American Luthier Stephan Connor Travels to Granada to Build a Pair of Custom Guitars
Editor’s note: Cape Cod, Massachusetts–based Stephan Connor has been building top-quality classical guitars, based in the Spanish tradition, since 1994. Long before that, however, he’d been seduced by the music: “One day, I put on Andrés Segovia playing Bach and something happened,” he recalls. “That music resonated with me on such a deep level. I would come home from school, turn the lights off, put on Segovia playing Bach, and it took me out into space. So when I went to college, I was lucky there was a classical guitar teacher there, and I fell in love with playing classical guitar.”
Later, he became interested in making guitars, and he learned the craft by studying the work of old (and recent) masters of lutherie. After building around 50 guitars from the “recipes” of those illustrious predecessors, “I treated myself to one of my own design, and quickly adapted an interlocking bracing pattern with my sound portal design, which can be closed with a magnetic door. I had listened to players and knew they wanted a powerful sound with good-quality tone. So I explored ways to keep the best of traditional tone colors, but with more horsepower.”
Evidently, Connor’s design experiments and his meticulous craftsmanship, using both woodworking and metalsmithing techniques, spoke to many guitarists. His custom instruments have shown up in the hands of such illustrious players as the Assad Brothers, Eliot Fisk, Angel Romero, David Tanenbaum, Adam Holzman, Marc Teicholz, and Juan Martin, among many others.
When we learned that Connor was planning to go to Granada, Spain, in the spring of 2015 to build a pair of guitars there—to be captured for a documentary video project—we asked if he would write about his experiences for the magazine. Here is his report.
The city of Granada, in the region of Andalusia in southern Spain, is the ancestral home of the modern guitar. With a fascinating history involving everyone from pioneer Antonio de Torres—one theory is that sometime around 1842, Torres may have gone to work for José Pernas in Granada—to Andrés Segovia (his first concert was given there), the city has inspired countless creative minds: Composers such as Francisco Tárrega, artist M.C. Escher, the American writer Washington Irving, and so many others. The crown of Granada, resting on top of a high hillside, is the Moorish fortress known as the Alhambra. The elaborate patterns, arabesques, and striking architecture make this a beloved axis point for the city. The vibrant guitar activity continues with more than 40 active guitar makers and many cuevas on the outskirts of town (the Sacromonte neighborhood), where flamenco continues.
As a guitar maker, I was long curious to visit this focal point of guitar activity, and was fortunate to go there for my honeymoon. The city put a spell on me, as it does to so many who visit. Ever since that first magical visit, I dreamed of returning to Granada and building a guitar there—it felt like a Siren’s call guiding me back. After eight years, the puzzle of how to make it happen came together and led to an adventure of a lifetime.
Over my years of guitar making, I had collaborated occasionally with filmmaker Sky Sabin, and one day we talked about the idea of going to Granada together and then decided to go for it. I would set up a mobile workshop there and build guitars inspired by the Alhambra. This would be an opportunity to immerse myself further in guitar history, music, and lutherie, and Sky thought it would make an interesting documentary.
I immediately set to work designing a portable mini-shop with an engineer friend of mine. It included a go-bar clamping deck for bracing the sound board, a solera board for assembly, and tools for inlay, fretting, and so forth. As I read more about Granada, I learned it has a rich history of both classical and flamenco guitar, so I decided to build one of each, to show the differences and explore both builds there.
We launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for our small respective video and luthier teams’ plane tickets, and my good friend Eliot Fisk—the great guitarist and teacher— graciously allowed us to use his home in the old town quarter of Granada called the Albaicin (also known as Albayzín).
I set up my workshop on the top floor, and fortunately the humidity level was fine for building guitars in the spring, averaging around 40 percent. Sky and I sketched out a schedule for building and filming for the month-long project, and although it was intimidating thinking about how much we had to do in such a short period (in guitar-builder’s time!), it seemed somehow doable.
We had the guidance and support of a local family who said they would show us “the soul of the city,” and that actually became the first step in the project. We went to flamenco rehearsals and performances to understand more about the interaction of musicians with dancers. I learned about the needs of flamenco guitarists—an immediate crisp tone, so you can cut through the percussive dancing and both celebrate and cry with the guitar. Flamenco has some roots as a gypsy music from India, which is heard in the modes and seen in the dance: Look closely and you’ll notice similarities in the hand movements in some Indian and flamenco dancers. For inspiration for the classical build, we arranged to study and play a Torres guitar, of course—Antonio de Torres being widely hailed as the Stradivari of the classical guitar.
The next stop was experiencing the wonders of the Alhambra, which not only has a dizzying beauty, but shares with the city as a whole a sort of mystical energy that pulled all of us under its spell. My wife and two-and-a-half-year-old son were with us for the project, and I really noticed my son’s eyes sparkling with wonder as we roamed the city, exploring the mazes of the Albaicin’s white-washed walkways, hearing street musicians by the Darro river, marveling at the spring flowers that were opening, enjoying the sight of young lovers strolling and swallows curling above in fast flight. It was completely magical, and Sky was right there capturing glorious footage.
