Lucio Nuñez has made custom flamenco and classical guitars by hand for the vast majority of his life. Having begun in his 20’s, he quickly worked up the skill and expertise to make guitars full-time. His one-man luthiery practice has been in operation for over thirty years and has gained much acclaim amongst clients and apprentices all over the world. It was a distinct pleasure to catch up with Lucio in his studio in San Antonio, TX where we discussed his life, his work, and how to save the world:
How did you go about making your first guitar?
My brother is an architect, and he got this gig for making closets and doors on the side. He had all the machinery and tools, so I decided that I would make a guitar–horrible thing. I’m sure it’s somewhere out there. You could use it as a hammer, I guess. But that’s how I made my first guitar. I didn’t know anything. I just started, and that was that – figuring out my own way.
What attracted you to guitar-making?
The thing that really attracted me was the shape of the guitar; the curves. And the rosette, which is crazy because it has nothing to do with the sound. I just asked myself “How do they do this?” so I tried different things and ruined a lot of really nice wood until finally that brother of mine said, ‘You are stupid. People have been making guitars for centuries. You should go look, and maybe somebody out there can help you,’ but nobody took pity on me until later when I apprenticed with a luthier that used to work for the National Conservatory of Music. His requirements and schedule gave me some much-needed discipline.
So it was the curiosity in terms of how to make guitars that excited you?
That and the aesthetics. You know the instrument is beautiful, I think. I mean the instrument itself. Obviously Classical and Flamenco music is wonderful, but I wasn’t into that world at the time. I was into other things like jazz and heavy metal.
Did your interest in those other genres influence your guitar-making at all?
Little by little I discovered, for instance, that the jazz players know harmony and chords and extensions. Jazz becomes complex; however, the color range, the tone range, is really small. But the classical guitar, because it works like the whole orchestra, has more intricacies that I didn’t understand at the time. I was just interested in making a guitar, any kind of guitar. I thought that in three months I would know everything about this process. But still, with every instrument, something is missing, and that’s what keeps you going – making mistakes. And you think that next time, you won’t make the same mistake, but you do.
So what do you have in mind when you set out to make a guitar?
One of my goals is to make an instrument that can come close to reproducing the sound I have in my head. It hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will happen sometime before I die. The person who started helping me told me in a mystical and poetic way that the sound is already there in the wood; you just have to go find it.
The problem with this kind of creative work is that you are always trying to satisfy a new need. If you solve that problem, that’s OK. But the subjective side of it is different. Say that the playability is OK, the intonation is OK, but now, are you going to like the actual tone? It’s very subjective. All in all, though, I think the players are the most important factor I consider in my work. I don’t make guitars for myself, partially because I couldn’t buy all the guitars I make, but mostly because I get satisfaction from pairing one of my instruments with a particular player.
Obviously it takes a lot of time, effort and expertise to build a hand-made instrument. On the flip side, factories in China can produce guitars that sell for $60. How do you view your work in relation to mass production? Is it a reaction or is it something altogether removed from that idea?
There’s a guitar teacher here in San Antonio, a friend of mine, and we were complaining together, wondering why we do what we do. He said, ‘You know what? We do this because we are trying to save the world.’
There’s this idea that you should go ahead and buy what is affordable without any other thought or considerations for aspects like quality. My mother at some point put us on a very difficult budget because she was saving to get some pots and pans. So she saved money and went to the store in Mexico City to get really good cookware that is still in our family. But nowadays, you need a frying pan, you go to Wal-Mart and you get one for $5, but it will be in a landfill in 3 weeks. Mass production might be really good for some things, like cars. But traditionally, I think that the great luthiers were trying to make the best instruments they could, and still are, independent of the market around them.
Most of your guitars are custom made to suit each individual customer. Do these clients push your creativity into new realms that you wouldn’t have otherwise visited?
There are makers who design everything and produce a type of guitar. You go to their shops, and they say, ‘Here are my guitars and these are the prices. Take it or don’t, that’s OK.’ I prefer to hear a lot of feedback because that’s how I improve things.
When your work improves, in any field, it gets a bit worrisome to be honest. When someone comes with a different project, and asks if I can do something new, I certainly try. I have a lute that I’m working on right now as well as a 10-string guitar, and I like that. It keeps it interesting. I go to bed thinking of how I’m going to do everything, and I obsess over it, but again that keeps things exciting.
So did you experiment on your own when you were starting out?
I used to do that a lot. I couldn’t control myself. I don’t even buy magazines about guitars because if I see something new, I need to try it. You learn sometimes by doing things that go absolutely wrong. The bigger the mistake, the more you learn. That’s my personal opinion. Of course, you expend time, money, and effort, so sometimes it’s bad to make mistakes, but it’s all part of the experience.
What I like here in the United States is – I don’t want to sound offensive – but it seems that somehow the American tradition is to break with tradition. It leaves room to experiment and try new things. People are open to that here.
I know lutherie is not an easy business to be in. You must be very passionate about your work.
Absolutely. We need passion. We really do need passion. More than ever nowadays. They say that a writer who doesn’t write dies. We are not just what we do, we are much more than that: feelings, passions, thoughts, etc. I do this because if I didn’t, my life wouldn’t make any sense.
On a final note, am I to take your response to mean that you are fulfilled by what you do?
I am. But there is a lack within the process of guitar making. We all know how guitar makers are; they are obsessed with detail. We are practically hermits. But the point is, it’s a solitary thing. You are basically in your shop sanding and sanding and sanding. You create a lot of dust and noise, which undermines conversation. That’s the very sad part of it for me. You have no idea how much I’m enjoying this interview because luthiers don’t have a chance to talk very much.
But I think you should do what you feel you are called to do. That question, “What am I going to be?” is ridiculous. You are what you are. Whatever discipline you get involved in, there will be a big wall in front of you that has no answer. Sometimes miracles happen in the sense that we finally realize that facing that wall is actually part of embracing a discipline, any discipline.
If you are interested in learning more about his work, check out his website and scroll through the gallery below for some images of his studio, some works in progress, and some close ups of a finished guitar.