Spain with Rafa Gutiérrez's G-force

by Alberto D. Prieto & Massimo D'Angelo

At long last! Time to stop being so damned serious and party down… It's 1985 and the Transition has come and gone, water under the bridge. Thank God for that.  

Jeans have been cropped up so high they look like fisherman's gear, the t-shirts rolled up by the boys, while the girls slip in a pair of shoulder pads to boot. The hip new thinkers with their newfound freedom sneer at these rich-kids, but this new urban tribe takes to the streets, 'mientras la lluvia va empapando el parque'. This crowd weren't there when the new pop scene took off, they grew up with Madrid's movida, missing its first days of life, not having had to fight for their right to party. These guys drop by the Rockola as if it were a stop on Madrid's metro system, which for many that's exactly what it is. It's a part of the daily routine. Check in, rock out, check out.

Hombres G
arrive on the scene totally unaware how perfectly timed their appearance was. The posing and political posturing, the fight for your rights, the edgy seriousness - it all started to become standardised: the Socialists had been in power for some time now and all that fierce rebelliousness had now become institutionalised, just another part of the system.

It was now time to take a listen to those that had not had to run away from the infamous 'grises' [a nickname for the truncheon-wielding police under Franco's dictatorship], youngsters hanging out in the bars, study books under their arms, singing love songs; catchy, amusing, fun lines to pick up with.. the new kids on the block.  

This was the sound of the 'G', this band of twenty-somethings, with no past and Spain's bright and promising future ahead of them.    

30 years have gone by since then, 30 years since these four youngsters started to trot out their first singles and trot around the globe, a bunch of wannabe Beatles 'made in Spain'. Polite young, smartly-dressed men that didn't shout, that sang songs of love, whose greatest act of rebelliousness was to stick the odd "tosser" into a verse or "sucker" in a song's title… This 'new Spain' was striving to find its own identity and these guys fit the bill perfectly. Personifying their generation, they became the backbone of the late eighties, bringing in mass consumption, the young girls following the latest trends and full-on hedonism.    

They had no idea, but the fact is that they were much needed. They became the banner of the new-look Spain, a place where the city kids would cruise behind the wheel of their new, white Ford Fiestas, smiling at the pony-tailed girl who he bumped into one night at the bar while having a beer with his mates. Hombres G skipped up the steps to the hall of fame, where they met 'Rita', the gin queen and her fat friends, who soon gave up laughing at them as they walked on by.  

30 years have come and gone since then, and today we have before us Hombre G, Rafa Gutiérrez (where in his case, the 'G' without doubt stands for 'guitar'), an invited artist to a concert in one of the thousands of bars that populate the Spanish capital.
We find a rocker with blues in his soul who doesn't want to take any of the limelight away from Susan Santos, who is the concert's star performer. We have arranged to meet Rafa to talk to him about guitars (his life) and his music (his passion).  

A few days later we are invited to interview him at his house and knock on his door desperate get to get inside… with the cold rain that was throwing it down outside, we arrived at his home-studio looking like a pair of drowned rats. With his candid and open hospitality, Rafa soon managed to warm us up. We talk together with a closeness that only two lifelong friends could normally share. This is more a friendly chat than an interview, a casual conversation about his guitars, his past and his future.  

When we walk into his studio, his prized possessions are there on display, in order, shining like gems.  

: There are a few missing, that are away being mended: A Kramer that I bought in 1980 in New York and started to customise like a mad man. Among my guitars is an Hombres G classic, as it appeared in many photos. It has Muelle signed on its headstock, which was a make of drums for punk back in those days. One day I went to the rehearsal studio and when I left everything had been signed with that name – my guitar, the amps, even the walls…
A Gibson SG is also missing… I wanted a Bigsby bridge and thought, 'this one!'. 4 or 5 years ago it fell off the stage and the back of the neck cracked, but it still tuned up well enough. Then a few months ago it fell again and then it wouldn't tune. It must be jinxed; I've sent it for repair.  

