On a trip to Madrid last August, I decided to visit a few of the city’s luthiers and guitar shops. It was not the best month to visit—a majority of the residents flee the city’s oppressive heat for the beach or trips abroad, and many small shops close for the month. The upside is that in August, Madrid’s streets, cafés, and bars remain relatively deserted.
The classical guitar’s early development happened as much in Italy as Spain, and today superb classical and flamenco guitars are made in every corner of the world, yet no other country’s socio-cultural relationship to an instrument is as close as Spain’s is to the guitar. And Madrid has been the heart of Spanish guitar-making since the mid-18th century.
While my wife, Yolanda, who was born and raised in Madrid, sipped a cortado (espresso with a bit of warm milk) with friends in a chic apartment overlooking the Plaza Tirso de Molina, I escaped for a few minutes to visit the Guitarras Ramírez shop on Calle de la Paz. The taller, or workshop, was closed for the month, but the downtown shop was open.
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 shop and began training other luthiers. Manuel Ramírez, José’s brother, joined the taller but eventually split to open a competing shop. Manuel’s fame spread through Francisco Tárrega, but his fate changed one day when a young guitarist entered the shop and asked to “borrow” a guitar. Manuel listened to the young Andrés Segovia play a basic guitar, but after hearing a few lines, pressed his finest instrument into the guitarst’s hands. Segovia played the guitar in concert and recorded with it from 1912 to 1937, until, to Ramírez’ dismay, he asked the 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.
Other notable players who have performed on Ramírez guitars include: Christopher Parkening, Maurizio Colonna, Sting, Lee Ritenour, and others. José Ramírez 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 Ramírez tradition.
Inside the shop, I tried to avoid damaging the guitars with the sweat that was streaming off my brow. Madrid’s summer had been one heat wave after another, and though it had cooled off, it was still sunny and 94 degrees outside. The city’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 I was looking for, a reasonable question to which I didn’t have a good answer. I told him I was looking for a professional, handmade classical guitar that didn’t cost a small fortune or require a home-equity mortgage on my house—my three children are approaching college age. These requirements may be mutually exclusive.
My life-long guitar, the instrument I learned on, performed on, and traveled with for 40 years, is a good student model, designed by the celebrated Southern California-based luthier José Oribe and handmade in Japan. But in 2015, I rekindled my dedication to regular practice, performing, and composing, setting my sights on recording my first CD, so I’d been contemplating the purchase of a higher-caliber instrument.
The Ramírez clerk handed me the “130 Años,” a studio (or student) model commemorating the dynasty’s 130th anniversary. Made elsewhere but “supervised” by the Ramírez workshop—and priced around €2,000—the guitar’s tone and playability were no better than my current guitar.He next handed me a new model—the “Classical Conservatorio”—that he described as “minimalist.” Built with a simpler construction by craftsmen in the Guitarras Ramírez workshop, it was designed to offer a luthier-quality instrument at a reasonable price by stripping out some of the “non-essential” components. Quite elegant, if unusual-looking; “minimalist” is an apt description. It featured a bright red cedar top (it’s also available in spruce), Indian rosewood back and sides, an ebony fingerboard, and cedar neck. It had a nice tone and projected well. I wouldn’t classify it as a bargain at €4,500, but it is less expensive than the higher-end Ramírez models. Finally, the “Auditorio” model, with its modern “double-top” soundboard design, provided apowerful sound and projection. Although somewhat out of my price range at over €6,000, this gorgeous guitar would be a fine instrument on the concert stage.
I dropped by the shops of luthier Felix Manzanero, which I’d visited on previous trips to Madrid, and Headbanger Rare Guitars, which often features jam sessions, but contrary to claims on their websites, both shops were closed for the month, casualties of August in Madrid.
Maria Conde and assistant in the Felipe Conde Workshop
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER TALLER
One afternoon, I popped into the basement workshop of Felipe Conde on Calle Arrieta. Conde Hermanos is another dynasty of luthiers (since 1915) and another line with an acrimonious split, this one between Felipe and his brother Mariano, whose shop is located a few blocks away on the other side of Plaza Ópera.
