Mariano Conde is part of Madrid-based dynasty of guitar builders that began over a century ago. He and his family have built some of history’s best flamenco guitars and they are consistently found in the hands of the best guitarists.
The interview was conducted on February 05, 2018, in Madrid, Spain, at the workshop Guitarrería Mariano Conde.
I am Mariano Conde, of the third generation of guitar builders [of the Esteso/Conde tradition], of Madrid.
What was your first experience with music?
With music, well I was created among guitars. My whole life I’ve been around guitarists at my father’s workshop, classical as well as flamenco guitarists.
How did you begin to learn to build guitars?
It was part of the game plan. When I came home from school I’d see them working in the shop. I began by playing, grabbing a tool, a file, just playing. You generally learn this trade by first grabbing a broom and sweeping the floor, then how to file and sand the wood.
And so did you always like it?
Yes, since I was a boy. It was really natural because we lived right in front of the workshop and so we’d always come home from school and go right into the shop, the old one on Calle Gravina. We’d just go there to play with the wood, and in a really natural way I became a guitar builder.
What have been the most difficult challenges in your career?
Firstly, to be able to do this work as well as my father did, and later to evolve and to contribute something new. Each generation gives a little something new so that the guitars have more and more presence of sound.
Have you ever been at a point where you wanted to stop building guitars to do other things?
Well, I like many other things than just building guitars. I studied in the conservatory and played some flamenco as well. Throughout my entire life I’ve been between guitarists and guitars, and between guitars and woods. But I also like to write. I have a series of guitars called From The Poem. These carry a small verse inside on the label. It was an idea I had many years ago, to find the expression of a guitar in a verse. Now I have 41 instruments with that, and aside from carrying their own verse and a unique name, they’re completely distinct guitars.
When did you realize you had the talent necessary to put your own stamp on a guitar?
Well, I think I’m still learning. This workshop is a 100 years old… a 102 or a 103… and I think there’s been a transformation since Domingo Esteso, who was the founder of the workshop and my father’s uncle. From then until now I think I’ve always been grounded in those roots.
Have you used ideas and concepts from other construction disciplines?
Yes, because when I enter a church and it has good acoustics I check out the arches and a guitar, in reality, is a small church inside. You sit in the back and look up and you see an arch and the Gothic-style ribs and those are what make the sound. Those are the strings that move the top. Those are what are inside making the sound. So the good thing is to be inside the guitar to listen to it.
Your son is the new generation.
My son is the fourth generation. His name is also Mariano, like me and like his grandfather.
Did you always want him to continue with the family tradition?
I always wanted Mariano to continue, but the interesting thing in this case is that he wanted to continue. As a child he didn’t want to study, he wanted to build guitars. And so for me it was fantastic because if he would have wanted to be an astronaut the dynasty would be finished.
How did you speak to him about the importance of the family tradition so that he knew he was part of something special?
He learned that the same way I did. He learned it by seeing and by doing things little by little. He began to work. There was no formal explanation of things. You take this in by grabbing bits, by living it, by ingesting the dust, the smells, and the way things are done.
Have you ever taught other people how to build guitars?
No, this is a family tradition between fathers and sons. I may have an assistant that prepares a piece and such, but my son and I are the only ones who understand the mysteries of what it is to build these instruments.
If there’s a young person out there who wants to begin building guitars or start a career as a guitar builder, what types of recommendations would you have for them?
Well, first, that they get a hold of really old wood. That’s fundamental. You can’t just buy wood and sit down tomorrow and start building. You have to allow years and years and years to pass.
And how many normally?
A minimum of ten depending on the species. There are certain woods that dry faster than others. There are some people that use machine driers. Mine has dried naturally. I’m using wood that’s many years old, including some of my father’s.
Everyone knows the famous sound of your guitars, but if we had to describe it in words, how could we define your guitars’ style?
What I search for, above all else, is comfort so that people that play my guitars don’t have to kill themselves. You just put your hand across the strings and that sound emerges. And after that, that the sound is what the player is looking for. A flamenco guitar should be bright, have a strong sound, and should project.
Can you talk to me a little more generally about the identity of the Madrid school of guitar building?
Yeah, the Madrid school is one of the most important schools, effectively. Here we are descendants of Manuel Ramírez, not of today’s José Ramírez, but the great uncle of the current Ramírez builders. Manuel Ramírez had two disciples, apprentices, Santos [Hernández] and Domingo Esteso and so I come from that line. I’m a follower of Esteso, Santos, and Manuel Ramírez, guarding the years-old tradition and, as I said before, incorporating and offering new things while maintaining the roots.
