Sunday, July 1, 2012

Andalusia to Southern Oregon

A flamenco guitar maker strikes a note with local cedar

By Ann Euston

Lee Stansell plays one of his handcrafted flamenco guitars outside of his Oregon coastal redoubt. / Photo by Stan Euston
Lee Stansell plays one of his handcrafted flamenco guitars outside of his Oregon coastal redoubt. / Photo by Stan Euston
Before and after, a Stansell flamenco guitar. / Photo by Stan Euston
Before and after, a Stansell flamenco guitar. / Photo by Stan Euston
Stansell in his shop in the Pistol River. / Photo by Stan Euston
Stansell in his shop in the Pistol River. / Photo by Stan Euston

Pressed up close to Pistol River’s South Bank Road, Les Stansell’s shop appears an unassuming grey corrugated metal building. A dozen broken surfboards and an assortment of wood lean against it. A small hand-painted sign says “Stansell and Co.” That’s as close as Stansell comes to direct advertising—even though he’s renowned for his handcrafted flamenco guitars.

As low-key as the outside of the shop appears, inside is a light-filled, custom-designed, climate-controlled studio. Workbenches line the walls, covered with particle board forms, jigs, vises, blowers, vacuums, glues, lacquers and brushes.

Stacked in neat piles and leaning against walls are white planks of fragrant unfinished Port Orford Cedar—a wood unique to Southern Oregon’s Coast Range and a key material in Stansell’s highly coveted flamenco guitars.

His Pistol River home, a location he describes as “a centrally isolated stretch of the West Coast of North America,” is the only place Stansell ever wanted to be. As a luthier using local wood, he’s found the means to stay by also selling Port Orford Cedar as a wood broker.

He is the fourth generation to live in Pistol River (about ten miles south of Gold Beach) on land his mother’s great grandparents homesteaded in 1887. His grandchildren live next door. His brother lives down the street. Stansell and his wife, Mary, live up the hill from his studio in a home they built.

Stansell grew up a guitarist, in a home filled with music. His dad and aunt played, sang and recorded bluegrass, blues and swing. On an early visit to Barcelona, Stansell was swept away by flamenco but thought it was a strictly indigenous form. In 1978, while studying music performance at Southern Oregon University, he jumped at the offer of a one-year apprenticeship with noted guitar maker Anthony Huvard at Seattle’s Northwest Institute of Instrument Design. There Huvard taught him how to build his first flamenco-style guitar, a six-stringed, cypress wood instrument in the classic 1860s Spanish Torres tradition. He was hooked.

That guitar, handcrafted more than thirty years ago, still holds a place of honor in his upstairs office. “It still sounds pretty good,” he admits.

Flamenco originated in southern Spain’s Andalusia, where gypsies are said to have sung the first searing, heart-wrenching cantes , or the folk songs that are the soul of flamenco. The fiery dancing and dazzling guitar playing followed. Authentic flamenco is an improvisational medium, not the flashy, tightly choreographed performance for stage. Historically, flamenco was considered mere folk art but in recent decades has gained respect as the highly evolved form of music it has become.

Flamenco guitars are siblings of the standard Spanish classical guitar. They are much lighter—less than three pounds—because they’re made of very light yet extremely strong woods such as rosewood or Port Orford Cedar. Their necks are slightly thinner with strings closer to the frets than their classical cousins. This construction leads to a drier, shallower, less sustained and woody percussive sound. With this design, each note in the rapid flurry of flamenco playing sounds distinct. The sturdy construction also supports a player’s tapping or slapping of the guitar, an integral rhythmic accompaniment of flamenco style. As well-suited as these guitars are for flamenco, Stansell believes, “it’s a much more versatile guitar than most people realize.”

Across three decades of guitar construction and his own study of flamenco, Stansell honed his style and designed many of his tools. While striving for uniform excellence, each instrument he crafts is slightly different, based on the individual qualities of each piece of wood he uses. Some guitars are all Port Orford Cedar, others incorporate beautifully grained myrtlewood, another indigenous Southern Oregon species. Often he’ll use myrtlewood as a decorative rosette around the sound hole. Other times he laboriously creates millefiore-like mosaics of veneers, which he cuts into tiny blocks, then glues a rosette burst around the hole. Beneath it all, he controls for three main qualities in his guitars—playability, tonality and structural integrity.

Originally sold on consignment through guitar shops around the country, Stansell now markets online (stansellguitars.com), at occasional shows and by word of mouth. In a market where prices can easily reach $10,000, Stansell guitars begin at $5,000. These guitars have garnered endorsements from professional guitarists, and his recent video documentary, A Guitar Makers Path, was selected for screening at film festivals in Ashland and Port Townsend, Washington.

Beyond musical quality, each Stansell instrument is a beautiful object, with luminous honey-colored wood tones. Even so, Stansell does not claim to be an artist. Rather, he sees himself as the facilitator, crafting the instrument for the musician who ultimately creates the art, the music.

Having built close to one hundred world-class guitars, Stansell says his best moments are when musicians, playing his guitars, tell him they’ve never played as well before.

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