found that aluminum had some interesting qualities and was one of the best metals -bright and loud - by far, bone and ivory were the best sounding on classical guitars.

'At one point, someone came to me with just a few dents in the top of their guitar and wanted me to fill them and touch it up. I'd thought because I had an art background and knew about color matching and was very meticulous that this would be something I could do very easily. Again, Tom said, "Jim, Jim, Jiiiim, don't get involved. It will turn into a nightmare. It won't work and the next thing you know, you will be refinishing the whole top of the guitar."

'This was another of his sagely statements. It was not that I didn't respect his opinion - it's just that I would optimistically plow ahead and try it my way, thinking maybe I could surprise Tom and get a good result. As I tried to fill these small dents with wood filler, I discovered immediately that I was in over my head. I'd initially figured, how hard can this part be? I didn't read the warnings on the label and, as I began the job, to my horror, I found that the solvent in the wood filler was dissolving the good parts of the finish around the dents that I was filling. Now I had a new problem within only a few minutes of this repair - I was destroying the finish of the guitar! It was a difficult finish to match and now I was faced with refinishing the whole top, something that up to that point, I had never done before. I was too embarrassed to tell Tom.

'I had this poor guy's guitar for a year and I still wasn't done. I was half-convinced he might hire a hit-man to take care of me if he didn't get his guitar back soon. I was having trouble because I was learning to do finishing on the job, literally. I had to take all the finish off the guitar several times and start over each time. I was afraid to go to Tom because I thought he would thunder, "Why didn't you listen to me?" Or, he would think I was a moron.

'In total desperation, I finally called him and to my surprise, there was no scathing rebuke, no I told-you-so, no condemnation of any sort. Just the love of a true friend. He simply said, "Bring the guitar to me Jim and I'll try to get you out of the spot you're in." As I am telling you this, it brings tears to my eyes. I'd realized then, for the first time, that Tom didn't just enjoy talking about guitar making and repair with me, he actually cared about me. He was truly my friend.

'I immediately brought the guitar to his workshop in Manhattan. Tom assessed the situation and thought that if we added a little more color in the lacquer, it would help mask the variety of shades that seemed to be a result of my work. I agreed and he proceeded to put more color and lacquer on the top. Although it turned out a bit darker in hue than I thought it should be (a deep, dark, almost cherry red) without question it looked more finished. He set the guitar down on his workbench to dry while we discussed different aspects of the situation. I told Tom how this project had been weighing upon me like a tremendous burden. I'd felt as though the Devil himself was holding up my whole life with this unfinished job and I was so relieved that Tom offered to help me to finish it. "Well, I don't know about that," Tom replied. "I think you're getting a little carried away. These things happen."

James Lorusso in concert.'Within a few moments, the most amazing thing happened. A piece of the ceiling fell down. A chunk of something plaster-like plummeted on top of the guitar. I was so upset that I freaked out, yelling, I can't believe this is happening!'

'Tom's response was, "I've been in this workshop for many years, with many guitars sitting in that same exact spot. Nothing like this has ever happened before. What are the odds? Normally, I don't really believe in this sort of thing, Jim, but after what just happened, I'm beginning to think you ARE cursed with this guitar!"

'After close examination of the instrument, to our amazement, it appeared that there was hardly any damage to the top, even though he had a very high ceiling and we both saw this piece bounce off the top of the guitar. Later, we surmised that it had to have been a piece of asbestos pipe lining, rather than plaster, that had fallen, due to a roof leak. Tom thought another coat of lacquer on the guitar would mask any slight indentations that might have occurred. We proceeded with that plan, and to my relief this resolved the issue.

'There were many times Tom gave me guidance and advice over the phone. We truly did enjoy talking about the guitar, whether it was building or repair techniques or just about the great players, many of whom were also his friends. Once we got started, we would spend hours in this mode of conversation either on the phone or at his apartment. It is both shocking and painful to think that those conversations are now silenced on this earth.

'Tom always said to me, "Don't worry' Jim' we'll eventually build you the ultimate 10-string." He put it that way because he knew it would be a collaboration between us, even though ultimately, he would build the guitar.

We discussed just about every design possibility we could both think of, from what I knew I needed, to what Tom thought was necessary. These discussions continued for ten years, from 1978 to 1988, until he finally built me one of the best guitars I have ever owned.

‘Toward the end of this period, Tom surprised me one day with a change of conversation from our usual guitar talk. Tom wasn't overly religious but he knew that I was. We had discussed that I was praying this guitar would come out really good because I was kind of broke, and the cost was going to take almost everything I had - to the point that I couldn't afford to buy another one if this didn't turn out the way we hoped. Tom saw what he thought was evidence that my prayers were being answered when he began to build this guitar. Everything was going better than even he imagined it would. In the midst of this process he said "Jim, I just can't go on like this anymore."

'Like what? I'd asked. He said, "Alone. I need a partner. I know you pray and I figured you could put a few words in for me that I might meet the right person." He had helped me and given me so much, and now he was asking me for help. This was out of character for Tom. I was shocked that not only was he consenting to this process, he was requesting it! Of course I said yes, my wife and I started praying that day, and within a few months, Tom met Martha, who was smart beautiful, kind-hearted and truly the best partner he could have ever hoped for (in his own words!). When he found out she could help him with guitar work and she was gifted at certain aspects of it, he was overwhelmed. The credit here, of course, goes to the one who feels our true needs in this life and answers prayer. My mind goes to Martha who, in dignity and grace, has to carry on without the man she devoted her life to all these years.

'After enjoying this instrument for twenty years, the unthinkable happened - the bridge ripped off at the tie block. I was so upset about it that I let a few months go by before I eventually called Tom. My worst fear was that this guitar would never sound the same. My life became complicated and busy so we fell out of contact for years. I didn't know how he would respond to this news. When we finally spoke, it was as if no time had passed at all. We picked up right where we left off and he assured me that this was fixable and might actually turn out even better than before because the top had now settled.

'It took me a couple of more months before I got the guitar to him, but once I did, he fixed it fast, with a beautiful bridge. And he was right again - it looked and sounded better than before. I was amazed. I played it for some time the same day I picked it up and my wife, MaryAnn, agreed on the obvious overall improvement of the sound. We enjoyed a very pleasant reunion with Tom and Martha. We had some good laughs and reminisced about many things, promising upon parting that we should never let that amount of time pass before we get together again. As I played the guitar more, the realization struck me that he hadn't just repaired the guitar but really improved it. I kept saying to MaryAnn, I have to call Tom to thank him again and tell him how great the guitar came out. I will always regret that before I made that call to Tom. I received a call from another good friend, David Santo, telling me Tom had died. Yet it seemed fitting that another great guitar maker, who was Michael Gurian's partner, when Tom was apprenticing with him, would be the one to tell me this shocking and sad news. It is also deeply appropriate that David is now the one putting the finishing touches on the batch of guitars which Tom had left ninety percent completed in construction just before he had died.

'When MaryAnn and I shared that great time at Tom's studio, a day which we are grateful for, we'd never imagined it would be the last time we would see him. I guess you could say, even in his death, he taught me one last lesson: if you have something important to do in life, or to tell a friend or loved one, don't hesitate. You never know when time will stop for you or them. Tom will be sorely missed by many people, most certainly by me.'



1. This sentence was edited for clarification. In the original article, this sentence read: "His love for Renaissance and Baroque music, arranging works for piano, harpsichord and lute, and his studies with Narciso Yepes led him to play the ten-string Guitar in 1978.". When you've finished reading this note, please click here to return to the original place in the article that referred to this note.

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