High in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, the region's vast groves of avocado trees give way to thick pine forests. Heading up a windy road pitted by torrential rains, past an indigenous Purépecha village lined by rough wooden chairs for sale, the town of Paracho comes into view. At the entrance, an enormous brass guitar statue towers over modest two-story buildings. On the front, the guitar is painted white, adorned with black filigree and Day of the Dead skulls — just like the lavishly-ornamented instrument featured in the Disney movie Coco, about a young Mexican boy who loves music, which struck a chord with millions of people in Mexico and the U.S.
German Vazquez Rubio, the luthier who made the real Coco guitar that the movie animators copied, now resides in Los Angeles, but he is from Paracho. Long before people went loco for Coco, and Mexicans began selling knock-off white guitars in souvenir shops, Paracho was steadily making musical instruments. In fact, the indigenous artisans in the town, already accomplished woodworkers, began making instruments in the mid-16th century when Spanish missionaries taught them the techniques. The first bishop of Michoacán, Vasco de Quiroga, famously assigned crafts to different pueblos surrounding the central town of Patzcuaro, which continue to be known for their fine copper, ceramic, weaving, and other arts. Paracho, with its stands of pine trees, became a wood-working town, and soon after the invention of the modern guitar, it specialized in lutherie.
Guitar shops line the main street of Paracho. Every August, the town is strewn with plastic guitar-shaped flags to celebrate its annual guitar festival, "Feria Nacional de La Guitarra." | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Magazine)
What makes Paracho unique is that it not only has a tradition of guitar making–the entire town is involved in the business. Today, locals estimate that 90 percent of the people who work in Paracho make guitars or guitar parts (the population is about 35,000), producing some one million instruments per year. Most of the instruments are made in factories, but a small portion is entirely crafted by hand, by people many consider the finest luthiers in the New World (most connoisseurs say the best in the entire world reside in Spain).
Like so many guitarists before him who have made the trek to Paracho, my husband Peter has come to find the one instrument that speaks to him.
Many guitarists, particularly middle-aged ones, develop, along with callouses on their fingers, something called "GAS" — Guitar Acquisition Syndrome — and Peter is no exception. While Peter already has several guitars with different functions (the jazz guitar, the electric, the travel version), he doesn't have one to play bossa nova; and for that, apparently, you need a classical, nylon-stringed guitar — preferably one made by hand. He could have purchased a Paracho guitar through one of the luthier's websites or Facebook pages, but the only way to know how the guitar would sound — and each one's sound is as unique as a snowflake — is to play it in person. So we braved the Mexican roads and spent a fretful night in Uruapan — a city with a lovely waterfall park and an unfortunate recent history as a center for heroin trafficking and cartel violence — before arriving in Paracho, a peaceful town 45 minutes away that is adorned with the region's signature adobe white houses and red-tiled roofs.
Guitars are a staple of Mexican life, for both mariachi groups and the strolling solo troubadour. An estimated three-fourths of all guitars made in Mexico come from the town of Paracho. | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Magazine)
Why Paracho has been called the "guitar center of the world" is immediately clear. Every storefront is strewn with hanging guitars, as well as mandolins, stand-up basses, big-bellied mariachi guitars, charangos made from armadillo shells, and all manner of other musical instruments, stringed and otherwise. The Coco movie has had a much greater effect on the town than painting its guitar statue white; it has revitalized the local economy through a new demand for guitars. Replicas of the white Coco guitar are now everywhere. Ironically, most of the locals haven't seen the movie (there's no theatre in Paracho), and few of the residents play the instrument. "We're too busy making them," one artisan tells me.
The quality of the town's guitars varies greatly, and the label "made in Paracho" is no assurance. In the stores that sell less expensive instruments, most were made in one of Paracho's 29 guitar factories; some of the violins we saw for sale were made in China. Scattered among these crowded shops are a few storefronts that feature only two or three guitars in the window, gleaming with polished, fine-grained wood. These are the shops of the master luthiers, or guitarreros.
Paracho lies in the state of Michoacan, a seat of folkloric crafts in Mexico since 1538, when a Spanish bishop assigned various towns in the region to different crafts. In recent years, Michoacan has suffered from narco-trafficking violence, so visitors should travel there with caution. | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Magazine)
An "intimate, emotional sound"
As we make our way down Paracho's main street, we pass Jesus Fuerte's shop, the place where the legendary Carlos Santana once bought a guitar. It's a nice shop, but given Paracho's prodigious offerings, we walk on, eventually stopping to visit Benito Huipe and Sons. Huipe is featured in a three-hour DVD on classical and flamenco guitar making produced by the anthropologist and guitar expert Ron Fernandez, and he built guitars in Los Angeles for many years before returning to his home town.
After we knock on the door, Huipe, now 71, invites us in. A somewhat vague and disheveled man (Huipe shows distinct signs of a hippie past: frayed jeans, ragged T-shirt, a shock of longish greying hair), he welcomes us upstairs to his workshop, a room heated by a wood stove that is a chaos of guitar parts. Huipe uses the stove to char corn — the floor is covered with husks and finished cobs — but he tells us the main purpose of the stove, besides heating the room and cooking lunch, is to dry the room's air in order to cure the wood for the guitars. Paracho is a humid place; as we speak, clouds are already gathering for the daily tropical deluge. Because the area's humidity is so high, when Paracho guitars were transported to drier locales the necks would warp, and the frets would crack. Some of the cheaper guitars made in Paracho from pine are still afflicted with this problem — but not the ones made by the master luthiers, who use old, cured hardwoods.
The back side of Paracho’s Coco guitar statue is plain bronze, as it was for years before the Coco movie. Luthiers have been making stringed instruments in Paracho since the Spanish arrived in the region in the 1500s. | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Magazine)
Huipe has retired from making guitars but he says he is now teaching the craft to his sons. Born in Paracho, he started, as most guitarreros here do, by making ukuleles. Once he learned to make guitars, he specialized in flamenco guitars. These have a slightly different shape and a flatter sound, with less reverberation, and are difficult to find outside of Spain. Huipe's guitars all bear his signature — an elaborately-carved headstock, which is the rectangular piece at the end of the neck that holds the strings' screw-pegs.
When Huipe moved to Los Angeles, in the 1960s, he got a job repairing guitars in the Valdez Guitar Shop in West Hollywood. "I would take apart all the instruments, see how they were constructed, and get ideas," he says. After working with other craftsmen, he finally learned enough to start making guitars on his own. Eventually he opened his own shop, working nights as a banquet waiter at a hotel in Beverly Hills. On his nights off, he went around to restaurants that featured flamenco music and showed the artists his guitars. He gradually built a clientele, who appreciated what one musician called the "intimate, emotional sound" of his instruments.
Don Manuel Rubio taught the Coco guitar maker how to make instruments, along with many other luthiers in the town. At 96 years old, he had just finished making this guitar when our author visited, and was already starting work on another. | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Magazine)
While most L.A. musicians played rock guitars, which are steel-stringed with a different shape and construction, plenty bought Huipe's distinctive flamenco guitars to round out their collections. "I made guitars for John Denver, the Everly Brothers, the Byrds," Huipe says. "Lots of them." But today, unfortunately, he has no guitars to sell. So we say adios and head back out to the street.
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