This time Madera travels to the small village of Mecina Bombarón in the mountains of Granada to talk with guitar maker Sergio Valverde Castillo who was the winner of the Granada International Guitar Making Competition in 2017, the first year it was held.
He talks about how he got started in guitar making, his approach to guitar making, his favourite woods, how hard the job of being a guitar maker is, his quest for perfection, he also introduces us to the guitar that won the 2017 Granada guitar making competition and how his guitar has changed since then, he tells us about the guitar making courses that he organises every year... and much more.
A very interesting interview with one of the most outstanding young guitar makers in Granada.
My name is Sergio Valverde Castillo
I’m a classical and flamenco Spanish guitar maker.
We are in Mecina Bombarón in the Alpujarras of Granada, in the mountains of Granada
A bit far away from the city, but with a lot of peace and lots of inspiration to work.
Formerly I was a cabinet maker.
I used to make furniture,
But well, I liked music very much, and inevitably, in the end, curiosity got the better of me.
I decided to dedicate myself to learning how to make guitars.
I was learning with Stephen Hill, in La Herradura (Granada).
I’ve had a few more teachers as well in Granada, the Bellido family
helped me a lot.
First, I was building traditional instruments like the bandurria and the lute.
And then the guitar. I was taking part in a competition\Nin the first “Antonio Marín Montero” 2017 Granada International Guitar Making Competition
and I had little time working with the guitars but I was lucky enough to win the first prize.
And from then on, well, it really helped me a lot.\NI got a lot of international orders. And I dedicated myself exclusively to it.
Because there was a time when I shared cabinet making and\Nguitar making, but I had to make the decision to dedicate myself exclusively to the guitar.
And well, I’ve been
I decided to change to this guitar thing,from carpentry to guitar making, well, it was because of my love of music.
I started to think also that the job of a cabinetmaker and carpenter is a little bit physically hard and I started to think that with age…
I alone, handle very big jobs…
I started thinking about that, a little bit about health.
And I thought what can I do in my workshop?,because I’ve got a pretty big and comfortable workshop.
Something that I can make in my workshop and make a living out of it.
I don’t have to go outside.
To set up kitchens…
And, for my love of music, I thought of the guitar.
I thought it was a long way off or something…
I really saw it as an impossible dream at first.
But also at the same time, I thought, well,somebody will make the high-end handcrafted guitars.
And why can’t it be me?.
So, I persisted with that idea and until, well, I managed to make the change to learn and in the end it’s been a dream come true.
I knew almost nothing about this world.
I played the guitar a little bit and I liked music a lot, but for me it was a surprise, when I had already learned a little bit of the craft with Stephen Hill
I started to see the interest that this trade and these guitars are causing in the rest of the world at an international level.
The great interest and above all the luck was that Granada is a kind of Mecca for this.
And I didn’t know that.
That for me was a gift that was given to me later on, when\NI discovered what the Granada school of guitar making was
at a world level, for me it was a surprise. And a gift because it makes things a little bit easier.
The fact that you say that you are in Granada\Nand that you’re related to the guitar makers of Granada.
It gives you prestige and makes it easier to get ahead.
The differences are big with the carpenter’s job.
like for not being abrupt. I had to refine myself a lot.
I realised that straight away.
I’ve got a lot of refining to do.
I can’t be so crude about a lot of things.
And that was the hardest thing for me, but then, at the same time, I realised that I had a tremendous facility to move forward.
It was easy for me to learn the steps that I was being taught.
Especially with the chisel and similar tools.
I found it very easy and that helped me a lot.
And apart from that, well always the fear with this.
Now after eight years I’m a bit more relaxed, but I also had to get used to this permanent tension
when I’m working with a guitar, because any small blow…or if I pick up a chisel, I have to go from here to there,
so I have to do like this.
I can never do it like this because if I drop it, I’m gonna destroy the guitar. And stuff like that is always here, and it’s very
stressful a little bit, I need to go out in the sun and just sit there a little bit on the neighbour’s stoop once in a while.
The most complex thing, perhaps for me, has been to learn, for example, to know the different wood mechanical properties.
Every wood is different
It’s not the same bending cypress sides than Indian rosewood sides or cocobolo.
Each wood is totally different and you have to have into account that it’s not too hot…
If a wood is too oily…
you’re going to have some problems, otherwise you’re going to have others.
Apart from that, it’s also in relation to the sound with the wood.
Learning to value each wood for its sound qualities.
Seeing it, touching it…
to know which one is going to give me a good sound or not.
That also takes a long time.
I’m still learning it and I’ll be learning it all my life.
Yes, I especially like\Nworking with the Indian rosewood.
And also with cypress.
With the Indian rosewood…
We’re talking about guitar back & sides
I like the Indian rosewood because it’s like a\Na guarantee that you know that’s always going to go well.
That’s what I have the most experience with.
It’s also the most guitars that\NI’ve made have been made with Indian rosewood.
And I know it very well, how that wood is always going to react.
I know how to attack it and I know how, acoustically, how it responds.
And I like the cypress a lot because it’s so docile to work with. it’s very easy to work with.
And then the smell.
It’s nothing to do with it, but the smell is always fascinating.
Smell the cypress.
Well, maybe it would be the Indian rosewood.
I also like Madagascar very much.
I really do.
Well, Indian Rosewood, because as I’ve said before, I feel very sure that always give a very good sound that always…
that never lets you down is the confidence that I have in it. That’s why.
Talking about classical guitars, it gives you a sustain that is what I look for in a classical guitar.
It’s given me a really good balance as well.
That Indian Rosewood guitar ,\Nit’s always given me those qualities.
And Madagascar also gives it to me,
and I also trust more or less equally.
The thing is, well, it’s a less affordable wood,\NI mean, harder to find, more expensive.
And well, sometimes not all customers\Nare willing to pay what it costs
But Madagascar too, the truth is, that more or less like Indian rosewood, I might like it.
And the Brazilian Rosewood is incredible. It’s seem to me… the experience that I have is like…
like it can be a Madagascar, but it’s a sound maybe for me, a little bit more crystalline, clearer, purer…
If it’s possible.
I choose the India because when it comes to working it with my hands,
it’s less dangerous.
I’m less afraid of what might happen.
With Brazil, the problem is that is in very short supply and it’s very very expensive.
So, having a stock of Brazilian rosewood is very\Ncomplicated because you have to make a very big investment and it’s difficult to make that decision.
and sometimes when a client has asked me for it, mmm, you start looking for it.
But it’s never advisable to go and look for a Brazilian rosewood for an order at that moment because rushing is not good for it.
What I like is that it’s not squeaky.
I like it to be balanced, I like it to be\Nthe treble are not squeaky.
In general it’s like…
that it’s got a deeper, rounder sound.
In other words, the opposite of what it is\Na flamenco cypress, for example.
I especially like to get the most,\Na spectacular bass, for me that’s what I’m most proud of when I finish a guitar.
I listen to it and I like to hear the treble.
I like to listen to the harmonics, also very important.
Lots of harmonics, the more the better.
But the bass that captivates me and makes me tremble,\Nthat transmits the vibrations to my body.
My guitars never come out squeaky.\Nbut I see others that do.
And I don’t like that.
I see others that saturate in the treble.
They kind of tends to get buzzing, but it’s not buzzing, it’s like saturation.
And it doesn’t happen in mine.
But in others, I’ve seen it and I don’t like it.
I like …
aesthetically, I search for the beauty of simplicity.
I’d rather have something simple, but perfect, than something very complex, but then not well finished.
For me aesthetics is very important because\Nwho buys an instrument, spends money and I think that you can’t tell him:
-the important thing is the sound and the rest…
that doesn’t affect the sound…
No, there’s no excuse for me.
It has to go hand in hand with each other.
They are works that are unique in my opinion.
I see it that way.
It’s like a jewel or something that’s unique to that person.
And so it’s just as important the aesthetic part as the sound part.
And I’m a perfectionist.
Always the purfling joint…
I do my best to make them as perfect as possible.
And then to get a perfect sound, I also have my own little quirks where I think that maybe, if someone sees me, they might laugh and say: what’s he doing there?
And I’m often alone when I’m\Nworking and I say: what am I doing?
Will somebody value this?
I wonder a lot.
That answer has already come to me in the form of…
well, I think it comes to me in the form of success in this job, and that’s what gives me the most confidence to keep doing it.
I work a lot on the thicknesses issue.
When I make a top, the map of the thicknesses of the top can take me a lot of hours just to calibrate the thickness of that top.
the different thicknesses of the top in each area.
because the top is like a membrane, I see it like a loudspeaker membrane, isn’t it?
So it has to be, first it has to be, by logic, it has to be thinner around the perimeter and a little bit thicker in the centre part.
That’s going to allow it to be like a diaphragm that moves.
Apart from that, it’s not that simple.
Then there are other areas in the upper body\Nthat’s a little bit thicker.
The one in the transition from the upper body to the lower body there’s also a thinner part…
Now you can’t explain that in a moment, but there is this.
I’ve learned it from the teachers I’ve had.
Stephen Hill was my teacher in La Herradura, but Pablo Requena was there as a collaborator,
with whom I have maintained a very good relationship with him and we continue visiting each other and learning.
