When he bought his first classical guitar about a dozen years ago, Shel Urlik asked himself: "Should I buy this guitar with the tin can inside?" The "tin can" turned out to be a tornavoz, a cylinder that projects sound, and the guitar turned out to be the first in a world-class collection.
Fitted with nylon strings and played with fingers rather than picks, classical guitars still derive from techniques perfected by master luthiers in Spain during the mid-19th century. Until the 1920s, when the art began to spread, they were known simply as Spanish guitars.
Some connoisseurs would argue that the finest classical guitars ever are being produced today, but for Urlik, the golden age was the heyday of the Spanish masters, from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Of his 90 guitars, many date from this period, including four masterpieces by Antonio de Torres, classical guitar's Stradivari. Only about 70 to 80 of the approximately 320 guitars Torres produced exist today. "So few survived, at least in good shape, because classical guitars were instruments of the masses," says Urlik, 62. "They were played hard, even by professional players."
Urlik's collection dates from 1867 to the present and includes guitars by the Ramirez dynasty and Hermann Hauser, as well as modern masters Robert Ruck, Dominique Field and Jeffrey R. Elliott. While Spanish guitars became less heavily decorated in the age of Torres, they remain works of art; a dazzling instrument crafted by Luis Carzoglio in 1931 is adorned with more than 70,000 pieces of wood inlay. More than 60 of Urlik's spectacular pieces are lavishly displayed with extensive historical notes in a sumptuous volume written by Urlik, "A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present" (Sunny Knoll Publishing Co., 1997).
For the L.A. resident, who practices daily on one of his guitars, collecting grew from his love of playing. "I could be a Laker fan, but that is vicarious--getting your jollies out of someone else's achievements," says Ulrik, a retired electrical industry executive. "A serious collector is doing something for humanity, preserving things that cannot be replaced."
Urlik's wife, Sandi, views his contribution to humanity somewhat differently. "Originally, he wanted to play country and western music," she says, recalling the couple's early days on a military base in Montana. "I don't want to discuss his singing and playing, but let's just say the world is a better place with him playing classical guitar instead."