Marcelo Barbero Guitars

Twentieth-century guitarmaking legend
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Before we start, I need to correct a major blunder in my last installment on Ignacio Fleta (VG, June ’99) which was caught by sharp-eyed reader Jim Forderer of Los Altos, California. On page 48 I stated (referring to the 1864 Torres that belonged to Francisco Trrega and was restored by Enrique Garcia) “…it’s inconceivable this instrument was in the momentary possession of Garcia without being seen by every luthier worthy of the name who knew it was being worked on in Garcia’s shop,” implying Fleta must have availed himself of this opportunity.

Of course this is impossible, as the instrument was restored in 1897, the same year Fleta was born! In my own photo archives I have the photo of Garcia’s restoration label dated 1897, so no excuse for such a major gaffe.

This 1864 Torres was sold by Trrega’s widow in 1917 to Toms Prat (father of Domingo Prat) for 4,000 pesetas (about $40,000 today) who was allegedly buying it for his son. However, it was resold by Prat to Mara Luisa Anido’s father on her behalf, which turned out to be a “national disgrace” in the words of the late Emilio Pujol. Years later, it was purchased from Mara Luisa Anido for 1.1 million pesetas (about $8,000, or about $100,000 today) and brought back to Barcelona, which is when Fleta probably saw it, although it’s possible he knew the instrument before it left Barcelona in 1917, as he had been in Barcelona since 1910. Even though Trrega died in 1909, his widow, who resided in Barcelona, held on to his guitars, and the 1864 maple instrument was the first one she sold.

And now, on to our article…

Marcelo Barbero was one of the greatest guitarmakers of the 20th century, particularly well-regarded among flamenco players. Born around 1904 in Madrid to an impoverished family, he was orphaned as a boy. He began in the shop of José Ramrez and later worked for José Ramrez II. At various times he was also a professional boxer and racing cyclist. He supplemented his income singing flamenco in the tablaos, but his first love was guitar making. Curiously, Marcelo did not play the guitar, but relied on his experience and training, along with frequent feedback from the best players of the era, to evolve his pattern.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-’39) he was called into service and saw heavy fighting around the University City of Madrid. Of his company of 150, only 23 survived. The war was rough on guitarmakers because many of the more talented and prosperous flamencos fled Spain to wait out the war in France, Latin America, and the U.S. Some never returned, and this drastically cut into the guitar market. Further compounding the problem, after the war Franco’s fascist government wanted nothing to do with flamenco, and only tolerated it if it could pull in tourist dollars. Most of the flamencos had sided with the losing Republicans, so there was little love lost between Franco and flamencos. All over the south of Spain official signs went up in every bar, “Se prohibe el Cante,” translated, “No flamenco singing allowed,” or more bluntly, “Gypsies: Keep Out.”

The earliest labeled Barbero known to me dates from 1933, a cypress flamenco which, unfortunately, has been heavily restored and modified. However, a very nice specimen from ’34 survives and is in excellent condition, showing very strong influence of José Ramrez II, right down to the peghead outline, and general interior design. The label is the earliest version used by Barbero, and it’s interesting to note he didn’t put his address on it. In all probability, instruments made by Barbero during this period would have been made in his spare time when he was not working for Ramrez, who may not have condoned this type of outside capitalism.

While he was working for José Ramrez II, Marcelo not only made guitars, but also bandurrias and laudes – Spanish instruments played by strolling street musicians. This ’35 José Ramrez II laud was most likely made by Marcelo, as it has many of the “fingerprints” and quirky details of workmanship evident in Marcelo’s work. Now owned by Randy Osborne of Fine Fretted Stringed Instruments of Campbell, California, it is very well preserved, the only specimen of this type we have seen, though they must have been common in those days.