A history of guitars. Guitars with history.  

Ibanez Gem 77.
Rafa: I bought it in the middle of the Steve Vai craze in the '80s. I looked for one in the United States but couldn't find one (I bought a Peavey Vandenberg… that was a monster of a guitar, a real rock machine). Then, back in Spain, I bought the Gem. It was phosphorescent yellow, beautiful; up on stage, with the black light, it seemed to change colour. The body was very soft and didn't tune well, always going out, and so a luthier (José Luis de Frutos) fixed it… and I had the colour changed. The Ibanez logo disappeared and so we made a plate with 'Sufre Mamón' (Suffer, you sucker), my name and my date of birth inscribed on it."  

The Loar.
Rafa: A friend of mine, Ernesto García Puche, has a studio: we play together in an artistic duo around the bars… thanks to his help we've managed to bring back Rafa&Co, a group I started in the '90s. Ernesto is always looking for second-hand guitars; I know him like my right hand. He's fixated on getting that duo sound back, and found this used The Loar. It was carrying a P90 pickup but I swapped it out. It's strung with flatwounds to get a sound between an acoustic and a classical. I wanted a sound similar to James Taylor's.  

Martin&Co and other acoustics.
Rafa: This Martin is a Pro, my first acoustic: when we started with Hombres G we didn't have much idea about guitars and we weren't good musicians, either. I wanted an acoustic that wasn't too expensive. It's 30 years old. I lowered the neck a little and put a Takamine pickup in it. In those days, the only amplified guitars were Ovation and the odd Takamine with a piezo. I've never really played it that much. In 2002, when Hombres G got back together, I bought another acoustic. It's a Lakewood, it's fine, very well built. Now I play a Taylor a lot; it's very soft. I string it with a .013 and .016 in the first and second strings. I've always been very wary of acoustics. I really suffer with them:  as a lead guitarist, you always have the rhythm as a backdrop that drowns you out and you can't hear yourself. So I set about it by putting two 'fat' ones. Over these last few years I've started to get into them a little more.  

Gibson (& family)
Rafa: The best guitar that I have. The main one for touring. I had one in the '80s and sold it. Every time I go to the United States I ask myself what I need:  a hollowbody, more for rock, more for blues… I bought the Gibson Les Paul Custom last year in New York. It's a cracking story. We were staying at a hotel between 30th and 7th. I was looking for a Guitar Center but couldn't find the shop anywhere. I stopped next to a taxi. I asked the Hindu driver, in my English, if he knew where a guitar shop was. And the guy says, 'Guitar shop? Three o, three o?', which I didn't understand one bit…trio? Then it dawned on me that he was saying 30th street. And I found it: 30th Street Guitars; everything there is vintage: it's pure hell – I'd leave my wallet with them! I found this one, made in 1970, paid 1,200 dollars for it. There were two and I bought this one, with this beautiful sunburst.  
Then I have this one, a Gibson Les Paul Classic Gold Top, a corker. I bought it in 2005. I've always been a fan of Dickey Betts and really wanted to get my hands on a Gold Top.  
I had a Gibson Explorer, but the neck was too thin.  
The Flying V has an interesting story behind it. It's a real rock guitar. I went to buy a Whammy pedal…they didn't have one and I bought the guitar instead. Pure Gibson sound. It's light.  

The Epiphone in vintage white was bought at Sam Ash in Los Angeles 5 or 6 years ago. It's old but I didn't pay more than 1,100 dollars for it. It needed a case. It has a really great sound to it both playing clean and distorted. It has a hotter signal than the Gold Top. It goes well for rock rhythm and it's very comfortable. I plug it into a boutique amp that a luthier made me. With that one I recorded many tracks for the Saltimbanquis album.

