plays a Philippe Jean-Mairet guitar
Thanks to Daniel Christiansen from Atlanta, Georgia, for the great job of translating my Danish text into English. It might not have been done without him.
I get this question every day: “What kind of a guitar do you play Mr. Kindgren? It sounds wonderful!” Since 1987, or the last 22 years, I’ve been playing a guitar built by Philippe Jean-Mairet, who lives and works in Mürten, in the French speaking part of Switzerland. One of my friends was studying in Bern for a couple of years, and he met Philippe at a dinner. Philippe played guitar, mostly Flamenco, but he also built classical guitars as a sideline. My friend got permission to try one of his instruments… and it was simply fantastic!
Jørgen, my friend, immediately ordered a guitar from Philippe, and after 14 months it was completed. Jørgen, who is from Sweden, stayed one night with me in Copenhagen while he was on his way home to Sweden to celebrate Christmas with his mother.
Like all guitarists, he had his guitar along with him while he was travelling, and I couldn’t resist asking if I could see and try out his guitar. “Yes, you may”, he said, and without further ado I unlocked his guitar case. I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Remember, I was a poor student who had just spent all my money on a new guitar from Manchester, in England (built by Martin Fleeson). It had cost me two years of waiting and the tidy sum of 25,000 DKK. [$5.500] I was very happy with it and had no plans to change guitars. From the first moment I played a note on Jørgen’s Mairet guitar, I was sold! I had to have such a guitar! I told Jørgen that when he returned to Switzerland after Christmas, he had to immediately order a guitar for me!
I have never, before or after, made such a quick decision on such an important issue. It is not at all like me to do that. I would much rather consider things calmly until I find the best solution. But not this time!
Jørgen ordered a guitar, and nine months later Philippe wrote that I was welcome to come to Switzerland to test/fetch my guitar. I flew down to Zürich the following week with beating heart. Philippe was very friendly but he speaks only French, and I can manage only three words in that language, so we ended up playing more than we talked. I got to choose between two guitars that he had built at the same time (it’s cheaper that way) and it became fairly clear after ten minutes that one was much better than the other. I borrowed that guitar for the night, (Philippe had to go home to Mürten and I spent the night at the home of Jørgen and his wife) but I would not be sleeping the entire night. I played and played hours on end. What a delight! What a fantastic guitar! And it was so easy to play! Suddenly, I could play things that had been great problems on my Fleeson! It was almost playing by itself. The next morning, Philippe came back and wanted to hear my final decision. I asked him to make some quick adjustments and to mount a small dot over the seventh fret, and then we agreed on how I was to pay him. The next day, I flew home to Denmark with my new guitar, and as soon as two of my colleagues tried my guitar they also ordered one! So now there are three Philppe Jean-Mairet guitars in Denmark.
Philippe himself fells the tree he needs for the soundboard. That comes from a specially chosen mountain-slope in the Swiss alps that he owns for that sole purpose. He fells an enormous tree and lets it lie and dry in a “drying room”. That is a storage room where he has a fan that causes the tree to dry in 2-3 years. When the wood has completely dried, he saws it in thin “disks” of about 3-5 mm. It is very important that the tree rings are dense and even, which produces the best sound in a guitar. The sides and the back are made from Brazilian rosewood and the fingerboard is made of ebony, the only tree that is so hard and heavy that it sinks in water. It is very difficult to scratch it even with a metal file! The lacquer is a chapter in itself. Philippe Jean-Mairet uses a technique called “French polish”, which entails the use of a piece of cotton wool, dipped in a lacquer he himself makes (a very secret recipe). This he rubs over the entire surface of the guitar, lets it dry for 24 hours, and then he repeats the polishing again and again, until the process had been completed 70 times! That means that just the lacquering of the guitar takes over 2 months. The lacquering of an instrument is very important, — not only for it to look nice but also so that it is better protected — and not least in order to give it a beautiful sound.
The disadvantage is that the lacquer is very thin and I have already been to Switzerland twice in order to get a new layer of lacquer on the guitar, since it is wears out very quickly.
In the summer 2006, I went to guitar-builder Per Hallgren in Göteborg in order to have the guitar lacquered again. It needed it, and I couldn’t get hold of Philippe. I was sure that Per was going to make it as good as new, he is very competent! I got it back from Per Hallgren in September and he had done a fantastic job! Absolutely breathtaking! It was as if my guitar, for the first time in 19 years, was brand new again! Per has made it sound even better. I think he uses a slightly thicker lacquer than Phillippe’s and that might have done the trick. Now I have to see how it develops in the future... What is my guitar worth? Well, that’s really not important, it isn’t for sale. But if somebody wants to offer…shall we say $15.000, yes, I promise to consider it. :-) Want to see more pictures...? Per-Olov Kindgren