Guitars… Luthier hand made & Manufactory made.

Ruben Diaz

Hand made guitars especially those made following the artistic ritual and creative process of the best last century style guitar makers, or luthiers, are different to the manufactory ones, because it takes an average of 250 hours of accurate manual labour to a luthier in order to ensemble a guitar as Marcelo Barbero or Santos Hernandez did, opposed to manufactory made guitars which are ensambled in hundreds by machines simultaneously.

The real value of the wood is in its being aged, and the fact that first class aged wood is very difficult to find is also to be considered.

Before the industrialized era the guitar was made just as Santos and Barbero did, and this tradition is still followed meticulously by very few great guitar makers nowadays.

Some between them who excel in quality have a well deserved waiting list


other example is the classical Luthier Greg Smallman (the guitars that John Williams plays) he only makes 4 or 5 guitars per year, another example is Luthier Arcangel Fernandez the inheritor and disciple of Marcelo Barbero, whose waiting list is so big that today, Arcangel's order books are filled for the rest of his life, and the shop, which is humming with activity is essentially closed, as they try to fill all the outstanding orders.

Here I play some guitars made after the acoustic concepts of Barbero (mainly)



Here is a complementary article to this


To conclude I would like to share with you some of the magic about genius guitar makers as is it exemplified in the life of Marcelo Barbero who is regarded and “the Stradivarius between flamenco guitar makers”

Marcelo Barbero was one of the greatest guitar makers of the 20th century, particularly well-regarded among flamenco players. Born around 1904 in Madrid to an impoverished family, he was orphaned as a boy. He began in the shop of José Ramírez and later worked for José Ramírez II. At various times he was also a professional boxer and racing cyclist. He supplemented his income singing flamenco in the tablaos, but his first love was guitar making. Curiously, Marcelo did not play the guitar, but relied on his experience and training, along with frequent feedback from the best players of the era, to evolve his pattern.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-'39) he was called into service and saw heavy fighting around the University City of Madrid. Of his company of 150, only 23 survived. The war was rough on guitarmakers because many of the more talented and prosperous flamencos fled Spain to wait out the war in France, Latin America, and the U.S. Some never returned, and this drastically cut into the guitar market. Further compounding the problem, after the war Franco's fascist government wanted nothing to do with flamenco, and only tolerated it if it could pull in tourist dollars. Most of the flamencos had sided with the losing Republicans, so there was little love lost between Franco and flamencos. All over the south of Spain official signs went up in every bar, "Se prohibe el Cante," translated, "No flamenco singing allowed," or more bluntly, "Gypsies: Keep Out."

The earliest labeled Barbero known to me dates from 1933, a cypress flamenco which, unfortunately, has been heavily restored and modified. However, a very nice specimen from '34 survives and is in excellent condition, showing very strong influence of José Ramírez II, right down to the peghead outline, and general interior design. The label is the earliest version used by Barbero, and it's interesting to note he didn't put his address on it. In all probability, instruments made by Barbero during this period would have been made in his spare time when he was not working for Ramírez, who may not have condoned this type of outside capitalism.

While he was working for José Ramírez II, Marcelo not only made guitars, but also bandurrias and laudes - Spanish instruments played by strolling street musicians. This '35 José Ramírez II laud was most likely made by Marcelo, as it has many of the "fingerprints" and quirky details of workmanship evident in Marcelo's work. Now owned by Randy Osborne of Fine Fretted Stringed Instruments of Campbell, California, it is very well preserved, the only specimen of this type we have seen, though they must have been common in those days.

After the death of Santos Hernandez in 1943, Marcelo was hired by Santos' widow to complete the instruments left unfinished by Santos, which took three years. Many were only completed and signed tops, along with some signed labels - Santos' legacy to his widow. Barbero would make the rest of the components and assemble and varnish the instruments which the widow would then sell as an original "Santos," perhaps a bit of stretch, but the only way she could survive. Later, some of these were also labeled as the "Viuda de Santos Hernandez," or widow of Santos Hernandez, although she herself never made any guitars. She continued this practice with several other makers through the '50s and early '60s until the late Felix Bayon (who was married to Santos' niece) inherited the shop after the widow's death, at which point Felix began making the guitars sold under the "Sobrinos de Santos Hernandez" (nephews of Santos Hernandez) label. Currently, Felix's son, Santos Bayon, occupies the same workshop and builds under his own name.

Even while Barbero was working for Santos' widow, he continued to make his own instruments, and a 1943 example shows the influence Barbero was already drawing from Santos, as the head design is nearly identical to one used by Santos. Barbero also had his address, Ministriles 6, in the heart of the Lavapies district of Madrid, printed on the label. This district is the older section of Madrid, where many guitarmakers were located, and it was close to the center of activity of most of the flamenco tablaos where Marcelo sang (and his customers worked). Today, the Lavapies section is still a center of guitarmaking, and Marcelo's only student, Arcangel Fernandez (along with Marcelo's only son, Marcelo II) has a shop a few blocks from where Marcelo's was located.