Fender (& family)

Rafa: This was my first guitar, a Telecaster Thinline copy, for 10,000 pesetas (€60). It was from a group in Barcelona called Los Cepillos. They came to Madrid and sold it to me after a concert at the Rockola because they didn't have enough money to get back home. Hombres G's first guitar. It's special to me. I was married for a year in 1985 and my wife, when we separated, asked if she could keep it. 4 years ago I bumped into a common friend, a musician. He had it and gave it back to me. After that I had a Fender Thinline with two humbuckers, which I sold in the '90s. It was identical to the guitarist's in Coldplay.  
I've got a Mexican Telecaster Nashville with a piezo. I play it live in a couple of songs. I don't use Telecasters much, but this one has a spectacular acoustic sound to it.  
And I've got a Stratocaster. I put a humbucker in it: I play high-pitched and need the power.    

GUITARS EXCHANGE: Which guitar is missing from your collection?
Rafa: Maybe a Mosrite, but they're hard to come by. I like Rickenbackers (I'm a Paul Weller fan), they're quite beautiful but I don't play them; you can't do solos with them. A Gibson Explorer or a Firebird. I saw a Muddy Waters concert the other day from the '70s. Johnny Winter, 20-odd years old back then, came on with his Firebird. I had one like Phil Manzanera and Stephen Stills's. I saw it in photos from the '70s and loved it. Years ago Gibson gave me guitars, I made an order, but I never got my hands on it.  

GUITARS EXCHANGE: Are you still collaborating with Gibson?
Rafa: No, in Spain there are fans of instrumentalists, fans of singers. I have thousands of fans but I don't think that people by a Gibson just because they see me playing one. Maybe in Latin America; it's different there.    

GUITARS EXCHANGE: When and how did you learn to play?
Rafa: I learned to play in 1974 in a school run by priests when I was 12 years old. The classical guitar teacher would tune the guitars before each class. I used to be one of the first to arrive and so I'd sit there waiting for the others, practicing Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water, which was all I knew. A week later, the priest threw me out of the class. I learnt music thanks to a friend who painted my guitar's neck, inscribing the note at each fret position on it. No written music or anything like that – that's how I learned. Listening and playing at home. Deep Purple, Rory Gallagher, 10 Years After, Allman Brothers, that was my school… a friend of mine played rhythm guitar and day after day I'd spend my time picking out notes over it.    

GUITARS EXCHANGE: From the Allman Brothers to Hombres G?
Rafa: In the 1980s we both came together in the New Wave scene, the Hombres G sound from the Beatles and mine from rock: We liked the classics of that time: The Clash, The Jam, The Cars, Sex Pistols, Police, Blondie, Graham Parker. They were on that wavelength and there is where we came together. We stopped in '91 to have a rest and didn't see each other again for 10 years. But we were still selling in America. In 2002, we went on a tour of Mexico and stayed there for two months. Now we have opened up a market in the United States, which is full of Latin Americans. The concert circuit over there is made up of clubs that hold 2 to 3 thousand people. We've played a lot at the House of Blues chain in Chicago, Boston, etc. There is public there for us. We played twice at the Fillmore in San Francisco. In Los Angeles we played at the Staples Center and in front of 30,000 people at the Lakers stadium. Two years on the run.            

GUITARS EXCHANGE: What would your life be like without guitars?

Rafa: Pretty dire…    

is an experienced guitarist, committed to social causes (together with Manuel Rodriguez we have presented him with an acoustic guitar, one of MRGuitars' very best, which will be auctioned, the proceeds going to the Asociación Dedines in Getafe, Madrid) and easy to get along with. With 'Sueños blues' in the pipeline, together with various other projects, Rafa's great passion is to carry on doing the only thing that keeps him alive and kicking: playing the guitar. And so we say our goodbyes. It is no longer 1985. 30 years have come and gone since then, as have 7 million records and countless packed-out performances (such as the one in Valencia in the '80s, in front of 200,000 people). And there seems to be no stopping him. Hombres G still fill both plazas and palaces, and Rafa is still out there strutting his stuff, letting his solos fly with the same crackling energy.