Review by Eilene Zimmerman
Published December 23, 1999
‘Just a couple of weeks ago Angel Romero came in here trying to choose between two guitars. He would play one and then the other, and we analyzed the different aspects of each one, comparing them. I was trying to help him decide on one, but he was having trouble. Finally he picks up one and plays something for me, and I just start crying.”
Yuris Zeltins tells this story as he leans on a glass case stuffed with guitar-related paraphernalia in the lobby of the Blue Guitar. “In the 1960s they were called the Royal Family of the Spanish guitar,” says Zeltins of the Romeros. “They exemplify, more than anyone else I’ve ever seen, as a group, the joy of music.”
The Romero family became legendary among lovers of classical guitar music in the ’60s and ’70s, at one point appearing on the cover of Time. When they first came to the U.S. from Spain, the family performed as a quartet, the father Celedonio Romero and his three sons: Celin, Pepe, and Angel. Celedonio had learnt How to play bongos and other traditional instruments at a very young age, and had decided to teach his young ones. Today, Pepe and Angel are soloists who perform worldwide, and the new Romero quartet consists of Celin, Pepe (when he’s not soloing elsewhere), Celino, Celin’s son and Lito, Angel’s son.
“We are the most famous guitarists in the world,” says Angel Romero to me on the phone. “We are the most recorded classical guitarists in the world.” For the last 25 years, Zeltins’ relationship with the Romero family has been much like that of a favored mechanic to a race car driver. “Their equipment has to be in race state,” he says of the Romeros, who live in Del Mar. “Little details need to be corrected all the time, and the instruments need to be maintained. Each musician has a unique standard.”
According to Angel Romero, Zeltins is the Zen master of little details. “At this point Yuris is like a member of the family. We love him. There is one thing about someone who understands a repair, and someone who can create magic with his repairs, and Yuris does that. We take an instrument to him that’s, for example, all broken in flight from touring, and he gives it back to us better than it was before. I’m always totally surprised,” he says. Zeltins says the Romeros check their guitars in the cargo holds of planes if they have to, because many times the airlines force them to do that. Of course, their first choice is to keep the guitar on the plane with them, and they try to get it in the overhead compartments and over the years have had confrontations with flight attendants. Sometimes they hide the guitar under a big raincoat and stick it overhead.
“I went to a gig of my own in Arizona,” says Zeltins, “and they put the guitar on board between a stove and a refrigerator and tore the case. Another customer of mine landed in Portugal and he had his guitar on last-on/first-off. The luggage shifted and crushed the whole thing.”
At one time Angel brought Zeltins a guitar with splits and holes in the wood. Says Angel, “We used to bring these kinds of things to famous repair people, and they would come back repaired, but you could see it. With Yuris, I give him the same guitars and when it comes back, the split or damage is gone. It doesn’t exist anymore,” says Angel. “He is the research scientist of the guitar.” Pepe was the first Romero to seek out Zeltins’s magic. He came in with his number-one guitar, but Zeltins didn’t know that at the time. The finish was originally a French polish, but it wasn’t durable enough to hold up under the rigors of constant performance. Even a layer of lycra applied over the French polish had been destroyed. Zeltins had been experimenting with a catalyzed finish, one that had an epoxy-like hardener in it. “I said to Pepe, I could try this finish on it and he says, ‘Okay.’ No big deal. I didn’t even have to try and reassure him nothing would happen. He didn’t even ask how much,” says Zeltins.
Zeltins got started in the guitar business when he was 16 because he wanted a guitar. The one he wanted was $400, and in 1958, that was a lot of money. So he built one. “I love puzzles…I had to work out the technical details, but ultimately it got built, and then I sold it. Somebody actually bought it,” he says.
I ask him why he sold the guitar after all that work.
“It’s like your own home cooking — it’s better to eat out. I didn’t think it was as good as one made by a true manufacturer. I did use it for a while and it served me well, but I wanted a ‘real’ one. My first best guitar was made in Granada, Spain, by Manuel de Chica — he’s a guitar maker there…. It was cheaper to get a guitar there than here.”
Around this time (the 1960s), Zeltins began hanging out at a place called Frank’s, a long-gone furniture store in San Diego whose owner, Frank, also sold guitars from Mexico. “Everyone who played guitar that I’d heard of hung out there, so I did too. It was a growing-up experience for me, and I learned how to play. Eventually I started teaching,” he says.
Zeltins says the young musicians in Frank’s store began hanging out, often past midnight, until the owner’s wife put a stop to it. With no place to gather, Zeltins and a student of his, former San Diego police officer Ed Douglas, and another partner whose name Zeltins can no longer remember formed the Blue Guitar.
Zeltins was 19. He got married and for a variety of reasons he and his partners decided to split, with Douglas taking the Blue Guitar (which sold equipment) and Zeltins starting the Blue Guitar Workshop. Douglas wound up getting out of the music retail business, and Zeltins — now with his brother helping out — wound up with the only Blue Guitar in town.
