Mexico’s Master Guitar Makers
The now iconic white guitar made famous by the Disney film, “Coco,” was created in Paracho, a small Mexican town where almost every shop makes guitars. Underneath the new icon lies centuries of craftsmanship.
Story by LAURA FRASER
Photography and videography by ANDREW SULLIVAN
High in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, the region’s vast groves of avocado trees give way to thick pine forests. Heading up a windy road pitted by torrential rains, past an indigenous Purépecha village lined by rough wooden chairs for sale, the town of Paracho comes into view. At the entrance, an enormous brass guitar statue towers over modest two-story buildings. On the front, the guitar is painted white, adorned with black filigree and Day of the Dead skulls–just like the lavishly-ornamented instrument featured in the Disney movie “Coco,” about a young Mexican boy who loves music, which struck a chord with millions of people in Mexico and the U.S.
German Vazquez Rubio, the luthier who made the real “Coco” guitar that the movie animators copied, now resides in Los Angeles, but he is from Paracho. Long before people went loco for “Coco,” and Mexicans began selling knock-off white guitars in souvenir shops, Paracho was steadily making musical instruments. In fact, the indigenous artisans in the town, already accomplished woodworkers, began making instruments in the mid-16th century when Spanish missionaries taught them the techniques. The first bishop of Michoacán, Vasco de Quiroga, famously assigned crafts to different pueblos surrounding the central town of Patzcuaro, which continue to be known for their fine copper, ceramic, weaving, and other arts. Paracho, with its stands of pine trees, became a wood-working town, and soon after the invention of the modern guitar, it specialized in lutherie.
What makes Paracho unique is that it not only has a tradition of guitar making–the entire town is involved in the business. Today, locals estimate that 90% of the people who work in Paracho make guitars or guitar parts (the population is about 35,000), producing some one million instruments per year. Most of the instruments are made in factories, but a small portion is entirely crafted by hand, by people many consider the finest luthiers in the New World (most connoisseurs say the best in the entire world reside in Spain).
Why Paracho has been called the “guitar center of the world” is immediately clear. Every storefront is strewn with hanging guitars, as well as mandolins, stand-up basses, big-bellied mariachi guitars, charangos made from armadillo shells, and all manner of other musical instruments.
Like so many guitarists before him who have made the trek to Paracho, my husband Peter has come to find the one instrument that speaks to him.
Many guitarists, particularly middle-aged ones, develop, along with callouses on their fingers, something called “GAS”–Guitar Acquisition Syndrome–and Peter is no exception. While Peter already has several guitars with different functions (the jazz guitar, the electric, the travel version), he doesn’t have one to play bossa nova; and for that, apparently, you need a classical, nylon-stringed guitar–preferably one made by hand. He could have purchased a Paracho guitar through one of the luthier’s websites or Facebook pages (see the Resources sidebar at the end of this story), but the only way to know how the guitar would sound–and each one’s sound is as unique as a snowflake–is to play it in person. So we braved the Mexican roads and spent a fretful night in Uruapan—a city with a lovely waterfall park and an unfortunate recent history as a center for heroin trafficking and cartel violence—before arriving in Paracho, a peaceful town 45 minutes away that is adorned with the region’s signature adobe white houses and red-tiled roofs.
Why Paracho has been called the “guitar center of the world” is immediately clear. Every storefront is strewn with hanging guitars, as well as mandolins, stand-up basses, big-bellied mariachi guitars, charangos made from armadillo shells, and all manner of other musical instruments, stringed and otherwise. The “Coco” movie has had a much greater effect on the town than painting its guitar statue white; it has revitalized the local economy through a new demand for guitars. Replicas of the white “Coco” guitar are now everywhere. Ironically, most of the locals haven’t seen the movie (there’s no theatre in Paracho), and few of the residents play the instrument. “We’re too busy making them,” one artisan tells me.
The quality of the town’s guitars varies greatly, and the label “made in Paracho” is no assurance. In the stores that sell less expensive instruments, most were made in one of Paracho’s 29 guitar factories; some of the violins we saw for sale were made in China. Scattered among these crowded shops are a few storefronts that feature only two or three guitars in the window, gleaming with polished, fine-grained wood. These are the shops of the master luthiers, or guitarreros.
