We — Savino Music — are a guitar distribution company that caters to classical instruments, musicians, and the world at large. Our roots lie in Latin America and Europe, spreading now to North America via the beautiful international hub that is Miami, Florida. Our goal as a company is to bridge the gap between three continents in the world of classical music by importing artisan-made instruments of all varieties. Like fine wine, our guitars are unique in that they are built with careful precision, each with a different touch than the last. Our luthier network is composed of the best craftspeople in the world, names that have long-lasting reputations in the music world and longer-lasting instruments in the hands of musicians.
The invitation to go to Spain came out of a desire to reconnect with the guitar artisans in Madrid, to bring Savino Music into their workshops and witness, once again, the magic that takes place in the world of the luthier. To find out anew the processes that we here in Miami do so much to support.
Of course, Spain and Savino Music are no strangers. But this was my first time stepping into the workshops of luthier legends like Jose Ramirez and Manuel Contreras, so this innocence quickly brought me to a place of insatiable excitement. Because not only was it the luthiers that we were visiting, but it was Spain as a whole — Spain, where the classical guitar became a prominent style of music, where Antonio Torres Jurado began a lineage of luthiers that would never be forgotten. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the city didn’t speak in classical guitar cadences: like the squares and curvatures of a beautifully crafted rosette, the streets of Madrid were just as eloquently espousing a song of history and finesse.
The workshop itself spoke volumes of craftwork — it hinted at processes and traditions unbeknownst to outsiders, a grandeur of a passionate lineage of artists. Materials were piled all over each other, beautifully disarrayed. Woods and tools hanging and hinting to the lunacy of a clockmaker.
The studio worked with its own breath of genius, artisans diligently fine-tuning wood and bone to create an atmosphere of potential musical energy, everything in the most precise manner.
A man near me was calmly in the process of separating thin strips of wood and realigning them by color, his hands working as acutely as those of a fine painter. The luthier bundled these strips up in order to be cut into small sections, creating blocks with distinctive patterns. These would be the guitars’ rosettes, he told me, each one carefully sculpted and precisely fitting of each Jose Ramirez guitar.
Another luthier in the workshop was entranced in a back-and-forth motion between what appeared to be a sand-shaver and the body of a fresh guitar. Upon closing in, I saw that he was actually fitting a guitar puente (bridge) to the surface of a new wood body, a process that entails him carefully sanding down the space where the bridge and surface of the wood meet until they are unanimously bonded.
Witnessing the creation of a part of a guitar otherwise so passively looked upon was, well, shocking. It was clear that the guitars were being handled deliberately and with intention, and though I knew that every part is taken into careful consideration, I never expected each strand of the instrument to be so meticulous and time-consuming. There was a subtle harmony to the work of these artisans, a process that I knew culminated in the creation of a musical instrument with its own personality, its own voice, intonation, variations.
To witness an elixir of physical labor that would ultimately produce the palette of concise tones and sounds that we back in Miami are so familiar with, to think that physical work can infuse an art as conceptual as music — it is nearly unimaginable until one is physically there, witnessing.
Amidst all this craftsmanship, there was finally a moment of punctuative ending. One of the luthiers led me to a brand new Jose Ramirez 1A, a finished product that would be coming home with me to the Savino Music showroom, fresh from the luthier’s hands.
The guitar was pristine in its clarity and seemed to vibrate a radiant glow. The visit impressed me in that I was walking a line down the studio, across the stages of a guitars birth, all to end up at this stringed and tuned product. From the sanding of its woods to the finishing embellishments of its rosette, the narrative of the luthiers was an art form incredible to behold.
Thanking Amalia and her team of superb luthiers, I packed up the guitar and left the workshop with a gut-feeling of awe and gravity: I had witnessed a humble spectacle, the labor of a small workshop in a corner of Madrid, but a workshop with an echo of worldwide resonance.
