ALSEA, Ore. — A love for flamenco guitar brought John Shelton and Susan Farretta together during college in the mid-1960s.
It was only the beginning for Shelton-Farretta Guitars.
“John was always looking for a better guitar, so we started building a better guitar,” said Farretta, Shelton’s wife of 46 years.
Shelton and Farretta of Alsea are master luthiers who have built custom flamenco and classical guitars as a team for the past 40 years.
“I grew up in the Philippines, where the guitar is almost the national instrument,” Farretta said.
Shelton, who grew up in Portland, got an early introduction to woodworking, including basic cabinetry.
At Portland State University (then known as Portland State College), Shelton became fascinated with flamenco guitar.
“About my freshman year at college I took up the guitar and started playing. I taught myself for years,” Shelton said.
A good friend of his, who also played guitar, helped him build his first guitar in 1967.
“We just sat down and built a couple of guitars together,” Shelton said. “Of course, being a woodworker, it just came natural.”
Shelton and Farretta met at the University of Portland, where she was enrolled.
“He was playing flamenco, and I was very interested in flamenco dance, and that was kind of the impetus when we finally got together,” Farretta said.
Shelton taught Farretta what he knew about building guitars, and she was as devoted as he was. They got married in 1971.
Shelton played flamenco guitar professionally for more than 40 years, and also taught students. The flamenco guitars were popular early on.
“He always had a student waiting for the next one to take, because it was all limber, wonderful and easy to play,” Farretta said.
The couple performed and toured with several different companies and groups in addition to building guitars.
“We were always building. It was a very busy life,” Farretta said.
They also built classical guitars for friends in Portland, until they met a famous customer with a special request.
Renowned classical guitarist Manuel L?pez Ramos came to Portland to perform a concert and was interested in meeting Shelton to see if he could repair a double-body guitar that he had bought in Mexico City.
As Farretta recalled, Shelton told him, “I can’t repair it, but give me some time, and we’ll design a double body that won’t fail.”
In 1981, Shelton designed and built the guitar for L?pez Ramos.
From there Shelton-Farretta began building double-body classical and flamenco guitars, including two more for Ramos.
A double-body guitar is essentially a guitar with a shell over the back and sides. The shell is attached to the guitar at the neck, the end block and along the sides. But the shell and the guitar back do not touch.
This shields the player’s body from contacting the back of the guitar, so it can resonate freely. According to their website, this gives the guitar an unusual “presence.” The site says, “These guitars are very difficult to build and use as much wood as two traditional guitars.”
Farretta said there may be Spanish guitar makers who design double bodies, but they don’t know anyone else who makes them.
Shelton and Farretta worked out of four different small shops in downtown Portland before they relocated to Alsea in 2005, where they have a machine shop and an assembly room next to their home.
They build double classic, double flamenco, classic and flamenco guitars, ranging in price from $3,000 to $4,600. They use cedar, spruce, cypress and various kinds of rosewood, depending on the type of guitar.
Either one of them can perform all of the tasks involved in guitar building, Shelton said.