As we make our way down Paracho’s main street, we pass Jesus Fuerte’s shop, the place where the legendary Carlos Santana once bought a guitar. It’s a nice shop, but given Paracho’s prodigious offerings, we walk on, eventually stopping to visit Benito Huipe and Sons. Huipe is featured in a three-hour DVD on classical and flamenco guitar making produced by the anthropologist and guitar expert Ron Fernandez, and he built guitars in Los Angeles for many years before returning to his home town.
After we knock on the door, Huipe, now 71, invites us in. A somewhat vague and disheveled man (Huipe shows distinct signs of a hippie past: frayed jeans, ragged T-shirt, a shock of longish greying hair), he welcomes us upstairs to his workshop, a room heated by a wood stove that is a chaos of guitar parts. Huipe uses the stove to char corn—the floor is covered with husks and finished cobs—but he tells us the main purpose of the stove, besides heating the room and cooking lunch, is to dry the room’s air in order to cure the wood for the guitars. Paracho is a humid place; as we speak, clouds are already gathering for the daily tropical deluge. Because the area’s humidity is so high, when Paracho guitars were transported to drier locales the necks would warp, and the frets would crack. Some of the cheaper guitars made in Paracho from pine are still afflicted with this problem—but not the ones made by the master luthiers, who use old, cured hardwoods.
Huipe has retired from making guitars but he says he is now teaching the craft to his sons. Born in Paracho, he started, as most guitarreros here do, by making ukuleles. Once he learned to make guitars, he specialized in flamenco guitars. These have a slightly different shape and a flatter sound, with less reverberation, and are difficult to find outside of Spain. Huipe’s guitars all bear his signature—an elaborately-carved headstock, which is the rectangular piece at the end of the neck that holds the strings’ screw-pegs.
When Huipe moved to Los Angeles, in the 1960s, he got a job repairing guitars in the Valdez Guitar Shop in West Hollywood. “I would take apart all the instruments, see how they were constructed, and get ideas,” he says. After working with other craftsmen, he finally learned enough to start making guitars on his own. Eventually he opened his own shop, working nights as a banquet waiter at a hotel in Beverly Hills. On his nights off, he went around to restaurants that featured flamenco music and showed the artists his guitars. He gradually built a clientele, who appreciated what one musician called the “intimate, emotional sound” of his instruments.
While most L.A. musicians played rock guitars, which are steel-stringed with a different shape and construction, plenty bought Huipe’s distinctive flamenco guitars to round out their collections. “I made guitars for John Denver, the Everly Brothers, the Byrds,” Huipe says. “Lots of them.” But today, unfortunately, he has no guitars to sell. So we say adios and head back out to the street.
Don Manuel Rubio, age 96, has made more guitars than anyone in Paracho (he stopped counting after 6,000). He was orphaned at the age of 12, and supported his younger siblings by hauling water from the mountains to sell in town—carrying the water on his back because he had no burro.
Next door, we enter Guitarras Rubio, a small store festooned with a banner welcoming German Vazquez Rubio, the “Coco” guitar maker, back to Paracho for this week’s guitar festival. Inside the shop, three classical guitarists who are competing at the festival take turns playing pieces on different guitars. The small room is lined with glass cases displaying several gleaming, handmade guitars. After the owners welcome us, an elderly man gingerly gets up from a stool to offer me his seat. When he does, the rest of the men in the room jump up, apologizing, to allow the man to sit down again.
The old-school gentleman turns out to be Don Manuel Rubio, Vazquez Rubio’s uncle, age 96. Don Manuel has made more guitars than anyone else in Paracho ever has, and for the longest time—76 years. “I don’t feel 96,” he tells us, although we have to repeat our questions, loudly. He shows us his latest guitar, which he just finished a few days ago, and he’s already on to his next. This last one took him two and a half months. “A lot longer than previously,” he says. He made it for a collector who wanted a guitar made by the teacher of the man who made the Coco guitar.
