Manuel Velazquez, USA
The following discussion with Manuel Velazquez and his son Alfredo with Jeffrey Elliott and Robert Ruck is from their 2006 GAL Convention presentation. The printed version of this discussion first appeared in American Lutherie magazine #96/Winter 2008 which is published by the Guild of American Luthiers. Guitars International wishes to thank the discussion participants and the Editors of American Lutherie for allowing us to reprint its contents. (Reproduction of this article in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).

Manuel Velazquez 1917- 2014

Bob Ruck: Good morning, and welcome to this special presentation in recognition of one of the world's most respected makers of classical guitars.

I was a budding young luthier back in the mid-'60s when I first encountered Manuel's work. I had the good fortune to have a friend who purchased one of his instruments and brought it to my small shop. I admired and studied it, and I was inspired by this man who was already an icon in the field of lutherie in this country. To examine that guitar and see the beauty of it - the shape, the smoothness of the corners - and the voice, this beautiful rich sound, was just one more wonderful seed of inspiration that launched me on my career.

Manuel was born in 1917 in Puerto Rico, the twelfth of thirteen children. He made his first guitar seventy-seven years ago at the age of twelve. A short while after, he sold that guitar for $12. He received a down payment of $9, and still hasn't been paid the remaining $3. Such is the lot of luthiers. (laughter)

That was 1929. From then until 1946 he built more or less on a part-time basis because there wasn't that much interest in classical guitar. He managed to open a shop in 1941, his first shop in New York City. He worked diligently, and his name went out to the world. In those days there were few luthiers and the word traveled very quickly. Soon serious guitarists from all over the world showed up at his doorstep, and they recognized his dedication, perseverance, honesty, integrity, great skill, and humility.

Through the 1940s and '50s, Manuel almost single-handedly maintained the tradition of European classical guitar making in this country, producing over a thousand handmade instruments. Not jigged-up, cranked-out instruments; his hands were on every part of every one of those guitars. He's received many awards and accolades over the years, including from the Puerto Rican government. And even now, most days he can be found at his workbench with Alfredo at his side, plying the craft, diligently working away.

I know we have in the audience today makers who have been working in this craft for twenty, thirty, even forty years. I myself have helped a lot of young luthiers get started. At times they say, ``You have lots of experience; you've worked out all the jigs and fixtures; you have the skill. It must be easy for you. It must be nothing.' Yes, as time passes that's true to some degree. But year after year after year the buying public is expecting more; we raise our standards; the eyes are growing foggy; the back is weaker. It's a very demanding and difficult trade. Art Linkletter wrote that, ``Old age is not for sissies.' I'd like to add that many years at the workbench is not for sissies.

So now I'd like to welcome Don Manuel Velazquez and his son, Alfredo Velazquez who traveled all the way from Winterhaven, Florida to be here with us. Please give a warm welcome to Manuel and Alfredo. (applause)

Alfredo Velazquez: First I want to show a few pictures and share some of the steps that we take in making a guitar.

Here my father is toning, or voicing, the soundboard (Photo 1). He has used several soundboard materials, such as western red cedar and Engelmann spruce, but his favorite has always been European spruce. He is testing and calibrating the soundboard for a particular tone. We don't look for a certain note. We tap the soundboard and look for the resonance and how it reacts in the free air.

My father has a little story about rosettes. When he went to Spain to visit the Alhambra, he copied the design of the tiles for a rosette pattern. He also had the fortune to visit the widow of Santos Hernandez. She invited him to look through Santos's album of different styles of rosettes. Much to his surprise, he saw that Santos already beat him to it! (laughter) So that particular rosette that you see in these pictures we say is the Santos Hernandez style.

Our process for making rosettes involves building what we call a ``cake' (Photo 2) around a PVC form, then slicing it on a table saw (Photo 3). Each individual strand is glued in once we cut the rosette channel on the soundboard (Photo 4).

