New Mexico Luthiers Pimentel & Sons Still Build Guitars ‘the Old Way’
Is there any state in the United States besides New Mexico that has a “state guitar”—along with its state flower (yucca), state bird (roadrunner), state animal (black bear), and all the other inspired and obscure official designations that legislators have come up with through the years? It was in 2009 that Governor Bill Richardson signed the authorization to make Pimentel & Sons Guitarmakers’ “New Mexico Sunrise” acoustic guitar a state symbol—two years later the New Mexico Museum of Art acquired one of the beautiful instruments for its collection.
Pimentel & Sons has an international reputation by this point, but it is truly a beloved institution in New Mexico, where the familia of Mexican immigrant Lorenzo Pimentel has been crafting fine custom instruments for more than six decades, since 1963 in Albuquerque. Lorenzo died in 2010 at the age of 82, but by then several of his progeny had been long entrenched in the business: of his 12 children—nine boys and three girls—sons Rick, Robert, and Victor all are master guitar makers (brother Agustin, also a luthier, died in 2014), and two of their other brothers, Hector and Gustavo, are professional guitarists. Their mother, Josefina, has been involved in the company since its creation and has been a strong guiding presence throughout. Lorenzo’s own career building instruments goes back to his teenage years in the 1940s in Ciudad Juaréz, Mexico, where he learned the craft from his half-brothers.
“My father, Lorenzo, started making guitars in Mexico and then in 1951 moved to El Paso, [Texas], where he worked at a bakery and also made guitars on the side,” says Robert Pimentel, whose specialty in the company is, like his father’s, making classical and flamenco guitars. “Then they moved to Carlsbad, [New Mexico], which is where I was born, in 1953, and then to Albuquerque. As we were growing up, he worked in his garage making guitars, and as kids we were always around him, and he would teach us how he would do all the different things that go into making a guitar. So we learned the old way—everything it takes to make a guitar by hand—cutting the wood, making the rosette, making the nuts and saddle out of bone, working with the bridges and fingerboards, putting the necks together. We make everything here—we don’t buy anything premade, not even the rosette. We do custom inlays, of course.”
Did Robert, who is vice-president of the company (brother Rick, who mainly makes steel-string acoustic guitars, is the president), ever wish during his youth that he could go out and play baseball with his friends, instead of working on guitars? “No, but I wanted to go out dancing with girls, and my dad always said, ‘You’re not going to go dancing, you gotta work, boy!’” he says with a robust laugh. “It was OK, because that hard work taught me a lot, and I like to think I’ve become a great guitar maker, which is something to be proud of. I can do anything to a guitar—I can build it, repair it. I can put on a new top, a new fingerboard. I can put a new back on it.
“We’ve been working on guitars for all of our lives.”
ABOVE: David Stevenson of Dream Guitars plays a 1970 Pimentel concert guitar.
Though both of Robert’s other guitar-making brothers also work on nylon-string classicals, Robert has filled the niche of building Pimentel’s highly regarded Grand Concert models, and he hasn’t been afraid to make a few changes to Lorenzo’s time-tested designs. “He started making guitars a certain way,” Robert says of his father, “and as I grew up, every time I saw him do a Grand Concert, I always liked the way it sounded, but I felt like I wanted to change the bracing. He told me, ‘Well, you have to do what you think is right, and if you want to change it, then change it. But I think my way is a pretty good way of making guitars.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it is, but I’d like to experiment with other ways.’
“And he did, too—he always innovated. He always developed his own methods. He could see the bracing in other guitars, because you can take [the guitars] apart, but then he would change it because he really didn’t want to copy anybody. And now that he’s gone, I changed the bracing completely on the Grand Concert. I needed to make my own personal style of bracing.”
“We do two different ones,” he continues. “One is the double-top Grand Concert Dobre, which has this honeycomb [layer] that we created with Port Orford cedar. First [there’s the] top with the rosette, and then the honeycomb bracing, and underneath is a thin layer of western red cedar or European spruce, depending on the type of sound that we want to get out of the classical guitars. This promotes much more sustain and volume, whereas Nomex [a fiber carbon material used for honeycomb bracing in some guitars] is very bright and it does not sustain as well as wood, in our opinion. This new innovation was designed by myself and [my brother] Rick and was implemented about two years ago, and our customers really love the tone and volume.”
In California, it’s easy to get well-known right away [as a builder]. In New Mexico it takes longer.
The other bracing Robert has introduced is a new design that has five braces going from two cross-struts “and one crossing over the other way. It supports the bridge real well because it’s close to the bridge area. Hector Garcia, who used to be the classical-guitar professor for the University of New Mexico, said to me, ‘Wow, Robert, this sounds even better than my Ramirez,’ so he ordered it and he performs with it.”
He adds that all three brothers are always innovating in the bracing aspects of the instruments they build, whether it is a classical, acoustic, fusion, or jazz guitar, mandolin, or any other type of stringed instrument.
Robert’s father stockpiled tone woods that in some instances have become quite rare, a windfall for Robert. “My father was real smart when he was younger, and he bought a lot of Brazilian rosewood boards, a lot of ebony, a lot of East Indian rosewood,” Robert says. “So we’ve had this wood for many years, and as we purchase more lumber of any sort, it will be aged in our warehouse for at least 10 to 15 years before we consider it worthwhile for guitars. I went to Brazil a couple of times, and I could never bring back any [rose]wood—it’s an endangered species and has been since the ’60s. We don’t have a whole lot of Brazilian rosewood—we have more of the East Indian—but everything here is aged beautifully here in New Mexico because it’s a really dry climate.
“Our woods are really nice and dry and when we get to work on them you get these great smells out of them still. They’re not moist at all, and you take them anywhere in the world and they stand up.”
Spruce and maple are used on some guitars, as well.
Different custom builds employ different woods, obviously, so it’s not surprising to learn that Pimentel guitars can range in price from $3,500 to $45,000. “I just finished two flamenco guitars—one negra and one blanca,” Robert says, “and the negra was Brazilian rosewood and a German spruce top and ebony trim; $35,000. It’s hard for people making guitars to make that kind of sale, but we offer a full lifetime warranty and full trade-in value.”
Besides building guitars—Victor’s other specialty is ukes and mandolins, though all three brothers build classical guitars—Pimentel & Sons also do restorations and repairs. Basically, if you have an instrument with strings on it, they’ll work on it. But building guitars by hand will always be their main focus, and being off the beaten track hasn’t hurt them so far—indeed, their Southwest location has a certain romantic resonance with some customers.
“In California, it’s easy to get well- known right away,” Robert offers. “Here it takes longer. But more and more people know about us, and we have gotten a lot of recognition because we’re a family that is still making guitars the old way. We don’t even have machines to bend our sides, so we put them in water; then we use a hot oval electric iron and bend them by hand.
“At the same time, we have to stay on top of what people want. A lot of young players now want the nylon-string, but they want the classical-jazz fusion [model] with the dreamcatcher and chili pepper [design] and the low action. It’s a lot different than when they all wanted a Ramirez high-action like Segovia played. So we have to keep up with the changes and also innovate, keep making guitars that are different.”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.