Thursday, August 26, 2010


Three years after coming back to Panama, working in my first shop on Avenida Mexico, I decided that it was necessary to travel to Spain to get to know the true roots of the Spanish guitar, in Andalusia.  To be precise I decided to immigrate to Granada, which today is the city in Spain with the most independent guitar-makers and a rich history of guitar music and culture.
The guitars of Granada have always been universally appreciated.  Some say that in this city in the Sierra Nevada, the weather is perfect for guitar construction, and the dryness and extreme temperatures help the wood to season better¹.  I think that living in such a lovely city, home of The Alhambra, with all the the inspiring moorish art, must also affect the romantic character of the Granada guitar.
Today the Granada School makes an instrument made with dimensions and techniques not very different from those of Antonio Torres, being one of the main features gluing using only animal hide glue, and another finishing using a french polish of shellac.  
Another important historical turn-point for the Granada school was the collaboration in the 70's of one of the finest luthiers of Granada, Antonio Marin Montero, with France's Robert Bouchet.  This added some very important design features that spread to the work of other fine Granada makers.
I was very lucky that before I left for Spain I met Irene that with her partner Jairo gave me a place to stay in Granada.  Once there, I went out every day to explore the city looking for shops in which to observe and possibly chat to some guitar builder about his craft.  I wished to stay in Granada, but for that I needed to find work.  I thought that with more than 20 guitar-shops in a small town, someone might use a helper, but it was not easy.  Most of them did not want any distraction, as they prefer to work alone with a limited production.  Those who had bigger shops already had family members or employees to help them. There are also several foreign makers working in Granada: various Germans, a Dutchman and a North-American [for a list of guitar-makers in Granada, click here].  The same, they did not need a helper as their production was limited, and because it takes great effort in part of a master to have to teach someone all the details of their craft.  The luthiers that I visited were very kind, giving me their time to chat and give me advice.  
Finally I tried calling a builder whose work-shop was not in the city of Granada, but in a town in another mountain range: the Alpujarras, a magical place that my friends had told me I must visit.  It was one of the foreigners from Germany who had been living in Spain for many years: Andres Marvi.  He told me he would like to try me and that I should go to the Alpujarras to work a couple of days with him.  I took a bus to the town of Pitres, passing by the bigger towns of Lanjaron and Orgiva.  The scenery was magnificent, and it was worth the 3 plus hours it would take to travel by bus through winding mountain roads.
The situation in the Alpujarras was not easy.  I started by staying at a mountain shelter.  It was winter and it was cold, but I was in good company and had a nice time.  In the day time I would walk about an hour through mountain paths to get to Ferreirola, the small town where Andy had his shop.  There he had me perform common tasks of a guitar work-shop, and now and then showed me his way of doing things.  
I noticed that it was the way of the Granada School.  Gluing with hide glue was of the highest importance as this glue has many virtues.  The first is that it dries hard and crystalline, transmitting vibration better than plastic glues.  The second is the resistance to cold creep of the glue joint.  It is more resistant to heat than Titebond and the glue line is less visible since it is thinner.
One day Andy and I were talking about violins and how they always use hide glue for their construction.   He asked me why I thought this was so, and I responded that the hide glue joint can be taken apart and re-glued for future repairs.  He told me I was totally wrong,  because the true reason that the traditional adhesive is used on violins is completely for reasons of sound, and the same goes for guitars.  The best Spanish guitars with the best sound were glued and are still glued using hide glue for better transmission of sound between the glue joints and so the neck and top don't warp from the tension of the strings, thanks to it's great resistance to cold creep.
With Andy I learned to glue binding with hide glue, and many other important skills about building Spanish guitars, as well as some of the refinements and special techniques that he uses in his magnificent guitars.

After working about a month with Andy I felt I could not stay there in the Alpujarras, or Spain.  There were many factors that finally impelled me to pack up again and return to Panama.  Maybe I would have endured a few more months if I would have been more savvy with money, or if I would have planned the trip better.   As my good friend in Granada wrote me: Nada importa, pero todo es importante (Nothing matters, but everything is important). I decided that I wanted to keep working for myself in my own shop, and I could only do that back in Panama.  
So I went back, after a great experience, good memories and a better knowledge of the Spanish guitar.
¹ Eusebio Rioja

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