|Industry Leadership Award 1996 - Manuel Velázquez|
At the age of twelve, Manuel Velázquez was able to salvage a wooden crate of imported foods thanks to a local grocery owner. After properly conditioning, selecting and dimensioning the material, Manuel started to work on what would be his first instrument. "My first guitar was good but not great. It sounded good. Not bad for a twelve year old! There was a driving instructor in town who liked it very much. I sold it to him for eleven dollars and he agreed. He payed me two dollars in advance and promised to pay the rest later. Unfortunately, I am still waiting for the other nine dollars!” Manuel explains while laughing at his past situation. Thankfully this experience did not deter him from his newly acquired passion.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1917, Manuel began
his interest with the guitar at an early age. After the tragic loss of
one of his brothers, who also built guitars and other native folk
instruments as a hobby, Manuel was influenced to follow the similar
desire of instrument making. In order to follow his desires, he decided
to strengthen his skills in woodworking by enrolling in a vocational
skills career school and started to work at the age of 14 at a local
While Manuel was building up his skills, he became acquainted with a local guitar and music teacher, Maestro Jorge Rubiano from Bogota, Colombia. Rubiano came to a conclusion to make Puerto Rico his final residence due to the rich culture, history and traditions of the island. He helped influence a small group of musicians and artisans from the island including Manuel. Under Rubiano’s recommendation, Manuel went to one of the most memorable concert to be given in Puerto Rico by Andrés Segovia when he was touring the Caribbean and South America with the famous 1937 Hermann Hauser. This first exposure to the Hauser sound would be one of the most critical moments for Manuel, since he would use it as a standard reference of the instrument for the rest of his life. Additionally, thanks to one of Rubiano’s acquaintances, Manuel would also come to inspect and analyze the guitars of the famous Antonio de Torres and Santos-Hernandez, helping him to build few instruments using them as references. With Rubiano’s critique and guidance, Manuel was encouraged to further his talent and passion in the United States. These events and encouragements would be part of his enthusiasm for his up and coming to profession as a guitar maker.
In 1940, Manuel was able to move to New
York and worked as a cabinet maker and joiner for the New Jersey Federal
Shipyard during the Second World War. In 1948, Manuel established his
first professional workshop at 420 Third Avenue, New York, NY. All of
his friend and professional acquaintances from earlier and now on would
help him earn the respect as a professional guitar maker and repair
person. Vladimir Bobri, Rey de la Torre, Saul Marantz, The Hanes Bros.,
Alexander Bellows, Noah Wolfe and many, many more would come to know him
personally and recommend him as one the finest guitar makers of the
world. The enormous exposure of his friends’ and clients collection of
instruments would also help him analyze methods of construction and
consider certain improvements for his own guitars. Manuel explains, "The
wealth of knowledge I have now was in part handed down to me by being
able to analyze and appreciate the work and construction of the great
maestros. People were beginning to understand and to be aware of the
condition and maintenance of their instruments. So they would bring
their Torres, Hausers, Santos-Hernandez and many others famous guitars
to be repaired or adjusted due to many years of use, climate
vulnerability and/or negligence. Every time I hand-held and worked these
instruments, it was like reading a very important book to me.”
His presence through the Society of the Classic Guitar of New York and other guitar circles would help him meet and realize a connection with Maestro Andrés Segovia. Through the meetings, concerts sponsored by the society and fellow local guitarists’ opinions helped Manuel to earn Segovia’s approval as a fine classical guitar maker. Segovia was at one point very instrumental in Manuel’s career due to the Maestro’s compliments of his instruments.
