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Loving Your Portuguese Guitar

The sounds of the Portuguese guitar find a haunting resonance within me. It’s as if I have deep receptors within me that respond to its pull. The Portuguese guitar is very distinct from the better known Spanish guitar that conquered the world. It is a twelve-stringed, pear shaped instrument that resembles a lute more than the common six-stringed guitar. While both Portuguese and Spanish guitars are required in combination to accompany the fado, it is the Portuguese guitar that defines its essence. The Portuguese call their instrument the guitarra and call the Spanish guitar by the disavowing term viola, the foreign but tolerated instrument of the historical enemy. The Spanish of course, in shameless effrontery, call their instrument the guitarra. What imposture! I have always wanted to have a good Portuguese guitar made so I set about finding a luthier some time ago. My searching led me to Senhor Carlos Jorge Pereira Rodrigues, a master guitar maker.[1]  I walked into his garage-sized workshop in Funchal in October 2011 after establishing contact over a period of a month. Handel was playing off a CD. There were dozens of string instruments hanging from the walls and ceiling in various states of disrepair. A few were under construction.[2]  This was clearly a workshop, not a shop. Senhor Jorge was sitting at a computer in a back office. “Ah, Senhor Pestana, I was expecting you.” His eyes lit up. “I am Jorge Rodrigues. Good trip?” “Bom dia Senhor Jorge. Alexandre Pestana. At last we meet!”[3] I took an immediate liking to the man. He was tall, gaunt and bearded with an open smile and a friendly air. Yes, he had received my messages. So, I wanted a guitar made. Did I want a Lisbon- or a Coimbra-style guitarra?[4] The Lisbon guitar please. Good. What shape would I like? Should we look at the mould he uses for his guitars? Coffee?” Guitar Office Funchal Senhor Jorge told me about his training. He had started by restoring old instruments. He had looked and learned over the years, noticing the craft of others before embarking on his own. His had honed his craft over thirty years. He had also trained on the continent. His guitars were not cheap – you could always get a factory produced instrument for a quarter of the price. Some factory produced ones weren’t that bad, but some were made from cheap woods and were not robust, neither did they sound good, he said. Most tended to split when transported to hotter climates.[5]

Guitar Workshop, Funchal, Madeira

Guitar Workshop

Senhor Jorge elaborated on technicalities: The important part of a guitar is the soundboard, the upper part of the sound-box just below the strings. The sound qualities of a guitar essentially came from the soundboard so it was important to secure the best wood for the purpose.[6]  We were lucky in that he had a stock of rare and excellent woods that only a few luthiers still had. “A dwindling stock, mind you.” He pressed some light planks into my hands. “Here. Feel this. Old German spruce. It is a class of a wood and will make all the difference to the sound of your guitarra.” He also had very good woods for the sides and the back of the soundboard. One doesn’t use spruce for that, it’s too soft, but could use ash or maple, say.[7]  I would leave it to him, I said. “And please, do not insist on too many inlays or other embellishments on your guitar as they interfere with its sound, aesthetics notwithstanding. The better wood you have – and you shall have excellent woods as I promised, here, feel again – the less you want it interfered with. Good varnishing is of course important. I’ll get you the right strings too, people often use the wrong strings with these guitars. Rest assured that I will give you the best. I will work at imparting a warm and rounded colour-spectrum to your guitar, with a unique sound aesthetic. It will have its own ‘fingerprint’ as it were, easily distinguished from others. I think you will be pleased with the result. Leave it to me.”

Port Guitar soundbox - off mould

Portuguese Guitar – Soundbox

I listened to Senhor Jorge with placated intrigue. The cynic in me normally dismisses sales pitches like these, but he was so genuine that I could not but believe him. It was as if he would not sell me a guitar excepting under his terms, as if he was coaxing me into being a client worthy of his craft, a client who appreciated the art of fine workmanship. He was not into hard selling. I felt he would produce a better guitar for a client with whom he had an engaging craftsman-client rapport than for a client who would throw money at him with an order for “the best” without showing interest. Here was a craftsman totally integrated with the product of his labour. Not for him the alienating factories of mass-production. Marx himself would have approved. “And oh, are you in a rush to get your guitar? Not? Excellent, I was hoping you wouldn’t be. In life that which is good takes time.” He said he would build the guitar over months and would e-mail me intermittent photographs of its progress. I could in that way keep abreast of its development. Once completed, he would monitor its “maturation” for me and check how well it settled. “Now, Senhor Alexandre, some instructions on guitar-owning.” He turned earnest. “When you take ownership of an instrument like the one I am going to make for you, you must treat it with love, care and zeal. You must keep it in a case with a humidifier so that the woods keep nicely integrated. Yes I know it’s beautiful to behold but don’t hang it on your wall as an object of marvel as some people do. Not this one. The different woods of the guitar live and cohabit with each other. They expand and contract at different rates. It’s important that the woods remain properly integrated. A good guitar is a living instrument that needs to be held and played every day. You can’t neglect it. You must embrace it and make love to it every day as you would to a beautiful woman.” His eyes twinkled. “If you love your guitar the guitar will love you back and warm up to you as an individual. It’s true, you’ll see. It will sound totally different in your hands than in someone else’s, even if that person plays as well as you do. You must imprint yourself onto your guitar and develop a love affair with it!”

