BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON
When you grow up in “the royal family of the Spanish guitar,” you know the instrument holds an honored place in your family’s history.
“The guitar is more than an instrument to my family. It is a way of life, it is an escape, it is a way to express yourself, it is a way to survive, it is a way to find happiness, it is a mystery and an adventure. It took my family—my grandparents, my father and uncles—from poverty, and gave my generation a comfortable upbringing.” Pepe Romero Jr. speaks as someone who grew up with guitars all around him. Now, in his Oceanside, California, studio, just a few minutes’ drive from Pacific beaches, he handcrafts his own versions of the instrument.
Along the wall above his workstation are a dozen record album covers with images of his father and others in the famous Los Romeros family quartet. One is tempted to imagine that their smiles are for him as he works on yet another stunning example of the tools of their trade.
In fact, it was not that long ago that many expected Pepe Romero Jr. to become a professional guitarist, following in the footsteps of his father, Pepe Sr., his grandfather, Celedonio, and his uncles, Angel and Celin. Everything was there for him—all four of the men were guitar teachers, willing to give instruction. And there was certainly no problem finding a suitable instrument to play, as the family’s collection of classical guitars rivals any personal collection on earth. A 1981 New York Times article described, “3-year old Pepe Romero Jr., who recently announced to his mother, ‘I’m a guitarist!’ Although he makes sounds on the instrument, he doesn’t yet know how to play pieces.” Asked at the time about his son’s statement, Pepe Sr. said, “He believes he is a guitarist; that is the important thing. In order to play, you must believe you can play. Most people, as they get older, first learn to play, and then comes the realization that they are a guitarist. For my son, the most difficult part is already done. He believes he is a guitarist. Now the rest is easy. All he has to do is learn how to play.”
And learn he did. Videos of his talent with the instrument are readily available on the internet. Learning to play and dedicating oneself to performing professionally are two separate things, however. Pepe Jr.’s cousins Celino and Lito (sons of Celin and Angel respectively) did both, and now, with Pepe Sr. and Celin, make up the current iteration of the Romero quartet.
But for Pepe Jr. there were other aspects to consider. Growing up in a family of musicians, he also saw the not-so-glamorous side of playing professionally: Being on the road for months at a time; nights spent in hotel rooms and eating hotel food; endlessly chasing trains, planes, and automobiles to get to the next performance; and most of all, being away from loved ones, sometimes unable to see milestones in their children’s lives. And once they did get back home, spending much of that time practicing, teaching, or arranging music for the next tour.
“Yes, when I was growing up, my father was gone a lot,” Pepe says. “But I never did resent that. I knew that that was his life. When he was home, we would spend a lot of time together. He would take me to play tennis and soccer. In the mornings, we would go for breakfast on the way to school.”
Pepe remembers sitting on his father’s lap when he was between three and six years old, while Pepe Sr. taught private lessons at home. “He would ask them to play, then he would ask me to analyze their playing. He also took me to many of his master classes at universities and music festivals all over the world. I never liked the part about not getting to see him enough, but I didn’t hold that against him. I just grew up knowing that I didn’t want that for myself.”
What young Pepe did like was woodworking. In high school, the rule was that kids could take shop class for, at most, two semesters. But Pepe asked for and received permission to take shop class during his entire high school career. And when grandfather Celedonio saw the beautiful box Pepe entered in a local competition (and won), he pronounced his grandson a natural guitar maker.
“I don’t know how he came up with that,” Pepe says today. “It was a pretty simple little box.”
Later, when Celedonio was hospitalized with cancer, young Pepe visited him as often as he could. On one occasion, he told his grandfather, “I have to leave now; I have a major test to take at school.” Celedonio replied, “Pepe, when are you going to give up that school and come over to my house and make guitars?” But the teenager couldn’t envision a career making guitars. Not yet, at least. Celedonio died in 1996, during Pepe’s senior year in high school.
It was on a trip later that summer that things changed. His father had a performance scheduled in Bellingham, Washington, and took Pepe with him. The work Pepe Sr. chose to play for the event was one of Celedonio’s concertos. Backstage, after the concert, his father introduced young Pepe to master luthier Dake Traphagen. Traphagen invited him to his workshop to build a guitar under his supervision. Reflecting on how his grandfather always encouraged him, especially toward building guitars, Pepe took Traphagen up on his invitation, flying up to Washington state shortly after Christmas. This, Pepe thought, would be his one and only guitar build, and he would dedicate it to his grandfather. The project went well, taking about a month to finish.
