by Jack C Clark
I wasn’t sure just what to expect when I scheduled a visit to one of Spain’s most prominent guitar builders: Antonio Marin Montero. What would his shop look like? Would he welcome my visit, or find it disruptive? I would soon find out.
My wife and I had visited Barcelona a couple of years ago and enjoyed Spain so much that we decided to return and see more of the country. On this trip, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit some of the prominent luthiers there, so we planned our trip accordingly. We visited Madrid first and then Granada—both considered meccas of classical and flamenco guitar building. I originally wanted to visit one of the larger operations, such as Ramirez and a smaller shop such as Antonio Marin’s. I sent emails to both the Jose Ramirez and Conde Hermanos web addresses requesting permission to visit their operations, but only Conde Hermanos responded with an invitation to stop by while in Madrid.
My visit to Antonio Marin in Granada was scheduled through Lisa Hurlong, a professional classical guitarist and equestrienne living in Spain. (www.lisadegranada.com) Lisa is a broker for fine Spanish guitars and beautiful Spanish horses. She is also a friend of Sr. Marin’s and several other guitar makers throughout Spain. Though she was unavailable during our time in Granada, she enlisted another guitarist to interpret, as Antonio speaks very little English and I speak very little Spanish. David Sinclair (www.davidsinclairguitarist.com) is a Canadian professional flamenco player who agreed to work with me and translate on my behalf.
With the address in hand, we found Antonio’s shop (see Photo 1), a non-descript and unpretentious corner building with no signage or numbers.
Photo 2 is of Antonio on the left, me in the center and Antonio’s nephew, Pepito (Jose Marin Plazuelo) on the right (note the birdseye maple classical guitar that Pepito is working on). Photo 3 is the third and final member of Antonio’s operation, Jose (Pepe), brother-in-law of Pepito. Photo 4 shows some of the tools that are used in the shop and Photo 5, finished guitars awaiting shipment to their new owners.
Thirty years ago Antonio traveled to France and spent a week working with Robert Bouchet. Primarily an artist, painting in the impressionistic style and teaching art in Paris, Bouchet began building instruments late in his life. A self-taught luthier, Bouchet crafted his instruments after studying those of Torres. He found he had a natural gift as a luthier and went on to produce many highly coveted instruments (Julian Bream owned three of his guitars).
A month after their first meeting, Bouchet came to Granada and he and Antonio built a guitar together. Two years later Antonio returned to France to build three more guitars with Bouchet. In 1981, as a result of this collaboration, Antonio began designing his guitars after Bouchet’s.
I asked Antonio if he uses the same top bracing on all of his guitars or does he use different patterns for the flamenco. He said he uses the same bracing for his classical guitars and a different bracing for the flamencos. His favorite top wood is spruce (pino abeto) but occasionally he’ll use Western red cedar (cedro rojo del oeste) if requested by a customer. He and his assistants build between thirty to thirty-five guitars, mostly classical, per year. He has a one, to one-and-a-half-year waiting list.
Antonio operates a no-nonsense, no-frills operation—three professionals working side-by-side building some of the best guitars in the world in an astonishingly small space. Honing his craft at this modest location over the last 28 years, Antonio, like most other guitar shops I visited in Spain, uses minimal square footage most effectively. (I’ll never again complain about the size of ‘my’ shop.) It was an honor to meet Antonio and his assistants; we’ll remember their warm and gracious welcome as one of the high points of our trip.
While in Madrid, I visited the shops of Conde Hermanos and Jose Romeros. Both shops are located in the Puerta del Sole area of Madrid. Photo 6 is the Hermanos storefront. The upper level is a showroom and business office; the actual workshop is in the basement. Photo 7 is the work area. Note there are only two workbenches. The Hermanos brothers, Felipe and Mariano Jr., were both out of country attending a guitar show in China when I arrived at their shop. One of their business associates, Jacobo, (shown with me in Photo 8) gave us a tour of their facility. Each of the Hermanos brothers has an assistant. Photo 9 shows one of the assistants working on a flamenco guitar. Conde Hermanos produces approximately fifty guitars each year. Their web site is: www.condehermanos.com.
Having seen the Conde Hermanos website prior to our visit, I anticipated a much larger operation. However, I soon discovered that none of the fine guitar builders in Spain have very large operations. While I did visit the Jose Ramirez showroom and small museum, I didn’t have time to coordinate a visit to their factory located some distance from the showroom. I would imagine the Ramirez operation is larger than Conde Hermanos based upon the number of their guitars you see for sale in the U.S.
