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Grand Guitars : Instruments: Benito Huipe takes months to create masterpieces that are played by concert and flamenco artists throughout the country.

October 25, 1990|JOHN RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The walls of Benito Huipe's workshop on Washington Boulevard in Culver City are covered with his handiwork. Guitars, in various stages of construction, hang by pegs. Each is made of the finest wood available, gathered from four continents.

The guitars' sides and backs, a deep reddish-brown hue, are made of rosewood from Brazil or India. The soundboard, or front, is hard German spruce. The long neck is made of mahogany from Honduras, and the black fingerboard is fashioned from ebony from Madagascar. Each instrument emanates a woody scent that comes from the inner bracing made from Spanish cedar.

Huipe, 43, is one of a handful of craftsmen in Southern California who make fine guitars by hand.

His work has attracted the attention of numerous concert artists and flamenco guitarists throughout the country who now play his guitars.

Huipe started making guitars in his hometown of Paracho, Michoacan, a small village in the highlands west of Mexico City. His first job was in the workshop of his father's friend, Luis Vargas, where he began by putting strings and tuning pegs on guitars.

"And then I started making my own guitars, small ones, you know, like ukuleles," he said.

He learned the finer points of instrument-making from his brother, Miguel, who is an expert violin bow craftsman. Miguel went to a school in Mexico City where he learned the basics of instrument craftsmanship. He then passed on his knowledge to his brother, Benito.

"He taught me to understand the difference in sound between a classical guitar and a flamenco guitar, Huipe said. He told me, 'Benito, with flamenco guitars the strings have to be very close to the soundboard so that the sound of the strings blends with the sound of the wood, like a drum, very dry, very dry, like a flamenco dancer, very harsh. And with a classical guitar, the strings have to be very separated from the soundboard, so it will sound very clear, very sustained.' "

He also learned by carefully examining the work of other guitar makers. When he arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago, he got a job at the Valdez Guitar Shop in West Hollywood, where he repaired guitars built by some of the best craftspeople in the world. When he repaired a guitar, he would study its construction closely.

"I took ideas from all the instruments I repaired," he said.

After five years of repairing other people's guitars, he struck out on his own, setting up a workshop in his garage. He took the instruments he made there to restaurants that featured flamenco music to display his wares to guitarists and eventually attracted several faithful customers.

Phil Boroff, a professional guitarist and recording artist who owns three of Huipe's guitars, said Huipe's guitars "have an emotional quality, a personality." Although most guitars used by professional artists are technically well made, he said, they often sound "unromantic." Huipe's guitars, however, "are in essence very romantic, he said.

"Each guitar has a psyche. They are all really extremely beautiful," he added.

And each Huipe guitar Boroff hears is better than the last, he said. "It's like he's hit a high point, and he keeps edging up."

Mike Hoover, manager of McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, has witnessed the improvements in Huipe's instruments.

Hoover recalled that when Huipe first brought his guitars to the shop to sell, "they were very nice-sounding, but they were crude." Under Hoover's guidance, Huipe was able to correct certain imperfections in his craftsmanship.

"He would take my critique very well," Hoover said. "I've seen him come a long way."

Huipe continued to work in his garage workshop for 15 years until his landlord evicted him. "He said it's (for a garage), not for a shop," Huipe said. "And he pushed me to open my own business."

He opened his shop Jan. 1, 1989. There's not much to it: a handmade sign outside that says, "Benito Huipe, Handmade Guitars," a front room with a bare cement floor, a double rack of guitars in various stages of construction on one side, and others hung on the back wall.

Flamenco music from a small, yellow cassette player fills the shop. Huipe always listens to flamenco or classical guitar music, much of it played on his own instruments, as he works.

There is one metal folding chair, where Huipe sits as he holds a guitar and sands it, or rubs on shellac in a circular motion, a technique called French polishing. Hoover notes that this technique of hand-applying the finish gives the guitar a better sound, but makes it less desirable to many American consumers, who prefer a high-gloss sprayed finish.

It takes Huipe approximately 80 hours to make a single guitar. He spreads the time over three or four months, working on several guitars at the same time, in order to give the glue and the eight coats of shellac time to dry between applications.

His guitars sell for between $2,500 and $3,000, quite inexpensive in comparison to other hand-made guitars, which can cost up to $6,000 to $7,000.

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