A Tour of the Córdoba Guitars US Shop

Posted on March 5, 2014 | by Adam Perlmutter

Cordoba feature image

Córdoba and Guitar Salon International (GSI) are headquartered under the same roof in Santa Monica, a short walk from my home office. It’s easy to miss this building, situated at the corner of a sleepy residential street, with its nondescript two-story brick exterior that belies the treasures housed inside. Just past the lobby is GSI’s main showroom, the walls lined with some of the world’s most coveted nylon-string guitars, presented regally in glass cases. Here, clients can audition the instruments on plush leather couches and chairs while enjoying the superb acoustics of the hall, which soars two full stories in height. It’s a relaxed setting.

No other American company has done more to refute the notion of the nylon-string guitar being a staid instrument than Córdoba. The company’s many offerings range from highly playable traditional models to sleek cutaway instruments with the most modern built-in electronics, intended not just for classical music but all styles.

Until October 2012, when Córdoba opened its first American workshop in Oxnard, California, the company’s instruments were built in Spain, Portugal, and China. The new shop is dedicated to a recently debuted Master Series line of instruments that pays homage to the grandfather of the modern classical guitar, Antonio de Torres Jurado, as well as other luthiers instrumental in its development: Hermann Hauser Sr., Miguel Rodríguez, and Manuel Reyes. The guitars in the Master Series, overseen by master luthier Kenny Hill, are patterned closely after the originals, but sell for a fraction of the price.

Founded in 1997, Córdoba is an outgrowth of GSI, the premier boutique for classical and flamenco guitars, both new and vintage. Tim Miklaucic, the CEO of Córdoba and GSI, was first exposed to fine classical guitars when he studied with Celin Romero and other members of the legendary Romero Quartet in the 1970s. In 1977, while a student at the University of California–San Diego, Miklaucic began importing guitars from Spain. In 1983, while working on a PhD in philosophy at UCLA, he founded GSI.

By the mid-1990s, GSI had become the US distributor of José Ramírez guitars. These costly instruments sold in impressive numbers, and Miklaucic and company saw a potential market for high-quality nylon-string instruments at lower price points. With the help of German luthier Edmund Blöchinger, Miklaucic refined the bracing and design of the initial instrument, which they began building in Spain, under the name Córdoba, after the city in Andalusia, southern Spain, where Rodríguez, Reyes, and other guitar makers had their shops.

Now, the Córdoba Music Group has several factories in the south of China, producing about 5,000 instruments a month, ranging from entry-level ukuleles to higher-end all-solid guitars built in a small boutique shop. Córdoba also has a shop in Valencia, Spain, overseen by Blöchinger, which builds around 100 more-expensive guitars a month, and the firm distributes the string companies Savarez and Aquila, as well as HumiCase, a line of cases with built-in humidifiers.

To find out more about Córdoba’s American-made Master Series guitars, I decided to visit the company’s headquarters and shop in southern California.

Nylon-String Central

I meet Miklaucic and Jonathan Thomas, Córdoba’s president, in a large room where examples of all the instruments in the line, numbering around 80, are hung on the walls. Absent, however, are the guitars I have come to check out, those produced in the new Oxnard shop.

So the three of us step outside and board the company van.

On the drive, Miklaucic and Thomas speak with such deep knowledge about the nylon-string guitar, its history, and construction, that it would seem that they themselves are luthiers. But they’re not—just formidable musicians who have gleaned vast knowledge through their experiences in factory management, product development, and design, to say nothing of handling so many fine classical guitars through GSI.

Studying the Masters

We drive north through Malibu, and it is apparent that the two are jazzed to see the work of the shop—a project on which they have worked tirelessly—as they fill me in on the inception of the new line. “Once we finished construction on the shop last October, we decided to find some guitars to use as reference for the new series,” Thomas says. “We obtained a selection of important guitars from collectors and friends, and several instruments that belong to my dad [Larry Thomas, former CEO of Guitar Center and current CEO of Fender Musical Instruments]. Tim loaned us a few as well.” These instruments included examples of some of the most legendary nylon-string guitars ever made: four by Torres, from 1856, 1860, 1864, and 1888; 1935 and 1936 instruments by Hauser; a quintet of Rodríguez models made between the 1960s and early ’70s; and a 1987 Reyes flamenco.

Guided by Kenny Hill, who has done similar work for his own company, the Córdoba team scrutinized the vintage guitars with critical eyes, hands, and ears. “We examined each guitar inside and out, noting thicknesses, joints, materials, grain patterns, bracing, and dimensions,” says Thomas, adding that instead of using computer analysis, the team opted for various calipers and the MAG-ic Probe, an electronic thickness gauge that measures to 1/100 mm using magnets.

