Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free music Archive
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is American Artscape online. I’m Josephine Reed. Manuel Delgado combines a multi-generational family legacy of hand-crafting string instruments with a deep and broad commitment to community activism.
Manuel Delgado may have begun the shop in 2005 but the knowledge of three generations goes into the instruments hand-crafted at Delgado Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee. Manuel’s grandfather and great-uncle Candelas began building guitars and other instruments—opening a shop in Torreón, Mexico in 1928, honing and perfecting their craft, moving to Juarez and eventually Los Angeles where they opened Candelas Guitars in 1948. By then Miguel’s father, also named Candelas was immersed in hand-crafting instruments becoming a second-generation luthier working and eventually taking over the shop as his father and uncle aged, carrying on and expanding the family tradition.
By the 1960s workmanship of the Delgado’s was so renowned that they were commissioned to build three guitars for Andres Segovia, considered to be the world’s greatest classical guitarist…just one of the many musicians commissioning instruments from the Delgado’s. I spoke with Manuel Delgado last year for our Magazine American Artscape, but I always thought my conversation would make a great podcast. Have a listen!
Jo Reed: Well, Manuel, I truly have to begin by thanking you for giving me your time and schlepping into a studio because I know how busy you are, because I have been learning all about you, and my god <laughs>. We can discuss when you sleep at another point.
Manuel Delgado: Well, it’s an honor to be here, and it’s even fun to be able to come into the studio here. So thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Jo Reed: You’re very welcome. Manuel, let’s begin with some family history. Your family has been making guitars and stringed instruments for almost 100 years.
Manuel Delgado: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. We’re coming up to a 100 year anniversary. So since 1928, the business was started with my grandfather and my great-uncle in Mexico, in Torreon, Mexico, and eventually passed down to my father, and then they brought the business to the States in 1948. I tell everybody it’s very much the immigrant story where the patriarch of the family would leave and try to establish something and then send for the family. So my dad came to the U.S. when he was around like 13 or 14. And my mom is also born in Mexico and came to U.S. via Tucson, and they eventually met, and I’m the first generation born in the United States, born in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles.
Jo Reed: I know your father taught both you and your brother Thomas everything that went into building stringed instruments, but I wonder when did you first begin to work in the shop.
Manuel Delgado: I started playing guitar when I was five. So I was around the shop, and always around musical instruments, and always around music. But when I was seven, I started to really help with some repairs and minor things, putting a set of machine heads on a guitar, putting strings on, helping customers if they came in and they needed to buy a pick or set of strings or a string winder. But it was when I was about 11 and a half that I really wanted to take it more seriously and take it to the next level, and honestly beat my dad’s record of when he built his first instrument, which was 14. And he and my grandfather helped me, and I built my first instrument when I was 12.
Jo Reed: Do you still have it?
Manuel Delgado: I do. I do. It’s a Ricky Thor romantico, which is a smaller version of a guitar. It’s an instrument used in Mexico for Toreo style music and, yeah, I have it still to this day.
Jo Reed: But as much as he loved building instruments, Manuel especially valued the time he spent in the shop with his father and grandfather learning lessons that went far beyond hand-crafting guitars.
Manuel Delgado: You know, I’m very, very fortunate to have gotten to work with my father and my grandfather, and I have a lot of great memories. The strongest memory, I guess, would be just the opportunity of being in their presence, I just got to see them interacting with one another, interacting with the folks who worked with them, the way that I was brought in, and the care my grandfather had for me the care my dad had for me and, I mean, I miss them every single day of my life, but I’m surrounded by them every single day of my life, and I’m getting a little teary eyed talking about it right now, but that’s a testimony to how much they meant to me because they’ve had such a huge impact on my life. So anything from the lessons they would teach me and little phrases or whatever it might be that I learned later as an adult that they were not just teaching me about making instruments, they were preparing me for life, and the two that I like to quote a lot is from my father. He would always say, “You have to start with the end in mind,” and I use that in everything that I do, whether it’s what kind of a father am I going to be, what kind of a husband am I going to be, what kind of an employer, what kind of a community activist, whatever, and of course, what kind of instrument am I going to build, I see the end result before I ever start with any action towards putting pieces together to build something or whatever. And with my grandfather, I loved it, he would always say, “Tómate tu tiempo, porque tenemos prisa,” which means take your time, because we’re in a hurry, and we don’t have the time to do this over and over and over again, so take your time and do it right the first time.
Jo Reed: I swear, that’s when I’m still trying to learn.
