Guitar Hero: Carlos Barrios Crafts Instruments Worthy of Being Called Art

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Carlos Barrios with a form used in making his guitars. Michael Heller photos

Carlos Barrios rises before the sun. He reaches his job site by 6:30 a.m. and, most days, doesn’t leave until 5 p.m., driving home against the trade parade to East Hampton.

A carpenter by day, he has the seasoned hands of a woodworker — rough, meticulous and precise. But for three hours every night, in an unfinished corner of his basement, they become the hands of an unassuming artist.

Drawing from a 30-year stockpile of both native and exotic woods, some centuries old, Mr. Barrios leads a double life as a master guitar maker, one who is entirely self-taught.

Outside his social circle, he is virtually unknown to the East End — though it is only a matter of time before his instruments change that.

“When I come home, it’s when I really work for my soul,” Mr. Barrios said. “It’s such a rewarding feeling when you deliver an instrument and you can create something like that. I just love it. Eventually, it will be my full-time work, but not yet. I’m working and trying to put all my effort and my energy into it, to show people my art. It’s gotta be out there.”

An East End resident since the 1990s, Mr. Barrios first landed in Hampton Bays by way of Los Angeles and, originally, Guatemala, where his father taught him the carpentry trade from his small shop inside their family home — much like his workplace now.

“My dad used to have something similar, too,” he said. “As a child, I remember playing with wood. It always caught my attention, the material itself. It’s very interesting — different patterns, different grain. Mother Nature has a fun way of turning it into real art, natural art. And that’s the way I approach the instrument, from the very beginning.”

A finished guitar made of sitka spruce.

He would build his first bass in 1993 — “I was looking for a specific type of bass and I said, ‘If I cannot find it, I will make one,’” he casually explained — and soon after wandered into Hampton Music and Arts Shop, a Hampton Bays mainstay since 1925, which grew into a full service music store in the 1970s when owner Mark Schumacher began as a professional technician.

Browsing the instrument selection, Mr. Barrios overheard a difficult conversation between a customer, whose guitar was broken, and Mr. Schumacher, who said it would be cost-prohibitive to fix. Leaving the guitar in the technician’s trusty hands, the customer left, and Mr. Barrios made his move.

“I can repair that,” he said, confidently.

Mr. Schumacher raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Are you a luthier?”

“Am I a what?”

“Are you a luthier?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Mr. Barrios said, “but no, I’m a carpenter.”

The shop owner laughed. “No, a luthier is like a carpenter, but they repair guitars,” he had explained. “Really, can you fix that?”

“Yeah, give it to me,” Mr. Barrios said.

“How do I know you can fix that?”

“Well, you’re gonna have to trust me,” he replied. “I trust myself enough to say, ‘Yes, I can fix it.’”

Three weeks later, Mr. Barrios brought the guitar back to the store — and all it took was one look from Mr. Schumacher to say, “You are a luthier.”

“Yes,” the guitar maker said. “I am a luthier.”

That was at least 20 years ago, Mr. Barrios said. And every time he visits Hampton Music with one finished guitar, Mr. Schumacher gives him two more — though the work has slowed in recent years, the luthier noted, as he focuses on his own guitar making.

“It’s professional work. It’s as good as it gets,” Mr. Schumacher said. “The last time he came in, he showed me one of the guitars he had finished — which I got to play — and it was just absolutely beautiful.

“It’s very hard to be a luthier and actually make a living,” he continued. “He puts a lot of devotion and time into the instrument, and you can tell because of how it comes out. And he’s also, fortunately, very talented to be doing things like that. Because you can try really hard, but it doesn’t necessarily come out nice.”

Carlos Barrios working at home in his East Hampton workshop.

Over the last seven years, Mr. Barrios has made the same number of guitars, and each begins with a great deal of preparation: finalizing the shape, size, measurements and mathematics, and selecting the raw material. Every instrument is a book match — cut from the same pieces of hard and soft wood — to avoid mixing frequencies, grain and tone, he explained.

“To me, Guatemalan rosewood is one of the best sounding woods that I have, and not because I’m from Guatemala,” he said with a laugh. “It’s because it’s incredible. The voice in this wood is incredible. I haven’t heard anything close to it. The holy grail of guitar making is Brazilian rosewood, but not all the time. Sometimes, some Brazilian rosewood doesn’t have the voice — different temperature, different altitude, different soil that change the tree completely.”

