Guitarreros de Madrid
Luthiers and guitar shops in the Spanish capital
[Note: this article appeared in Classical Guitar magazine, Spring 2016, in abbreviated form.]
On my trip this August to Madrid, I decided to spend some time visiting a few of the city’s guitar shops and luthiers—artisanal guitar makers. I’ve visited Spain and Madrid several times previously, yet seven years had transpired since my last visit and I had rarely endeavored to visit classical or flamenco guitar makers there. August is arguably not the best month to visit Madrid—a majority of the residents have fled the oppressive heat of the city for vacations at the beach or abroad, and the inhabitants that remain are not inclined to work much, so while shops such as the Corte Inglés or Zara are promoting rare sale prices, many smaller boutiques, restaurants, and other businesses have irregular hours or are closed for the month. On the other hand, while tourists are in abundance, the fact that the populace has abandoned the metropolis leaves Madrid’s streets, cafés and bars relatively deserted.
The guitar in Spain, it goes without saying, is as ubiquitous as bulls and bullfighting. When we refer to the “Spanish guitar” today it can mean both the classical guitar or flamenco guitar; though similar in some ways in construction, the latter generally features a lower action, with strings sometimes “buzzing” against the frets, and a width, or bout, that is typically narrower than its classical counterpart. The early development of the guitar had perhaps as much to do with Italy as Spain, and of course today superb classical and flamenco guitars are made in every corner of the world. But it’s easy to associate the classical guitar primarily with Spain, and with Madrid in particular, which has been the heart of Spanish guitar making since the mid-eighteenth century.
While my wife, Yolanda, who was born and raised in Madrid, sipped a cortado (espresso with a bit of warm milk) with some friends in a chic apartment overlooking the Plaza Tirso de Molina, I escaped for a few minutes to visit the Guitarras Ramirez guitar shop on Calle de la Paz. The taller, or workshop, was closed for the month, but the downtown shop was open. The Ramírez family has been producing high quality guitars in Madrid for more than 100 years, in the process training a great number of luthiers who have gone on to create their own celebrated lines.
The Ramírez guitar dynasty was founded by José I Ramírez, who in 1870, after completing an apprenticeship in the guitar workshop of Francisco Gonzalez (1830-1880), established his own workshop and began training other luthiers. Manuel Ramírez, José’s brother, joined the taller but eventually split, acrimoniously, to open his own competing shop. Manuel’s fame spread through Francisco Tárrega, who did much to establish the classical guitar repertoire, but his fate changed when a very young guitarist entered the shop one day and asked to “borrow” a guitar. Manuel listened to him play a basic guitar, and after hearing a few lines pressed into his hands his finest instrument. He loaned the guitar to the young man, Andrés Segovia, though Manuel certainly could not have predicted at first that the young guitarist would, more than any other individual, extend the classical guitar’s reputation as a serious instrument. Segovia played the guitar for more than twenty-five years, playing it in concert and recording with it from 1912 to 1937; he played it at his U.S. debut in 1929, at New York's Town Hall. To Ramírez’ dismay, Segovia eventually asked German luthier Herman Hauser to copy and modify the instrument. The original, 1912 guitar is now in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, donated to the museum by Segovia’s widow, Emelita, la Marquesa de Salobreña.
In addition to Segovia, Ramírez guitars have been performed on by the great Christopher Parkening, Italian guitarist and composer Maurizio Colonna, as well as Sting, Lee Ritenour, and countless others. José IV and his sister Amalia now run the taller. Amalia, one of the first eminent female luthiers in Spain, has done much to revive old designs while bringing modern techniques into the line. Some of the two siblings’ children are apprenticing in the workshop, continuing the long Ramírez tradition.
Inside the shop, I tried to look as though I wasn't about to mar any guitars with the sweat streaming off my brow. Madrid’s summer had been one heat wave after another, and though it had “cooled off” slightly on my arrival, it was sunny and 94 degrees outside. Madrid’s luthiers and guitar shops can sometimes be a bit stuffy and off-putting to customers, but the staffer here welcomed me with at least a neutral “¿En qué le puedo server?” (How can I help?).