Manuel Delgado: Oh, yeah. Well, and I think, Jo, that’s a testament to who you are. If you’re somebody who feels like you’ve arrived and you’re done, then what is the point of continuing moving forward? We have to always be striving to do more and to figure out, I think, and I’m exactly the same way. So I think that’s, if anything, I would look at that as a positive thing.
Jo Reed: Oh, thank you <laughs>.
Manuel Delgado: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: After your Dad passed away, you moved from LA to Nashville—why this move across the country
Manuel Delgado: So in 1993, my mother and father came to Nashville on a vacation, and they just fell in love with the city, and back then my dad thought about maybe we should open up a shop, but that was the same year that my dad was diagnosed with cancer, so we focused on his health and kind of forgot about that. Fast forward my wife is a singer and a songwriter, and she had come here with her folks like in ’95 and always dreamed about maybe coming here and pursuing her passion as well. And after my father passed away, I thought, ”Why don’t we move to Nashville?” And with my wife’s encouragement, and my mom’s blessing, we made the move and I started all over again. I tell everyone, I went from East L.A. to East Nashville because I’m drawn to the east side tends to be where all the Bohemian artistic folks gather. And I’ll say I really look at that now and I see the blessing that it was of even having to start over because I felt like in a very small way, because in no way did I make the sacrifices that my grandfather and my great-uncle did, but it put me a little bit in touch with what it was to have to start over, start something, even though I had this great, rich history, and one of the things that I’ve always loved of Nashville was it didn’t kind of go, “Oh, you’re Delgado, here, let’s open all these doors for you.” It was the opposite. It was like, “Oh, great, you have this great family history. Okay, what can you do? ” I had to prove to myself and to the city that I was worthy of the respect or to be trusted with people’s musical instruments or whatever it might be. So I love that about this city.
Jo Reed: Well, let’s talk about the instruments themselves. I know it’s called Delgado’s Guitars, but that doesn’t begin to cover what you make. So why don’t you let us know all the string– you know, never mind, I don’t mean that because you can’t name all 40 of them, but you make quite a few stringed instruments <laughs>.
Manuel Delgado: We do, yeah. So one of the many things that I love about what I do is that we don’t just do one thing. I always tell people if it’s got strings, and you can carry it in, we can fix it, so that rules out pianos. So <laughs>, but we hand make over 45 different types of string instruments, and what people don’t understand is, if I said steel string guitar, within the steel string guitar, there’s dreadnought, there’s O.M., there’s southwest, there’s jumbo, there’s parlor, there’s all these different body styles. Those are not part of the 45, those are just a subgroup of the 45, if you will. So aside from those we make violas, the Mexican violas used in mariachi, we make the big guitarron, the bass used in mariachi, we make the mariachi harp, we make the guittara de golpe used mariachi, we make bajo quintos, jaranas, and bajo jarochos used from Veracruz, we make the Cuban tres, we make the Puerto Rican cuatro, we make the ukulele from Hawaii, anything from the soprano to the concert, tenor, baritone. We make banjos, square neck resophonics—people call them dobros, mandolins, tamburitzas, oh, gosh, all kinds of different stuff.
Jo Reed: There is a Delgado style of making instruments. Can you explain a little bit about what that is? I know it’s quite complex..
Manuel Delgado: Yeah, I’m what we would title an old-world luthier, and I tell people that’s not just because I’m old, it’s because we’re using the old world techniques in the way that we build . And also our connection with the instrument is very important, so the fact that we carve the necks by hand and chisel out the rosettes by hand, we’re deeply invested in that instrument. We treat every instrument as an individual because that’s how I view every person that I have the opportunity to come across. And with the instruments, these are living, breathing things that we’re taking a piece of wood that was once growing in a forest, and we’re going to transform this into an instrument. And we don’t use the McDonald’s business model that is used by most mass-produced types of products, where you find a low-skilled labor person that can duplicate a process over and over again and take all the guesswork out of it. We try to get the most potential out of anything that we’re working with and getting everything out of it, and realizing that every component that is a part of that instrument matters and then if you know that you’re going to take a different kind of care and approach towards it.
Jo Reed: Well, you first of all use very few power tools. The instruments are hand crafted–
Manuel Delgado: Yes.
Jo Reed: –and even make your own tools–
Manuel Delgado: Yes. You’re absolutely right. In our shop there are four tools that are plugged in, and one’s a bandsaw, one’s a belt sander, one’s a thickness sander, and one’s a drill press, and we really only use two of those <laughs>. But and I always like to say if the power went out in my shop I could still build you an instrument. And I won’t disagree that some people might say using a laser or a CNC might be more precise in the inlay or those types of things. But I would much rather have something that was created rather than manufactured, if that makes sense.
