The Evolution of the Paracho Guitar
Written by LAURA FRASER
Photography by ANDREW SULLIVAN
This sidebar is a supplement to Mexico’s Master Guitar Makers
Initially, Paracho guitars were poor relations to their Spanish cousins, largely because the town’s guitarreros used old techniques and geometry that differed greatly from the approach taken by the Europeans. Ron Fernandez, a Yale anthropologist who imports guitars from Spain, says the main difference was–and still is–in the tools. “The European way to make a guitar is on a workbench with forms,” he says. “The Mexican method is to carve the wood seated, with the knife the indigenous people used.”
Originally, Don Manuel says, the Mexicans were working in isolation, which was very different from the guild system that was developed in Spain. “The 12th fret was off by 3 millimeters,” says Fernandez. Guitar making is never a free-form art; every maker follows precise measurements. In northern Europe, they use plans, and in Spain and Mexico, they work from templates. “They use secret information about the design—hidden geometry,” says Fernandez. That secret is usually in how the fanned struts inside the soundboard are formed.
In the 1980s, Paracho’s luthiers invited the best Spanish guitar makers to come to Mexico to teach the fine points of their craft. For a century, the Paracho guitarreros had been learning by deconstructing guitars that came through town. For extra guidance, they turned to plans they found in books, and made what guesses they could from there. As time wore on, Paracho’s luthiers craved more sophisticated hands-on training. After the Spanish masters held workshops at the town’s guitar festivals, guitars from Paracho began to improve.
The Spanish guitar makers showed the Mexicans some of their secrets for the geometry of the plantilla (the guitar’s blueprint), fret and bridge placement, and for internal supports that make the most resonant sounds. While Spanish guitar decoration tends to be much more restrained, the Mexican guitars, a la the Coco guitar, are known for their embellishments. As a result, ornamentations in gold, silver, abalone, tile, and other precious stones adds another dimension to the Paracho luthier’s craft.
“By the 1980s, the Mexicans’ guitars greatly improved,” says Hernandez. They still don’t compare to those made by the Spanish masters–just as wines from the U.S. overall do not compare to those made in France or Italy, where they have centuries’ more experience. And their prices differ accordingly. A top Spanish-made guitar can cost from $5,000 on up to $30,000, depending on the luthier and ornamentation, while the most expensive guitar in Paracho goes for around $5,000.
But people in Paracho were never intent on making high-end concert guitars for elite performers; their goal was good, accessible instruments for the mariachi bands and other groups that play throughout Mexico. The dozen or so Paracho luthiers who make top-quality instruments by hand can only produce 10-40 instruments a year, which sell from about $2,000 to $10,000; the rest are far more affordable. Beginning luthiers sell handmade guitars, using some electric tools, starting at about $500. Factory-made Paracho guitars start at about $20 on up, depending on quality and decoration; they’re made for the countless Mexican musicians who play at home, at restaurants and weddings, wandering the streets with a guitar strapped to their backs.