“But when we had completed the guitar and went to string it, something happened to me,” Pepe says. “It’s difficult to describe—I had an epiphany. I got dizzy. I was emotionally overcome. I had to lie down on the floor. At that instant, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to build guitars. My dad was on tour in Spain, but I called him up and told him what had happened.”
A week after his return from Europe, Pepe Sr. asked his mother, Celedonio’s widow, to attend his next performance in Sacramento, California. There he performed with his pianist daughter, Angelina. When the audience called for an encore, young Pepe made his first guest appearance, playing “Soleares,” from Celedonio’s Suite Andaluza. One of the stars of the show was the new guitar Pepe had completed the month before and named “Angelita,” for his grandmother.
Pepe went on to study with some of the most skilled guitar builders and restorers in the world, including Edmund Blöchinger, Jose Romanillos, Miguel Rodríguez, Manuel Contreras II, and Yuris Zeltins.
Still, Pepe knows the critical role his father played in his training. “The reason I got to study with these great masters is that they were friends with my father. Think of that: To say to someone, ‘Can my son study with you?’ That is a huge ‘ask.’ It was a real blessing, and a gift from my father.”
In addition, Pepe notes, “I would like to credit my father’s guitar collection and countless hours of studying those guitars, along with countless hours of playing and discussing them with my father and Uncle Celin, as one the biggest parts of my education. Their input and time spent with those guitars taught me so much.”
One might think that having such a wealth of teachers might be overkill. Not according to Pepe Jr. “One benefit was in bringing me into the guitar-building world with an open mind. I was able to take what I liked from each. Learning under so many masters taught me that there isn’t just one way to make a world-class instrument. Any one of those teachers would have been good. But having them all gave me a tremendous perspective. And it was an amazing education.”
Pepe had been building guitars for a while, when one day, David Collett of Guitar Salon International called and said he had just acquired an unusual Miguel Rodriguez guitar: Rather than having the typical fan bracing radiating from the soundhole area to the lower bout, this instrument had the bracing reversed. Pepe called his father, who excitedly said he’d heard about such guitars but had never gotten to play one. Pepe Jr. ended up buying the guitar, and he spent months studying it. He incorporated the reverse fan bracing approach, and it is now a standard feature of all Pepe Romero guitars. He has built 130 guitars with that feature, some with a five-piece fan brace, others with seven. His instruments have rounded soundboards, as well, and he credits that combination for giving the instruments more clarity, sustain, and overtones.
Pepe says he would not have tried the reverse fan bracing approach had he not had such good training in the basics of guitar building. “It is important to learn how to first build the traditional guitar, then later try new things. I’m always looking for ways to make the guitar sound better. It’s all about the sound.”
In addition to supporting young Pepe with training by some of the greatest living luthiers, his father provided assistance in another way. When a young luthier starts out, he/she usually has limited materials and no customers. So Pepe Sr. helped him invest in a stockpile of great woods for guitar making—not an inexpensive undertaking.
Pepe Sr. came up with another idea that helped the business and also demonstrated his support: To pay his father back for his investment, young Pepe would build every tenth guitar for his father. So his father would get number ten, 20, 30, and so forth. They called it “the Zeroes Collection” because the numbers of all the instruments in it end in a zero.
After Pepe finished the 100th guitar, his father told him his debt was paid and that Pepe Jr. was now the owner of the collection. The only thing his father asked was that he continue building the collection and allow him access to all of the guitars. They agreed that Pepe Sr. could play any of the instruments at any time, and he often takes one of the instruments on the road with him to performances. Sometimes, other family members will borrow one of the guitars from the Zeroes Collection, but Pepe has also made instruments specifically for them. Recently, they have allowed some of the instruments from the collection to go up for sale, but Pepe still builds every tenth guitar for his father.
In 2013, Pepe and Yoshi Oshima, a guitarist who studied with the Romeros and plays only Pepe’s instruments, published a 56-page booklet in English and Japanese, showing the 22 instruments that were in the Zeroes Collection at the time. It is probably among the most beautiful “inventories” anyone has ever created. Today, the number in the collection is up to 30 (including Number 1, which is not really a “zero,” but is in the collection nonetheless), and Pepe has completed 299 guitars overall. Number 300, which also will go into the collection, is sitting on his workbench now. Although it is a beautiful instrument, with a spectacular set of Hawaiian koa for the back and sides, it has none of the decorative trappings builders sometimes attach to special commemorative instruments, such as inlays of silver, abalone, mother of pearl, and the like. Pepe says, “It is all about the sound and wood selection.”
