Guitars as Works of Art

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text by Fernando Daniel Martínez
photos by Infobaja staff

In a workshop in the Colonia 20 de Noviembre neighborhood of Tijuana filled with Canadian and German spruces, Indian rosewood, Honduran cedar, African ebony, and other rare woods, masterpieces renowned as some of the finest classical guitars in Mexico are being made. They carry the name of Fructuoso Zalapa.

Zalapa comes from four generations of luthiers in Paracho, Michoacán. He has spent his life building guitars that are now commissioned by professional guitarists who demand the unique acoustical properties and fine craftsmanship that his work is known for.

After his life took him down several paths – among which he studied to be a classical guitarist and a teacher – he settled four years ago in Tijuana because this city allows him to build outstanding guitars thanks to the select woods available across the border. “For this work,” Zalapa comments, “excellent materials are essential even though they cost ten times more than ordinary materials.”

During an interview with Infobaja magazine, this maker of fine instruments and characteristic acoustics talked about his craft, with which he has achieved international fame.

How do you remember your childhood, growing up in a guitar workshop?

Everyone worked in it, my father and my older brothers, and so they had a lot of scrap wood lying around that I got to play with. My father made me a tiny little saw and a little knife and let me entertain myself cutting up those scraps.

Eventually, when I was nine or ten, I wanted to make a guitar. It’s the natural progression. Then I was able to sell that guitar and made some money.

Obviously, the first guitars were really made by my father, I only superintended his work. I learned little by little as he began to guide my hands so that I could see what it’s all about. Over time each guitar was more and more my own work, a process of three or four years. By the time I was fourteen, I was good at making guitars.

Do you remember the first guitar you ever made?

Yes, I remember. I’m a Leo – Leos are perfectionists – and I have always been concerned with beauty. Although my first guitar was attractive, its sound wasn’t good enough for serious musicians, but to look at it you’d say it was a nice piece of work.

When I started making guitars for real, I tried to save one or another for myself, so that I might learn to play. But people had heard that I saved the best guitars and would come to the house looking for them. I’d wind up selling them because we always needed money. That went on for seven or eight years, never getting to learn on the guitars I had set aside for myself. I got to learn to play sometime later. In fact, I bought my first guitar from another luthier because I still hadn’t learned to make guitars with professional sound, which is necessary if you are to learn well, and with that I entered the music conservatory in Mexico City.

Have you always tried to make classical guitars?

Yes, you could call them “classical” or “studio” guitars, the type that is used at the professional level. I must have made hundreds of common guitars before I turned out my first studio guitar. They’re not the same thing. Guitar experts appreciate the differences between a guitar for the concert-hall and one made to be played in the street.

After I decided to leave the conservatory and to give up my work as a student teacher, I spent my time looking for every luthier who had studied in Europe – especially those who make violins, because they know a lot about woods and varnishes and acoustics. I studied hard with them, entered competitions, applied for scholarships. I was lucky, won a lot of scholarships, and that allowed me to go study instrument-making in Spain.

What you learned in Europe, was that much different from the tradition you already knew?

Yes, the most important thing I learned is the love with which we need to make things. That allows you to enjoy your work. There are a lot of people who don’t enjoy what they do but, for those of us in Paracho, guitar-making is a pleasure.

I always enjoy walking into my workshop, it’s very relaxing to lock myself into that little room and put on some music. It’s a happy place where nothing is forced and where every task is something I want to do, always with the idea of questioning it, studying it, in order to make each guitar better than the last.

It’s a delight to work with the wood, it’s as if the wood were imbued with magic. The better the wood, the more amazing it is to work with, and here in Tijuana I have access to really fine stock. I’m always on the lookout for better and better woods, ones that work better and sound better, one way or another always looking to make the guitar sound better.

Guitar-making is unlike any other business. Other businesses have to put their merchandise on sale in order to move it, but not so with guitars. For example, if you were to buy a guitar from me for ten thousand pesos today, in a year you can be sure it would cost thirty or forty thousand pesos. Guitar prices never go down.

How does such a traditional craft cope with the twenty-first century?

In southern Europe, luthiers are respected for having come from a long line of luthiers, such as those of Italy and Spain. But there are now luthiers with no family traditions – in the United States, Germany, and Japan – who have been showing us that family tradition isn’t really important.

And now there are machines that do better work than an artisan can do even though everyone believes the myth that handmade work is finer work, of better quality. It’s not true. Machines can be more accurate than the human hand. I’m in the process of adding specialized machinery to my workshop but so far I’m still building every piece by hand.

How many guitars do you make in a month?

My very best guitars, maybe twenty a year or two a month, assuming the raw materials are available.

Are your guitars commissioned?

Usually, yes. My guitars are commissioned by Mexican musicians for the most part. I also have customers in the United States and France. But even when I don’t have a commission waiting I still keep building guitars because there’s always someone looking to buy one.

Why is it that the guitar continues to be in high demand?

Well, it’s a perfect musical instrument. You can play it by itself and you can accompany other musicians. It’s comfortable to use. And there are some inexpensive guitars that play very well. Aside from having an agreeable timbre, the guitar can be used for all types of music.

What sort of music do you like to play on your guitars?

A little of everything, popular music, Mexican music, what little classical music I picked up.

What is the average price of a good guitar?

A very good guitar runs between two thousand dollars and five thousand. A good beginner’s guitar costs about a thousand dollars, but that’s for a beginner who wants to learn well and who takes it seriously. The hardest thing for a cheap guitar to do is to hold its pitch.

How would you define the craft that has become your life’s work?

It is a great pleasure. I am grateful for having taken it up. It makes me feel good to be creating guitars, I really enjoy it. And it’s a challenge to be constantly improving: it makes me both the craftsman and the boss. I set the standards that I work to. It’s a very noble calling.

Guitar connoisseurs interested in contacting Maese Zalapa are invited to do so through our Reader Service.
Originally published by Infobaja, July 2012.
Republished in translation by kind permission.