Have you studied other styles of guitars?
No, and I also don’t like to repair guitars that aren’t mine. If the guitar builder is still alive I always offer to take the guitar to the original builder. No one knows that guitar better than the he.
What is your greatest achievement up to now?
To eat every day doing this.
That’s not a small thing!
And that’s not a small thing!
Do you have any ambitions for the future?
Yes, ambitions in sound. I believe that the best guitar still hasn’t left the workshop. There’s always a detail, always something that can be improved. And the Poem guitars that I mentioned before are all prototypes. They are lines of research. I’m constantly experimenting.
Do you always use the traditional techniques? Or do you use new techniques or new technology to build?
There is very little technology in this. The only thing is the machinery used to build the tools. This also comes into play at the moment you need to make the cuts for the frets. There’s a machine that I have that’s designed to make the cuts perfectly and at the perfect distance. With that the technology has contributed a lot in making the guitars better.
So the process is same but just more precise, basically.
Much more precise, infinitely more precise. We’re talking about tenths of millimeters.
And obviously there are the traditional woods, but what other types of woods are good for building instruments? Are you experimenting with new woods too?
In Spain there is the saying sota, caballo, y rey [jack, knight, y king]. Sota, caballo, y rey is when something is always done the same way or someone uses the same thing. So if someone has always used cypress and Brazilian or Indian rosewood, that’s soto, caballo, y rey. Now there are woods that are very rare and some that are completely prohibited. My family, my father, and I have always liked wood and we have other species of wood that are unorthodox, but that make fantastic guitars. I’ve come to the conclusion that a wood, any wood, that is dry and of quality has to be looked at to see if it has the properties that allow you to work with it, the strength, etc., to draw out its best performance. And we have already gone through the entire deck of cards, not just the sota, caballo, y rey. Many woods are appearing now, Canadian spruce has been used for years for tops. But many new species have emerged that our workshop is using and that are producing great results, koa for example. Sycamore has always had bad press because it’s been used for cheap guitars, but knowing what to do with it has produced really good results for us.
At the beginning you talked to me about comfort, but can you talk a little more about the criteria you use to define a good guitar?
If you imagine a diamond shape [rhombus], at the upper vertex is a good guitar. At the lower vertex is a simple guitar, a factory-built guitar that doesn’t work for classical music, for flamenco, or for anything else. It’s not worth a thing. The middle of the diamond the shape opens up and is separating into classical guitars and flamenco guitars and then it rejoins at the upper vertex with a guitar that is good for everything. With this guitar you can play anything. Here pulsation, quality of sound, and a strong presence of sound reunite.
Do you change the way you build for different customers?
Yes, because I can have several completed guitars here and some professional comes and I have to tell him I don’t have a guitar because the pulsation of these guitars isn’t for him. I know the way he plays and his way of pushing the strings and I know the guitars I have won’t work. They’re either to stiff or too soft and he’ll devour the guitar. And so, if I know the artist, friend, or customer, I tell him if the guitars I have will or will not work. You can adjust the nut, saddle, and string tensión, but once a guitar is born a certain way that’s the way it is. It will work for someone, but for not for another.
Have you had many female customers?
Yes, there have been some. That was the topic of a documentary that was made called Tocaoras. They recorded a bit here with El Viejin and we were saying some things. In the past there used to be more than there are now.
Why did that change?
Well, at the root of it is that during the [Spanish] civil war a woman was looked down upon if she played the guitar. Women had another role. But I think this is recovering now. Women are returning to flamenco to express their art by playing the guitar.
Speaking a little more generally about flamenco, in your opinión what does flamenco need to continue growing and evolving?
More time, even considering the time it already has, because now flamenco is worldwide. Flamenco is in every country. It’s jumped from Spain to every continent, it’s everywhere. There are guitarists, as well as singers, dancers, and I imagine guitar builders too. Flamenco is constantly evolving. It is infinite.
Of the young generation of new flamenco artists, who inspires you have gives you hope for the future?
Well you have an enormous list. If I say one I’ll forget someone else! But anyway you have Juan Habichuela Nieto, for example. You have Jesús Guerrero, Joni Jimenez, Antonio Sánchez, who is Paco’s [de Lucía] nephew, Amos Lora. But I don’t know, there are many more, I don’t want to offend anyone.
What is the most important thing one should learn about flamenco or Spain if they’re coming here with a limited amount of time?
One has to live it, has to live flamenco. One has to study it, logically, but one has to be in flamenco’s environment. One has to be in the tablaos, with flamenco friends, singers, guitarists, dancers. That’s the best cathedral out there.