A Foray into la Fábrica: My Spring with Granadian Luthiers

by Liam Doolan, FCLC 2020

I try not to be a walking cliché. I abhor most tourist practices. Yet in my first months in Granada, Spain, I couldn’t help but want something to take home. Luckily, it wasn’t an ill-fated trip to a tattoo parlor at 3 am, nor was it a magnet of the Alhambra. I was looking for an authentic, hand-made, flamenco guitar. Classical guitars are a culture apart from your average Sam Ash Shredder, and Spanish classical guitars are even more revered. Further into niche-guitar-culture is the flamenco guitar, a lighter, less reinforced instrument that is known for its punchy, percussive sound. I set my sights on a flamenco guitar because my plan was to perform live gigs with it, and a punchy guitar with a bright sound will communicate to an audience in even the worst of sound setups. 

So, I had the ideal instrument in mind, and absolutely no way of finding it. After some preliminary research, I set a miniature itinerary for myself to explore the various guitar stores and luthiers dotted throughout Granada. A few family names kept showing up: Bellido, Perez, and Ferrer. There were plenty of google reviews, in a handful of languages, almost all positive about each luthier. The problem with searching for an instrument based on other people’s opinions is this: people are dumb.  The English reviews were mainly British tourists buying a guitar to put on their wall, not a practical instrument. Many were focused on visual aesthetics, and whether or not the service was nice. None of those variables mattered to me. At all. Some of the Spanish reviews were made by people with last names that were strikingly similar to the owner of the workshop- all five stars. There was no other option but to go in and see what I could find.

My first stop was “The Guitarrería: Miguel Angel Bellido Guitarrero”. A cosmopolitan shop just off of Carrera de la Virgen, Bellido was mainly a reseller. He would find guitars he liked from factories or workshops throughout Andalusia and buy them at wholesale. Slapping his sticker on it, he then sold them higher in downtown Granada. He also had a workshop in the back. 

“Podría ayudarte con un instrumento personalizado, pero no tengo tiempo libre para construcción hasta el otoño.” (I’d be able to help you with a custom instrument, but I’m booked until the fall).

Great. I only had until May to find an instrument. I tried a handful of his midrange guitars,  and while they were perfectly fine, none of them spoke to me. Since I was looking for a flamenco guitar for stage performances, I had a question for each luthier that would test whether or not they saw me as someone in need of an instrument or a price tag.

“Puedes poner una correa allí?” (Can you put a strap there?). I pointed at the heel, also known as the neck joint. It’s a very common place for steel-strung acoustic guitars’ straps. It would also require a bit of surgery to put a peg at the bottom of the body. Surgery that would ruin the thin body’s integrity and the character of the guitar.

“Cierto.” (Certainly.) I had my answer. Next.

My next run-in was an appointment with Señor Daniel Gil de Avalle. His shop was in the rambling medieval part of the city, right by school and my host family’s apartment. Very well decorated, it screamed ‘old, established’ as its biggest aesthetic character. Similar to Bellido, Avalle was a reseller, but also with a bigger workshop and multiple projects in progress. I tried a few of his resells. One particularly mustard number, pictured, had a nice sound. Compared to the four or five from Bellido, it certainly was an improvement. It was trebly, and painfully light. It too, didn’t speak to me. It was a mere fancy. I asked him the question. 

“Cierto.” No mustard for me.

It was frustrating. I hadn’t played in about a month at this point, so I took myself to La Casa Ferrer, a guitar workshop at the foot of the Alhambra. Founded in 1875, Ana is the granddaughter of the founder, current owner, and luthier of Casa Ferrer. Not only representing a bit of workplace diversity, she had all the info on luthiers in Granada. Bellido is the third son of a former competitor of Casa Ferrer. He had a falling out with his father and opened a shop. Gil de Avalle was not trained in the Granadian school of luthiers–a bit of an actor, as it were. Her father trained and developed the body of the Yamaha standard classical guitar. To put it briefly, they knew what they were doing. 

Things were looking good. Then I tried her midrange instruments. All hand-made, in the very space we were standing in. They use slightly streamlined production (not being custom), but they were made by her, not a team of factory assemblers. I found one with a booming low end and a punchy treble–an unorthodox sound quality for Flamenco, but perfect for contemporary singer-songwriter work. I had found an instrument that spoke to me. A beautiful cypress and rosewood top, and light as a feather. It was time for the real test. I asked the question.

Ana looked like I had slapped her across the face. “No lo recomiendo. Cambiará la voz de ella y la construcción no lo permite.” (I don’t recommend it. It’ll change the voice of the guitar and the construction doesn’t permit that kind of change). I made up my mind. La Casa Ferrer won out.

This meandering narrative about guitar hunting in the storied streets of Granada taught me something about commerce. Even in the most welcoming of environments, there are ways to take advantage of people. It’s a hard path to tread and by no means malicious, but it is difficult to ensure you are making the best investment. When it comes to big items like instruments, vehicles, or even homes, salespeople will always have some say in the decision-making process. This was an interesting exploration of commerce, especially given the added variable of translation. Even in the idyllic study abroad world, the specter of the free market rears its head. At the end of it all, I felt like I made the best investment I could have, and that’s enough to keep me happy.