He cut off his undulating, passion-filled explanation — one his friends and family have heard many times before.

“It’s funny because every time I come across somebody who knows me, I get wood from them. It happens to me a lot,” he said. “It’s all about the material. Making an instrument, you use pieces that are 200, 300 years old. I am fortunate enough to have pieces that are almost 1,500 years old. They are salvaged pieces from the redwood forests.”

From them, he begins the building process using a master template and handmade jigs. His bracing system, or the internal wooden struts that support and reinforce the guitar, is a particular point of pride — an adapted version of the circa-1960s Kasha Bracing Design by physical chemist Michael Kasha and luthier Richard Schneider.

“I think, as humans, we have the ability to do anything. That’s what I try to teach to my kids. I have a son and a daughter, and I tell them, ‘You can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want. It’s just a matter of you doing it,’” Mr. Barrios said. “I’m trying to have my son be my apprentice. He just turned 21, and I think he’s got that thing with his hands. I inherited it from my dad; my son probably inherited it from me.

“When I learned from my dad, my dad used to say to me, ‘Just visualize what you want to happen, and it will happen, and then you have a picture in your head of what you’re doing,’” he continued. “So then you just go ahead and do it; it’s as simple as that. That’s how I approach pretty much all the things that I do, throughout my life.”

With its blocks, heel and signature headstock in place, the guitar finally comes together. Mr. Barrios strings it and plays, but just for a few seconds, he said. After all, he considers himself a bassist, not a guitarist.

Inside Carlos Barrios’s workshop.

“When I put the strings, that’s the moment of truth, because that’s when you really know what this guitar is gonna be,” he said. “It could be the most beautiful instrument, but not if it doesn’t sound right. The beauty and all the pretty finishes, it’s extra. It’s about the sound. It’s all about the sound.”

Of all the instruments he’s made and repaired, none sound quite like the guitar commissioned by one of his friends, who died from a stroke three months into the build.

Mr. Barrios left it on the table for eight months. He couldn’t bring himself to finish — until another friend saw it and insisted, and offered to film the process.

“That guitar has such a voice. I invite people to come over just to play that guitar, because it has to be played,” he said. “It needs to be played in order for that guitar to become what it’s gonna become. That wood, I had it for 20 years, down there in the basement. That guitar is unbelievable. It speaks for itself. That instrument, I think all my emotion went into it.”

It is that very guitar that G.E. Smith, former Saturday Night Live band leader, picked up and played in Mr. Barrios’ basement — thanks to North Haven-based artist Eric Fischl, who suggested they pay the luthier a quick visit.

“The fact that Eric wanted me to come over and see this stuff, when Eric says something’s worth looking at, I do. I take notice,” Mr. Smith said. “If Eric thinks it’s worth looking at, I want to look at it.”

What should have been a 30-minute meet-and-greet turned into a two-hour deep-dive into the craft of guitar making. And from the first strum, he said he watched Mr. Smith’s eyes light up.

“I knew exactly what he was going to find in this guitar, and when he started calling it out, I was so happy because I was getting validated — what I know my instruments can produce, I know exactly what this guitar will produce,” Mr. Barrios said. “And he was very, very pleased with what he was feeling from this guitar.”

Mr. Smith, the lead guitarist for Hall & Oates during the band’s heyday, was still flabbergasted by his visit with Mr. Barrios two months later. And while his arsenal is full — “I have way too many guitars,” he said with a laugh — he is already looking forward to their next sit-down, ranking him among the best guitar makers out there.

“It turned out that this guy was 10 minutes from my house, and he’s a real artist who makes beautiful guitars,” Mr. Smith said. “He’s very knowledgeable. I’m no expert on wood, but I am an expert on the wood that goes into guitars, and Carlos knows. We got very deep into the intricate detail of guitar making and the theory of it.

“He’s my kind of guy — and to find out he’s been living there for 20 years, I had no idea. I gotta get back over there,” he continued. “I’ve been in Amagansett since 1981 and I had no idea that he was there. So I’m real happy. It’s not easy to do what he does. A lot of people try, and he’s really something.”

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