Living Museums

The Korean luthier keeping one of Spain’s disappearing traditions alive

9 March 2021

Author: Melanie Guil

Right at the intersection of Divino Pastor and Monteleón, in the heart of lively Malasaña, there is a sign that reads ‘Guitarra Ángel Benito Aguado’. If we are lucky enough to find the blinds up, we can see luthier Yunah Park inside, working with silent dedication.

Yunah Park was born in Seoul, South Korea. For the past eight years she has been working as Spanish guitar luthier building instruments in her workshop in Madrid. As a young girl, following her childhood dream of becoming a singer, she picked up the electric guitar and started studying. While in Korea, Yunah wrote her own songs, had an alternative-pop band and also sang in a choir. One of her teachers suggested classical guitar lessons to help with her technique, and she became so fascinated by it that she decided to enrol at University. During her senior year, while preparing to travel to the United States to continue her studies, she heard of a scholarship opportunity in Santiago de Compostela and decided to apply. She was accepted, and so her journey began.

I had no idea what Spain was like, I had never been before. The furthest from Korea I had ever been was Japan. Then, when I arrived here, people were so nice, because I barely spoke any Spanish. And the food was so good. So, in the end, I changed my plans and instead of going to the United States I came to Spain. And it changed my life.

After graduating from University in Santiago de Compostela, she traveled to Alicante, where she lived for four years. It was at that moment that the idea of guitar-making sparked her curiosity.

I got in contact with luthiers and asked them: would you teach me how to make a guitar? Because I actually wanted to make just one guitar. It was my dream. I always liked making things, crafts, I was good at it. And my dream was to play a concert with a guitar built with my own hands.

However, getting into lutherie was not an easy job. Traditionally, craft and skills are passed on from one generation to the next and typically within the family. Yunah couldn’t find any guitar maker willing to teach her; no one wanted to share their secrets to an outsider. In a moment of crisis she even thought of leaving everything behind and going to Germany, but she finally decided to move to Madrid to work as a guitar teacher. That is when she got in touch with Ángel Benito Gutierrez, who became her mentor.

I had known about Ángel for many years because the best guitarist in Korea plays his guitars. So, since I was in Madrid, one day I stopped by to greet him. And it turns out he was looking for apprentices, because he was about to retire and wanted someone to continue with his craft. Three of us started studying with him; me and two guys. And that’s how it all began, eight years ago.

And what is it like to be a woman in a predominantly male occupation?

Physically it is hard. Many people began as carpenters and then transitioned into this profession and started making instruments. I think that’s why it wasn’t as common for a woman to do it.

When people try my guitars they say they sound more ‘sensitive’. I don’t know if they get these ideas because I am a woman. Maybe smaller details I can make a bit more delicately because I have a smaller hand.

But at first, working was very very hard physically. Besides, I don’t come from carpentry, I’m a musician, so I didn’t know how to get hold of the tools. Also, since I am a foreigner, I didn’t even know what they were called! I remember my first days… I didn’t do anything, I just watched and listened. Ángel taught us the tools and I drew and labeled them to be able to memorise them because it was impossible.

Yunah kept working hard. Ever since then, she has built guitars for many different clients. If she had to choose one person to have one of her creations, she talks about her favourite musician, the late guitarist Julian Bream.

He was my idol; I fell in love with his music and I wish he had had one of my guitars, or at least tried it. Also the people who study at the conservatory. Because they are just starting their music career and they could have a guitar to play for many hours.

For Yunah, comfort is key when building a guitar. Being a musician herself, she always tries her instruments to see how to improve them.

For me, the first thing in a guitar is that it sounds good. But it also has to be very comfortable to play. I had a serious injury when I was a guitarist, because professional guitarists study for long hours. I played four to six hours a day and the position is not very comfortable. If you distribute force incorrectly, you can injure your forearm or the muscles in your hands. That is why the shape of the neck is very important to me. But yes, sound comes first. And I always test my guitars, so I try to be objective.

She describes herself as temperamental and adapts her creative process to her mood and feelings.

When I am doing something important, for example the soundboard… if I am agitated or nervous, I do not touch it. Because I don’t want to transfer my feelings to the wood. So in those moments I do rougher tasks.

There are also a lot of people who listen to classical music when they work, but I don’t like it. If I’m listening to music then I can’t work, I can’t do both at the same time. So I work in absolute silence – no sound at all.

All of Yunah’s guitars are artisanal and made-to-order. Construction takes between a month and a half and two, with another extra month for varnishing. In the end, each guitar takes her anywhere from two and a half to three months. She builds only eight or nine a year.

The fact that some guitars are mass-produced does not mean that they are bad. They are very good. But for me, there’s just something about the dedication of doing it manually. The other guitars are not made by just one person. In handmade guitars, starting from the choice of wood and all throughout the process, I am with that guitar. It’s something different. And, in the end, I think that’s what gives it its personality. Because you touch the wood and you feel it… here a little more; there a little less, and so on. It’s like an exchange of sensations with the wood.

Since she started playing classical guitar, Yunah has not picked up the electric guitar again, but says she would love to learn how to make one someday. She plans to stay in Madrid and hopes to be able to buy her workshop space in the future. And, in the same way that Ángel opened a door for her and gave her an opportunity, she wishes to mentor a student and share her craft with someone who can follow her steps.

That honesty and that kindness I received… I want to give it all back someday.

INFO


Melanie is a freelance photojournalist from Buenos Aires and a graduate from EFTI. She enjoys documenting the music scene and writing about arts and culture. You can follow her on Instagram @melguilphoto and see her work here.

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1 Comment

H Thomas 28 July 2021 at 2:21 pm

Interesting and informative article. I love great music and the musicians and their instruments. Combine all three and there is a wonderful experience for all~ Thanks>>

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