Inside a modest storefront in Boyle Heights sits Guadalupe Custom Strings. The shop looks like any other at first, but beyond the register and glass case, the workshop is packed with shiny spools of steel, a rainbow of dyed nylon strands, and more than a few guitars and other stringed instruments.
Brightly dyed nylon strands at Guadalupe Custom Strings in Boyle Heights (Credit: Katherine Garrova)
GCS co-owner Gabriel Tenorio says he and his colleagues are reviving an old tradition.
“This is the way strings used to be made,” he says.
Tenorio and his team hand-make every set of strings they sell, using a simple motor-and-workbench setup. It makes for a string that not only sounds better, but lasts longer too.
“The machines that make strings by the thousands have cheapened the whole value of strings and the concept of it," Tenorio says. "But what we do is actually make them the way they used to do it with really great American materials, high quality and a process that is very laborious. “But what it yields is a much better string.”
Inside the custom lab at Guadalupe Custom Strings, master string-maker Gabriel Tenorio makes a steel guitar string (Credit: Katherine Garrova)
Tenorio started playing guitar at 15 years old and as a kid he used to hang out at the legendary Candelas guitar shop just up the street. Now he plays anything he can get his hands on, so he knows what musicians are looking for.
At what he calls the custom lab, Tenorio and his string-makers craft handmade sets for Mexican harps, guitarróns, bajo sextos, the small Cuban guitar known as a tres — and some more uncommon instruments too, like the leoncita.
“This instrument literally comes from the lineage of the baroque guitar and the oud, and so nobody makes these strings for these instruments,” says Tenorio as he plays a low note on the leoncita. “These instruments are carved by hand in forests, jungles and mountainside villages.”
Tenorio says custom string-making was a craft passed down from a fellow musician: The founder of Guadalupe Custom Strings — and an original member of Los Lobos — Francisco Gonzalez.
“Francisco used to make my strings and he would never charge when I met him in my early 20s," Tenorio says. "And it was inspiring because he would take you into his shop, like ours — this crazy wreck of a place with all these weird materials and stuff. You feel like it’s lineage, you feel like it’s heritage, you feel like it’s craft — this artisanal craft that somebody has to pick up.”
The art of string making is something Tenorio is passing down too.
Vaneza Calderon is an apprentice at GCS. “Overall, I do a little bit of everything," she says. "String making, part of the business, orders, shipping, cleaning up."
Vaneza Calderon is an apprentice at Guadalupe Custom Strings in Boyle Heights. (Credit: Katherine Garrova)
As a working musician — she plays the guitarrón — Calderon says there are perks to working at GCS.
“I have my own mariachi trio, we’re called La Victoria,” Calderon says. “ I’ve gotten a couple gigs to work with these men. The last group I played with, the man called me, he [said], ‘Hey, I met you at the string shop, can you come play with us?’ And luckily my schedule was free so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’”
It’s those very same working musicians that Tenorio says are some of his best customers.
“We have our foot traffic, which are local musicians, a lot of students as well, but mainly local mariachi and norteño musicians who play on the streets,” he says.
Thanks to his local regulars and an online store, Tenorio says business is good. And all the best mariachis pick up their strings at GCS: Vargas, Los Camperos, Los Toros and others.
For GCS master string-maker Albert Grey, it's all about pleasing his fellow musicians.
“They get the sound that they want and all of a sudden you see this big smile, and it’s like watching a kid get a toy,” Grey says. “That’s where my reward — hearing my product with somebody’s talent.”
It’s a sentiment that Tenorio says is at the heart of what they do at Guadalupe Custom Strings. Even as the company continues to grow and sell to customers all around the world, Tenorio says their little shop in Boyle Heights will always be home base.
“We know [in order] to get the community support, we gotta be out there supporting as well,” he says. “Our extended family is the Los Angeles musical community and we’re really happy about that.”