Classical Guitar Luthier Interview: Manuel Contreras (Spain)

I’m delighted to have Victoria Velasco and José Antonio Lagunar from Luthier Manuel Contreras, Madrid, Spain.

Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?

Our workshop Manuel Contreras was established in 1962.  The founder Manuel G. Contreras (1928-1994) became an independent luthier after having worked as a reputable cabinetmaker for years, having been introduced to the world of luthiery by working at the workshop of José Ramírez III for two years.

Throughout his years of work, he attained great international prestige because of the quality, as well as the aesthetic, of his instruments, developing such important models as the "1a Especial", "double harmonic top" system (1974), "Carlevaro model" (1983), the "Resonance back" or "Resonator" system (1985). These fundamentals are still clearly determining the direction of our instrument making.

Pablo Manuel Contreras (Manuel Contreras II) learned his father's profession by working for many years at the workshop.  Pablo took over after the death of Manuel in 1994.

He was a big music lover and curious person.  He started researching looking for his personal sound which eventually led him to modify many elements of the harmonic top.  He came up with the "10th Anniversary" model (1998), in which the "Resonance back" was introduced inside the guitar and earned the prize of the International guitar competition Joaquín Rodrigo in 2000.

After the premature death of Pablo Manuel Contreras in January 2011, the luthier Contreras was taken over by a luthier José Antonio Lagunar, who had learned from Manuel Contreras's father and had been the first skilled worker of Manuel Contreras II since 1995; and Victoria Velasco, a classical guitar teacher graduated from the Madrid Royal Conservatory, who has contributed to the company with her knowledge in acoustics and music from the beginning in the late 80's.

Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?

As much to a guitarist as to a luthier, the search for the “perfect” sound is of the highest priority.  Although that "ideal" sound is a matter of taste and personal preference, there are always basic parameters that guide this search.

Throughout our history, we have always pursued that ideal sound which will satisfy the expectations of the vast majority of musicians and guitarists.

Manuel Contreras devoted all his professional life to fundamentally providing a guitar with great volume and power without trading off the quality and warmth of his guitars.  Powerful and deep basses and strong but warm trebles without shrillness.  And particularly, the balance between basses and trebles.   

Manuel Contreras II kept working based on what he had already achieved, looking for a more spontaneous sound, the maximum immediate response of the instrument to the attack, or plucking, by a guitarist.  He largely achieved these objectives.

Our current goal is to follow this path of work and research to achieve the maximum possible volume and a better projection without losing the "body", warmth and variety of tonal colours.

We think it is utterly important that a guitar enables a guitarist to obtain, by his/her technique, the maximum variety of tonal colours.

An instrument which allows giving nuance in sound is essential for a music interpretation.

Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?

It's very important for us to listen to guitarists and know their requirements.  Years of our experience made us establish some standards in shape and thickness of our necks but we always offer guitarists some margin of choice in shape (flatter or more round) and thickness.

All hands are different and what one type finds comfortable, for example—a very flat neck, may cause a certain tiredness for other hands.

Apart from that, it's also very important to carefully think out the shape and height of frets.  They directly affect the amount of necessary pressure to be applied to the strings in order to achieve a pure tone with a good intonation and to prevent the hand from getting tired unnecessarily when putting/taking out bar chords.

Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).

We have used different varnishes.  Currently, we have a clear preference for French polish for the harmonic top as it facilitates its vibration and tonal spontaneity.

It's very delicate but also easy to remove and redo without altering the original thickness of the top, and as it's not necessary to plane, we can preserve the own sound character of the instrument.

We prefer to use polyurethane for the bottom deck and body sides which gives a certain solidity to the body of the instrument.  We think it's very important to minimise absorption of the vibration on the top, which eventually gives the sound response to the guitar.

Q5. Please tell us your opinion regarding shorter-scale guitars such as 640, 628 and 615mm in terms of playability, design, sound quality and volume. Is there an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?

We have always offered our clients the possibility of choosing different scales—from shorter ones to larger ones—than the standard 650mm.

650mm scale has been by far the most popular, although we have made some guitars with exceptionally long or short scale.  Among the "special" scales, the most popular ones are, without doubt, 640mm and 630mm in this order.

A large percentage of these instruments are expected to ship to Japan and other countries in Asia.  However, there is an increasing demand for players from all over the world, especially for small-handed or young players rather than particularly women.

There is really no big tonal difference among instruments with 650, 640 or 630mm scale, while there is a huge noticeable difference in hands in terms of playability.  The comfort level obtained by these scales allow small-handed performers to be able to develop their best technique and interpretative quality, thus giving a better sound quality of the instrument.

Q6. Many readers say they end up being very confused after trying many guitars. Could you give us some advice on how to examine the guitars' sound quality and playability at a shop or luthier, from the guitar-maker's point of view?

We sincerely believe that a guitarist of a intermediate/high level doesn't "assess" but "feels" clearly when an instrument fulfils his/her tonal and playability requirements.  Some people define it as "feeling at home", "falling in love" as soon as they start to play an instrument, or "getting know each other" as it fills him/her with pleasure.

However, it can be something more complicated for amateur or less experienced performers, indeed.

Surely, the best way is that you get used to trying out various instruments by doing so often to gain experience and criteria of your search.  Don't get too influenced, for better or worse, by your own instrument which you are very used to, or by your first years of study.

We can give you two pieces of advice to take into account when choosing an instrument (apart from the experience mentioned above): it should feel really good in sound and balance of the guitar as well as its playability.  Also it'd be very helpful if you sit back and listen to the sound of the guitar played by other players.  Ask them what they felt, although the final decision should be made by you.

Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?

We always tell our clients that we are here for anything they need with our guitars.

Of course, we offer a total guarantee including a replacement of the guitar in case of any important defect.  However, and honestly, it is not common in guitars of our quality.

We offer a guarantee which is not determined by time so much as based on logic.  That is, whether it is normal that any problem is caused by age, use, and whether the instrument has been handled properly.  The logistical problem with other countries can be resolved in one way or another, through our distributors.  In the case of a guarantee, shipping costs and expenses would be shared by us and distributors.

Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?

We stopped using Brazilian rosewood for many years due to the legal complications.  Since then we have been using Madagascar rosewood, as well as other woods, such as Cocobolo which we have been using constantly.  These changes have absolutely no impact to the quality of the instruments.  For the moment, there are no big problems of restrictions on these woods.

Our short/medium-term future is secured as we stock woods to ensure proper ageing and seasoning.

Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?

The truth is that guitar making is more lively than ever.  Far from disappearing, it is a profession on the rise if we look at the number of luthiers and guitar-making lovers, that are springing up in all the countries in the world.  This is a good thing for the future of our instrument.  Everything that is researched and developed is good, thus raising interest and passion in our beloved instrument in other countries.  And yes, it is on the rise , as long as the standard of quality is maintained and it resists mechanisation in the guitar-making process.