Guitar Construction

Guitar under Constrution

We broke out into laughter. The colourful metaphors Senhor Jorge used to express the player-instrument relationship were not that far-fetched. I have a very different relationship with my Steinway than with my electronic ES6 Kawai piano. The acoustic Steinway is a warm, living inhabitant of the house that calls out to me and demands attention as a pet would, whereas the Kawai, a far more flexible instrument, is more like a musical computer. The Steinway gets jealous when I play the Kawai. It even sulks. I can feel it. Violinists who have two or more great instruments say they have a different relationship with each (e.g. Anne–Sophie Mutter). We spent the next hour talking about music and mellowing in each other’s company. I noticed a box of cigars on a cluttered file cabinet. Cigar smokers are unhurried people. They have time to muse at the world. What a nice man. Time passed. And passed. We had to eventually talk shop. Ouch. Then again such an instrument was never going to be cheap.[8]  Ouch. Right, let’s go ahead Senhor Jorge. “Good. You needn’t bother giving me the full deposit, it’s fine.” He also promised me some guitar music which he sent me a few days later.

Portuguese Guitars - ready to be played

Portuguese guitars – museum

Yesterday I received an email with the first pictures of my guitar’s progress. It’s creation itself in progress. Beautiful. I can’t wait to make love to it. ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Notes: 1. Senhor Jorge’s Cordofones Madeira – Portuguese guitar-maker. Website name – Carlos Jorge Oficina; trading as Madeira Cordofones http://www.oneline.pt/oficina/portugues/page7/page7.html 2. Senhor Jorge champions a project to keep alive traditional Madeiran string instruments like the rajão and the braguinha, from which the Hawaian ukulele evolved. 3. Formal modes of address are the norm in Madeira. We addressed ourselves in the polite vôcé mode instead of by the familiar tu mode (the French equivalents of “vous”, or the German “Sie”). We also very quickly slipped from addressing each other as Mister (Surname) to Mister (Firstname), a type of Madeiran informality. However, we will never move to a more familiar level than this, even if we were to interact regularly for the rest of our lives. My father and his very good friends of over fifty years still use the Mister (Firstname) formula when addressing themselves. To do otherwise is to be rude, crass and “badly brought up”. Only maleducados do that. 4. “The differences between the two Portuguese guitar models the (Lisbon and the Coimbra) are the scale length (445mm of free string length is used in the Lisbon guitar and 470mm in the Coimbra guitar), body measurements, and other finer construction details. Overall, the Coimbra model is of simpler construction than the Lisbon model. Visually and most distinctively, the Lisbon model can easily be differentiated from the Coimbra model by its larger soundboard and the scroll ornament that usually adorns the tuning machine, whereas the Coimbra’s guitar has a teardrop motif. Lisbon guitars usually employ a narrower neck profile as well. Both models have a very distinct timbre, the Lisbon model having a brighter and more resonant sound, and the choice between them falls upon each player’s preferences.” – Wikepedia. 5. I could attest to that. My father brought an off-the-shelf guitar in the 1980’s from Portugal to the Free State, South Africa. The first hot Free State Summer split the back of the sound-box beyond repair. 6. 19thC Spanish guitar-maker António de Torres demonstrated this by making a guitar with a carton sound-box save for the upper part, the soundboard, which he made of good wood, and the instrument sounded good. 7. Different woods are used for the construction of different parts of the guitar. Woods which make excellent soundboards are too soft for the fret board, etc. The guitar-maker uses his discretion and expertise to construct a guitar according to its purpose. See http://www.jemsite.com/jem/wood.htm 8. You can easily pay up to 6000 euros for a Portuguese guitar made by a master. Mine cost around a quarter of that.