A Mexican Town With a Guitarmaking Tradition

Fathers and sons in the village of Paracho work side by side building string instruments for popular Mexican musicians and their bands

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JERONIMO AMEZCUA carefully hefts an unfinished guitar from the corner of his roof-top workshop."My father started this 20 years ago. A concert guitarist called me this week asking for a fine instrument. I will finish it now," says the softspoken, mustachioed craftsman. Mr. Amezcua learned the trade at the knee of his father, who was taught by his father, and so on going back 350 years. So it is for most of the male residents of this small Mexican village about 300 miles west of Mexico City. The guitarmakers of Paracho are the legacy of Franciscan priest Vasco de Quiroga, known affectionately as "Tata Vasco." Smitten by Thomas More's "Utopia," Quiroga taught the people of the Michoacan area not only Catholicism but also helped them form communities which became self-sufficient in agriculture and more prosperous by specializing in certain traditional and nontraditional crafts. Thanks to Quiroga, Paracho evolved into the village in the New World for string instruments. Over the centuries, Paracho production has run the gamut from violins to cellos. Today, guitarmaking prevails. As yet, the town hasn't won too many kudos from abroad. Concert guitarists prefer the precision craftsmanship of Spanish, German, or US instruments. "We're only starting to understand what a professional concert guitar is," explains Sructuoso Zalapa Luna, a Paracho-born guitarmaker now working in Mexico City. "Fine guitarmaking is only two or three generations old now. In Spain, the museums have magnificent guitars dating back to the 1600s." Still, in Mexico, Paracho is where many popular Mexican musicians come for a good deal on a well-made instrument. Two doors down from Amezcua's shop, Josue Aldana Dias gently plucks at the strings of a maple-wood mandolin, listening intently. He belongs to a "rondalla" of 10, 15, or 20 performers who play at weddings, parties, and festivals. This is the third time he's taken the eight-hour bus trip from Mexico City to shop for instruments. But it's worth it, says he. "You sometimes have to hunt. But the best in all of Mexico is here. And the prices are good." Nearly every shop on the main street sells guitars ranging from souvenir junk to the real thing. Juan Granados, an 82-year-old guitarmaker perches on his front steps strumming an instrument. He remembers when his first guitars sold for 75 cents in 1920. Today, his cheapest goes for 76,000 pesos (about $25). When asked who makes the best guitars in town, he replies in true utopian terms, "Everyone has the same quality." But a trip through the back streets reveals otherwise. In one small, woodshaving-strewn factory a half-dozen workers are rapidly heat-shaping strips of Mexican cedar, hand sanding guitar arms, and cutting sheets of Canadian pine for the guitar face. One of the craftsmen, Aldolfo Cordoba Lira, says it takes about a day to make one "economical" guitar (about $45). In another room, where finishing details and a varnish spray-coat are applied, the pace of completion looks to be closer to a dozen a day. Later, back in his quiet workshop, Amezcua counsels, "A fine guitar cannot be done in a hurry." He makes flamenco, classic, concert, semi-concert, and studio guitars. But he won't promise to deliver one of his best hand-made guitars in less than eight months. For starters, he says, it takes time to select and dry the wood. On Amezcua's roof, thin strips of lumber lay baking in the sun, sometimes for a year or more. His guitars are made of six different types of wood, including German ebony, Brazilian rosewood, Canadian maple, and Australian oak. When Amezcua was just a toddler helping in the family business, his father taught him: "An old guitar has a better sound." "I haven't forgotten his words. Often, I'll make the basic form, then leave it for six months before finishing it. Or sometimes I'll wait years." He taps one of several unvarnished, fretless guitars hanging from the ceiling, "Some of these were made by my father 25 years ago."

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