After the death of Santos Hernandez in 1943, Marcelo was hired by Santos’ widow to complete the instruments left unfinished by Santos, which took three years. Many were only completed and signed tops, along with some signed labels – Santos’ legacy to his widow. Barbero would make the rest of the components and assemble and varnish the instruments which the widow would then sell as an original “Santos,” perhaps a bit of stretch, but the only way she could survive. Later, some of these were also labeled as the “Viuda de Santos Hernandez,” or widow of Santos Hernandez, although she herself never made any guitars. She continued this practice with several other makers through the ’50s and early ’60s until the late Felix Bayon (who was married to Santos’ niece) inherited the shop after the widow’s death, at which point Felix began making the guitars sold under the “Sobrinos de Santos Hernandez” (nephews of Santos Hernandez) label. Currently, Felix’s son, Santos Bayon, occupies the same workshop and builds under his own name.

Even while Barbero was working for Santos’ widow, he continued to make his own instruments, and a 1943 example shows the influence Barbero was already drawing from Santos, as the head design is nearly identical to one used by Santos. Barbero also had his address, Ministriles 6, in the heart of the Lavapies district of Madrid, printed on the label. This district is the older section of Madrid, where many guitarmakers were located, and it was close to the center of activity of most of the flamenco tablaos where Marcelo sang (and his customers worked). Today, the Lavapies section is still a center of guitarmaking, and Marcelo’s only student, Arcangel Fernandez (along with Marcelo’s only son, Marcelo II) has a shop a few blocks from where Marcelo’s was located.

After leaving Santos’ shop, Barbero continued to be influenced by the designs and patterns he observed in Santos’ shop, and we suspect he helped himself to much of the leftover inlay material and rosette blocks that remained after Santos’ death. This material takes much time and labor to produce, and it would not have been thrown out simply because Santos was no longer around. This 1948 instrument is a prime example, appearing to have a rosette made from inlays used by Santos. Notable is the head, formed nearly identical to the Santos head. Had this been labeled and stamped as a Santos, few today would have doubted its authenticity. I consider it a small miracle and something of a testimony to the high regard of Barbero’s own work that this guitar was not “converted” many years ago into a Santos. Fifty years ago Santos’ work was highly sought and considerably more valuable than that of Barbero, whose reputation was known primarily in the flamenco community, but unknown by other players.

Around the end of 1948, Barbero began to assert his own ideas, breaking from the Santos model to create his own personal model. This fine instrument which was part of my personal collection for nearly 25 years shows the new ideas of outline, head pattern, and even rosette design, not to mention interior bracing and bridge design which Marcelo was working with by then. By this time, there were numerous flamenco players who were playing the guitar as much as a solo instrument as they were accompanying singers and dancers, so a more melodic and lyrical instrument was considered to be very desirable.

In 1951, Barbero made the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century – the instrument that forever solidified his fame. Originally made and dedicated to Carlos Montoya, Montoya gave the instrument to legendary gypsy flamenco player Sabicas, who used it in his recordings in the early ’50s. The master tapes were sold to various other companies and assembled into albums under the Electra name (Sabicas Vol. I, II, and III) and distributed around the world. Under the Columbia label some of the best material was issued in an album entitled “Flamenco Puro” and this landmark recording was enormously influential among flamenco players the world over. Its release in ’62 in Spain was a revelation to Spanish players who had forgotten about Sabicas, as he had left Spain in ’36 and made his fame and fortune in the Americas, but it was an overnight sensation, and makers and players listened to this record with intense interest, trying to capture its sound and air.

For a more detailed account of this guitar, its history, and its details, see my article in American Lutherie No 55, ( pages 8-15, which shows many details and provides scaled drawings of this important guitar.

In the ’50s, Marcelo began to take the traditional cypress flamenco away from the traditional extreme lightness of an Esteso or Santos, and create a fuller-bodied, more austere, almost classical-sounding instrument. To accomplish this, he began to rethink the traditional Torres model of fan strutting. One of his changes was the use of a thin strap across the grain of the top, centered under the bridge, which helped stabilize the sound and even out the sustain. He also began making the instruments with thicker wood than most flamencos, which produced a more austere sound. But there was no mistaking the sound of his guitar for a straight classical, and rough-and-tumble players like Carlos Montoya, who loved raspy, percussive guitars, continued to play Barbero instruments.