I asked to play a few guitars and he asked what kind of guitar I was looking for, a reasonable question to which I didn’t necessarily have a good answer. OK, I’m looking for a professional, handmade classical guitar that doesn’t cost a small (not to mention large) fortune or require a home-equity mortgage on my house. These requirements may be mutually exclusive.
I wasn’t necessarily intending to purchase a new guitar on this trip to Madrid, but it was at least a possibility. My life-long guitar, the instrument I learned on and have performed with extensively through the years, in concert and in cafés, is definitely a decent one, what you might call a good student model. Though it’s not, unfortunately, especially rich in sound, it is attractive and indubitably playable. Designed by José Oribe, the celebrated Southern California-based luthier, it was hand-made in Japan, in 1975, by luthier “O. Sakamoto” from Brazilian rosewood. My guitar teacher at the time, Richard Stover, played an Oribe signature model and brought a few of these Guitarra Artesana student models up to Santa Cruz. My parents bought it for my eighth-grade graduation present and I’ve played it for the past 40 years; we’ve traveled together through most of South America and in many other countries. Besides this one, I don’t have a lot of guitars. I recently acquired a Córdoba Mini O—a nice sounding travel guitar from the California-based guitar company (more on the Mini to come). I also have a ukulele and nice-sounding charango, a ukulele -like instrument from Bolivia.
This year, as I’d rekindled my dedication to regular practice, performing, and—should the Fates and Furies agree—composing, and plan to record in a studio this fall, I’d been contemplating the purchase of a higher-caliber instrument. Budget is an issue, funds are never unlimited—vacationing with five in Europe is not cheap and, among other things, I have a basement in need of finishing. Not to mention college education for my three younger children, quite rapidly approaching college age.
In April, while visiting family and friends in Southern California, I spent a lovely morning at Guitar Salon International— Córdoba Guitar’s sister company—in Santa Monica. GSI’s sales manager, JohnPaul Trotter, set me up in their acoustically-generous studio and brought out for me to play a succession of ten wonderful guitars—from the nice “Hauser” guitar in Córdoba’s Master Series to the wondrous 1973 “Churchdoor” guitar by Miguel Rodriguez, Jr.—the guitar that inspired the “Rodriguez” model in the Master Series. Playing a guitar that costs as much as a very good automobile produces an amazing, and somewhat unsettling, feeling. I said half-joking to JohnPaul that buying this guitar would be a swift path to divorce—“Honey, I bought a new guitar this morning, only $35K!” There are, of course, more than a few who wouldn’t bat an eye at paying thirty-five grand for guitar, and this is not even, by a long-shot, GSI’s most expensive specimen. Plenty of people in LA, after all, drive automobiles that cost more than a good home, but I am not among these people. On the other hand, if I had purchased this guitar, I would now own a guitar that had its own article written about it in Classical Guitar.
After I told the Ramírez guitar shop staffer that I was looking for a guitar between two thousand and five thousand euros, his enthusiasm dipped slightly and he started me on a nice studio (or student) model, the “130 Años,” which commemorates the dynasty’s 130th anniversary of guitar-making. This guitar, made elsewhere but “supervised” by the Ramírez workshop, is, in other words, not truly one of their guitars. It was priced around 2,000 euros and I did not find its tone or playability very impressive—it didn’t have anything to offer that I didn’t already enjoy in my old Oribe-designed Japanese guitar.
I next played a semiprofessional model, the “SPR,” priced around 3,000 euros, which lands in between their studio and professional instruments. An attractive guitar, its back and sides are Indian rosewood, the top is cedar, and it features an appealing rosette designed by Amalia Rodriguez. The SPR model is partially built in the Ramírez workshop, where it is “carefully inspected, adjusted and certified once it is totally finished.”