Don Manuel stopped counting how many guitars he has made after 6,000. His father was a carpenter, and his grandfather was a guitarrero in the late 1800s. According to family legend, Paracho townspeople began making guitars not long before that, perhaps around 1880, though everyone in the shop argues about the exact dates. They travelled to “tierra caliente”—the warm coastal region to the west—to trade wood for goods. Someone there had a guitar, which had recently been modernized (some say invented) in Spain by Antonio de Torres (1817-1892), considered the Stradivari of the guitar.
Earlier versions of this guitar, which developed from the lute, were narrower and shallower, with a similarly waisted body and four cat-gut strings. Torres made the instrument larger to increase its volume, and changed its shape to be more of an hourglass. At one point, to explain a guitar’s construction, Don Manuel holds one of his creations aloft. “It has shoulders, a waist, and hips,” he says, and smiles. “Just like a woman.” (Legend has it that Torres modeled the new shape of his new guitars after a particularly beautiful woman he saw in Sevilla.) Torres carefully chose woods for the soundboard that were thinner and more flexible, which allowed it to vibrate more easily when the strings were plucked. Since his guitar body was larger, Torres had to fit the instruments with fanned struts inside. This braced the guitar and created still more reverberation.
Torres’ innovations revolutionized the guitar, making it capable of producing a much louder, more resonant sound. Unlike the earlier versions, one of these guitars could fill a performance hall on its own, which suddenly elevated the guitar to a solo concert instrument. According to his biographer, Jose Romanillos, “From the moment that Torres introduced the large plantilla [a template] for the guitarra fina [the best guitar] in the early 1850s, the small-bodied guitar prevalent in the early decades of the 19th century became extinct as a concert instrument.”
The guitar that came back to Paracho in the late 1800s was patterned after a Torres, and the luthiers of Paracho, who had been making stringed instruments for the priests and missionaries, eagerly turned to this new version. Although those early guitars were made from simple pine and avocado woods, they were soon in demand by mariachis and other musical groups in Jalisco and other areas of Mexico. And the Paracho guitar makers were happy to comply. “We traded guitars for food,” says Don Manuel. (For more detail on how the Paracho guitar developed, and what it borrowed from the Spanish masters, see the adjacent sidebar, “The Evolution of the Paracho Guitar.”)
At the age of 12, Don Manuel was orphaned, and he suddenly became responsible for his younger siblings. To support them, he hauled water from the mountains to sell in town—carrying the water on his back because he had no burro. Finally, in 1939, when he traveled to Mexico City to visit his grandfather, his father-in-law taught him how to make a guitar–a business that Don Manuel thought could better support his family. After apprenticing for two years, he returned to Paracho to launch his own luthier business, and since then has trained roughly 30 luthiers.
Don Manuel began making guitars before there was electricity in Paracho. So he relied on the tools of his indigenous ancestors—primarily a simple, curved knife. To this day, he and his acolytes create guitars with the same kind of knife, along with other hand-held tools such as drills. Some use electric routers, but only sparingly, for the slots in the headstock. They also use electricity to heat a metal pipe that helps shape the wood. “The problem is the bending heat is close to the burning point,” Guillermo says. Apparently, beginning guitarreros end up throwing a lot of their charred guitar sides into the stove. But aside from these few modern crutches, Don Manuel says, “Everything is made by hand. If we used a machine, we would eventually get a flaw that would affect the sound.” Don Manuel is such a perfectionist in measuring, cutting, sanding, and shaping his guitars that he named one of his sons “Perfecto.”
In Don Manuel’s shop my husband Peter is starting to get antsy, wanting to put his hands on one of those smooth, sonorous instruments. So Don Manuel’s son Guillermo, also a master luthier, offers to show us his workshop upstairs.
When Guillermo has Peter try his most expensive instrument, the guitar he hands him doesn’t look much different than his cheapest guitar, except that the wood has a deep, reddish color and uncommonly tight grain. All of a sudden, Peter starts sounding like a classical Spanish guitarist.
The workshop is about the same size as Huipe’s next door, but impeccably clean and tidy, with tools precisely hung on the walls. Guitar forms from various types of wood–the tops, sides, and bottoms–are lined up along the baseboard. On one wall are mounted the thirty awards that Guillermo has won for guitar construction at local and national exhibitions. He gazes at all the first- and second-place ribbons with their accompanying certificates. “I stopped entering to encourage younger guitarreros,” he says, and shrugs.
