What a great surprise – visiting a guitar luthier in Spain! It all began last weekend when I got taken out to breakfast by two friends in Rota, Spain, Francisco and Marcos. Being retired Marines who have lived in Rota for some time now, they are enjoying all that Spain has to offer: great food and drink, beautiful countryside and towns, and best of all…amazingly warm and friendly people and rich culture! And my favorite thing about them? They love to be spontaneous and meet new people.
So, breakfast didn’t last that long because at some point in the conversation, and I truly do not remember how, Francisco brought up visiting the great guitar luthier Valeriano Bernal as one of the excursions he and Marcos have enjoyed several times during their years in Spain. I jumped on this news right away and we unanimously decided we should ditch Rota and drive an hour to Algodonales where the renowned guitar factory and store is located.
Algodonales is in the area of the well-known White Villages Route that is in the region of Andalucia. Arriving in the small quaint village, we made our way past the beautiful square, lined with trees and cafes, then turned just before the gorgeous cathedral that stands in the center, and continued zigzagging down tiny streets to finally arrive at the store of Valeriano Bernal. When we walked in, I immediately noticed two things: the wonderful cozy smell of milled wood and the man playing a guitar. Alfonso was the man sitting down in the store front playing a flamenco guitar that he had taken down from its display on the wall. Francisco and Marcos were not strangers to him and they greeted each other as friends, introducing me as the newbie that I was. Sitting down, we enjoyed Alfonso’s playing, then Marcos and I each took turns with the exquisite instrument. I marveled at how light it felt and how sturdy the neck was, noticing as well the feel of the strings and wider neck that are the characteristics of a classical flamenco guitar versus a regular acoustic guitar.
During our time there, Alfonso took me upstairs to see the workshop where the assembly and craftsmanship take place. Since it was Saturday, the large room was empty, except of course for the guitars. Over a dozen of them were laid out as if they were on surgical tables, each at a different stage in the process. It was amazing to learn about the different woods used, like rosewood or cedar for the body frame and types of pine for the backs and other parts. I was looking at works of art in the making – the lines and swirls in the grains of wood were different and unique on each guitar. One particular guitar still had a roughly chiseled neck where it joined with the body of the guitar, revealing what the unfinished raw nature of a guitar looks like. I took my time taking it in, roving over the details with my eyes and it made me feel privileged to witness these instruments in the process of creation. They were beautiful to see in this way. There is simply no other way to express the experience.
After touring the main workshop, we returned downstairs to a more lively shop. Valeriano himself had arrived and was sitting with Francisco and Marcos, listening to Marcos play Besame Mucho, which I joined in on for an impromptu duet. Behind the counter I could see another man had also arrived and was already working in a small room enclosed by glass windows. Alfonso informed me the man was Valeriano’s son and he was working on varnishing a guitar. We sat around and talked more, playing a few songs and singing a few more that brought in more family members and workers that had arrived in the back of the store. It was wonderful to see how this tradition is not just a business, but a family business as well. For years they have been working together to craft these artisan guitars, sending them all over the world to players of all kinds.
Once we said numerous farewells and hasta luego‘s, we went down the street to enjoy a wonderfully drawn-out lunch, as only the relaxed culture of Spain can produce. And good thing we took our time like the Spanish do, because it gave us the chance to enjoy sipping wine and talking more with Valeriano. He had strolled in for lunch, his family and several co-workers leisurely trickling in after him. Their little kids were running in and out of the front door while the adults started to enjoy their break with a vino or cerveza (beer). We were warmly introduced to all the family and I was delighted that Valeriano pulled up a chair at our table while his family waited on tapas. He spoke with us of all the places around the world he has traveled to, about how long his family has been in the area and his time away from Spain, and of giving to others and helping each other even when you don’t have a lot. This wise life-experienced craftsman and luthier, is easy to admire and adore. Giving warm embraces and affectionate kisses once again, my friends and I said farewell to not only Valeriano and his beautiful family and family of co-workers, but also to the many other locals who had come in and been introduced to us by the kind restaurant owner and cook. Leaving the town, it really dawned on me that learning about the guitar-making tradition of Spain is not just about business and the guitar itself…these guitars come with the heritage of generations of Spaniards and their beautiful way of life. I think now when I see guitars and play them, I’ll see and feel in them the Luthier, their family, their friends and neighbors, their village and the land…all the deep things that combine into making these guitars.
I want to sincerely and with a heart full of gratitude, thank Valeriano for his wonderful, warm hospitality to us and for his love of crafting guitars that he uses to share art and music with others all over the world. My thanks as well to Alfonso who gave me a wonderful tour, played us flamenco music that was heaven to our ears, taught me so much and patiently and kindly answered my questions and taught me about the guitars (despite my still improving Spanish and not being the best at remembering the details). I will not attempt here to be an expert on guitars and certainly not on making guitars, even after this great and informative introduction to the world of Spanish guitar making…that talent would go to my younger brother Mark, who is a great classical guitar player and knows much more about building and repairing them than I do. This is my disclaimer for not writing more technical details about the guitar making that occurs here. Please make sure to visit their website to learn more and experience their rich Spanish tradition for yourself: www.Valeriano Bernal.es. And to enjoy more of the pictures I took for myself, please look through the entire album: Visiting Guitar Luthier Valeriano Bernal