After this, he handed me a new model he described as “minimalist”—the new “Classical Conservatorio” model—made in their workshop by their own craftsmen. It’s designed to offer luthier quality at a reasonable price by stripping out some of the non-essential components and by being built with a simpler construction. I rather liked the look of it; it is quite elegant, if unusual-looking, and “minimalist” is an apt description. It featured a bright red cedar top (also available in spruce), Indian rosewood back and sides, an ebony fingerboard, and cedar neck. It has a nice tone and projects well. At 4,500 euros, I wouldn’t exactly classify it as a bargain, but perhaps it is, at least compared to the higher-end Ramírez models.
Finally, I played the “Auditorio” model, which features a rather powerful sound and projection thanks to its modern “double-top” soundboard design. This relatively new model in the Ramírez line featured a gleaming, red cedar top (also available in spruce), and of course Indian rosewood back and sides. This gorgeous guitar, albeit somewhat out of my price range at over 6,000 euros, would be a fine instrument on the concert stage. Prices for Ramírez guitars go up from there, into the 15-30,000 euro range and more. (Note: In the United States, Guitar Salon International offers a fine selection of new and “previously owned” Ramirez guitars, though I haven’t seen the minimalist “Conservatorio” model in their offerings.)
My wife and I were staying at her friend Miguel’s apartment in the La Latina neighborhood of downtown Madrid, near the famous el Rastro “flea market.” Miguel lives in Berlin, and after visiting for the weekend, he offered us the use of his apartment for the week. Just inside his front door is a reprint of a detailed map of Madrid from 1656, and you can actually pick out his building on this map. His apartment has been restored, and remodeled with modern conveniences, yet still offers the high ceilings and other beautiful touches of a stately 19th century building. With our kids at summer camp in the mountains of Madrid, it was a nice, quiet respite, even with the festival of San Jerónimo that was raging each night in the streets below—the thick walls of the apartment kept the sound at bay for the most part.
On the same street, Calle Santa Ana, is the shop of luthier Felix Manzanero, whom I’d visited on previous trips to Madrid. Manzanero has a solid reputation for his own instruments as well as a museum-quality selection of collectible classical and flamenco guitars. One morning, after a carajillo (coffee with cognac) in a nearby café, I walked over to his workshop—but unfortunately Manzanero was closed for the month of August. Along the same street, in a cute vintage furniture and lighting-fixture shop, I spotted a gorgeous, antique bullfighter outfit, dark blue with black velvet embellishments. 5,000 euros. Beautiful, but not that beautiful. At any rate, I doubt it would have fit me; bullfighters, like jockeys, are usually pretty petite.
Yolanda mentioned another guitar shop she was familiar with that sells rare acoustic and electric guitars, and often has jam sessions among the city’s guitarists. After noshing on a few bites of mind-blowing, fried bacalao (cod) and croquetas while knocking back a couple of cañas (draft beer) at Casa Labra (founded in 1860), around the corner from the Plaza Puerto del Sol (now Plaza Vodafone Sol), we hiked past the Torre de Madrid up to Headbanger Rare Guitars, on Calle de la Palma in the Noviciado neighborhood. Despite claims of being open on their website, their doors and windows were shuttered tight. One more casualty of August in Madrid.
On another scorching afternoon Yolanda had an appointment near the Opera House, so afterwards I popped into the basement workshop of Felipe Conde, on Calle Arrieta. Conde Hermanos is another dynasty of luthiers and another line with an acrimonious split, this time between Felipe and his brother Mariano, whose shop is located a mere few blocks away on the other side of Ópera. The Condes’ most prominent guitarist was the flamenco great, Paco de Lucía, who passed away in 2014. Oh yes, and Leonard Cohen has long played a Conde guitar. (When Cohen received the Príncipe de Asturias Award for Letters, one of Spain’s most important cultural prizes, he praised his Conde guitar.) Other clients have included Tomatito, Sabicas, Camarón de la Isla, Bob Dylan, Al di Meola, and the King of Spain—who while still Prince gave a Conde guitar to the Emperor of Japan.