Making a guitar involves countless measurements; among other things, the wood must be planed to incredibly precise thicknesses. To make the top of the guitar slightly domed (to increase reverberation), Guillermo heats it over a concave work-board. Inside the soundboard lies the secret to each guitar’s distinctive sound: its particular arrangement of struts and fan braces. “This is what makes the individual character of the instrument,” he says.
It has begun to rain in torrents outside. People huddle on the sidewalks under the arched porticos. We settle in to the workshop and Peter asks to see Guillermo’s most economical, or student guitar, for 10,000 pesos, or about $500; he’s not a professional musician and he doesn’t want to go crazy on this guitar’s price.
As Peter strums the guitar, Guillermo gets back to his work. He picks up a long piece of wood he’ll use for the instrument’s neck, measures it carefully, saws it in half, and then glues the part he’s sawn off in the opposite direction to make the guitar’s head. As Guillermo proceeds—planing, sanding, measuring again—it sounds like he’s working in rhythm to the rain. After every few strokes he pauses to re-sharpen his tools, then eventually glues the head to the neck, holding it not with clamps but with rope, in the traditional Paracho fashion.
The best Paracho guitars are finished with “French polish,” which incorporates natural shellac derived from insects. Shellac allows the wood to breathe more than commercial varnish, but to be used properly the finish must be carefully applied, in a series of thin layers, each coat laboriously rubbed in by hand. When completed, Guillermo’s guitars typically include mosaic patterns that draw from Aztec, Mayan, and other indigenous symbols, such as skulls. (To see Guillermo at work, please look at the adjacent documentary short, “To Build a Guitar.”)
When Guillermo finally takes a break, Peter says he likes the first guitar but is eager to try another. Guillermo disappears into a room in the back that is filled with finished guitars, as well as stuffed birds of prey and small mammals he has hunted in the nearby woods. When he emerges, he hands Peter his most expensive guitar. It isn’t ornamented, and it doesn’t look much different than his cheapest guitar, except that the wood has a deep, reddish color and uncommonly tight grain. The tone, however, is another story.
All of a sudden, Peter starts sounding like a classical Spanish guitarist. The instrument itself is light, but it creates a much more complex sound than the other. It’s easier to play, creating more sound with less effort. And each string, when played on each fret, makes a note sustain for the same length of time. This is clearly a guitar worthy of a concert classical guitarist, a Steinway compared to the first instrument Peter tried. That guitar had a perfectly good, bright tone–one that could compare, say, to an upright piano, but it had none of this instrument’s sensitivity and richness. Then again, it’s a $5,000 guitar.
“Gorgeous, but too much for an amateur,” Peter says with reluctant finality, handing the instrument back to its maker. Guillermo nods, then caresses the instrument’s back side. “Brazilian rosewood,” he says. “You can’t get it anymore.”
Each of the raw woods that a master luthier uses creates a sound that is as distinct as the terroir of a wine. Gesturing to various pieces that rest against the walls of his workshop, Guillermo picks up one particular piece that has been aged to 6-8% moisture, the point at which it will not warp if it travels. He taps it with his fingernail. “You have to learn to listen to the wood,” he says. “Eventually, you can tell whether it will make a good-sounding guitar.” When he is lucky enough to find a piece that’s perfect, he builds a guitar to make the most of it, adding his finest finishing details.
The various parts of a guitar each require different “tone woods.” On the top, for example, spruce is a common choice because it is sturdy and light, yet produces powerful, clear sounds. (Englemann spruce from Canada is a particular favorite—for its regularity, density, and resonance.) Ash, walnut, and mahogany are also popular, but they have their drawbacks: ash generates a bright tone but requires a lot of preparation to fill its open grain, and walnut is gorgeous but heavy in the hands. Mahogany, being dense, creates a solid sound when used on a guitar’s top side; when used on the sides, mahogony emphasizes bass and treble notes, with a dark, woody sound, but it too makes for a heavy guitar. Maple creates heavy and flat sounds as well, but it’s still a popular choice because its sonic quality is unusually clear. And ebony, which is an extremely hard wood, is favored for the fretboard—partly for its beauty but more because it creates excellent percussive overtones. Its strength also helps a guitar withstand the constant attack of a guitar pick.