Now it was time to build the guitars. I had only three weeks for the process—yikes! Time for coffee, adrenaline, and focus.
I started with the rosette, which I think of as the soul of the guitar. I studied and chose patterns from the Alhambra known as arabesques, cut them from mother of pearl, and inlaid them with carefully chosen colors—pomegranate-red in the classical rosette (that fruit is a symbol of Granada), and a blue background for the flamenco (much of the alabaster decoration in the Alhambra was once painted blue, using lapis lazuli transported from Afghanistan). I cut the mother of pearl outside on the patio overlooking the Alhambra, as sweet, gentle winds and the sounds of neighborhood kids practicing their instruments washed over me.
It was all so blissful; already like a dream. The process was really starting to flow for me now, and my wife and son established their own rhythm of living there—walking through winding streets to markets, collecting lemons in the courtyard, getting to know the neighbors (making friends and having play-dates in the parks). I worked hard building during the day, as Sky filmed the process, and at night we would grill on the roof terrace, drink some wine, and watch the Alhambra become illuminated. Some nights the moon was a crescent, like the symbol of the Moors who controlled the city more than 500 years ago.
The second week of building was intense but productive: Brace the tops, shape the necks, fit the sides, and start assembly. For the flamenco sound engineering, I went very traditional—seven fans, top thickness around 2.1 mm. I was able to put my influence into the sound (power) a couple of ways: Rosewood blocks to hold the soundboard to the sides (this is one of my subtle innovations; it makes that juncture stronger, so less energy is lost); I used a cypress bridge patch to increase the cross-grain stiffness a bit and add a touch of sustain; and for the classical, I used my interlocking-star-pattern design, which allowed me to the work the soundboard thinner, for a deeper sound. On both guitars I used a modified interior-foot design, which has a shelf under the fretboard, reduces the chance of cracks by the fretboard, and, more importantly, adds to the strength of tone. Many older traditional guitars don’t have the shelf. Why? Torres didn’t have a band saw; he used a handsaw. It was harder to do back then with limited tools.
All was going as planned until the third week, when I needed to route the binding channel—the most common step for an accident in the process. I had brought my trusty Dewalt laminate trimmer—which I had used for about 20 years—so the potentially tricky step would be less daunting. But even using an industrial power converter, when I turned it on, it sparked and the motor suddenly went kaput. Uh-oh. I didn’t want to bother local luthiers, asking for one of their most counted-on tools, so I searched for a similar one. There were no woodworking stores, but I eventually found Brico Depot, the Spanish equivalent of the American chain store Home Depot, and bought the only router, which was enormous. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I clamped on my bearing guide, switched the collet from millimeters to imperial size, and, with a prayer, set up for routing—a step that can destroy the guitar in a second. Apparently there is a god: I routed the channel around the edge without messing up, and proceeded. That boosted my confidence that I could make it through and string the guitars up in time to hear them played in Granada.
The final week, I put on the fretboard, hammered in the frets, and completed the inlays. Then I cut my sound portal in the side of the guitar using a symbol ubiquitous to Granada—the eight-pointed star, two interlocking squares. I had only a day to glue the bridges on and put on a protective layer of French polish shellac. It was so exciting seeing the guitars coming together at mach speed. (I usually build in batches of eight, which takes six to eight months from start to finish.) It was magical seeing the process unfold in such a beautiful setting, and also having local enthusiasm build for the film project.
We were able to get permission to record the completed guitars on the grounds of the Alhambra, a wonderful way to wrap up the project. Appropriately enough, the moon was now full.
The filming also included visits to excellent local guitar makers, including the living legend and humble father of the current Granada school, Antonio Marin Montero. The Granada school favors spruce soundboards and an elegant plantilla (guitar shape), smaller than Madrid where so many luthiers build with cedar soundboards. Madrid guitars tend to have a big sound, while Granada’s guitars are known for an elegant, clear, beautiful tone. Antonio pulled out a guitar he had made probably 50 years ago with legendary French maker Robert Bouchet. I was blown away: It had the most beautiful shape, rosette, and sound. I was humbled and it got me fired up to improve and try to build on a higher level.
So we all left feeling inspired by the adventure. We all had grown individually, creatively, and spiritually. Granada had smiled on us. The community was amazingly supportive and now, through this film, we can not only show the process, but also share the colorful, mystic soul of that enchanting city.
As this issue went to press, the film was in post-production, with an eye toward being ready in time to be released for film festivals in June. You can already see parts of the process and hear the completed guitars played by Granada guitarists at instrumentalplaces.com. Connor kept the classical guitar for himself, but gave the flamenco “as a symbol of thanks to the young star of the film, Pablo Giménez, for his tireless work on the project,” Connor says.