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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.

The crafts of guitar-making in San Bartolome dates back generations.
The craft of guitar-making in San Bartolomé dates back generations.

“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.”

Juan proudly displays one of his creations.
Santiago Uyaguari proudly displays one of his creations. He hopes his daughter will join him in the trade.

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.

The rosette
The rosette, or incrustacione, of a guitar

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.

Guitars displayed outside of a shop in San Bartolomé.
Guitars displayed outside of a shop in San Bartolomé.

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.
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Reposted from the Miami Herald.

4 thoughts on “The San Bartolomé guitar makers maintain a generations-old tradition in the high Andes

  1. Here is my honest opinion. I have owned some amazing guitars. I was very excited to visit this town, and had every intention of buying at least one. My local friends drove me out. We had a great charcoal chicken lunch on the way! I was really excited as I read about these for a very long time, and knew that Andre Segovia had bought one. We arrived. Stopped at the first place… and I was horrified. The guitars I looked at were total trash. Too many defects to count, some serious. No matter, plenty of paces to look at! But again and again, this was what I found. One place had some sort of decent guitars, but nothing out of the low end norm. He was a relative of Juan Uyaguari. I asked where Juan was… he had moved into Cuenca. This was about 3-4 years ago. SO I looked at a few more, but only found over-priced crap. I could buy a far better cheap Yamaha in town for a fifth of the money in fact. I was prepared to buy one for $1000, yet saw them selling junk for $500. No thanks. I made plans to visit Juan. I found my way to his house. He lives in a decent barrio north of Las Americas Supermaxi. He came to the gate and was very friendly. He let me into his house. His wife was home and offered me something to eat or drink, I passed but it was nice. He started bringing guitars down into the living room. Let me say he has a beautiful house, full of very expensive furniture. This man has done very well in life. I looked at 6 guitars he had and they took my breath away. They were flawless and stunning. These were works of art. They played like… magic. This was what all the hype was about, and everyone else were just cashing in on his rep. And he has a world wide rep. He had photos of himself with some great musicians, and made his fortune from that. He travels often to Europe. In fact he had just returned the week before from a convention. They (other makers at the convention) kept telling him he charges way too little (around $1000 each) and he must raise his prices. SO he did. That week. Just before I arrived. His guitars now had prices of $5000 and up. And truthfully, probably worth it. I have owned two guitars in my life with that value, and I can see that price on his. But I had planned to buy for what his price was a week before. Yes, I wanted to make a great score… but alas it wasnt to happen. I didn’t have $5000 to buy one. But I saw amazing skills in those guitars. I told him of my visit to his home town. He nodded and look serious, but didnt say anything other than he needed to move away. He then ask me if I wanted to see his workshop. We went down a steep walkway, gated and locked, on the side of his house. It was steep steps, and we soon came to his workshop, located under and to the rear of his house. it was… rustic. A work bench, a few guitars in early stages, some hand tools and not much more. As he had been traveling a while, he had the 6 guitars upstairs and no more, and had not begun making more yet. In the end it was a pleasure to meet him, and 2 of the guitars I looked at were the finest guitars I had ever seen. But the trash in his home town, I have seen better in Wal-Mart. Its a nice trip and interesting town, but ugh. One of the guys sells on wednesdays in the San Francisco market. They are an embarrassment. I can see why Juan separated himself.

    1. Loren – Thx for the candid review. Very helpful. I wonder why a deep sense of integrity and quality, for its own sake, is not instilled in so many “craftsmen” here in EC? Just “barely good enough,” if that, seems to be standard operating procedure here…

      1. i saw that as well. Of course nothing is “all” but it is far too common to see it, no matter if it is cooking or crafts. People in general seem to be more concerned with just cranking it out and getting the money. But Juan… wow! I was speechless at a few of his guitars!! The others in the village… so much dirt in the finish. SO many places the wood didnt even match up, with gaps. Even the “pearl” work had clumps of glue. I would take almost any Chinese guitar over those, and I really dislike chinese guitars! For the reason you stated… there is no desire to do great. Now… I suspect a few of those guys COULD make something special, if they really tried. But I think as long as the town is promoted and tourist keep coming and buying them up based on articles they read, they will keep cranking them out this way. Why spend the time if you can still sell the rushed ones?

        1. Yes, agreed. I’m a guitarist as well, and have some knowledge of fine luthiery. Eight years ago I was in Cuenca when the annual guitar show was happening, and I too was dismayed at the poor quality of most guitars on display. Like you, I didn’t buy any. And as you mentioned, go right to the inlay work and see what you’ve got. If the inlay work is poor, likely so is everything else.
          It is interesting that hardly anyone feels the desire, or sees the benefit of simply caring enough to produce and sell fine quality, whatever the endeavor. Whenever going to the local market, I have noted 3 or 4 different vendors who put in the extra effort to have higher quality fruit, eggs, vegetables, etc. Also, these exemplary vendors do not lie to me about whether a particular food is organic or not. What a breath of fresh air it is to interact and buy from them. I’m happy to pay somewhat more for not only their higher quality products, but also to reward basic human integrity when I see it. And I certainly appreciate their upbeat attitude as well.

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