Felipe Conde Sr. and his brother Mariano learned the craft from their father and uncle, who had inherited the business from their uncle, Domingo Esteso. Esteso had earlier apprenticed in the Ramírez workshop (The Paraguayan Agustín Barrios Mangoré, one of the greatest guitarist/composers in history, played a Domingo Esteso guitar). Now Felipe Sr.’s children, Felipe Jr. and Maria, are honing their craft in the intimate workshop; it’s definitely a family affair.
A nice sales clerk welcomed me, offered me a glass of iced tea, and began quizzing me about what kind of guitar I might desire. I was embarrassed to be sweating profusely from the sizzling heat outside, every pore seemingly open for business, so before he handed me an instrument I begged him for a towel, and he handed me a soft chamois with which I mopped my brow and arms. He brought me another to place over the guitar as he handed me a nice-looking studio model, the “CE 2,” made from Cocobolo (it is also available in Rosewood). At close to 3,500 euros, this is above their entry-level guitar, but like the Ramírez line, this model is fabricated elsewhere and “inspected, adjusted and certified” by the Conde shop. It has a nice sound and was very playable, but deserving of its student or studio model classification.
I next played the “CC 36,” a concert model built out of rosewood, with a cedar top, in the Conde shop (also available with a spruce top and/or cocobolo or maple sides and back). This is a beautiful guitar, quite clear, resonate, and well rounded in tone. A guitar well worth considering, and Felipe Sr. offered me a slight discount off of the 4,500-euro price.
Felipe Sr. sat down with me and chatted for a while. He talked proudly about his daughter, Maria, and her work and craft. “She is beginning to find her own ‘personality’ in guitar-making.” While Felipe’s son, Felipe Jr., works at the shop as well, it’s still less common to find women luthiers. He showed me one of Maria’s first guitars, a pretty instrument sporting a bright red cedar top and gleaming rosewood sides, on which I played one of my pieces. Maria peaked out from the workshop and smiled. “The guitar expresses what the player feels inside, and that passion is born inside the workshop,” Felipe said.
Felipe Sr. next showed me the “Centenario” model, modeled after one of Domingo Esteso’s guitars, made in 1915, which was owned and played by Daniel Fortea, one of Francisco Tárrega’s disciples. The guitar uses Madagascar rosewood, Felipe Sr. explained, that has been drying for 50 years. Besides the Madagascar rosewood on back and sides, the Centenario features a Brazilian rosewood neck, and a soundboard of German spruce. It costs 12,000 euros—though I might be able to get a slight discount. I’ll start saving my euros.
The three Condes—Felipe Sr., Felipe Jr., and Maria—sign their own guitars on the Conde label. The workshop is small but they each have their own tools, and they each develop their own style and particular characteristics of the craft. A guitar takes about two months to build. (The Conde’s models, like Ramírez’, are available in the U.S. exclusively through Guitar Salon International.)
Yolanda and I were staying for a few days with her friend Almudena, who lives in Paracuellos de la Jarama, in the outskirts of the city near the Barajas airport. As I was fond of saying, “En el sexto pino—un pino más allá que el quinto pino,” which you could roughly translate to “beyond the suburbs.” Google maps helpfully pointed out that a luthier’s workshop, Geronimo Mateos, was located in the neighborhood, at the bottom of the steep hill toward Barajas. I called and asked if I might stop in, and he invited me to do so after lunch.
Geronimo Mateos welcomed me to his workshop, on Calle las Zarzas in Paracuellos de la Jarama, behind a dusty industrial park, and he showed me around. It was early afternoon, and still hot and of course, quite dry. Madrid has the perfect climate for drying wood, to that I can attest. Once again, the questions, what type of guitar and at what price range? When I explained that I was looking for a concert guitar between two thousand and four thousand euros, he laughed and said that for four thousand euros he could easily sell me two guitars.
“Too many luthiers charge a premium price for their guitars, and it’s really not necessary,” he explained in Spanish. “I try to make a very nice guitar at a very reasonable price. That’s one reason my shop is far from the center of Madrid—I used to have a taller downtown, but the rents are too high. Now I own this workshop and don’t have to charge as much for my guitars.”
