The San Bartolomé guitar makers maintain a generations-old tradition in the high Andes
By David Morrill
No one knows exactly when the guitar-making tradition began in San Bartolomé, a picturesque village 20 miles east of Cuenca. Local historians agree, however, that it dates to the Spanish colonial era, at least 200 years ago, and many of the area’s guitar makers can trace their own family businesses back 100 years or more.
“It’s part of our life,” says Gabriel Coyago, who has been in the trade for 26 years, beginning when he was eight. “Our grandfathers remember their grandfathers making guitars so we know the tradition has been here for many generations.”
Guitars are not San Bartolomé’s only claim to fame. It is also known for weaving and ceramic crafts and, from colonial times to the present, for the high quality silver mined nearby. The area’s high elevation and fertile soil also produce bumper crops of apples and capulis, an Andean cherry.
The guitar shops are easy to spot on the main roads of San Bartolomé and in the tiny communities nearby. All have signs, most of them weathered, bearing the names of the proprietors and pictures of guitars. A generation ago, there were more than 20 guitar makers in San Bartolomé while today only nine remain. Half of the craftsmen are from the same family, Uyaguari, a name that has become synonymous with Ecuadorian guitars.
Santiago Uyaguari, who learned the trade from his father and uncles, makes guitars, mandolins and charangos, a mandolin-like, 10-string instrument that uses the shell of an armadillo for the body. Like most local craftsmen, his workshop tables are piled high with wood, molds and tools, and the walls are lined with instruments in various stages of completion. “This is how I feel comfortable working,” he says. “Everything is close by.”
Santiago’s finished guitars, many of them hanging from the rafters of the shop veranda, sell for $100 to $800, depending on materials and special features, prices typical for the area.
Ask any craftsman what determines a guitar’s sound quality and he will tell you it’s the wood. “It all begins with the wood and how the wood is prepared,” says Alejandro Quichimbo, whose shop is on the main highway, just north of San Bartolomé. “If you do not use the right materials, the guitar does not produce a good sound.”
The black cherry, walnut, cedar and rosewood used in local guitar production are grown within an hour of San Bartolomé; other woods, such as chonta, are grown in the jungle or on the coast. For high-end guitars, Canadian white pine is used for the sound board and ebony, from Africa, Ceylon and India, for the neck.
Although there is a difference of opinion in terms of the best materials; some makers insist that chonta works as well as ebony but all agree that the dryness of the wood is essential. Some guitar wood is even taken from rafters of old houses that have been demolished and all guitar makers have piles of wood drying around their shops. “It can take two or three years before some wood is ready to use,” says Quichimbo, who leaves old boards next to a wood-burning stove. He adds, “And you have to be careful how you work with the grain. This is very important for the sound.”
According to Juan Uyaguari, who left San Bartolomé for Cuenca 20 years ago, where a guitar ends up is an important production factor. For custom-made guitars, Uyaguari will ask the buyer where he or she lives. “I use different woods and different processes depending on whether the guitar will be in a dry climate, like a desert, or in a humid place.”
Most guitar makers rely on hand tools: planes, chisels, vises and saws that would qualify as antiques in North American workshops. “I have a few power tools but mostly I work by hand. I need to feel the wood to know the true quality of the instrument,” says Juan Uyaguari.
Even the shaping of the sides of the guitar is crude by modern standards. Quichimbo creates the curvature by dampening the wood, then drying it in a mold with heat lamps and vises. “My father used pieces of iron heated by fire. Some people here still do this.”
Guitar buyers give the San Bartolomé guitars rave reviews. “The feel and the sound are fantastic,” says Ecuador expat and former rock and roller Mike Sager, who bought a guitar from Juan Uyaguari. “The $80 guitars here would cost you $300 in the States, easily. These are phenomenal instruments and to see how they’re made makes them even more valuable.”
An article in a 1975 issue of now-defunct guitar magazine, Acoustic, reported that a number of San Bartolomé guitars had landed in famous hands. According to the article, folk singer Judy Collins and classical guitarists Pablo Menendez and Andrés Segovia have ordered San Bartolomé guitars. “There are perhaps a half dozen places in the world known for making the best instruments in the old tradition and San Bartolomé is on the top of the list,” the article reported.
More recently, Santiago Uyaguari built a guitar for Spanish rock star Enrique Bunbury. The instrument had inlays of marble, silver and semi-precious stones. “It was the most expensive guitar I ever made and it also took me the most time,” he says, adding: “He paid me two thousand dollars for it.”
Most guitar makers say they don’t pay much attention to who buys their products. “My job is to make the best guitars I can. I hear that some of them belong to famous people but I don’t know this for sure,” says Juan Uyaguari. “When I sell my guitars I only hope they are in the hands of people who enjoy them.”
Like other guitar makers, Santiago Uyaguari says he gets the most satisfaction working on special orders. “This is where I spend the most time and use the best materials.” One of his specialties is designing and creating incrustaciones, or rosettes, the artwork encircling the guitar sound hole. “For nice guitars, I do this with shells, beads and semi-precious stones. First, I draw the design, then I assemble the pieces and glue and lacquer them together. It’s my favorite part of making guitars.”
Juan Uyaguari says his greatest joy is working with high quality woods to get the best sound. “It’s not only the type of wood but how it is balanced that affects the sound quality,” he says. “For a good guitar, you have to do some experimenting and this takes time. My best guitars all have some of my personality in them.”
Almost all of San Bartolomé’s guitar makers worry that the craft may come to an end when they are gone. “Our children can have a better life doing other things,” says Quichimbo, whose son, Christian, is studying at a university in Cuenca. “It is hard work and it does not pay very well. Most younger people want to live in Cuenca or Guayaquil or other large cities. I don’t blame them.”
Although Angel Uyaguari’s son works with him in his shop in Sigsigallana, outside of San Bartolome, he thinks that he will leave soon for better opportunities. “I worry that this is a dying business but I hope I’m wrong. Maybe my daughter or grandson will continue in the business.
Where to buy guitars
San Bartolomé guitars can be bought directly from the workshops in and around the village or, on Thursdays, at a sidewalk kiosk in front of Iglesia de San Francisco, on the corner of Calle Padre Aguirre at Presidente Cordova.
For tours of the San Bertolome area and its guitar makers, contact Carlos Lara at green_explorador yahoo.com.
Reposted from the Miami Herald.