I took lunch near el Parque del Retiro, a grand royal park turned public in the 19th century whose elaborate walkways and tasteful foliage reminded one of the astute precision of the city of Madrid. Everything was built with a purpose, it seemed; like the inside of an instrument, every branch and flower had its place, every step serving a purpose.
I couldn’t help but think back at the curvatures of the instruments I had just seen, the way every slope and groove was methodically designed and sculpted. Madrid was, in a sense, a work of craft paralleling the intricate detailing of a Jose Ramirez, or a Manuel Contreras.
I was happily greeted by Jose Antonio Lagunar Canovas, luthier of Contreras, and Victoria Velazco, guitarist and manager of the Contreras enterprise. It took no time at all for these two smiling individuals to welcome me into their place of work, and what I found in their business was, once again, a surprise.
The environment of the studio gave the workshop a sense of endearment and charm. Everything was located within a small rectangular room, a workshop decorated with the myriad tools needed to craft music out of wood and bone. Everything was there — guitars, woods, rulers and cutters — magically fitting into the most humble of workplaces I had ever come to see.
Jose Antonio and Victoria were generous in their tour, giving me the privilege of explaining his processes (tuned to the ears of a non-luthier, of course) and allowing me to handle some of the materials in the workshop.
Building a Contreras is, as it is with all crafts, a meticulous method: the luthiers here start with fresh slabs of wood that are dried naturally through the air, a process that takes about two years per slab (the patience!). These slabs were ubiquitous in the studio, filling every nook and cranny in far-off spaces, like the umbilical beginnings of new instruments. The wood dries slowly, Jose Antonio told me, in order to allow the guitar to resonate in its most natural state when played. Like the fermentation of wine, this patient process is what gives every Manuel Contreras guitar it’s unique flavor.
It didn’t take long for me to realize another surprising factor that went into the construction of these guitars: the luthiers here made their own tools. From rulers to measure the frets and small saws that measure and cut the neck, to wood templates used to specify the shape of each instrument, the workshop was not only a means of creating a guitar, but also a means of creating the way they create these instruments.
Every centimeter was measured to perfection, every nut and bridge accounted for. This Spanish workshop had something that other workshops beyond the Continent lacked: a personal touch to their processes, the use of small, handmade tools. Subtle touches that, in the end, make a world of difference.
And, again, it all made sense at the end. My two friends at Contreras brought me to a brand new C2 guitar, recently finished and ready to be played. The guitar stood inside a vintage case, a wombed treasure of the incredible lineage I had just witnessed and — how could I not? — felt a part of. The C2 was to soon join us in the Savino Music showroom back home, Victoria and Jose Antonio looking over it like the proud parents of an accomplished child.
There is something to be said about the patience and humility of these luthiers. Never had I expected to come to Spain and actually feel the age of the instruments, the rust of the hammers, the smell of the woods. To allow a visitor into their private space and walk them through the details of craftsmanship and ultimately to the birth of a new guitar — it is something rare and beautiful to find within the world luthiers. I left Victoria and Jose Antonio feeling grateful and spellbound.
It is, after all, for art’s sake that people like Amalia and Victoria are in the business of guitar-making; these individuals are in a business of altruism. How couldn’t they be? To spend so many meticulous hours in a workshop, spending their lives in the business of binding woods and sanding fretboards — why else would these luthiers commit themselves to this labor if not for the impetus to make and help musicians, to do their part in inserting art into the lives of the public?
It is no small gesture, and being there reminds one of how easily we can forget the kind of effort that goes into making a guitar. Grandeur in Madrid, it seems, speaks from the results of a beautiful labor. This sense is what makes a musician remember a guitar, and what makes others come back for more.
Spain, Amalia Ramirez, Victoria Velazco and Jose Antonio Lagunar Canovas — I thank you all for welcoming Savino Music into your workshops and into the heart of your trade. Though we often think that the art of music ends at the fingers of a guitarists, we should not forget that it all begins at the fingertips of these passionate craftspeople.
Photography & story by Luciana Cereseto / Attentively worded by Mark Meneses.
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