By Kenny Hill
Visit to Legendary Granada
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May 2001 - I just got back from Granada, Spain. For guitar makers and guitarists the place is legendary. It's old, very old, built up into the hillside, with surprising views of the snow covered Sierra Nevada mountains, and crowned by the Alhambra, the almost mythical palace of the ancient Moorish kings. The city is a maze of streets so narrow you feel like you have to turn sideways to let pedestrians go by, yet these are mostly two way streets, and the tiny cars cruise through with both side mirrors practically dragging the buildings. There is a feeling that modern life has descended on the city like an extraterrestrial invasion, and it's a whole new world of cell phones, cars, and tourists lined up for blocks and blocks to see the magical historical sights. Though I am a relative newcomer to Granada, I suspect that over the past 15 years Spain has gone through such a swift modernization, that though the setting is over a millennium old, life today is as modern as Wall Street or Santa Monica Blvd.
I was in Granada to meet the guitar makers, and I was lucky to hook up with Lisa Hurlong who knows everyone there. Granada is the "other" guitar making capital of Spain, the first one being Madrid. To many, Spanish guitar making is epitomized by Ramirez, Arcangel, Bernabe, Contreras, Manzanero and others all from Madrid, many of whom worked in the Ramirez shops at some point. And of course these are all great makers. But also, there in southern Spain, the guitar makers of Granada developed quite independently, and over the past, say 20 years their work has become renown, with a distinct style and taste in Spanish guitar making. The development of this style pivots around the influence of the great luthier Antonio Marin.
Guitars have been made in Granada as long as anywhere, but the "Granada School" has really come into it's own over the last 30 years, at least outside of Spain. In Madrid, the Ramirez guitar company has had a powerful influence over guitar making from the early 20th century on, and in the 1960s their influence became dominant worldwide. This was largely due to the influence of Andre Segovia's support as an international artist, and also due to sudden mass exportation to the US and the world. They made large-bodied, romantic guitars with a long string length, mostly cedar tops, and heavy, high-gloss finish. Many (not all) of the other Madrid makers worked similarly. During that time Granada must have seemed very far away, and although there was a lot of guitar making there, the influence wasn't worldwide, the style wasn't as clearly defined, and it was remote from commerce in Madrid.
But in the 70's Granada began to come into its own. I remember playing a guitar by Jose Bellido that Dean Kamei (from Guitar Solo) had brought back from Granada. That guitar seemed so light, it had a 650mm string length, a spruce top, and it was all French polished. It seemed honest, clear sounding, adolescent in shape, and it was definitely easier to play than the Spanish guitars I had played before. This was a revelation to me. In this guitar I could really feel the hands of the maker. There were no gimmicks, just good craftsmanship, materials and a straightforward design. I suppose they weren't too expensive, either. So the pilgrimage was on. A few entrepreneurs began traveling there in search of guitars and importing them to the states. This must have been an exciting and romantic adventure, going to this remote part of Spain and bringing back great guitars for fun and profit. This was how we learned about Marin, Bellidos, Plazuelo, Raya, Baarslag, and others. Now there are at least a dozen American buyers regularly on this circuit, so if you go to Granada looking for an instrument chances are they are sold out, and the waiting list could be years long.
I was able to talk with many of the builders, and most were anxious to talk about the history of guitar making in Granada. The previous generation of builders was led by Eduardo Ferrer, and several of them like Marin and the Bellido brothers, worked together in Ferrer's shop. Later they branched off, and today Antonio Marin is the undisputed head of the clan. It's remarkable how the guitar makers of Granada give unhesitating tribute to Marin, to his skill, wisdom and generosity. This surprised me, because Spanish men seem typically very proud and guarded with their praise. Marin in turn, with his own humility, gives credit himself to his later mentor, Robert Bouchet. Bouchet was a legendary French guitar maker, whose small and precious output makes his guitars very rare. Marin and Bouchet collaborated on just a few instruments, some in Paris and some in Spain, and this work all took place when Bouchet was in his 80's. Marin says that he builds all of his guitars exactly the way he learned from Bouchet. He also says that he makes all of his guitars the same, that he doesn't experiment with design, "well, small things" but nothing new. And frankly, his guitars are so wonderful, consistently so, why should he?
Marin's nephew, Jose Marin Plazuelo, works side by side with him at his own workbench in the same small workshop. He has been with him since he was maybe 14 years old, and he's now in his 40s. He talked about the next generation of guitar makers. "Young people are not going into this now." he said. "The young people want to work in computers, television, fast paced, and make a lot of money. Guitar making like is hard work, and who can you get to stand next to a bench like this for so much of his life?" There are around 35 guitar makers in Granada now, not much different than before. Ironically, most of the newest ones have come from Germany or England, coming to learn this romantic trade in the land of its origins.
René Baarslag is a maker who is not Spanish, but came to Granada 25 plus years ago from Holland, as a kid in pursuit of flamenco. He wound up learning guitar making by visiting Marin's shop, watching what the maestro was doing, then going back to his own place and imitating what he saw. Of Marin's teaching Rene said "When I was making my first workbench I asked the maestro how tall it should be. He said "If you want your back bent down low, you make the bench like so; if you want to be bent at the shoulders, you make the bench a little taller. You choose."
Now René lives outside of Granada on an abrupt hillside of the Sierra Madre, looking over jagged canyons toward the Mediterranean, and he has taught this old-world craft to his wife Anna Espinoza, who is now working along side making her own guitars. Anna is one of the newest guitar makers of the Granada school, and becoming one of the best anywhere. She is maybe the first woman in Spain to dedicate herself to this trade that is so overstocked with men, worldwide.
Here in the USA most guitar makers have gotten into the trade for its beauty, the romanticism, the "old world" flavor and satisfaction of the work. Ironically, in Spain the "old world" doesn't seem to have the same grip on the imagination. Worldwide, cultures are blurring, losing their edges. This seems inevitable, but not altogether comfortable. For my own interests I am grateful, because it makes it possible to make other parts of the world be a part of my own. But also the world is becoming one place instead of many places, and new generations abandon the old. Venerable skills are lost, or are relegated to some kind of cultural preserves. Maybe later this global rush to modernize will give way again to a cycle of longing for the sensual relationship with materials, the peaceful nature of hand work, and satisfaction in work well done. Fortunately, the guitar makers in Granada still have that. Only time will tell if the next generation will step in, and these values, and these guitars, will be there for our children.
© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA