Almost 50 years ago, master luthier Luis Uyaguari Quezada, then an adolescent, moved with his family to the metropolis of Cuenca, Ecuador, leaving behind the remote mountain village of San Bartolome. Their tiny pueblo had a generations-long tradition of guitar making, and Uyaguari’s father was one of the village’s best, yet he wanted to better his family’s lot in life. So in the early 1970s, Julio Uyaguari Vintimilla established his new Cuenca workshop to build and repair instruments, with young Luis as his assistant.
“My father had heart problems, so as a youngster I did the planing and sawing,” says Uyaguari. “I worked with him regularly from the age of 13, starting just before we left San Bartolome, and with my father’s help built my first complete guitar at age 18.” Alongside his father, the younger Uyaguari spent long hours working and learning his trade. By the time he was 26 he had become a skilled luthier in his own right, so the elder Uyaguari encouraged him to enter an instrument into a guitar competition in the capital city of Quito.” My guitar won first prize, and my father was very proud of me,” he says, adding that his father died soon afterward, and he took the reins as the shop’s master luthier.
Uyaguari, who is in his early 60s, estimates he has built about 1,500 guitars in his lifetime. His specialty is nylon-strings, though he has made some custom steel-strings and even seven-strings. One indication of his output is the stacks of soundhole cutouts on his shelves, each hand-labeled with the date and customer name. He’s not sure when he began this record-keeping practice, but one shelf alone contains around 600 spruce and cedar disks.
Mixing Tradition with Innovation
Upon entering Uyaguari’s workshop, a striking realization is the lack of machine tools—power saws, planers, routers, and the like. Instead, one sees a variety of handtools—chisels, planes, knives and files, vices, and wooden clamps—and a handmade device for bending sides, consisting of an electrically heated pipe placed between the edge of a workbench and a vertical wooden brace. Uyaguari says, “I learned the traditional method of guitar making from my father. The style of the instruments was influenced by the Spanish masters, since Ecuador was a colony of Spain for centuries. My principal tools are my hands—we don’t have machines to help us build—and creativity, because I don’t use standard molds for the guitars and make my own designs. And I put my heart into all of these instruments.”
The joinery and fine details on Uyaguari’s guitars are impeccable, and the luthier explains that key to this precision is keeping his tools very sharp. Prior to demonstrating how he prepares the tiny segments for rosettes, he goes through a multistep process of sharpening and polishing a small knife to a surgical edge. His technique with that knife shows the fluidity and assurance born of a lifetime of daily practice. “Whenever I pick up a knife or chisel, I test and sharpen it so that it will cut smoothly and accurately. That way everything fits tightly,” he says.
Joints for the tops and backs are precisely hand-planed and glued, cut to shape, and carefully braced and tuned. Rosettes, whether basic or elaborate, are painstakingly assembled around the soundhole. When ready, the mostly carved neck is joined to the soundboard to await fitting and clamping the sides. Bending those sides is also an intensive, by-hand process, with moistened wood gradually shaped to the desired curvature with two hands over a hot pipe. And the process continues, through many steps of fitting, gluing and clamping, binding, sanding, and finishing. “We’re working on at least four instruments at a time, in different stages,” says Uyaguari. “But on average, I can complete a guitar in three months.”
The Art of Lutherie
For ornamentation, Uyaguari uses thinly sliced strips of naturally colored woods, veneers, and mother-of-pearl, which he stores in an armadillo shell. The depth of Uyaguari’s artistry is apparent in the wide variety of rosettes, bindings, and multilayered strips on the backs and lower bout—each unique to the instrument. “This is the elegant part of the guitar where masters demonstrate their ability and talent, giving the instrument its personality,” the luthier says.
