I played guitar for a season, long ago.
Then, I looked at my Epiphone as a tool to accompany my not-so-special voice that favored 60s ballads and 70s love songs. Recently, I learned the guitar can be a vessel full of life and character, crafted with purpose, precision and love.
On the road to the popular tourist villages of Gualaceo and Chordeleg, there is a small community called San Bartolome. It is cradled in the green grasslands between high Andean mountain peaks. For more than 100 years, it has been the birthplace of a guitar-making industry.
Even the main plaza bears testimony to a rich heritage. Mosaic fountains are adorned with iron sculptures of guitars, each a hand-crafted piece of art different from the next.
On a tour with Polylepis Tours, my friends and I stopped along the roadside at a small casita with an open air workshop. It is the home of Guitarras Uyaguari. There, Jose Homero Uyaguari and other family members spend their days crafting some of the best guitars in Ecuador.
Today, he greets us with a wide grin and carefully shoves aside the intricate mosaic he is designing with roughened, dye-stained hands.
“Welcome,” he says in Spanish, throwing his arms open wide.
He asks if we would like a tour, and an explanation of the guitar-making process.
We huddle around the rough-hewn desk. At one end, a worker tightens strings on an otherwise finished instrument. The occasional screech screech of the strings being pulled taut punctuates Uyaguari’s words as he describes the centuries-old process of creating musical instruments.
First, woods are carefully selected depending on the size, use and expected cost of the instrument. Many of the guitar bodies are made from Ecuadorian hardwoods like Nogal and Guayacan, or fruit trees like the Capulì. Other woods, like white pine, are imported from Canada for high-end guitars.
Uyaguari is a third-generation guitar-maker. Of the roughly 10 guitar-makers left in the San Bartolome area, about half are brothers, sons and uncles yoked to the Uyaguari name. They use templates to cut the bodies of the guitars, but the rest is guided by years of handed-down tradition and experience.
Uyaguari picks up several razor-thin wood shavings to show us how they are dyed and glued together. When multiple layers are dry, he carefully cuts tiny pieces with an aging box knife. Instantly creating multicolored, handmade wooden beads, he drops them into the intricate design around the sound hole of a guitar.
I am mesmerized as I watch his aged, work-hardened fingers push the bits of color around the table. He moves two together, and then pushes them apart to insert another shape, a different color. His pride radiates, even in a demonstration. The work is painstaking, but yields original mini masterpieces beyond compare.
He shows us different woods, heavier and stronger, used for the fingerboards. Cow bone is most often used for the frets. Chonta, a dark wood from a palm, is traditionally used for the neck. It is hard, almost stone like, and is known for its durability. He grins, and knocks loudly on a piece he holds out to us.
“Duro. Muy duro,” he says, nodding his head.
On both sides of us, men keep working. One has finished stringing his guitar and is hanging it up. Another has extended a guitar at the end of his reach, eyeballing the neck of the piece, a self-satisfied smile indicating he has done good work.
Uyaguari points us toward his “showroom,’ to examine the finished products. In this second room, guitars are hanging in neat rows. Some are wrapped against the elements but most hang in the open air of the dusty room.
Today’s selections range from $60 to $1,000. They include classical guitars and their smaller cousins, the requinto, a smaller, higher-pitched instrument. There are Venezuelan four-string cuatros as well as the traditional Latin American 10-string charangos.
The cuatro sometimes has a viola-like shape, but most resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. The cuatro, which means four in Spanish, evolved from the Portuguese cavaquinho which has four strings. Modern cuatros often have more than four strings.
The charango is a small Andean stringed instrument within the lute family. Just over two feet long, it was traditionally made with an armadillo shell. Many guitar-makers have exchanged the shell for wood, believing it to be a better resonator of sound.
He shows us a delicately carved and brightly painted toucan on a charango made entirely of wood. We pass it, almost reverently, between us, tracing the grooved pattern with appreciation.
We admire the wide variety of woods, the gleaming, jewel-like patterns surrounding the sound holes, the flaring shapes of some of the guitar necks and the bowl shaped-backs of others.
One guitar after another is more beautiful than the last. They hang silent, waiting for willing fingers to urge a unique sound from deep within the wooden bowels of the instrument.
Uyaguari is cradling a guitar across his chest. He silently strums, but no sound emanates because he is barely stroking the strings. I point to his hands and ask him to play for us.
He doesn’t play guitars, he says. He just births them.
“How do you know they are good? How do you know that the sound is perfect?” I ask.
“Because I made them,” he says simply. The light literally twinkles in his eyes.