I’m still learning from him.
I have a very good relationship with him.
The truth is that of all the teachers that I’ve had, well, the one with whom I’ve had the most contact and the best rapport.
So, these things, I’ve learned\Nfrom people like Stephen Hill.
like Pablo Requena, like Jesús Bellido.
But then these things evolve, because every year,\Nlet’s say, I’m doing what I think and my intuition tells me that I can improve.
I put it into practice, but very little by little,\Nbecause if I make a mistake, I want it to be a small one. So that I have time to rectify it.
Always very little by little the changes.
But the changes are happening.
In guitar making
nothing is easy.
No, there’s nothing easy.
It’s all very hard and mentally too.
Maybe the hardest thing of all is to have enough mental strength, to resist in there.
Why do I say this?
Because when you start, if you don’t come from a traditional family with tradition, like me, that I don’t come from,
then you’re nobody in this guild.
How can you become known?
Well, with a lot of hard work, a lot of effort.
Nowadays with social media you can do it.
You can achieve something, but you have to spend a lot of time on the to the social media, and a lot of videos… and a lot of
showing what you’re doing… And you’re going to get criticised because they’re going to say: he’s teaching there and he doesn’t know how to do anything.
Well, but the thing is that, gentlemen,\NI don’t have any other way of making a living…
So that’s tough.
And then you always need luck too
In the meantime, four years can go by.
And if you have the patience and the economic possibility to endure that pull, then maybe in the end you’ll get it. but your mind is telling you:
what am I doing?
Why don’t I get a normal job?
And I’ll stop the nonsense and all the doubts will come to you.
And it’s very hard.
In my courses I always tell my students to be very patient. Don’t try to take shortcuts, because there aren’t any. And try to enjoy this.
And if later on success comes and they can make a living from it then that’s great, but they need always try to make something.
When the course is over, don’t just stand there.
If they don’t have space in the house, even in a room, and if they can only work in one neck
then do it. Because they don’t have the money for more\Ntool or they have no money for more wood.
so make a neck or take\Na top and calibrate it.
But they need to practice as much as they can.\Nas far as they can something.
Because if you don’t, you’ll forget it and you’ll lose the handling quickly.
I’m aware of what I can aspire making guitars.
So, I don’t consider myself smarter than anyone who’s been…
I have a lot of respect for traditional guitar makers.
To Torres, to Santos Hernández, and to all those who have left to us
And I’m not trying to invent anything new.
I’m very conservative in that respect.
I totally respect what’s already been done.
And what I do is I look at it a lot and try to reproduce it, but with the highest possible quality that I can.
In that sense, I’m aware that I didn’t come to this profession with enough time to…
to make significant changes to an instrument\Nwhich is already almost perfect, isn’t it?
So I’m very respectful of what’s already there.
In that sense, I’m basing my work on Torres.
That’s what I’ve studied the most, in Torres.
I’ve seen other things that, for example, if we’re talking about Hauser, then it turns out that Hauser was inspired by Torres’ work, wasn’t he?
And then, in the end, you realise\Nthat almost everything starts from Torres.
This guitar is the one that won the first\NAntonio Marín Montero Guitar Making Competition in Granada in 2017.
It is a guitar made of Indian rosewood.
And European spruce.
It is made in a Granada-making style, so rather small and light in weight.
Nowadays, the guitars that I make
are very similar.
But they’ve changed a few things.
This is my usual rosette.
Now I’ve changed the colours.
I make another colour combination, but it’s the same.
Then the bridge.
I’ve also changed the bridge ornament that I make.
It’s different now.
Why is it different?
Because, well, I’m trying to make the motif\Nhas some relation with the rosette.
In this case, if you look at it,\Nit doesn’t have almost any relation with it.
That was one thing that they told me in the jury of the competition, even though I won, they also pulled my ear a little bit.
I was told that this has to make\Na little bit of sense with the rest.
And I was also corrected about the bridge
some technical issue.
Because the bridge is a piece of engineering, even if it doesn’t look like it there are some parameters that have to be respected.
And well, some things were said to me, but in general, the guitar liked a lot.
Well, because there’s the perfection of the\Npurflings, as I was saying, although the purflings, in this case, is simple, but they’re perfect.
The heel joint with the sides as well.
There’s no gap there.
Also on the fingerboard, same thing.
As I said, I’m looking for perfection.
In those days I used to do the reinforcement of the neck that can be seen, but then I’ve been evolving on it as well. Then I did it on the inside for a while.
I mean, you can’t see it.
It’s on the other side, between the ebony fingerboard and the cedar.
