Hill resident Dave Pelham numbers the guitars he builds. Number one was completed in 1975 after an encounter with master guitar builder David Santo. “He was finishing a guitar for Kenny Loggins. He gave me quick verbal instructions [on building a guitar], said I probably didn’t need power tools for construction and that was it.
“After I built the guitar I showed it to him and he said, ‘This is a real guitar!’” And it has been in the world of real acoustic guitars that Dave Pelham has spent much of his free time — listening to masters and young students play, playing guitar himself while exploring chords and tonalities, building guitars, and travelling as often as he can to Paracho, Michoacán, Mexico, known for its master guitar builders and annual guitar festival, Feira de La Guitarra.
More than half of the 37,000 people of Paracho are invested in some form in guitar building, production, or marketing. The instruments crafted there are famous throughout Mexico and internationally because of their artistic design, construction and sound.
But it was not always guitars in Pelham’s artistic life. Born in Indiana but junior and high schooled in Sarasota, Florida, Pelham had the good fortune to live in the same city as master painter and water-colorist Hilton Leech. “At 19, I built this mandolin-like instrument out of maple,” said Pelham. From building the instrument, Pelham was awarded a sculpture scholarship. But it was, through exposure to the work of Leech, that Pelham began to work in painting — mixed media and watercolors. “I exhibited my work and received good critical remarks, with critics noting the influence of Leech in my work,” said Pelham. He later added acrylics and still photography into his art bag, but then it was back to guitars.
Pelham spent his professional life teaching special education. He began in Anaheim and Buena Park in 1970, and came to Idyllwild in 1986 as director and instructor at Morning Sky School in Mountain Center. After completing his first guitar in 1975, teaching occupied his time. “It took me a decade to finish the next three guitars, because of my teaching responsibilities,” he remembered.
But throughout his teaching career, it was the sound of the guitar that entranced him. “It was the warm and expressive sound of the classical guitar that I liked,” he remembered. “In 2002, I read a Los Angeles Times magazine section article about this guitar-building city in Mexico called Paracho. I was in Hermosillo, Sonora, as a special ed consultant and was not that far from Paracho. I arrived in Paracho during the guitar festival. The auditorium was full. World-famous guitarists like John Williams and Berta Rojas played there. And it was all free to the community and visitors. There were parades each week celebrating one trade or another. And Michoacán has its own special kind of brass-band music that was played during the festival. It was amazing.
“After 2002, I went in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and twice in 2009.” And for Pelham, what was the most amazing were the young kids who began playing guitars at very young ages. “These kids grow up to become nationally recognized concert artists,” he said. “Guitar there is like a second religion. The town is compelling. They hold the guitar festival during the monsoon season because it’s too humid to build guitars.”
Throughout his life, the guitar has occupied a central and centering place — a place of sonority, serenity and inspiration. And lately, in Paracho, he has become a familiar and respected face — for his love of guitar, and for his love of Paracho and its extraordinary young guitarists.
In an accompanying article, we’ll write about a free concert Pelham is producing featuring two young Paracho guitar players. Pelham is bringing them to Idyllwild for a concert at Lowman Concert Hall this November. They are, even though young, master guitarists. “After many years of wonderful experiences, wonderful music, and Mexican warmth and hospitality, I wanted to find a way to give back, to create something extra for the [Paracho] festival,” he said. He proposed a special award for the young guitarist, age 15 to 17, who reached the highest level in the competition. The award was to be a concert in Idyllwild.