Here are some prepared braces and struts for the soundboard (Photo 5). One thing I've learned from my father is that you never throw away a piece of scrap. Always save it, especially for bracing. He maximizes all the materials that he has, and I've always admired that about him. The pieces on the left and the right in the photo are actually soundboard scraps. For the struts, we select from either violin tops or viola tops.

Here in Photo 6 he is fitting both the struts and bridge patch. This little jig is older than me. After the struts and the bridge patch are glued, he shapes them on the soundboard. Then he'll go on to the bracing.

These are Br. rosewood backs (Photo 7). They are in Florida right now, waiting to be built.

Photo 8 shows some roughed-out mahogany necks, both with just a rosewood veneer and also the rosewood veneer with the marquetry inlay. We do some machine work to get a neck to a certain point. After that we preshape it before it goes onto the workboard.

Our bending machine is an aluminum form heated by ceramic space heater elements (Photo 9). He's had this machine since 1948. We bring the sides to thickness, then soak them in a water bath for about an hour. We prebend the waists and then bend the two sides at once on this machine. He used to bend on a pipe, but he prefers this method because the symmetry of the two sides is very good. We let them dry on the form. As soon as they're cool to the touch, they are ready to be handled.

My father likes to use solid linings for the backs. It gives a very elegant look (Photo 10). We used to bend ¼ stock on the side bending machine, but now we're laminating them.

He also makes spruce lining, kerfed and solid (Photo 11). One thing I've always told him is that he likes to do things the hard way. But sometimes the hard way is the right way.

This is our workboard or tablero as we like to call it (Photo 12).

And here it is with a guitar under construction (Photo 13). You can see that this one has kerfed lining on the top. The bracing is Torres style but also with a bar on the treble side.

He graduates the soundboard before the guitar is assembled, but then he likes to go back prior to finishing to make sure that the calibration of the guitar is done the way he likes it. He checks the flexibility by pushing on the soundboard and makes adjustments (Photos 14 and 15).

Here are some Br. rosewood bridges (Photo 16). We preslot them on the table saw and then do the rest by hand.

Right before gluing the bridge on, he likes to score its underside. We use hide glue and he likes to roughen it up so the glue is able to go into the scratches and hold onto the bridge a little bit better. It gives you a little stronger bond.

In Photo 17 he's marking the position of the bridge, and in Photo 18 he's spreading hot hide glue on the top where the bridge will be. That little string coming out of the soundhole is connected to a small support column that temporarily holds the inner clamping caul in place. This makes it easy to set the clamps (Photos 19 and 20) without having to hold up the caul. After we feel that the bridge has a good bond and it's been clamped properly with not too much pressure, then we pull on the string to remove that little support column.

Jeffrey Elliott: For many years, your guitars were fairly faithful to the Torres design, incorporating elements of Hauser, Sr. and Santos Hernandez. Your later instruments introduced the diagonal transverse bar below the soundhole like many Spanish makers use. What difference in the guitar's responses can you attribute to this change? Also, would you like to comment further on other design variations that you've tried and the results of these?

Manuel: I've always used the Torres school and Santos Hernandez, but one day it came to my mind that I should add something else to find a better sound. It occurred to me to put in the small cross piece, and I found that the treble came up more than before. I'm not sure if it is right or not, but it works for me. (laughter) Many people criticize me, but I just go for my own sense. When my soul tells me ``do this,' I do it. It is intuition. That's what it is.

Alfredo: On the first guitars that I built, he told me to first try out the Torres design. We've experimented maybe once or twice with different bracing, but we always come back to the Torres bracing with the treble bar. It's worked for us. In my own opinion, I believe it does accentuate the trebles.