Once a customer has approved the custom design, Uyaguari begins assembling the rosette. Guidelines and outlines are lightly penciled on the soundboard, and he uses them to precisely hand-cut the hollows where the rosette will be assembled piece by piece. The chosen colors and thicknesses of woods are layered and glued to create the desired patterns. Uyaguari demonstrates the process by slicing off slightly angled bits of wood and putting them together in a pattern. “I use my small knife to cut the tiny pieces,” he explains. “It can take a full week just to make one of these rosettes.”
Uyaguari sources much of his wood from vendors in the United States and Spain, along with tuning machines and fretwire. Like most classical luthiers, he prefers to use European spruce tops and rosewood backs and sides for their textural and sonic characteristics. He says,“Depending on the customer, some will want the mellower sound of cedar. And I occasionally use Ecuadorian teak and Peruvian walnut”—woods that look and sound good but are less costly—“for practice guitars.”
For necks, Uyaguari diverges from the standard mahogany or Spanish cedar, opting for Ecuadorian cedar, which he calls mango or mastil. “The texture of this wood is very different from mahogany; it has very special characteristics. Mango is very strong and not overly heavy, and is also a very pretty wood,” he says. Another deviation from tradition is his use of a strip of chonta, a very dense blackwood from an Amazonian palm, to strengthen the neck. It runs from midway up the headstock to the heel.
Building for the Player
For Uyaguari, creating a guitar begins with knowing the player—the music they favor, the sound they’re looking for, their technique and approach to the instrument, their hand size and finger length and dexterity, and how they would like the guitar to look and feel. “I build and sell individual guitars, made for the customer,” he says. “We usually talk at least two or three hours about the design, the wood, and other details. It’s important to make a neck that is very comfortable for the player to use, and that fits their hands and style of playing.”
One of Uyaguari’s basic concert instruments, with moderate ornamentation, starts at $2,500. For guitars with complex rosettes, specialized binding, and other customized details, the pricing can run up to $3,200. Though some Ecuadorians are wealthy, most earn only a modest income, and so it is difficult for local musicians to afford high-quality instruments. That’s why most of Uyaguari’s client base is outside of his country. “The people from countries like the U.S. and Europe value fine guitars and have the ability to pay for them,” he explains. “The tourists come here to Cuenca and visit my workshop, like the instruments, and then order them. I don’t export premade instruments to stores.”
Just as Uyaguari’s customers come from around the world, so too do his influences in terms of lutherie. Though he began his training in lutherie following local traditions, he has long been an avid student of master builders in North and South America, as well as Europe. He says, “I have learned from studying the best guitars of other makers. For example, in Mexico there are some very good luthiers. I have also visited workshops in Spain, and I have some close colleagues in the United States.”
In particular, he cites Massachusetts luthiers William Cumpiano and Alan Chapman, along with Gary Lee from New York. Uyaguari spent several months visiting them, and recalls, “I observed and took in all the details and quality of their work, and then put it into practice with my own instruments.” He also says he reads books by the great masters such as José
Romanillos, who has written extensively about Antonio de Torres, and others, adding “I read, learn, and practice.”
The Next Generation
Like his father before him, Uyaguari is passing his love and skills in guitar making to his sons. Pablo Uyaguari has been apprenticing for over seven years, and is now building beautiful guitars in his own right alongside his father. Diego Uyaguari uses his visual arts and design skills to realize highly creative and beautiful rosette and inzlay patterns, along with his photography to document their process of lutherie, and his communication and customer savvy to continue the business. Seeing them together in the workshop, it’s obvious that Luis respects his sons’ ideas and quality of craftsmanship as he shows me a photo album of Diego’s rosettes, and points to Pablo’s most recent guitar in process. That respect and admiration is mutual.
After half a century of building, the elder Uyaguari has slowed his personal output of instruments. “Now, with the help of my sons, I personally build six or seven guitars a year. I don’t have as much time to make new instruments.” He says that he has taken on the role of master builder and teacher, as well as handling repairs and restoration. “I’m so happy that Pablo and Diego are following the family tradition, making beautiful Uyaguari guitars for a new generation.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.