The Spanish guitar... a fascinating instrument with universal appeal. But... ¿how and where are they made, and who makes them?
The answer may seem easy: A guitar manufacturer in a guitar factory with "guitar making" equipment and tools. Sounds Logical...Obvious.
ACTUALLY NOT. Although it is true that there are factories producing guitars on an assembly line, made with highly specialized machines. Imagine hundreds of guitars leaving the factory... Every day! Surely, a paradise for any guitar enthusiast!
ACTUALLY NOT. But yes... because we mortals are not professional guitar players, and despite the fact that factories have all the tools and the most advanced technology, professionals DO NOT play these guitars in concerts. Are they bad guitars?
ACTUALLY NOT. They don't use them for a different reason. It is because Artisan Guitars exist... ¿so aren't they the same instrument?
ACTUALLY NOT. Visually they may appear similar, and in other cases there are small (or big) diferences in look, but there IS something that makes them totally different. How and Where Are They Made, and Who Makes Them.
And that's exactly the topic of this article. If you are interested in knowing more about the artisan Spanish guitar, you should continue reading!
Artisan guitars are built by guitar makers in their workshops and are handcrafted. This simple sentence, contains all the differences.
Artisan VS Worker / Workshop VS Factory / Handcrafted VS Industry
But there is a point I always like to talk about, even many people think there is something negative (especially those purist and romantic luthiers), my opinion is slightly different. A manufacturer, by definition, is unavoidably bound to maximize profits, but this, at the same time, allows the manufacturer to produce less expensive instruments that people of any status can afford, no matter if they play great or bad, regardless of financial status and resources available. And I think, simply and sincerely, that it is a great thing. Even many guitar makers (or luthiers, as known all around the world) criticize mass-produced guitars, I think we should appreciate that they are a great way to expose the beginner to the instrument. The beginner player doesn't know if he or she will love it, or it may be he or she doesn't want to or can not spend a lot money. That is how I began, and I keep on playing on that guitar today, I still look at it lovingly, but in concerts, obviously, I play with an artisan guitar.
The craftsmanship, as the first distinguishing element, has nothing to do with the use of hand or power tools. A guitar won't stop being an artisan guitar just because you cut the wood with an electric saw, or because you align the neck using a laser... the concept of craftmanship goes beyond the resources used, beyond the tools you work with. 200 years ago, for sure there weren't power drills and holes were made with a gimlet turned by hand. If they have had a plain drill... do you think they wouldn't have used it? In times past, potter's wheels were turned by hand. Today, pottery masters have electricity... the wheel turns automatically. Easy! Isn't it? Well... just try yourself placing a ball of clay on the wheel and try to make art. Master artisans of the past used everything available to them, the most advanced available at the time. But the goal was and is still the same: to produce a piece of art, something unique, with quality excellence as a standard. Craftmanship has nothing to do with the old, it is about an artist, that is well trained and skilled and most importantly, has a philosophy of placing quality and ethics ahead of maximizing profit.
For that reason, even a luthier's workshop may seem humble, it is a creation space that any single factory, no matter how advanced it is, can not equal. Because it is a personal environment created by the artisan himself, born out of his own needs of adapting the tools, the workbench and everything he needs to his ways, to his own methods. That is why artisan guitars are as unique as every person is. Every artisan, has his own personality. Personality that is etched into his instruments. If you cannot understand why artisan guitars are so different and why professional players always perform with them... go and visit a workshop or luthier around you if you have a chance. You won't need to ask, you will understand everything.
If the luthier allows you to come in!! Hahaha! All joking aside, artisans, as a rule of thumb, tend to be people with a special sensitivity, but often misinterpreted as "being odd". You probably think about a luthier... as an old man, white hair, working under the small lamp light... but actually, every artisan is different. Traditionally it is true that it came across as a reclusive trade... passed down from father to son, and that is understandable. It is a very hard and complex job, it is hard to learn... and the whole family relies on making a living from it, so you cannot give all that knowledge away for free. Today, everything is changing. Luthiers, and their workshop, are way more open, and of course, the internet has changed the world.
For that reason, there are a lot of guitar fans that are curious about this beautiful craft. The amount of resources available on the net is immense, and now many people without having lutherie pedigree, without roots, now has a chance to enter this world and build their own guitar with their own hands. It is still hard to find a person to learn the craft, but at least we have more options today.
One option is video courses. In 2015 I was very fortunate when Robert O'Brien, luthier from the United States, proposed to me the opportunity to develop a Flamenco Guitar Making Course. This production through Robert, goes beyond a plain "how to" manual on guitar building. One of the two variants of the Spanish Guitar, classical and flamenco, the last one belongs to a musical and cultural heritage just as Spanish as the guitar is: El Flamenco. Now Flamenco has a worldwide heritage and appeal. It has broken the bounds of musical expression, and built a whole Universe, a global CULTURE with its own identity.
Trying to isolate the flamenco guitar as just a mere instrument, without considering the "world" she belongs to, is the first step to fail in building a flamenco guitar. Understanding the origins of the true flamenco guitar, why it was created, is way more important than discovering the secrets to obtain what is called the flamenco sound. A flamenco guitar is a Spanish guitar, yes, of course, but it is not a classical one. The nuances though not easily discernable, are clearly not the same, not better or worse, just different. And both instruments have a musical universe behind them, that we cannot separate.
In this Flamenco Guitar Making Course we have included flamenco music, flamenco history and its principal actors, the flamenco artists: singers, players and dancers. We have included their artistic views and expressions, to show us how they directly relate to this instrument in particular. It is a very valuable information, because the flamenco guitar has no sense without the rest of the elements. Of course there is the flamenco guitar soloist, but the reason why flamenco guitar soloists perform the way they do, why they play with such intensity and passion, has a deep and complex origin. A thorough understanding of all these facets that make up flamenco must be well understood before being able to build a flamenco guitar.
With over 140 chapters in this course and 26 hours of videos in HD, you will get a step by step guide, with no step skipped and no secrets withheld and every detail of building included. We start by selecting the Spanish Cedar for the neck, learn how to cut, plane and carve it to build the guitar neck. We follow with the top, how to choose a good specimen, how to design and install a rosette and the most important, how to thickness and brace it to achieve a true flamenco sound. Sides have their own chapter in this video of course, how to bend them while minimizing risk of damaging them and bending them to conform to the well known guitar template. The back also has its own section... as well the rest of the guitar parts: the ultra low flamenco bridge, the traditional pegs, pruflings, tentallones and a long list of components, just before starting the assembly of the guitar. Of course we don't forget about the traditional finish: the French Polished shellac.
While the glue dries, we will visit the workshops of some of the best flamenco guitar makers today. We will interview guitar players, dancers, percussionists, hand-clappers, teachers... you will enter the theatre for the rehearsals with Óscar Quero, international dancer and choreographer, to see from the first row how we prepare a dancing show and we talk about flamenco and guitar with his artists crew: singer Alicia Morales, percussionist Pablo Chocolate and dancers and handclappers Noelia Valdepeñas and María Valdepeñas.
During the course, we travel through Andalucia, the land of flamenco, visiting some of the most important cities related to the flamenco guitar. Sevilla, Granada, Malaga, Cordoba...where we will briefly visit before we go and interview some well known flamenco artists and builders. First stop, Cordoba, where we were fortunate to visit the workshop of Graciliano Perez and enjoy learning from his vast knowledge and experience as a master builder of flamenco guitars prized by artists of the highest level, like Vicente Amigo among others.
Second stop, Seville, the capital of Andalucia, where lovers of flamenco from around the world travel to every year to immerse themselves in the culture and develop as artists. We will have the opportunity to interview Can Wang, one of the best known flamenco guitarist from China.
And in the area of Gilena, Jesus de Jimenez opens up his shop to us and shares his thoughts and experience. It is a privilege to speak with a young builder, with a young mind that makes instruments for some of the most well known and respected artists like Manolo Franco and Nino de Pura among others.
Before we return to my shop, we will make a stop along the way to Malaga, a seaport city and a cradle of art. In the magical atmosphere of Pena Flamenca Casa de Alora-Grbralfaro we will enjoy a delightful yet thorough conversation with singer and scholar D. Gregorio Valderrama. A flamenco scholar who will thoroughly reveal to us the real and well documented origen of flamenco, explaining its birth and evolution.
Gregorio will illustrate our discussion as he treats us through an exquisite solea (one of the most basic forms of flamenco). Accompanying him is flamenco guitarrist Francis Martin, whom we will also interview. He knows the instrument well and is an expert in guitar sales. He will show us a true guitar gem made by the well known luthier Manuel Reyes. Francis will accompany and interpret the solea by Gregorio. Before we leave Malaga, we will have share an interesting interview with singer Antonia Contreras regarding flamenco and the female singer. With her is guitarist Juan Ramon Caro who will share his valuable insight of the intrument, as a guitarist to the most well known figures in flamenco today, for example Mayte Martin and Miguel Poveda. Together with Antonia Contrera, they gift to us a beautiful seguiriya, the purist style of flamenco with no additonal adornment necessary. This is a sure treat for flamenco enthusiasts at its purist.
Back to the shop and we begin the chapter on guitar finishing. It is art and in itself a profession. Finishing is without a doubt the Aquilles heal of many builders. All of us need to endure through the this suffering that sooner or later we will have to confront. The artisan guitar is very fragile, more so than a standard guitar. It needs to be protected with a delicate balance of aesthetic appeal and sound quality. The video will show the French Polish technique, using shellac and a muneca. Shellac finishing has a long history, and for many years some held the the techniques so close as to be so secretive and on the verge of being mystical and religously sacred. Here we will show you in a structured and open way (no secrets). All you need is patience and practice, and that of itself, isn't always easy.
It looks like all that is left is to string the guitar up and say our good byes, but there's a better way to put the finishing touch to the course: actually playing the guitar we just built in a live concert! We will do this in Granada, in the Medina Elvira de Atarfe Theater along with the debut show of Dance Academy of Conchi Cabrera, all dedicated to the teaching of Spanish dance. In the concert you will be able to see and hear the actual guitar that I built throughout this course as it becomes part of the world for which it was born and designed for, Flamenco. In its natural environment, accompanied by song and dance, and of course as a soloist's guitar.
Fifteen frantic days of filming in which you will live every hour with me as a builder in my workshop, and as a guitarist on stage, sharing my day to day activities and my culture. All of this is summed up in this two minute long promotional video.