The Zeroes Collection booklet reveals more about the builder than just the variety of materials and the beauty of the craftsmanship. Several of the descriptions include notes about the source of certain elements in the guitars. Guitar #1, for example, has a note saying “Engleman Spruce Top (gift from Contreras).” Guitars #10 and 20 have “butt decoration, gift from Romanillos.”
Guitar #70 says “European Spruce Top (gift from Rodriguez)” and “Rosewood Back and Sides (gift from Bob Taylor) [the noted American acoustic-guitar luthier].”
When asked about it, Pepe says, “It’s unusual for guitar makers to give away such things, but these people and I have connected on a deeper level, and we have enjoyed friendships and sharing some special things.” He also notes that #300 has an interesting addition: “a German spruce top which Edmund Blöchinger cut in December of 1999 at midnight of the new moon, ensuring the least upward gravitational pull from the moon, leaving more sap in the roots, and resulting in drier, lighter wood.”
Pepe personally makes about 15 instruments a year, and each gets a Pepe Romero label with an image of his grandfather on it, with the statement, “Dedicada a Celedonio Romero.” Says Pepe, “I dedicate every guitar that I build to my grandfather Celedonio, who never got to play a guitar of mine, but who I know is with me in spirit.”
As you get to the back of the Zeroes booklet, you see that there are ukuleles included, as well. These are of a quality equal to the guitars, using spruce, rosewood, flamed maple, koa, and other woods. The idea for delving into this area came in 2011, after a family vacation to Hawaii.
“When my wife Kimberly and daughter Sophia asked me to build ukuleles, it was because they wanted ukes for themselves after we all fell in love with the instrument during our trip.”
Pepe approached the idea by basically making miniature versions of his classical guitar designs, including the reverse fan bracing—but with four strings—with all the time and effort he puts into an actual guitar. The craftsmanship and beautiful tone and resonance of the instruments has made them hugely popular.
Handmade instruments are not inexpensive, of course, and there’s a four-year waiting period for a Pepe Romero guitar. To allow more people the benefit of the knowledge he’s spent decades developing, Pepe has started a separate company, Romero Creations, which uses the same design principles as his own handmade instruments, but are built by trained craftsmen in Vietnam, keeping costs lower. It’s not unusual for luthiers to have a secondary line of instruments that are produced in other countries at lower cost, but often it is with a lower grade of materials, as well, and the quality of the instruments suffers. Pepe is determined not to allow this to happen with instruments bearing his name, so once the instruments are finished, they go to him for a final inspection and setup before being sent to the customer. He started with a line of ukuleles under the Romero Creations name, and, beginning in 2019, he will be adding classical guitars.
When we consider what makes for a beautiful guitar performance, we think of the person playing and the instrument itself. The third element, which we often overlook, is the strings. But here, too, Pepe has put in effort because, again, “It’s all about the sound.” He and his father worked with the La Bella Company for several years to develop sets of strings, both for the type of instruments Pepe builds, as well as for the rare, vintage instruments in his family’s collections—50-to-100-year-old instruments by Torres, Rodriguez, and the like.
Now, at 40, Pepe looks back on 22 years of building beautiful, wondrous-sounding instruments, and he’s as much in love with the guitar as ever—and he looks forward to chasing that perfect sound for many decades to come. And there’s another generation of Romero guitar-makers beyond Pepe already at work. His nephew, Bernardo, is building instruments in the shop now, learning from a master. When Bernardo first approached Pepe about building guitars, he was immediately welcomed.
“But I told him, ‘If you don’t have a passion for it, don’t do it. You have to really love this to be successful at it.’” Apparently, Bernardo does have that passion, for he has completed 25 beautiful instruments of his own over the past five years. Pepe says, “He is already working at the highest level, building world-class guitars.”
Asked to reflect on what the guitar means to him, Pepe says, “If I didn’t have guitar-making I would be lost, professionally speaking. It’s my passion, and it is the passion of many in our family. Yes, it is like a religion to me.”