Of all these woods, however, Brazilian rosewood is the most sought-after and the most expensive. The wood is highly desirable for a guitar’s backs and sides (it’s too heavy for the top), and it produces wonderfully rich, low tones as well as sparkling, bright treble notes. Unfortunately, Brazilian rosewood has been greatly over-harvested, so it’s now protected and unavailable. As a result, Indian or Mexican rosewood (“palo escrito”) are often used as substitutes, but they don’t offer quite the same quality. Their grain is also more open, requiring more lacquer for “pore fill,” which can diminish a guitar’s sound.
Guillermo hands Peter another guitar, and another, and he tries them all. Struggling to make his choice, he asks Guillermo nit-picky questions about the spacing of the frets and how well each guitar will hold a tune. Eventually, he drops the technical questions when he realizes that, in the end, it all comes down to the sound you can hear, and the instrument’s playability. After testing and re-testing his favorites, Peter keeps returning to one in particular—a $1500 guitar, Guillermo’s mid-line option. The guitar is quite a bit more than he had intended to spend, but it feels the best in his hands, and it sings to him. He can’t help it; he’s fallen in love. They agree on the sale.
When the rain abates, Guillermo takes us a few blocks away to Guitarras Anotha, one of 29 factories in town that churn out most of Paracho’s guitars. Along the way, we pass some wood cabins that were the town’s original houses. The factory is the size of a large grocery store—a noisy, cavernous space with sawdust-choked air. It includes an assembly line of sorts, and while the workers use power tools, the guitar parts are still cut by hand. The fronts and backs—which are made of pine here—go into a thickness sander, and the sides are steamed over a metal form. One man still shapes the neck with a knife. After the guitars pass through each station–which add frets, strings, headstock, peg heads, the pick board, and the bridge–they are spray-painted a variety of garish colors: blues, pinks, reds, and of course Coco white. The owner and his son test each guitar before it’s ready to head out the door. This workshop, the foreman tells me, makes 120 guitars a day; most will wholesale for about $20. The workers make about 900 pesos a week, or about $45.
These guitars may not last forever, and their sound has none of the resonance of Guillermo’s guitars. But, Guillermo says, they are still important, not only for the economy of the town, but for the country’s musicians. “For most Mexicans, a cheap guitar is the only one they can buy. If they have talent, then later on, sure, they can graduate to a better guitar. But this gets them playing.”
On the way back from the factory, we stop to say hello to Guillermo’s wife. By building guitars, Guillermo Rubio has been able to build a house that is relatively large by Paracho standards, comfortable, and modern, and he has sent all four of his children to university, where they have pursued studies in psychology, engineering, and business. “None of them wants to learn how to make a guitar,” he says, seeming both proud and regretful, as he points to their photos. He takes us to lunch in the local square, where Purépecha women in long checkered skirts have stewpots simmering with fresh fava beans, huitlacoche (corn fungus), purslane, and zucchini flowers, all of which get sopped up with a home-made tortilla. When we finish our savory lunch–worth the drive in itself–we run into a young man on the street. Guillermo puts his arm around him. “My nephew,” he says. “He wants to learn to make guitars.” The young man beams; the tradition, it seems, will continue.
Before leaving, we stop at Guillermo’s workshop to pick up Peter’s new guitar. When Guillermo hands over his creation, he shows us his notes for the instrument. The guitar’s body and neck were made with palo escrito (Mexican rosewood), and Canadian Englemann spruce on its top. It also has a granadillo bridge, a Japanese sycamore rosette, and ebony pegheads. It’s the 56th guitar that Guillermo has made since 2000, and it won 2nd Place in Pátzcuaro’s 2017 competition. Peter is visibly pleased.
We’re very tempted to stay for a concert in the evening that is part of the guitar festival, but Guillermo warns us that we need to depart before sunset, because there are bandits on the roads between here and Uruapan. Peter holds his new guitar gently, laying it into its case. We shake hands, then hug, all around. Guillermo takes one last look at the instrument that took him two months to create, every surface cut and smoothed by hand, and he sighs. “It’s like your children, you have to let them leave some day.”