But at the moment I haven’t been putting anything on it because as an experience, as a result of my experience, I think I can say it doesn’t need it.
And that in a lot of cases all it does is adding\Nmore weight and destabilise it depending on what occasions.
Because a cedar neck when you do the\Nthe wood canal and then you glue the ebony in.
first, you’re damaging it when you’re carving, you’re cutting it. And then that glue between the pieces is often not as good as you think it is.
Or the glue slides all the way out.
And you’ve put the ebony in and you think you’ve left it very well, and you’ve left it maybe weaker.
So those are experiences.
That also some of my own students…
I’ve had students who know a lot and they’ve taught me things.
I’ve also learned from them.
I decided to do this thanks to a student,\Na Swiss student, who made me see and made me decide to make the change of not putting the reinforcement.
The rosette came to me because it comes from my previous work as a cabinetmaker.
I was starting to look at rosettes and I saw that they were very complicated, in general, around the mosaic.
The rings had some spikelets in them,\Nand I could see it was very complicated.
So, I’m a little bit of a\Nsquare person when they put a lot of things on me,
I get “disoriented”.
And my decision was to complicate my life only in the mosaic, so that nobody can say it’s a simple rosette.
But only the mosaic.
And the rings simple
Because it’s my personality.
So that I don’t get overwhelmed, so I decided to do it like this.
And why the eight-pointed star?
Because when I used to work in the cabinet shop,\Nsometimes I had to make posters for businesses, and cultural things, that I had to paint.
And always my symbol, when I wanted to put something different, was the Nazari eight-pointed star.
Because I consider it to be a symbol of the time\Nof the greatest cultural splendour of Al-Andalus.
And it is like a legacy that we have (in Granada) and\Nthat we should be proud of.
I do the courses because I like it.
Because I like it and I enjoy it.
I wouldn’t need to.
I could be even calmer.
But I love that relationship with the student\Nenriching in every way for me.
To learn more myself.
Because it’s by teaching that you learn the most you realise the faults you have.
But also because there is always a friend behind every course.
depends on the students that come.
So far with all those who have come I have\Na relationship of friendship that lasts over time.
And well, then, of course, to give that up is difficult. I only do one course in the Autumn and one in the Spring. And I’ve been doing them always with only one student.
Then I tried with two.
Because I thought I was ready and it went well, but I went back to doing them with one because I didn’t feel very relaxed.
For me … I am not able to leave the students\Ntoo much time unattended.
Then I can only have one in the way I teach the courses.
So that the final guitar that the student takes away with him comes out almost as perfect as the ones I make.
And it’s the first guitar they’ve ever made in their life.
So that can only be achieved\Nby being on top of the student all the time.
That’s why I only have one student.
It lasts a month.
It’s four weeks of intense work, because it’s eight hours a day.
No work on Saturdays and Sundays.
But sometimes on Saturdays you have to make up time because…
you can see that he doesn’t finish…
the student has to take the finished guitar with him for sure.
The only thing that is not finished is the French polish process because that’s impossible.
But we did start it.
We do a session to show what it’s like.
Here we are in the mountains, in Sierra Nevada.
And although it is far from Granada (2 hours), it has that\Ndifficulty, far from the city of Granada.
But it has the advantage of the peace that there is it’s so big…
that it’s easy to find the right atmosphere\Nto be relaxed and to find inspiration.
So, this is a very quiet, very small town.
I help the students as much as I can.
I go to the airport to pick them up.
They don’t need to bring a rental car or anything.
I look for accommodation for them, even if I don’t include it in the course, but I help them to make the reservation, because I know the accommodation here.
And there are a very good offers for accommodation\Nbecause this is a tourist place.
It’s very nice to walk around on weekends.
You can spend them walking along the trails, just relaxing with the views and it’s a month you won’t forget.
And they don’t forget in fact.
I give the students this manual which I wrote.
Where there are about five hundred colour photos with texts, explaining step by step the making of the guitar.
This is very very useful for when the students leave
with this, they can remember everything very easily.
Yes, it’s a question I sometimes think about it.
As much as art….
no, I don’t consider it.
But a little bit yes.
But there is a contribution of art.
Not so much as to call it art.
But there is something there.
Because inspiration is always there…
in the rosette, in ornaments on the bridge…
it is always changing.
As I said before, my rosette has already evolved.
I’ve changed some colours, some things…
and I plan to keep doing that.
When do I do that?
When one day I’m inspired and it comes to me\Nand I say: this is going to be better now.
Then there’s a little bit of art.
If it was always the same and I already had my model out\Nand it was like making churros, always the same…
Well, there wouldn’t be any art, but I think there is.