We literally stumbled upon the shop of Pedro de Miguel in Madrid while looking for an Internet café. Pedro de Miguel is actually two luthiers, Pedro Perez and Miguel Rodriguez. Both began their careers at the age of 14 in the Ramirez shop and learned the craft there, leaving in 1990 to open their own shop. Because of the commonality of the Rodriguez name, they decided to use their first names for their shop—thus Pedro de Miguel. They sell their own professional line of guitars built in their shop and also a
factory-made student model built to their specifications.
Another shop found by chance in Granada was Daniel Gil De Avalle. Photo 10 shows the front of Daniel’s shop. Note the name of the shop is covering up another name. I was unable to determine if the shop was new or just had a new owner. Photo 11 is Daniel working on a customer’s violin. As the luthiers of Pedro de Miguel, Daniel sells less expensive factory-built models as well as his own concert models.
Jose Romero’s shop was only a couple of blocks from our hotel in Madrid. Photo 12 of his shop was taken at dusk because he had just returned from siesta around 6:00 p.m. that evening. All of the shops we visited close in the early afternoon, open again late in the afternoon and stay open into the evening.
Jose also entered an apprenticeship at the shop of Jose Ramirez in 1968 at the age of 14. Following compulsory military service, he returned to the Ramirez shop and worked another eight years. In 1983, Jose left Ramirez to open his own shop and build instruments of his own design. Jose does not speak English but in my weak Spanish I was able to determine that he works alone and produces about twenty-five guitars each year. He is setting a fret board on a flamenco guitar in Photo 13.
The final shop we visited in Granada was that of luthier John Ray (Photo 14). This was our most informative visit simply because we both speak English. John is from Edmonton, Canada, and moved to Granada 18 years ago. Like me, he wanted to learn to play the guitar but found the experience frustrating so he changed his focus and started building them instead. He was 21 when his guitar teacher suggested that the south of Spain was the place to learn to build guitars. Two years later he had saved enough money to make the journey. He decided to come to Spain for a year—that was eighteen years ago.
John, a linguist, taught English in Granada to help make ends meet until his business was established. When he first arrived, he was unable to find a luthier that would take him on so he started from scratch and built his first instrument, a timple (a traditional instrument of the Canary Islands) for a friend. He later took a course at the Alhambra on restoration and building. The course instructor invited him to join a small group of people who were learning to build instruments on the weekends. That experience left him better equipped to ask good questions of the experienced builders of Granada.
While the Spanish luthiers are not as forthcoming with information as the builders here in the U.S., John managed to learn from some of the local builders including Antonio Marin. Most influential, however, was Rolf Eichinger, a German builder living in Granada. Eichinger encouraged John to open a shop in a vacant space next to his own where John has operated his business ever since. He considers Rolf his mentor and one of the finest builders in the world.
I asked John how he markets his guitars; he said the single most important aspect of marketing in Granada is to be in your shop. People see you in the shop, come in and try your instruments and occasionally buy one. After several years of trying, he successfully convinced Guitar Salon International to buy one of his flamenco guitars and now they carry his guitars. John also recognizes the importance of the Internet as a tool and has his own website, much to the dismay of his master, Rolf Eichinger. Most hand builders in Spain do not advertise; John does so when an appropriate opportunity arises.
I asked John where he purchases his wood. He said everyone in Spain buys their wood from Maderas Barber in Valencia. (www.maderasbarber.com) He said they are the largest dealer in instrument wood in the world.
John brought up an interesting point about Spanish builders too; they do not play the guitar. Their builder fathers didn’t play either, nor did the shop owners who employed them. Building guitars in Spain is a profession and a proud tradition, much more than an avocation.
We also discussed a book by a friend of John’s, a student at the university. The book covers the entire process of John building a guitar. It isn’t a how-to-book but a beautiful black and white photo essay of the process. The author is Maria Isabel Lopez Gonzalvez and the book is entitled, El Arte De La Guitarra (The Art of Guitar). John gave me a copy and it is truly a beautiful piece of work. The book would make a great addition to any luthier’s library and is available through Amazon.
I hope you have the opportunity to visit Spain one day. If you do, I encourage you to visit a few of these craftsmens’ shops. They are easy to find and it’s a great way to gain inspiration and practice your Spanish at the same time.