"Vladimir Bobri and Rey de La Torre encouraged me very much. One day, Bobri invited me to come to his studio. He said some of the members of the society, Rey and a special guest were coming over. When I arrived, Bobri invited me in and instructed me to be silent. Segovia was playing his Hauser and comparing other instruments. After an hour he settled on his Hauser and this other guitar. ‘I must admit, this guitar is as good as my Hauser. I would like to meet this luthier. Who is this Manuel Velázquez?’ Segovia said. Bobri was already in the middle room and motioned me to move next to him. ‘Maestro, I would like to you to meet Manuel Velázquez’ Bobri said while he introduce me. Segovia looked up at me and said ‘You are too young to be called a master luthier. You are just a kid.’ I replied, ‘Maestro, Manuel Velázquez at your service.’ Segovia paused and said to me, ‘You are too young but you make very fine instruments. I congratulate you.’ ‘Muchisimas gracias, Maestro,’ I replied. I was very nervous then but it was a great joy for me to receive such kind words from Maestro Segovia.”
Manuel also claims that his furthered exposure and listening sessions to the Maestro’s 1937 Hauser were most valuable to him as well. "I had a great time in the society. We were always listening, discussing and wondering about the development and future of the classical guitar. Segovia’s Hauser was a great instrument. I will always remember that sound!” Manuel says.
His guitars have been highly regarded ever since due to their elegance in tone quality, sustain and favored playability. His major contribution to the classical guitar community has been his critical opinion of the selection and calibration of materials for his instruments. Manuel has preferred to maintain his construction methods upon the tradition and characteristics set by Torres, Hauser and Santos Hernandez. Furthermore, he claims that the instrument should also be carefully tailored and calibrated to the life expectancy of the materials and usage of the instrument.
Throughout the years Manuel and his family moved back and forth from the United States and Puerto Rico. However, this did not deter him from continuing his reputation, and he received many honorable mentions for his dedication in the construction of classical guitar. Manuel’s career has also appeared in extensive newspaper and magazine articles published in The New York Tribune, New York Herald, The Washington Post, Guitar Review, Acoustic Guitar, and American Lutherie.
His accomplishments and awards have been
many throughout the years. In 1998, Manuel was recognized by several
offices of the government and educational entities of Puerto Rico during
the 10th International Festival of the Guitar of Puerto Rico as a
leading representative of the Puerto Rican culture, tradition and
artistry. In 2003, the state of Florida awarded him as one the
recipients for the Florida Folk Heritage Award for his contributions and
dedication for the art of the construction of classical guitars and
international influence. At the Guild of American Luthiers Symposium in
2006, Manuel was received as an honored guest and was formally
interviewed by several participants of the guild under the direction of
fellow accomplished luthiers, Jeffrey Elliott and Robert Ruck.
Additionally during this event Manuel was honored by the guild’s
comments as being the living dean of American classical guitar makers.
In 2008, Manuel was honored locally in Orlando, FL at the 4th Cultural
Latin American Festival of the University of Central Florida due to his
immense dedication and lifelong career as an internationally known
guitar maker from Latin America.
His instruments have been highly sought after, collected and recorded by internationally known artist such as Rey de La Torre, Sabicas, Jorge Morel, Pepe Romero, Ichiro Suzuki, Chet Atkins, Paul Simon, Earl Klugh, Keith Richards and many more. Both in Europe and in Asia, his instruments are also very highly regarded and collected due to Manuel's unyielding traditional construction values. Without any doubt, Manuel’s life and achievements will always serve as an inspiration to many contemporary guitarist and aspiring luthiers.
Many who are intrigue by his career and enthusiasm ask him what it is like to build a guitar for the first time. He always answers, "You have to be very careful. To build a guitar is like a poison (drug)! Once you build one, you will never want to stop!”
Manuel Velázquez and his family currently live in Central Florida. He continues to build his instruments with as much enthusiasm still at the age of 94. His methods of construction of the guitar and enthusiasm have been handed down to his son, Alfredo Velázquez, whose instruments have also been well-received, and recognized as an extension of the "Velázquez” sound with certain qualities many contemporary players seek. Manuel is very pleased that his philosophy and methods of construction will continue for many more generations.