‘Born to be a guitar makers’, Cuenca’s Uyaguari family craftsmen approach their 100th anniversary

Jul 25, 2022 | 2 comments

Guitars lined up in the workshop of Uyaguari Construcción y Reparación.

By Stephen Vargha

Little did he know that playing in his father’s guitar workshop as a child would lead him down the family path. For years, Pablo Uyaguari had other plans for himself.

“I studied medicine for three years at the University of Cuenca,” said Uyaguari. “What I was studying did not make me feel good.” It was sort of like Doc Martin, the British medical comedy drama television series starring Martin Clunes. The television doctor had hemophobia, a fear of blood, forcing him to stop practicing surgery.

Doc Martin returned to his hometown, Portwenn.

An unfinished “signature” headstock.

Pablo Uyaguari returned to his father, Luis Uyaguari.

He became the fourth generation of family dedicated to the manufacturing of the string instrument. His father was the third of eight children of Don Uyaguari, an artisan from San Bartolomé, in the eastern part of Azuay province.

San Bartolomé, a town of about 4,100 people, is famous for guitar workshops. Despite the town’s reputation, Luis Uyaguari moved to Cuenca as 14-year-old, a half century ago. By moving to a bigger city, he wanted to increase sales and have a bigger name recognition.

“Some people are born to be a guitar maker, said Pablo Uyaguari. “My dad is one of them.”

That statement is proven by a craftsman’s contest in Quito 38 years ago. Luis Uyaguari’s father encouraged him to enter the first National Instrument Construction Contest, which was organized by the Benjamín Carrión House of Ecuadorian Culture. When the 26-year-old arrived in Quito, he was told by the organizers he was too young to win the competition.

Luis Uyaguari showing expats Nina and Mark O’Donnell a guitar he repaired.

Three months later, Luis Uyaguari found out that he had won the contest from 200 entrants. When he returned home, Luis Uyaguari found out his dad had died. With the 50,000 sucres (about $1,200) the guitar maker had won in the contest, he buried his father. “I know my grandfather died a happy man,” said Pablo Uyaguari.

That happiness carried down to Pablo Uyaguari. “My dad was already making guitars in the Bella Vista neighborhood,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “I began to make guitars as I had fallen in love with his work.”

His love was rooted by his playing the guitar. “I started playing the guitar when I was 15 years old,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “I love guitars. I like playing them. I like making them.”

Molds hanging on the wall of the workshop are used to handcraft guitars.

Even though his first work was sanding wood, it was difficult for Pablo Uyaguari to make a guitar. “Dad told me you have to feel. You have to feel,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “I asked him to help me out to feel.”

He quickly learned, and with that feeling, Pablo Uyaguari now makes three types of the string instrument: Classical Guitar, Flamenco Guitar, and Acoustic Guitar. The majority of his instruments are Classical Guitars.

“If you can make a Classical Guitar, you can make the other two types,” said Pablo Uyaguari.

After cutting the raw wood with a machine, everything else is done by hand. “It is hard work,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “It takes a toll on your hands.”

Pablo Uyaguari has thought about incorporating more power tools into the process, but he truly does not think that will happen despite it taking an average of over 200 hours to produce a guitar. A Classical Guitar is more time consuming, taking about 300 hours. Two or three guitars are made at the same time.

Pablo Uyaguari working on the rosette of a future guitar.

“Guitar making inspires me,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “You are just working with yourself.”

The guitars are made with a wide variety of high-quality wood. German Spruce and Italian Spruce are used for the sound board. Red Cedar from Canada is used too, for this part of the guitar. As for the fingerboard, they use Ebony.

Acoustic boards use exotic woods, including Indian Rosewood and Walnut from Ecuador and the United States. “We still have some walnut that we got 80 years ago,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “I love mixing the woods as it gives each guitar a really good sound.”

The high-quality guitars sell for $1,200 and more. “It depends on the wood,” said Pablo Uyaguari. Despite the craftsman price, the guitar making family has worldwide customers from France, Germany, Japan, and throughout Ecuador.

“Actually, we are not exporters of guitars,” said Luis Uyaguari. “Our production is minimal because we make them with our hands.”

In addition to the guitars, the family makes charangos and requintos. The charango is a small Quechua stringed instrument of the lute family. It came about in post-colonial times, after Spanish stringed instruments had been introduced.

Pablo Uyaguari concentrating on his handcrafted work. All of his guitars are made without power tools.

The term, requinto, is used in both Spanish and Portuguese to mean a smaller, higher-pitched version of another instrument. Luis and Pablo are making Requinto Guitars.

On top of all that, the father and son repair guitars. Luis Uyaguari is currently repairing a guitar that had a broken neck. The work is almost completed and no one will know that the guitar was ever broken.

It truly has become a total effort as one of Pablo’s brothers is starting to contribute to the family business. “I have designed a lot of guitars, but my brother’s designs are more contemporary,” said Pablo Uyaguari. He adds that his brother has no guitar background, which lends to a refreshing approach to the guitars.

Even his brother, who is a doctor in Spain, has contributed to the decorated part along the edge of the sound hole. Commonly known as the rosette, it is a French word meaning “Little Rose.” Originating in the baroque period (about 1600 to about 1750), rosettes were applied to guitars, lutes, mandolins, and other string instruments.

They were originally used to prevent cracking of the wood at the sound hole. Today, the purpose is more of a signature than protecting the wood. Each rosette that Pablo and his father produce is unique. To date, they have produced over 600 different designs. The brother in Spain designed one with Volcán Chimborazo.

Luis and Pablo Uyaguari proudly smiling through their translucent workshop window.

“I can design many things for my customers,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “I had a customer in Loja who wanted a design to represent his son who has autism. We talked and came up with a very special and unique design.”

None of the guitars made by Pablo Uyaguari and his father have been signed. “My dad has made a special design for the headstock of the guitars,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “It is like a signature. We really do not like putting our names on our guitars.”

At the end of the guitar, the headstock’s main purpose is for tuning the strings and then holding the strings in place once it has been tuned. But if you see a guitar made by Pablo Uyaguari and his father, you will immediately know it is one of theirs.

The family will soon be celebrating a century of guitar making. “I am working on the 100th anniversary guitar… a Classical Guitar,” said Pablo Uyaguari. “It will be inlaid with Mother of Pearl (the iridescent inside lining of a mollusk shell) for the design of the rosette.”

“I have not decided what to do with this guitar. I may use it for a presentation of our family’s guitars,” Pablo Uyaguari added. “I really do not think I will sell it as it is homage to my father and grandfather.”

When told his guitars are art that produces more art, a huge smile appeared on the face of Pablo Uyaguari.

“Therefore, if you ever need a guitar and come to Cuenca, I invite you to visit our workshop,” said Luis Uyaguari. “You can find the instrument that best suits your needs.”

Uyaguari Construcción y Reparación, Arquímides 2-53 y Abelardo J. Andrade, Pablo: 098-403-4787, andresuya@yahoo.com, https://www.facebook.com/andres.uyaguari.98, Luis: 099-598-9057, guitarrasuya@hotmail.com, https://www.facebook.com/guitarras.uyaguariquezada

Photos by Stephen Vargha

Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.


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