Jo Reed: It does, absolutely. And your art of instrument-making also involves a certain amount of science, doesn’t it?.
Manuel Delgado: Yes. Absolutely. I like to tell folks if I gave you the best ingredients and the most organic ingredients and asked you to put a meal together, if you don’t combine everything correctly, you can still ruin that meal. So it’s not just about having the right materials. It’s having the skill set to know when to bring something to a boil and take it down to a simmer, what spices to add, and everything. There’s time involved, the when that happens and how long it happens, and that’s how it is with an instrument as well. It’s not only having a respect for the material and the wood and knowing what it’s provided while it was growing, and what it’s going to provide in the future, and seeing that, you know, I have instruments that when my grandfather and my great-uncle, my dad are no longer with me, but their instruments are still out in the world, and they’re still providing joy or helping someone through sadness, whatever it might be. But there’s still mathematics, there’s science, there’s angles, there’s knowing how is this person going to play this instrument? How are they going to attack it? What kind of a response are they’re looking for? And that tells me the distance that the strings need to travel, the intonation needs to be adjusted this way to make sure that the tuning is proper. So ,yeah, there’s a lot that has to be done correctly, none of it is by accident.
Jo Reed: Well, when a customer comes in for a handcrafted instrument, you actually interview them?
Manuel Delgado: Yes! We’ve been told that we should get a couch where people can lay down and have like a therapeutic session, because I really like to get to know the person. Our tagline for Delgado guitars is does your guitar have a story? And that’s because I believe everybody has a story that’s worth telling. And so when we sit with them, I want to know about what their life is, who are the people that are in their lives that matter to them. The question I love to ask people is, “When you’re playing, where are you? ” And I don’t mean like physically like, “Oh, I’m sitting in a studio,”—no, art transforms, or transcends—it takes you somewhere where you’re not necessarily where you physically are. If it’s great art, and if it’s challenging art, it may even be an uncomfortable place, but that’s what art should do, and good art does do. So if somebody’s playing a guitar, maybe they’re imagining they’re somewhere they’ve never been, or maybe they’re back to a place that they loved. So by knowing all of these things, it helps me to not only have almost like an understanding and a blessing that I can be thinking about over the instrument as I’m building it for that person, but I also transform those ideas into different types of inlays and colors. There’s significance and meaning in it, and as an artist, what are we always looking for but some type of inspiration. So that’s what we want to do, we want to make sure that we’re giving somebody a gift that has some meaning to them.
Jo Reed: Who are some of your clients?
Manuel Delgado: Well, if we go back through all generations, starting with my grandfather and my great-uncle, the great Andres Segovia, Celedonio Romero which is the father of Pepe Romero and Angel Romero, and people don’t realize my grandfather and Celedonio were actually compadres, which means my dad baptized Pepe Romero, so he was Pepe Romero’s godfather. Theodore Bikel, Arlo Guthrie, The Kingston Trio, Jose Feliciano, Los Lobos. We’ve done stuff for Eddie Murphy, for David Lee Roth. I do work with Los Lobos still to this day, with the Old Crow Medicine Show, Buddy Guy, oh gosh, Jackson Browne. And then of course we have the amazing mariachi ensembles that we have the honor of working with, Mariachi Cobre. Mariachi Norte Caticlan. We work with a lot of conjunto or norteno groups: Los Dedos del Norte, Banda la Carar Roja, Los Extemenoadores , a lot of the trio ensemble or trio groups. So, yeah, a little bit of everything.
Jo Reed: You know, if all you did was your work as a luthier, it would be extraordinary enough. But you are a really tireless advocate and worker for arts education, for the arts in general, in community engagement. Tell me why this is so central to your life, and just the way you proceed.
