- November 21st, 2010
- Write comment
Every once in a while you come across a luthier and your not quite sure if you are interested, but something peeks your interest just enough to follow through with an inquiry….So is the case with Fernando Alonzo Jaen.
Fernando Alonso Jaen is a luthier based in Cuenca, Spain (of all places). We thought he made some nice archtops so contacted him. What we found was a luthier who was very well versed in the Art of guitar making. I know, a spanish luthier building archtops? seems far fetched!
After all those spanish guys only build flamenco and classical…right? WRONG!
As we went back and fourth with emails it was pretty amazing to see how in depth this spanish jazz master can talk about archtops, from different body shapes and sizes, finishing techniques and different pickup configs…Fernando didn’t miss a beat when asked anything about Archtops..it was actually quite educational.
However, building archtops did not come easy for Fernando, starting in the early 90’s as a part time luthier, fernando had to dig deep for any info regarding archtops as the luxury of the internet was practically non-existent at that time. Because of this Fernando was able to learn alot on his own and come up with a few of his own innovations.
So when Fernando asked: Why don’t you tell me what you want and I’ll build you something totally different”….we jumped at the idea and the Namibia was born.
Customguitarboutique.com: Let’s start from the beginning how did you generate interest in the guitar?
Fernando Alonso Jaen: Since I was a kid, there were always guitars at home, as my brother was a player. I was around fourteen when I decided to learn to play them, simply because other friends at school were doing the same.
CGB: What inspired you to become a luthier?
Fernando: I still have some blueprints that I made when I was around 18, but didn’t use them at the time: making an archtop appeared to be incredibly difficult. Years later, a workmate and I were playing together in a jazz band. I used a Ibanez Joe Pass, which is a great instrument, but what we both really wanted was carved guitars. We started talking about making carved-top guitars for ourselves. I guess that we pushed each other somehow, because we managed to buy some expensive cello wood and tools and had our guitars ready around one year later, which is rather fast given the limited tooling and information. This was around 1992-1993, bad times for getting the necessary information, but let me tell you that you learn a lot when you have to find solutions to problems all by yourself. Later, when you learn how others do things, you may find that some of your methods and tooling are similar. I learnt a lot with my first guitars.
CGB: When did you finally realize you could earn a living building guitars?
Fernando: I made some repairs and even sold some guitars when that was not my primary activity. I had contacted with musicians and dealers and I was very lucky because I found some great guitar connoisseurs among them. They guided me a lot, and I also made contact with some older instruments, both American and European. I learned to stay away from the three thoughts that separate amateurs from professionals: “That defect will go unnoticed”, “This is an object of craftsmanship, so some defects are allowed” and “This is for me (or for someone who understands my faults)”. I think that I was prepared to go professional around 2000, but I waited until 2003.
CGB: Since day one of becoming a luthier, after all the experience through the years what is the fundamental thing you still do today that you did in the beginning?
Fernando: Thinking! It may seem a strange thing for those that think that guitar makers are hand workers, but it is quite stimulating to get orders for new things that represent a design or woodworking challenge.
CGB: What is your luthier or guitar building horror story?
Fernando: Some say that the best luthier is the one that hides his defects best, and the best way for that should be not to talk about them… anyway, I’ll do it. I remember having problems with the adhesive for plastic bindings. At one time I decided to try different things, and then I discovered a product called Paraloid (Acryloid) B72, used by museum curators. I found it easily, and started making some adhesion tests with it, using different solvents. I saw that I could prepare a better glue than what I was using at that time, but I didn’t realize that it had a very low “Glass Transition” temperature, of only 40ºC. I made a batch of guitars with it, and then I realized that the bindings were separating… nasty!
CGB: How different are things today as far as luthery and the industry goes from when you first started building, any significant changes?
Fernando: I think that both players and makers know a lot more about any aspect of guitar making. The availability of information today is incredible. However, what impresses me more is what didn’t change: there are still many irrational thoughts on most aspects of guitar-making. I can see that these will not disappear easily, as there are makers and dealers that base their business on them, and there are also many players that confirm them, perhaps because they are too impressionable. I’d be glad if someone started making serious experiments and blind tests to establish the truth behind so many myths.
CGB: Tell us a bit about your guitars, how would you describe them?
Fernando: I make archtops in several sizes, from 15 to 18 inches, and if I had to mention what they all have in common, it must be that I always try to stay traditional and keep the innovations as much “under the hood” as possible. Regarding design in general, I enjoy some new f-hole or tailpiece designs that I see around me, but I don’t like guitars that depart a lot from the usual proportions and shapes. Regarding my personality, I am conscious that it is hidden in my eclectic designs in terms perhaps only evident to me, but I consider that this has a positive side: there is not a insurmountable “personality barrier” between my customers and myself.
CGB: Do you have any favorite woods as far as sound and ease of use? For example I know cocobolo is very dense and can be a challenge to carve by hand.
Fernando: Your mention of cocobolo makes me think of its smell like honey and its beauty, but it causes me eye irritation and cocobolo fittings may stain the guitar lacquer even after taking the usual precautions. Definitely, not a favorite. For me, Rosewood is a favorite and it is a pity that it hasn’t been used traditionally for archtop guitars (I still expect that someone orders a Rosewood carved back from me). It bends incredibly well, smells great and is a joy to work with.
CGB: What would you say to up and coming builders who are just starting out?
Fernando: I would tell them to listen to the ideas coming from the players. They are the ones who find the problems of existing instruments, and many makers don’t seem to hear them. Some among those ideas will need a little shaping and definition, but you must not discard them immediately. Also, don’t trust your friends and family when it comes to judge your guitars: they are always blind and deaf. If possible, take it to an expert player/maker who hates you.
CGB: In your opinion who is the most influential Luthier?
Fernando: For me, maker of archtop guitars, it is Bob Benedetto. He wrote the book and made some of the finest archtop guitars out there. Regarding mass produced guitars, I admire Bob Taylor for his production methods and the quality and attention to detail of his instruments. Among the “Classics”, I admire Leo Fender for his innovations, production methods and open mind. Also Antonio de Torres, because he gave shape to the Modern Guitar, and he did it with very limited resources. And, as I feel a strong connection with almost everyone involved in this craft, I admire everyone that has dedicated his life to it.
The Namibia is available for a test drive by appointment only at customguitarboutique.com…if you are interested in test driving it please contact us.