After leaving Santos' shop, Barbero continued to be influenced by the designs and patterns he observed in Santos' shop, and we suspect he helped himself to much of the leftover inlay material and rosette blocks that remained after Santos' death. This material takes much time and labor to produce, and it would not have been thrown out simply because Santos was no longer around. This 1948 instrument is a prime example, appearing to have a rosette made from inlays used by Santos. Notable is the head, formed nearly identical to the Santos head. Had this been labeled and stamped as a Santos, few today would have doubted its authenticity. Its a small miracle and something of a testimony to the high regard of Barbero's own work that this guitar was not "converted" many years ago into a Santos. Fifty years ago Santos' work was highly sought and considerably more valuable than that of Barbero, whose reputation was known primarily in the flamenco community, but unknown by other players.

Around the end of 1948, Barbero began to assert his own ideas, breaking from the Santos model to create his own personal model. Therefore a more melodic and lyrical instrument was considered to be very desirable by numerous flamenco players who were playing the guitar as much as a solo instrument as they were accompanying singers and dancers.

In 1951, Barbero made the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century - the instrument that forever solidified his fame. The legendary gypsy flamenco player Sabicas used Barbero guitars in his recordings in the early '50s. The master tapes were sold to various other companies and assembled into albums under the Electra name (Sabicas Vol. I, II, and III) and distributed around the world. Under the Columbia label some of the best material was issued in an album entitled "Flamenco Puro" and this landmark recording was enormously influential among flamenco players the world over. Its release in '62 in Spain was a revelation to Spanish players who had forgotten about Sabicas, as he had left Spain in '36 and made his fame and fortune in the Americas, but it was an overnight sensation, and makers and players listened to this record with intense interest, trying to capture its sound and air.

In the '50s, Marcelo began to take the traditional cypress flamenco away from the traditional extreme lightness of an Esteso or Santos, and create a fuller-bodied, more austere, almost classical-sounding instrument. To accomplish this, he began to rethink the traditional Torres model of fan strutting. One of his changes was the use of a thin strap across the grain of the top, centered under the bridge,”bajo Puente” which helped stabilize the sound and even out the sustain. He also began making the instruments with thicker wood than most flamencos, which produced a more austere sound. But there was no mistaking the sound of his guitar for a straight classical, and rough-and-tumble players of those days, who loved raspy, percussive guitars, continued to play Barbero instruments.

Barbero's career spanned the transition of gut strings to nylon, and it was not coincidental these changes in soundboard design (not only with Barbero, but other makers such as Ramírez, Fleta, and Bouchet) had as much to do with the changing string technology as they did with shifting aesthetics. It has been common knowledge in the flamenco community that the first players to use nylon strings were flamencos such as Ramon Montoya, who discovered this material long before the classical players began to use it. Given the rough playing style and expense of quality gut, it is not surprising flamencos would embrace this new technology. A typical flamenco player would consume a set of gut strings in one night, whereas a classical player could probably use it for a week.

Barbero made very few rosewood models, but they are highly esteemed today and very soughtafter. Internally, the bracing of these rosewood models is not indistinguishable from the cypress models, and although Barbero recognized different usage of the instruments (i.e., classical or flamenco), from a structural standpoint there was a difference whatsoever.

Marcelo died March 6, 1956, after apparently hemorrhaging for four days from an undiagnosed stomach ulcer. The Spanish press hailed him as the "Stradivari of Lavapies," and an interview with his only student and successor Arcangel Fernandez appeared in the March 25 edition of the Suplemento de España. In this article, Arcangel mentions that Marcelo was making guitars for clients in England, South America, France, Germany, Italy, and even Japan. So even at this early date, Japanese collectors were well aware of the situation in Spain and actively buying instruments long before their interest in American factory-made steel-strings began to appear.

Of particular interest in the interview is the subject of the wood and its aging, as Arcangel mentions the woods used are all from outside of Spain except for the cypress, the German spruce tops have to be aged at least 20 years, and the rosewood which comes from the black jungles of the tropics has to be aged for 20 or 30 years. As he puts it, the process requires that the wood cut by the grandparents can only be sold by the grandchildren!

Marcelo had no other formal apprentices, but he did give advice to other makers, like Manuel Reyes of Córdoba, who spent an intense day at Marcelo's shop. Several other Spanish makers have tried to pass themselves off as students of Marcelo, and perhaps, like Reyes, they also were given priceless advice by the maestro, but it is a far cry from having worked with Marcelo for years to receiving one day of compressed theoretical advice without hands-on correction.

For about a year after Marcelo's death, Arcangel made instruments for the Barbero widow. They were labeled "La Viuda de Marcelo Barbero, Arcangel Fernandez constructor," but shortly after, he left to set up his own shop at 26 Jésus y María street, two blocks from the old Barbero shop. Arcangel took on Marcelo's son (also named Marcelo), who was 12 when his father died, and has essentially been his father and maestro, teaching him the same art he received from Marcelo the father.







© Ruben Diaz 2012 I Developed by ¡Viva España! Digital I Contact