Manuel Delgado: I always say I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, and if you’re an artist you’re an underdog because <laughs> you’re choosing a life that’s not necessarily like the easiest route to go, you know what I mean? So it’s a constant battle, and that’s how I look at it with all arts programs, and with the music programs that we have the opportunity to work with around the United States, and these music directors and these music educators who, oh my gosh, they are the ones who work tirelessly, and they’re the ones who give so much, and they’re fighting a system that wants to eliminate their program, doesn’t see the value of what they’re doing, and the irony of it all is there’s greater value in what they’re providing sometimes than what other classes may be doing. And to explain that a little bit further, just looking at the science of how the brain responds to being involved in the arts and specifically in music programs, and how that is the only activity that stimulates the entire brain, and it prepares it to receive information. So having that music class is going to allow them to do better in social studies, in English literature, in mathematics, whatever it might be, because they are involved in the arts, whether it’s dancing, or painting, or whatever it might be. So for me, I really view it as a great gift and honor that these women and men around the United States who are working in this field have invited me to be a small part of helping them in whatever way that I can, and they’re like my heroes,
Jo Reed: Well, Manuel, how do you help the schools? What are some of the things that you do with the schools, that the shop does with the schools?
Manuel Delgado: So the business is Delgado Guitars, but I always say we have all these other brands underneath Delgado Guitars, and La Tradicion Music is a brand that I created, La Tradicion, the tradition, where originally it was created because I was frustrated with American companies making these subpar Latin instruments, and kind of with the attitude of like, eh, they’ll buy them because that’s all that’s available, and not taking the time to understand the history or the culture and doing it correctly. So one of the things that we do is we go into the schools, and we’ve gotten a niche through all the different mariachi programs that are growing in the school programs around the U.S., but we work with all disciplines of music. But we’ll go in, and I say I either help start a program, help grow a program, or help an established program with whatever their needs are. I want to know who I’m working with, and I want to know their story, and so I know the best way that I can be of support to them. And sometimes that’s connecting them with somebody else. I always <laughs> tell people it’s kind of like that Miracle on 34th mindset where Santa Claus would say, “Hey, you should go to the other store because they have a better deal.” And that’s kind of how we do it, if we’re giving the folks who are trusting us the best advice, then they’re always going to trust us to come back. So just being able to be present, to provide the information that’s needed to start that program and grow it, and then if they’re needing instruments and stuff like that then we hope that they’ll think of us and they’ll order the instruments from us. But honestly, if the program gets started, and they get their supplies from somebody else. I still see it as a win because we’re helping to grow the music programs around the U.S., and If the community in whole wins, then we’re winning.
Jo Reed: Tell me about mariachi program for at-risk kids you founded and run here.
Manuel Delgado: So here in Nashville, about 12, 13 years ago I was honored to be asked on a board that was just forming called the Music Makes Us program, and we wanted to create all kinds of different musical genres and disciplines in our schools and provide the best school programs we could for all of Davidson County. So it meant hip hop, and world drumming, and songwriting, and lead guitar, and not taking away any of the choir or orchestra programs because some kids don’t want to be in that, and one of the things that I was fortunate was to start a mariachi ensemble here as well in one of our middle schools and high schools. this is one of the things that I try to educate our fine arts directors and superintendents, I tell them look at the demographics of your city, or at least your school zone, and if you were to open up a restaurant and want to have success, what kind of a restaurant would you open? And I do that because they’ll see that a huge portion of their population is Latin, Hispanic Latino. And so I said,” Well, why wouldn’t you want to offer a genre of music that also speaks to them?”
Jo Reed: And Delgado Guitars presented the first Music City Mariachi Festival, and it’s still an annual event, isn’t it?
Manuel Delgado: We did. I was approached by a couple of ladies here in town that were wanting to do this, and there’s a 54 piece mariachi ensemble that comes from Guadalajara, Mexico, and Mexico en el Corazon, and they travel around the U.S., and we were wanting to do something here, and we literally had like eight weeks to do this, and they were saying, “I don’t think we can do this. Somebody told us to call you,” and I said, “We can absolutely do this. We’re going to make this happen.” So we did, we put it together, 2018 was I think, the first year we did it, we did it again in 2019. It got shut down because of the pandemic during 2020, 2021, and then this year they brought it back. I wasn’t included in it this year, they moved forward with it, and I think that’s great. It’s done at our Symphony Center where, you know, we wanted it to be a place where people would come in and have like a reverence and respect rather than think of it as like barroom music, we wanted that kind of setting, and I’m honored, I’m on the board at the symphony, so I’m glad to see that they’re continuing it, and it’s a great event for the community, and I look forward to having it happen year after year after year. And now I’ve moved on and I’m working on creating a mariachi conference that’s going to happen here in Nashville, so that’s what my work’s focused on right now for next year.
Jo Reed: I think some people might be a little bit surprised at the popularity of mariachi in Nashville. Can you just speak to that for a bit?