Bob: Manuel, you are an intuitive builder and rely heavily on your sense of things. In an interview with Bill Cumpiano in 1985 (see Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One) you spoke of calibrating the soundboard thickness to achieve a uniform stiffness by feeling the top between your fingers and thumb, and of judging the top's resilience through touch and using light to see how translucent and therefore how dense the top is. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Manuel: First I bring the wood down to 3MM. Then I take more wood from some places than others because of how I judge the density of the top. Wood, especially spruce, is harder in some places than others, and you have to compensate with the thickness. I have a wonderful caliper, like a cello maker would use, but I'm not satisfied with that. I go with my fingers, and the wood talks to me. I start to take a little bit with the scraper and sanding. All my tops are not even; in some places they are thicker. That's the Torres school.
I always put a small light inside the guitar and it shows me where the top is thinner and where it has more thickness. The back I don't care too much about. For me, the soundboard is the most important thing.

Jeff: Can you comment on the various finishing materials and methods you've used over your career?

Manuel: As I told you before, my school is Santos Hernandez, and he didn't care about finish. You can work on a guitar and make a beautiful finish, but after three days this splendid guitar is a mess, because they have scratched it all over. According to Santos' widow, he always said the guitar will be smashed in a couple of days after it is played, because they don't care about the finish, they care about the sound of the guitar. Many people criticize me about my finishing, but I don't care. I just care about the sound of the instrument. (laughter and applause)

Jeff: So you don't have a preference for oil varnish versus French polish or lacquer?

Alfredo: French polish naturally brings out the openness of the guitar. But as my father taught me, although oil varnish takes longer to dry and to cure, it lasts longer and it will bond to the wood better. It will protect the instrument for much longer. In his opinion, just as the violin makers prefer varnish for violins, so should we for the guitar.

Jeff: And the top also?

Alfredo: For the top we also use oil varnish. As I said, it takes a little bit longer. Unfortunately, nowadays a lot of the guitarists don't want to wait. So we use French polish for them since it gives you a little bit of openness right away.

Manuel: We like to use oil varnish. It's more in the style of the old makers. At the beginning, French polish has more freedom of sound. French polish is like lacquer, it's harder than varnish. Over the years, it can crack. Don't tell violin makers about shellac on the top of a guitar because all of them will say, ``That's no good; we prefer oil varnish.' And I agree with them. So, we varnish the neck (Photo 21), the body (Photos 22 and 23), and sometimes French polish the soundboard (Photo 24).

Jeff: Do you apply the varnish with a brush?

Alfredo: Yes. The first couple of coats we soak it in and then presand it. Before each coat, we sand with 320-grit sandpaper. We use between four and six coats of varnish.

My father's style of woodworking was influenced greatly by an English cabinet maker. We use a very traditional English style of using linseed oil instead of the traditional Spanish method of using olive oil for French polish. It is almost the same process, but just using linseed oil. The linseed oil gives us somewhat of a luster.

Bob: How do you polish the oil varnish?

Alfredo: Depending on how smooth the coat is, we start by wet sanding from 800 up to 2000, then we use traditional pumice and rottenstone (Photo 25). Usually we stop there, but a lot of guitarists like to see more luster, so we might use rubbing compound to bring out a higher gloss. But I think the rottenstone gives you a nice surface that's very pleasing to look through.

Bob: Manuel, you've used traditional tonewoods through your career for most of your guitars. But we know you've also used a few alternative woods like African blackwood and koa. How do you think the tonal properties of these woods affect the instrument compared to the traditional woods?

Manuel: Many people go for the Br. rosewood because of the beauty of the wood. But for me, Indian or Br., the sound is about the same. It may be a little different, but that doesn't matter. With the years you cannot tell one from the other. I use both of them.

There is something better about Indian than Br., though: Br. is too brittle and it can crack. Indian rosewood never cracks.

I read in a book that Torres built a guitar and made the sides out of mache, paper. When he put the top on that guitar, it sounded equal to any wood. He glued pieces of paper together so that the hardness of the side was equal to a piece of wood, and it sounded the same. The important thing on the guitar is the top.

Bob: So why are we searching for all these fine hardwoods for the back and sides? We could be making papier mache.

Manuel: Because that type of paper you can't find anymore. (laughter)

Bob: Oh, it's same problem as with the traditional woods.