“My brother managed the business for a while, but he had his own guitar place in Encinitas, called Blue Ridge. That’s gone now too.”
The Blue Guitar has existed in three locations in Old Town, three locations on Midway, and one in Pacific Beach. When it was opening in its first place on Midway, 15-year-old Steve Neal drove by with his parents and saw the store’s sign. “I was guitar crazy at that point,” says Neal. “As soon as we got home I grabbed my bike and rode down to the shop. I heard Yuris playing flamenco and asked him to teach me. He’s kind of a gruff guy, and he said, ‘No, I don’t want to teach you, take lessons from this guy.’ ”
After two weeks of lessons, Neal’s flamenco teacher moved away and he pressured Zeltins to continue the lessons. “I’d come down on a Saturday,” recalls Neal, “and pay Yuris two dollars, and he’d start showing me things. I’d go into the bathroom to practice and get it down and come out, and he’d show me something else. And then I’d go back into the bathroom. We’d go on the whole day like that, with Yuris working on guitars all the while.”
In the 1960s, guitars were sold, repaired, and restored at the Blue Guitar. You could take lessons there, you could even see shows. “We had Mason Williams and Hoyt Axton perform there, all friends of the shop,” says Neal. “Chris Hillman was an old friend of ours, from a group called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers — and that was the Blue Guitar bluegrass band. That was the house band. All the guys in it either owned the shop, worked here, or hung out here. Chris hung out at the shop and was good friends with us. He founded the Byrds a few years later…. He was a real fine mandolin player, and then he got into rock and roll guitar. We still see him once in a while…. Mason Williams, who was huge in the folk era, he wrote ‘Classical Gas,’ it was a number-one hit in the ’60s, he also would hang out here and play. And Hoyt Axton — who just died — he was also hanging out at the same time, but he wasn’t living in the house…. Hoyt came down one time during this period and he walked in with a sheepish look on his face, carrying a grocery bag. And sticking out the top of the bag was a guitar neck. We looked inside and here was this smashed 1940s Gibson J45. It’s a great old-time guitar. He had driven over it with his car…. It took a while, but we fixed it up. Matter of fact, it was on the next album he made, on the cover.” I ask Neal, “Why didn’t Yuris tell me any of this when I asked him?”
“Yuris is a humble guy; he doesn’t even think this is unusual or interesting.” During that decade Zeltins got drafted, although before Vietnam. Neal enlisted in the air force and served four years, the last spent in Vietnam. When he got back from the war it was 1969, and Neal planned on using the GI Bill to go to college. Zeltins suggested he also work at the Blue Guitar.
Thirty years later, the two men are good friends and still work together. Before moving the store to its current India Street location, it was at the corner of Cass and Garnet in Pacific Beach for 13 years. Zeltins still owned it then but says it was “too rock and roll. I got tired of it. I wanted to do guitar repair and restoration. The workshop area in the back of the PB store was very small and the rest was retail. I said I didn’t want to run the business anymore, so Steve took it over.”
Five years ago Neal and Zeltins sold most of the Pacific Beach store’s inventory and Neal took over day-to-day affairs of the business. The two men stopped teaching guitar but have a bevy of teachers associated with the shop who give lessons. “San Diego is one of the finest places in the country to study guitar, especially classical,” says Zeltins.
He and Neal set up this newest Blue Guitar as a workshop, with a small retail section up front. “We have guys apprenticing here with us, and Yuris and I work with them,” says Neal.
The days when performers would stop by and do an impromptu set are long past, and Zeltins, a flamenco guitarist himself, now only performs with the Pena Andaluza — a musical club that hails from Southern Spain and has clubs, with guitarists and singers, in other parts of the country. The Pena Andaluza to which Zeltins belongs is the only one in Southern California. “Ours is the only Pena recognized by the government of Spain in the U.S. The club exists all over the world in different countries, but it’s not known necessarily as a Pena. That’s our name. We did travel around performing for a while and used to be based in LA. For about five years now it’s been based here.” Zeltins’s wife, a flamenco singer, is president.
“But we’re easing out of that too,” he says. “We’ve got grandchildren now, and I want to focus more on the rebuilding anyway…. I’ve found that the quality of the instruments I produce is more meaningful to me than any glory I can get from playing. In Spain there are kids 14 years old that can play rings around anyone here playing flamenco; they are a dime a dozen. So it’s fantasy to think you are doing something substantial, something other than just enjoying yourself, when you play flamenco here.”
Classical guitars, however, are universal, as is classical music. “South Africa, Japan, Korea, the U.S. — classical music is the same, and all cultures have access to it. So I can make a much more significant and meaningful contribution to music this way. It’s more worth my time to work on classical guitars.” The oldest guitar Zeltins has ever restored was built in 1803, although he is expecting a guitar dating back to the 1700s to come to the shop for restoration work any day now. These antiques are considered works of art, yet Zeltins says he doesn’t get nervous handling them.
“It’s like dealing with a child in a lot of ways. You have to know when to be firm and when to be nice.”