“We mapped and blueprinted all of this information, then built molds and jigs for our own shop to work to these specifications,” Thomas says. “We took detailed photos of rosettes, purflings, and inlays and reproduced these ornamentations for our guitars. The aesthetics and dimensions were the easy part. The hard part was making guitars that had a sound and feel like the originals. We played and listened to all the original guitars for hours to get to know each instrument’s voice and understand what tonal characteristics made each guitar unique. We built many prototypes and tweaked and refined things until we came up with a guitar that we were proud of.”

Miklaucic adds that the measurements alone could not have provided the information needed to channel the essence of the original instruments. “We, of course, could have gotten even greater precision in terms of raw measurements by using more advanced tools,” he says. “But that technology would have told us nothing about certain critical elements, like the orientation of grain patterns, how the tree grew, the stiffness of the bracing, and whether the wood was cut on or off radius. It takes a seasoned luthier and player like Kenny to be able to study a guitar mechanically, to gain a real understanding of how a 150-year-old instrument works and how to channel its soul in a new instrument.”

Inside the Workshop

Córdoba’s 25,000-square-foot Oxnard facility houses not only its new 5,000-square-foot shop but its North American distribution center. Entering through a long hallway, we arrive at a room where three quality-control specialists sit at workstations, subjecting instruments to rigorous inspection. One of the workers, Guil Juliao, is playing a lovely bossa nova progression on the guitar he is checking out, as his cohorts look on approvingly. The testing room leads into a cavernous space resembling a giant airplane hanger, where all of Córdoba’s instruments imported for the North American market are shipped and received. Thousands of instruments in cases and gig bags, in and out of shipping boxes, sit neatly on tall racks, ready to find new homes. The new workshop is situated in a corner of this room. Just outside the workshop is where the loudest and dustiest work on the Master Series guitars—like the rough-cutting of wood—is completed. I find Kenny Hill, who spends a couple days each month overseeing the work of the four luthiers in the shop. He shows me some of the equipment he has arranged for the project. “This one’s like a Rube Goldberg machine,” he says of a wood-bending apparatus he’s fashioned to bend the sides of the guitars, heated by a pair of 300-watt light bulbs.

Miklaucic opens a door next to this workspace to reveal a closet stocked with carefully selected, top-grade tonewoods in a range of brown and golden hues—mostly spruces, rosewoods, cedars, and maples—all in the final stages of drying, the environment controlled at a constant humidity level of 37 percent. “We’ve got enough wood in here for three months and are actively building up our supply,” says Miklaucic, who is hands-on when it comes to selecting the woods for his company’s instruments. “The beauty of having a small shop like this is that we can be flexible and playful with our offerings. If a beautiful exotic rosewood or a special Hawaiian koa becomes available, we would love to use the wood in a Master Series instrument, even if the original luthier wouldn’t have.”

In another room, infused with the sweet smell of freshly sanded wood, luthier Fructuoso Zalapa quietly shapes a headstock by hand with a chisel, while his colleague Andrew Enns stands at a nearby workbench, scrutinizing a segment of bracing. A peek around the room reveals a solera (the traditional wood mold in which the guitar is built facedown, with the neck and body joined before the sides are attached) cradling a cedar-top Rodríguez Master Series awaiting its back. There are also various blueprints and molds that Hill has created, racks of guitars in various stages of completion, and a proliferation of hand tools. “We’re basically building guitars the same way Torres did,” Hill says, “except, thanks to electricity, we don’t need to use charcoal to bend the sides.”        

From a black hard-shell case, Hill retrieves a completed Master Series Torres model, a great beauty with a narrow silhouette and pale European spruce soundboard contrasting with a dark wood herringbone rosette and binding. The guitar looks like something from a time capsule, but like all the others in the Master Series, it benefits from such modern features as a truss rod and a finish that would not have been available to the original luthier: high-gloss polyurethane. Hill also shows us a finished Rodríguez model with a glowing reddish Canadian cedar top and multicolored rosette, which has a slightly more complex sheen thanks to its French-polish finish, a period-correct option on all of the instruments in the series.

The Classical World

Stepping outside of the workshop, Miklaucic and Thomas show examples of Córdoba’s imported instruments: assorted nylon-string guitars and a tenor ukulele designed in collaboration with master luthier Pepe Romero Jr. I try a couple of the instruments and am impressed by their high quality, in terms of playability and tonality, in the $500 range—no mean feat for a large guitar company with overseas factories. As I leave, Miklaucic explains that these more modest offerings are what made the Master Series possible. “We’re fortunate to have been able to leverage our success in the nylon-string world to start the new shop, as so many small operations struggle to succeed financially,” he says.

On the return trip to Santa Monica, Miklaucic and Thomas, clearly energized by the visit, continue to talk excitedly about all things guitar—from the smallest details, like the sourcing of superior machine heads, to the philosophical. “At the end of the day, we really just want to introduce the nylon-string guitar to the millions of guitarists who think it’s not for them, only because they haven’t been exposed to it,” Miklaucic says.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar, November 2013

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