The Condes’ most prominent guitarist was Paco de Lucía, the flamenco great who died in 2014. Another Conde player is the singer, songwriter, and poet Leonard Cohen, who praised the guitar maker when he received the Príncipe de Asturias Award for Letters, one of Spain’s most important cultural prizes. Other clients have included Tomatito, Sabicas, Camarón de la Isla, Bob Dylan, Al Di Meola, and the King of Spain, who, while still a prince, gave a Conde guitar to the Emperor of Japan.
Felipe Conde Sr. and his brother Mariano learned the luthier craft from their father and uncle, who had inherited the business from their uncle, Domingo Esteso. Esteso had apprenticed earlier in the Ramírez workshop. (Agustín Barrios Mangoré 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.
David Adizes welcomed me to the shop, and quizzed me about what kind of guitar I might desire. He handed me the nice-looking “CE 2,” made from cocobolo (also available in rosewood). This studio model, around €3,500, is made elsewhere and “inspected, adjusted, and certified” by the Conde shop. Next I played the “CC 36,” a concert model, resonant, well-rounded in tone, a beautiful guitar. Felipe Sr. offered me a slight discount off the €4,500 price.
Felipe Sr. sat down and chatted over a couple of espressos. He talked proudly about his daughter, Maria, still one of the relatively few women in the guitar-building world. “She’s beginning to find her own personality in the craft of guitar-making.” His son, Felipe Jr., works there as well. The workshop is small but all three use their own tools, develop their own styles and particular characteristics, and sign their own guitars on the Conde label. 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 own compositions. Maria peaked out from the workshop and smiled broadly. “The guitar expresses what the player feels inside, and that passion is born inside the workshop,” Felipe Sr. says.
Felipe Sr. next showed me the “Centenario,” 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 that has been drying for 50 years, Felipe Sr. explains. It costs €12,000—though I might be able to get a slight discount. I’ll start saving my euros.
On the outskirts of the city, near Madrid’s Barajas airport in Paracuellos de Jarama, I visited the workshop of luthier Geronimo Mateos. It was early afternoon, still hot and quite dry. Madrid has the perfect climate for drying wood. When I explained that I was looking for a concert guitar between €2,000 and €4,000, Mateos laughed heartily and said that for €4,000 he could sell me two guitars.
“Too many luthiers charge a premium, and it’s really not necessary,” Mateos explained in Spanish. “I try to make a very nice guitar at a very reasonable price. My shop is far from the center of Madrid [where] the rents there are too high. I used to have a taller downtown, now I own this workshop and don’t have to charge as much for my instruments.”
Luthier Geronimo Mateos in his workshop
Mateos puttered around the back of the shop and pulled out a “Toledo,” his third up from an entry-level model, and quite a steal at just over €1,000. It had a nice tone, but I asked what else he had. As he poked through cases in the back of the shop, Mateos noted that he has been most influenced by the French luthier Robert Bouchet.
“I’ve used his method of interior bracing for years, although I’ve modified it slightly—I employ one extra brace,” Mateos says. “My son, Federico, is already exploring his own style of bracing.”
The luthier makes strikingly beautiful gypsy-jazz guitars in the Django Reinhardt style, and Federico is making archtop jazz guitars as well. “All the guitars are made in my workshop by myself and my son,” Mateos says. “We don’t have guitars made elsewhere and put them under our labels. That means we can’t make very many guitars each year.”
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. It also featured a dual adjustable truss rod in the neck. I started to play, and told Mateos I was impressed by the instrument’s balanced tone.
“That’s what I emphasize,” he says. “To me, volume is not the most important characteristic. I aim to have a very good balance between the strings, between different positions along the neck, to faithfully reproduce what the guitarist wants in terms of expressiveness.”
A man Mateos 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.” The “Segovia” model was finished in a polyurethane lacquer, which I personally preferred. Each finish has its advantages and disadvantages; shellac is beautiful, and warm, but sensitive to perspiration and scratching, and thus more difficult to care for and maintain.
The “Segovia” was priced at only €1,300 and Mateos offered me a reasonable discount, but it came with a padded gig bag. Fortunately, he offered an optional hardshell wooden case, quite handsome and handmade in Portugal, well worth the extra €130. All in, it was €1,230 for a fine, handmade classical guitar and hardshell case, considerably less than I’d anticipated 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 then a few days later, back to Washington, DC.
Now we’re getting ready for the studio.
John W. Warren is an academic publisher, guitarist, and composer. His first CD of original compositions and Latin American guitar music, Serenata de la Sirena, was released recently.