Barbero’s career spanned the transition of gut strings to nylon, and it was not coincidental these changes in soundboard design (not only with Barbero, but other makers such as Ramrez, Fleta, and Bouchet) had as much to do with the changing string technology as they did with shifting aesthetics. It has been common knowledge in the flamenco community that the first players to use nylon strings were flamencos such as Ramon Montoya, who discovered this material long before the classical players began to use it. Given the rough playing style and expense of quality gut, it is not surprising flamencos would embrace this new technology. A typical flamenco player would consume a set of gut strings in one night, whereas a classical player could probably eke out a week from a set of trebles.

Barbero made very few rosewood models, but they are highly esteemed today and very soughtafter. Internally, the bracing of these rosewood models is indistinguishable from the cypress models, and although Barbero recognized different usage of the instruments (i.e., classical or flamenco), from a structural standpoint there was no difference whatsoever. We recently obtained (from Randy Osborne, Campbell, California) a copy of a handwritten letter dated October 26, 1953, sent to Jack Buckingham in which Marcelo describes the three models he offers: a flamenco in cypress with brilliant tone and softer action for 5,500 pesetas, a classical in “palo santo” (rosewood) made in the tradition of Santos for 6,500 pesetas, and an upgrade version of the classical with more carefully chosen wood and elaborate work for 7,500 pesetas, all with cases. Since all of Barbero’s instruments were made to order, he required a one quarter down payment with the balance due in nine months, when delivery was effected.

Marcelo died March 6, 1956, after apparently hemorrhaging for four days from an undiagnosed stomach ulcer. The Spanish press hailed him as the “Stradivari of Lavapies,” and an interview with his only student and successor Arcangel Fernandez appeared in the March 25 edition of the Suplemento de Espaa. In this article, Arcangel mentions that Marcelo was making guitars for clients in England, South America, France, Germany, Italy, and even Japan. So even at this early date, Japanese collectors were well aware of the situation in Spain and actively buying instruments long before their interest in American factory-made steel-strings began to appear.

Of particular interest in the interview is the subject of the wood and its aging, as Arcangel mentions the woods used are all from outside of Spain except for the cypress, the German spruce tops have to be aged at least 10 years, and the rosewood which comes from the black jungles of the tropics has to be aged for 40 or 50 years. As he puts it, the process requires that the wood cut by the grandparents can only be sold by the grandchildren!

Marcelo had no other formal apprentices, but he did give advice to other makers, particularly Manuel Reyes of C”rdoba, who spent an intense day at Marcelo’s shop. Several other Spanish makers have tried to pass themselves off as students of Marcelo, and perhaps, like Reyes, they also were given priceless advice by the maestro, but it is a far cry from having worked with Marcelo for years to receiving one day of compressed theoretical advice without hands-on correction.

For about a year after Marcelo’s death, Arcangel made instruments for the Barbero widow. They were labeled “La Viuda de Marcelo Barbero, Arcangel Fernandez constructor,” but shortly after, he left to set up his own shop at 26 Jésus y Mara street, two blocks from the old Barbero shop. Arcangel took on Marcelo’s son (also named Marcelo), who was 12 when his father died, and has essentially been his father and maestro, teaching him the same art he received from Marcelo the father. Today, Arcangel’s order books are filled for the rest of his life, and the shop, which is humming with activity is essentially closed, as they try to fill all the outstanding orders.

Although we rarely see outright fakes of Marcelo’s work, a Chicago firm offered Japanese-made instruments in the late ’60s/early ’70s that were labeled as being by “Marcelino Barbero, Madrid.” These were of average quality, usually made with a Ramrez head design, sometimes all solid wood, sometimes plywood, and they have absolutely nothing to do with Marcelo Barbero or his son. Since they don’t even vaguely resemble an authentic Barbero, it wouldn’t be correct to call them fakes, as they would only fool the most ignorant. They were done without the knowledge or endorsement of anyone in Spain, and represent one of the worst types of trade name obfuscations, bordering on outright fraud. Don’t be deceived by this foolishness. Remember, the label in an instrument is often the least reliable piece of information in an instrument. If in doubt, pay for the advice of an expert.

This article was made possible by the generous information shared by Michael Fischer, Randy Osborne, Donn Pohren, Jim Rauen and Dr. Robert Schultz. I am indebted to them.

1934 Marcelo Barbero. Photo by R.E. Brune.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.