Couple builds custom flamenco, classic guitars together

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,” says 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 López 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 López 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.

“We used to go out and get the wood ourselves. Now I’m 75 and can’t do it anymore,” Shelton said.

Either one of them can perform all of the tasks involved in guitar building, Shelton said. As a lifetime woodworker, he prefers to do all of the sawing and work in the machine shop and has all of the measurements memorized.

Farretta opts to do the bindings, linings and fine fitting for the guitars.

Shelton and Farretta consider themselves semiretired, so they don’t build as many guitars as they used to.

“We used to make 20 a year. Now we’re down to six or seven,” Shelton said.

“We now work two or two and a half hours a day, because if you work longer than that you start making mistakes, and we can’t have mistakes,” Shelton said.

They still get orders from national and international buyers.

“We’ve sold everywhere from Yemen to Hong Kong,” he said.

Shelton calls building guitars a labor of love.

“I don’t make a lot of money with it, but it’s fun,” he said.

Two years ago, Shelton and Farretta made a new acquaintance in the guitar world, which will lead to another new guitar they will build.

They met Berto Boyd, a flamenco guitarist, composer and artistic director of the Corvallis Guitar Society. Carson Willie, a student of Boyd’s, passed along a request for Boyd to play guitar at a funeral service for Margaret Sparrow, who owned a Shelton-Farretta guitar.

Shelton and Farretta showed him Sparrow’s guitar before he was set to play. They built her the guitar in 1990.

“They pulled this guitar from the case, and it was like the Holy Grail,” Boyd said.

He ended up playing that guitar, instead of the one he brought.

“It was one of the most profound musical experiences that I’ve had,” Boyd said.

Afterwards, her family gave the guitar to Willie, who lent it to Boyd to perform “The Spanish Guitar: From the Streets to the Concert Stage” in April 2016 at the Majestic Theatre. The two worked out a deal, and he eventually gave the guitar to Boyd.

“Luthiers like this in Oregon making this level of guitar is extremely rare,” Boyd said.

Shelton-Farretta also custom-built a guitar for Boyd, which he used last month to perform at the Chintimini Chamber Music Festival.

After the concert, Boyd realized he needed a new classical guitar. Shelton and Farretta are set to build a guitar for him that may be the first of its kind, he said.

“They’re going to make a double top, double body classical guitar for me. This is cutting-edge,” Boyd said.

The double top guitar is two tops sandwiched together. In between them is a honeycomb type of material called Nomex, which makes the guitar more stiff and creates more projection, Boyd said.

The luthiers have seen what a new style of guitar can do for their business.

Farretta said, “This is the Manuel López Ramos of the new Shelton-Farretta age. This is a whole new development, and it’s revolutionary.”

Four of Boyd’s students also own Shelton-Farretta Guitars.

The couple has noticed an increase in interest for their guitars since meeting Boyd.

“We were still selling, but not quite as fast,” Shelton said. People interested in buying a Shelton-Farretta guitar should expect to wait at least a year, he said.

Boyd is determined to buy one of every Shelton-Farretta guitar they make.

“I’ve owned some very high-end instruments from Spain, but there is something about their guitars that really speaks to me that I love,” Boyd said.

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