Manuel Delgado: Yeah, I think people might be surprised to realize that it’s popular pretty much anywhere, and that’s the other thing. It’s a genre that comes from Mexico over 500 years ago, but you see it in all of the Latin American countries, and for a time it’s starting to grow more so, but like I could argue that it’s even more popular in the United States than it is in Mexico. But yes, it is very popular. It’s popular here in Nashville but, again, that’s not surprising because Nashville loves music.
Jo Reed: So you created a space next to your shop called Music Makers Stage–
Manuel Delgado: Yes.
Jo Reed: –at Delgado Guitars. Tell me what you do there.
Manuel Delgado: So at the Music Makers Stage, the main focus there was to create a space in our neighborhood and for our community where, whether it be musicians can come and perform, and we could have families come and attend those events, or sometimes we’ll do free movies for our community for some of the kids. There’s a strings program that works with students here that we let them use the space for free, and they do teach orchestra instruments, well, mainly the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, and they use our space, and they’re able to teach there, so it was basically a community space. And now we have live shows that happen every other Friday night. We really viewed it as an opportunity to do something in the community.
Jo Reed: Well, you are a tradition bearer, very much dedicated to advancing the tradition you learned from your grandfather and your father to future generations. And in fact your daughter, Ava, was, or is, your apprentice.
Manuel Delgado: Yes.
Jo Reed: And is in an apprenticeship program through the Tennessee Arts Commission Folk Life Apprenticeship.
Manuel Delgado: Ava beat my record, she just destroyed my record, which I’m so proud of. She finished her first instrument two weeks after her 10th birthday. And she’s 14 now.
Jo Reed: Wow.
Manuel Delgado: And my youngest, Leila, just applied for that same grant and is gunning for sister’s record.
Jo Reed: What did that apprenticeship program allow her and you to do?
Manuel Delgado: So what the grant does for somebody in our situation , it gives you some financial resources to put towards the time, because if you’re doing this during your business hours of course it’s going to financially affect the business. It was a great gift, but that wasn’t as important. What I really appreciated about it was it drew a seriousness and a sense of not urgency but, okay, if you’re going to do this we need to put a plan together, and they ask you to do that, answer these questions, which I had her answer, put a timeline together, when are we going to be working on this? When is it going to be completed? What are some of the things that we’re going to achieve, some of the goals through this? And when you do that now it helps them, their minds, lay out a plan moving forward and because she knew the commitment she had signed up for it was not a challenge or a battle to make this thing happen. And I have hours and hours and hours of video of her because I never wanted anybody to go, “Oh, I bet you Manuel built it, and they just had her pose for these photos,” you know? I was like, “Un-unh, she did it, she did it all,” and I’m very, very proud of her for many reasons, but I’m proud of her for completing that.
Jo Reed: Why is this tradition so important to you?
Manuel Delgado: I have the strongest connection with my father and my grandfather, you know, whether it’s building an instrument or just interacting with the community. And it’s not as important for me that the girls continue the business. I want them to do whatever brings them joy, but what is very important for me is that they understand the importance of creating something. There’s a whole world out there where there’s people who’ve made a conscious decision to take a more difficult path in life, but they’ve done it because they are so passionate about their art and their craft that the idea of them not doing it would just almost kill them, if you will, emotionally or spiritually. So I want them to have that understanding and understand the struggles that came to give them the opportunities that they have now, and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about my grandfather, my dad, and my mom, the things that they’ve given up to give us the life that I have so that we, my wife and I, can give the girls the life that they have now.
Jo Reed: You’ve said that you always ask a client where are you when you’re playing? So I want to close by asking you, where are you when you’re crafting an instrument?
Manuel Delgado: Oh, boy. I’m right there with my dad and my grandfather in the shop in East L.A., and I’m listening to them working or sanding or chiseling, or I’m hearing instructions from them. I’m hearing them say, “Pay attention to the wood. It’s going to tell you which way the grain wants to go,” you know, “Don’t put your hand there, you’re going to cut yourself.” <Laughs> You know, “Move that there,” or “What’s the plan with this,” or whatever it might be. But <clears throat> excuse me, I get a little choked up when I think about them. But, yeah, I’m the closest with them when I’m in the shop. So, yeah.
Jo Reed: Okay, and I think that’s a good place to leave it. Manuel, thank you. Thank you for all the incredible work that you do.
Manuel Delgado: Thank you. I really, really appreciate this opportunity to talk with you.
Jo Reed: That was Manuel Delgado—a third generation luthier and community activist—you can find out more about him and his work at Delgado Guitars.com
You’ve been listening to Art Works I produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps people to find us. I’m Josephine reed. Thanks for listening.