A Universal Guitar Made in Spain

by Alberto D. Prieto

In the beginning was the verb. But that was really boring, monotonous, and so the verb became music. It found the harmonies and arpeggios; the scales and chords; the tone colours and tonalities... and the verb became playful and seductive. Everything in this world vibrates and reverberates on different wavelengths. And the people we call inventors in truth are nothing more than explorers, visionary pioneers of an idea they pursue boldly and tirelessly. They are believers.    

When the guitar wasn't plugged in (because there weren't any sockets) "Amazon was my grandfather, who delivered things from town to town in a horse and cart". The story of Guitarras Manuel Rodríguez and Sons goes back to the flamenco venues in late 19th and early 20th century Madrid, when being a guitar maker and guitar player sometimes amounted to the same thing. When the artists made their instruments with their own hands and were displaying both their musical talents and the workmanship of their guitars at night. Don Manuel Senior had returned from the Parisian cafes of the Belle Époque when the First World War broke out, with his guitar under his arm. He began to work in the atelier located at Calle (street) Concepción Jerónima, 2... the house of Los Ramírez, the first school for luthiers in Madrid.

Manuel Rodríguez, Junior, began there as an apprentice, to observe, keep quiet and listen to the sounds of the workshop, to understand the vibrations and explore the paths of the luthier's art that the grandfather, now a skilled craftsman, shared with whomever took up making Spanish guitars again following the Civil War, in that cold Madrid of stoves with little fuel, harmful fumes, and meagre victuals.    

A Madrid where the rhythmic handclaps were as much to warm the hands up as anything else, and the fingers of the flamenco players would bleed from both the sores on their swollen hands, and gut strings as tightly wound as the uncertain future ahead. In six years, Manuel Junior progressed from being an apprentice in the workshop making 1 1/2 pesetas in wages to building his first flamenco guitar and being paid 500 pesetas for it. That's in 1945 pesetas. He used the money to buy a custom-made suit. On the other side of the pond, one BB King was already plotting strategies for dressing in silk -"if you're going to play the blues, you have to dress like you're going out to look for a good job"-.    

Madrid was poor, and the poor wanted to be artists. The travel stickers adorning the suitcase of the singer Concha Piquer was the goal of all the starving artists with restless hands. The whole world was demanding craftsmen well versed in the arts of song, dance and strumming the guitar. To travel and triumph was a means to survival that in reality didn't give you a ticket to the glamorous life, but at least it was good enough for you to have a flashy stage outfit. And a name that served to pull in students you could pass along the tricks of the trade to between gigs. So the guitar was both a means and an end at the same time. First there was the need for the raw material: for guitars.

You learned the woods, the harmonic bars, tapers, sound holes, bridges and other secrets of the luthier
by holding the instrument close from the time the elements were lovingly cut until the final hours of varnishing by hand. And since holding it close is to make it vibrate, thus Manuel Ramírez Senior delved into its resonance, found its wavelength, and visualized the road ahead for him to explore. He wasn't a visionary or an inventor. He was an artist who worked with his hands. A believer.
Today Manuel Rodríguez III relates, not as any great achievement but simply as an essential part of his reality, how he became who he is, an immigrant in his homeland, a job creator, and a fervent believer in the Made in Spain brand.    

"My father went away to Hollywood with nothing more than his hands and his love for the instrument when he found out people there had an interest and passion for the guitar, but no one who could satisfy their needs"
. In the promised land of the U.S., the echoes of Spanish chords were heard and many people were wondering where they could get their hands on that lovely wooden box with a hole, curves as exciting as Ava Gardner's and moans and wails even richer in their shadings.
"I learned the two crafts from him". "How to make guitars and how to sell them. But above all, I learned from his love for his craft, and for Spain".    

Manuel Rodríguez III
grips your hand with all the firmness of an American businessman, decisive and enthusiastic. His speaking voice is loud and confident. He modulates the rhythm of his words as he conveys his ideas to you.  Not the ones he has, but the ones he drives in others. It seems like nothing escapes him, that he has the time to pluck all the ideas buzzing around in his head -varnished and polished just like the wooden pieces for his guitars-.
In his factory at Esquivias (Toledo), he leads you through all the different sections of his 'temple', remembering every one of his initiatives, associations and works that people from the U.S. call 'charity' and we translate as 'social responsibility' here. He proudly points out all the celebrities and famous people in the photos lining the wall of his suite of offices, the ones that promote the brand --"not mine, the Made in Spain brand. The classical guitar is intrinsically Spanish, and yet here no one seems to have woken up to that"--.    

There is a sacred place here, very small and under lock and key, in a hallway just beyond the main workspace. It is the tiny workshop of Manuel Rodríguez, Junior, just as he left it before dying few years ago. A calendar frozen in time and permeated with sawdust there bears silent witness to it. There are the untouched tools, the half-cut woods, the squares and rods and an even deeper aroma, if you can believe it, of refined knowledge and enthusiastic hands. The light filters through the large windows as if it was mid-afternoon. The air turns sepia again, as if you are on a voyage back through time that leaves a smile on your face. You step in sawdust with footprints from bygone days, and run your hands over pieces of rosewood, cedar and walnut selected by old, wise hands. Outside in the main workspace, the craftsmen are hard at work, but here, inside, the wood that inspires these guitars remains just as full of life.

Today, Guitarras Manuel Rodríguez and Sons receives awards from the U.S. government, welcomes the U.S. Secretary of State to its facilities, donates guitars worth thousands of euros as gifts to ex-presidents, whose foundations then auction them off and use the money to cure illnesses, educate children in remote locations... Manuel embraces actors and musicians from all over the world, and "not just to have photos to show. The portraits on the walls are indeed a gratifying result, but they're taken because I believe that music has the ability to mobilize society".

Rodríguez III (there is a Rodríguez IV, now a teenager, who accompanies his father whenever his studies allow) has just finished expanding the factory. "We brought our entire production lines to Spain. We were making our more standard guitars in China before, but certainly with the same quality and requirements we have here. But we decided to invest in the true 'Made in Spain' brand, with everything handmade. Handmade, precisely, by a financial 'fair trade' or 'fair finance' organization --terms that have few or poor translations in Spain, at least for the time being-- that has equipped a new workspace and is now beginning to produce everything here. The company has grasped the notion that, if the guitar is Spanish, this latitude has to remain its birthplace, and its longitude its wavelength.

"I'm not rich but I have hands that are born to make guitars. It’s what I know. I have that plus the prestige earned by my family, Spanish just like this instrument, over the years since 1905. That is what someone who buys one of our guitars is looking for," he says enthusiastically. And immediately a shadow crosses his face. "The Americans, and I'm just as much American as I am Spanish, want that. That is the greatest value Spain has to offer the world. Sometimes it seems like we have forgotten our pioneers, the adventurers, the discoverers".

Of the believers, we would add. Believers in which to triumph is to be yourself, the best version of yourself, your essence. Manuel Rodríguez and his guitars vibrate with that same feeling. With a firm hand, precision down to the last millimetre in the details, deeply engrained with Spanish passion and a universal determination.

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MR Guitars for sale on Guitars Exchange: http://guitarsexchange.com/en/shop/Handpicked/