At the foot of the hill bearing The Alhambra—that grand Moorish edifice immortalized both in literature by Washington Irving and in countless snapshots by infinite herds of camera-toting tourists—there is a far more humble monument to the cultural legacy of Spain’s magnificent little city of Granada. Unless you are a knowledgeable guitarist or luthier, you might not even realize what you are passing by in this ancient Moorish capitol—because this landmark is neither a masterpiece-riddled museum nor an architectural marvel of bygone days. It’s simply Cuesta De Gomerez, a street that some call “la calle de las guitarras,” and it is here that a handful of dedicated craftsmen carry on the venerable and often mythologized art of Spanish guitar-making.
On this narrow, unassuming, and easily overlooked little avenue, simple storefronts bear simple signs advertising such workshops as Casa Ferrer, proudly in operation since 1825. If you are fortunate enough to catch one of the luthiers who work here on a slow day, you might also be lucky enough to get him to talk about his craft and his customers—Flamenco and Classical guitarists, both famous and not-so-famous, who come from all over the world to commission handmade instruments that take weeks to construct and cost thousands of euros. The point, of course, is to order an instrument that feels, fits, looks, and most importantly, sounds just as the player wants it.
One of the first things any of these Granada craftsmen will tell you is that the myth of family trade secrets being handed down through the generations is just that—a myth. As one amused luthier I met said about this well-trodden view, “you can’t make your children want to do this.” As much a myth is the idea that handmade guitars are still made with hand tools. “These days it would be crazy,” said another luthier, pointing out that it takes a long time for a craftsman to build a good guitar even with modern power tools.
It was on this little street that I found myself over the span of a few rainy March days in 2004, having sojourned to Granada with a couple friends from El Palo (a barrio of Malaga), where we were living at the time. And it was here that I had the opportunity to spend a few precious hours over the course of a couple of days with José López Bellido – one of the finest guitar makers in Granada.
When I asked Maestro Bellido how long he had been operating his shop, he wasn’t sure at first. “I started making my own guitars in 1968,” he announced—somewhat to his own surprise—after thumbing through his order ledger, a complete record of all the guitars he has made and sold since he completed his apprenticeship with his teacher, Maestro Jose Ferrer. He added that he has worked in the very shop we were standing in for 31 years.
But Bellido started learning his craft much earlier than that. “I started working with wood when I was about 10,” he recalled, describing how he began by carving castanets. He later entered his guitar-making apprenticeship at the age of 15 as his maestro’s assistant.
“I began by tending the heater,” he continued, gesturing at the glue pot perched next to his well-worn workbench. And spending so much time with his teacher led to other important events in his life. With a subtle smile that bespoke good memories and a marriage that has remained happy after 40 years, he added: “When I was 21 I married my maestro’s daughter.
Maestro Bellido said that thousands of people come asking him about his craft every year, and that he’s had clients come from all over the world. Among those better known are the Habituela family of Spain, including Flamenco guitarists Juan Habichuela, Pepe Habichuela, and Juan Carmona, and Gerd Claxin, the Belgian Classical guitarist.
“Most of my clients are referred to me by other clients,” Bellido said. Once, he had a German client who had bought an old Spanish guitar in the United States via the Internet and wanted José to repair it. To José’s delight, it turned out to have made by none other than his own maestro, Eduardo Ferrer. “The repair cost about 2000 Euros,” he chuckled. He explained that is own guitars take about a month to construct and cost up to 4000 Euros.
Still, as one primarily interested in tending to his craft and his shop, Bellido presented himself as humble and more than willing to serve the needs of the everyday player. This humility was born out during my first visit with the maestro, when an anxious young guitaris and his girlfriend came into the shop with a rather sad-looking old factory guitar he had just purchased, apparently quite cheaply. Maestro Bellido examined it pensively on the spot, a bit like a concerned physician pondering the fate of a terminally ill patient.
“There is nothing sadder for me than seeing a poorly treated guitar,” he said as he restrung the badly repaired instrument. “For one this battered, love can do only so much.”
In Andalusia, it can seem as though nearly every city, pueblo and barrio has its own Flamenco tradition. Granada is no exception, boasting both in-town nightclub performances and garish tourist shows in the caves of Sacramonte, as well as more intimate gatherings that the locals prefer to keep for themselves. And like some of his fellow craftsmen, José López Bellido plays guitar. He told me that guitars of today are quite different from guitars constructed twenty or more years ago, made for a faster, more aggressive style of Flamenco. But he didn’t believe that there is necessarily a connection between being a good guitar maker and playing music well. “My brother is probably a better guitar maker than I am,” he chuckled, “but I am a much better player.” The key, he said, is in understanding exactly what the player wants from his instrument. And if the maker doesn’t get it right, it is at the player’s cost both in money and in time spent waiting for another attempt. As the maestro said, it probably wouldn’t take long for an untrustworthy maker to go out of business!
For the craftsmen who ply their trade on the street of guitars, pride in their work is in no short supply. Each follows his own school of construction as it was taught to him by his maestro, who—in an honest nod to the old myth—is indeed sometimes the craftsman’s father. And naturally, each feels a great deal of love for his craft and his instruments.
As Bellido said about hearing one of his own guitars being played: “Well clearly, it feels great. When there is a concert and someone plays your guitar well, it’s like hearing your own son triumph.”
I left Maestro Bellido’s shop 25 Euros poorer, having purchased a cejilla (capo) made by the maestro. At the time, I thought it would be as close as I would ever get to owning a guitar made by a true Spanish master. I would prove myself wrong a year later in New Hampshire of all places, after purchasing a guitar I found in a small music shop that had been made by Amalio Burquet, a well-known luthier from Valencia. I still have it, and have performed many Flamenco concerts with it over te years. It isn’t a Bellido, but it will do — as will the guitars I have made myself in the traditional Spanish method, thanks in part to Maestro Bellido’s inspiration and encouragement.