He asked to be forgiven, for he might not have a classical model that meets my needs, on short notice. Besides classical and flamenco guitars, he also makes strikingly beautiful “gypsy jazz” guitars in the Django Reinhart style. Mateos puttered around the back of the shop and pulled out a “Toledo” model. “All the guitars are made in my workshop by myself and my son,” he said, “we don't have guitars made elsewhere and put them under our labels. That means we can’t make very many guitars each year.”
The Toledo, his third up from entry-level guitar, had a nice tone as I played a bit of one of my pieces, and quite a steal at just over 1,000 euros, but I asked what else he had on hand. As he poked through the cases in the back of the shop, he explained that he has been most influenced by the French guitar maker Robert Bouchet. “I’ve used his method of interior bracing for years, although I’ve modified it slightly—I employ one extra brace. My son, Federico, is already exploring his own style of bracing. Federico is also making archtop jazz guitars as well.” He showed me one on a stand in the back of the shop—beautiful.
He hunted around a bit more and found a “Segovia” model. The brilliant spruce top, nearly purple-colored rosewood back and sides, ebony fretboard and bridge were attractive; the ebony rosette was spare but appealing to my eye. It also featured a dual adjustable truss rod in the neck. I started to play, and told him I was impressed by the instrument’s balanced tone.
“That’s what I emphasize—I don’t think that volume is the most important characteristic; I aim to have a very good balance between the strings, between different positions along the neck, and to faithfully reproduce what the guitarist wants in terms expressiveness. That’s what is important.”
The price was only 1,300 euros, and he offered me a reasonable discount. I think I’ve found my instrument, I told him, but in order to foster family harmony I told him I preferred to discuss it with my wife. Since I’d be leaving Madrid in a day and a half, would he be able to have it ready later that evening, or tomorrow at the latest, if I called later that afternoon? He agreed: “I’m going to be here very late tonight; I’m going on vacation next week and have a lot of catching up to do before then.”
Before I left the shop, I played one of his “Jazz Manouche” or Gypsy Jazz guitars, which he had just finished, an “Audrey” model. If I could buy two guitars, this would be a nice choice, and a find at 2,400 euros. It sported a red cedar top, ovagnkol sides and back, ebony fretboard; it also featured an unusual, elliptical-shaped soundhole and a cutaway to more easily access the highest notes of the fretboard. While I don’t often play steel-string acoustics—I don’t use a pick, for one thing—the Audrey had a rich, dynamic tone and is a precious instrument.
Yolanda consented to the purchase (of one guitar, not two, so Audrey will have to wait) and I called to let him know; he said to come by early that evening. It was still light out at ten pm when I arrived back at the workshop. A man he introduced as Paco was placing shellac (French polish) on an instrument. “This is the one thing I don’t do myself, shellac is quite sensitive, and Paco is a furniture maker and a master.” My Segovia model, instead, was finished in a polyurethane lacquer, which I personally preferred. Each finish has its advantages and disadvantages; shellac is beautiful, but sensitive to scratching or sweat, and more difficult to care for and maintain.
One more item—the Segovia classical guitar comes with a padded “gig” bag, not a hardshell wood case. Señor Mateos explained that wood cases were susceptible to breaking with a hard knock, but I’d much rather have the case break than the guitar; the gig bag doesn’t seem to offer much protection. Fortunately, Mateos has an option for a hardshell case, handmade in Portugal, a handsome case that I found well worth an extra 130 euros. All in, 1230 euros for a fine, handmade classical guitar and hardshell case was much less than I expected for a luthier-made instrument of concert-level quality. We completed the transaction, and fortunately Turkish airlines had no problem letting me bring the instrument on board to Istanbul, and a few days later, back to Washington DC.
I’ll be debuting my new Geronimo Mateos “Segovia” guitar this Sunday at the Takoma Park Folk Festival.