On a residential street in the northern San José district of Tibás, a modest two-story wooden building houses the workshop of the family Guzmán, the name that has become synonymous in Costa Rica with quality handmade guitars.
The door to the front office is open to the street, allowing neighbors and customers to pop in with a greeting or a quick question.
The room is covered with a thin layer of sawdust, a variety of acoustic and electroacoustic guitars line one wall ready to be picked up or sold, and the desk holds a frequently ringing telephone.
Behind the small but busy office is the workshop where the founder of Guitarras Guzmán Hermanos, S.A., 86-year-old Miguel Guzmán, can be found. The neveridle don Miguel wears a pleasant expression as he moves methodically and carefully while assembling the neck and fingerboard of a guitar. Instruments in various stages of production lean on the workbenches and adorn the tables.
More than 70 years ago, don Miguel came by foot from the mountain town of Puriscal, northwest of the capital, to the San José area.
He began his guitar-making career in the shop of his uncle, Emanuel Mora, with whom he worked and trained for 12 years.
In 1948 don Miguel started out on his own, with a carpenter’s bench given to him by Mora that he still uses to this day. At first he had the help of his brother Aristides. Later, his children came to work in the guitar shop.
His oldest, Manuel Antonio, 59, learned the trade from his father and works with him, while Sonia, 56, staffs the storefront in a second location in Tibás.
Sonia speaks proudly of her father’s work ethic.
“My father is an excellent man; he has been running around working for more than 60 years,” she says. “I have always felt great pride for my father. God gave him a talent.”
While the elder Guzmán works, Manuel takes time to explain the business and share more of the family history. With a small smudge of sawdust on one cheek and a ready smile, Manuel seems to enjoy telling the story and demonstrating the process of making a Guzmán guitar.
While today the shop employs only five workers, before the depression in the 1980s, the company had as many as 27. In its busiest time it was able to produce 10 guitars per day. Now, with its smaller staff, it makes an average of 20 per week.
Guzmán guitars are sold all over the country, and Manuel explains that “every one of the guitars is unique.” Clients have included the late, great bolero master Ray Tico.
Guitarras Guzmán makes classical, acoustic and electro-acoustic guitars of all sizes, cut-away guitars, requintos and mandolins.
The price range for guitars begins at ¢45,000 (about $90) and climbs to ¢500,000 ($1,000). Prices depend on the quality of wood, inlays and other special modifications that can be requested. The average guitar takes 10 hours to make; however some higher-end styles can take up to 60 hours.
According to Manuel, what makes Guzmán guitars special is the “personal treatment.”
The instruments are not only put together with personalized attention, but are also decorated by hand. Each one is unique, and each receives either a hand-painted design or a conch shell inlay surrounding the sound hole.
It may seem strange to some, but neither Manuel nor his father has ever learned to play the guitar. Manuel says he never wanted to learn, explaining that “making an instrument is a very different art than playing one.”
“Everyone asks us if we know how to play the guitar,” he adds. “But nobody asks a guitarist if he knows how to make a guitar.”
After Manuel rushes out to pick up his grandkids, great-grandfather don Miguel gives a quick tour of the rest of the work area. Up a flight of rickety wooden stairs, he shows us the second floor where dozens of guitars hang while their glue dries before they can be sanded again, varnished and polished.
Sun peeks through a cloud and angles across the dusty floor. Guitars of various sizes sway gently from the ceiling.
Don Miguel smiles and says, “I will keep working in the shop until eight days before I die. I’m happy. If I stay busy, there won’t be time to die.”
Guitarras Guzmán offers pre-made guitars, guitars built to order and instrument repair services out of its storefront and workshop locations in Tibás.
Storefront: Five Corners of Tibás,
Workshop and Office: From the San Juan de
Tibás church, 500 meters south and 50 meters west.