Manuel: Any sounding wood is good to build a guitar. The important thing is the top. That's where the sound is. Torres proved that. Certainly, you need a base to put the top onto, but you can use any type of wood, according to the hardness and the thickness of it. You can use koa. Blackwood is a wonderful wood, but it's too heavy. You can use ebony, but I don't suggest that for the body. It's too hard. You can bend it, but in a second it is straight again. Blackwood is a lot of work to bend, but it stays very well when you bend it.

Bob: Manuel, I'm curious: After so many guitars, what are you working on now? Do you have an experiment you'd like to try?

Manuel: No, I quit experimenting. The guitar is already made. I just keep going in the traditional way. It seems to me that the Torres way and the Santos Hernandez way is still the best way. I think everybody could keep going with the same bracing. The problem is the thickness of the top. That's the key to the sound.

Santos Hernandez made the first guitar that was used in concert by Maestro Segovia. That guitar has the label ``Ram¡rez' because Santos Hernandez worked for Manuel Ram¡rez. Segovia played that guitar for years.

Another that I have to mention is Mr. Hermann Hauser, Sr. In my opinion, he is the top of the guitar makers in the world, Hermann Hauser. He made the only one for the only one, Maestro Segovias Hauser.

Jeff: Have you always worked independently? I remember a story about a falling out with Segovia after he ordered one of your guitars. Apparently he found out you had a business relationship with some people who had offended him. Would you mind telling us?

Manuel: I learned a lot from Maestro Segovia's criticism. He was a very sincere and helpful man. He gave me some suggestions on the sound of the guitar. But unfortunately, I became associated with the Blain brothers before I knew about their history with Segovia, and Segovia no longer wanted my guitar when he found out. Rey de la Torre, Mr. Bobri, and many people in the Society of the Classic Guitar in New York City got mad at me. (Editor's note: See Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Four, p. 226 for more details). But thank God that association didn't last long, only one year. These gentlemen wanted to be on top of me. I said, ``Nobody will be on top of me!' and I quit from them. I suffered a lot, because they started to talk bad about my instruments. But that helped me a lot in one sense. I kept going by myself and since that, I still make my living by working with the guitar.

I have been retired five times. (laughter) People always say, `Please, I need one of your guitars.' My wife says, ``Oh, you please him.' I am not anymore a young man; I'm a very old person and I am very tired. Making guitar is not an easy way to make a living; there are many people in here that know that.

Jeff: Do we have any questions?

Steve Ganz: You mentioned using rottenstone on the final rubout and I'm interested to know if you lubricate that.

Alfredo: Yes. Either mineral oil or paraffin oil works great, both on the pumice and the rottenstone.

Greg Herrington: I'm wondering if you can let us in on any secrets you might have to your varnish. Is there any recipe that you'd share with us?

Alfredo: Like my father says, there are no secrets. We use Pratt & Lambert #38 clear varnish. We like it because it's based on linseed oil and tung oil. It's fairly flexible and it doesn't tighten up the guitar as much as some other oil varnishes will. That's our main preference: that the varnish will be flexible but very durable at the same time and be able to bond to the wood itself.

Newcomb Barger: Is that like a four-hour rubbing varnish?

Alfredo: No, each coat is applied by brush. You have to wait at least twenty-four hours between coats. The temperature and also the humidity are important. We like to work between 78 degress and 80 degrees for the applications, with a 50% humidity level.

Newcomb Barger: Do you just hand rub to put a gloss on that varnish?

Alfredo: Exactly. We wait two or three days after the last coat, then it's wet sanded and hand rubbed with pumice and rottenstone. It is preferable to wait longer, but if you wait too long it will get it really hard and be very hard to work with.

Denis Merrill: Have you used different scale lengths? When you used Engelmann spruce, did you use a different scale length for it?

Manuel: I have used 640MM, 650MM, and 660MM. For me, 660MM is too much. The guitar would be too hard to play. Guitarists believe that it would be a bigger sound, but I do not believe in that. The sound comes from the way you make the guitar, especially the top. I believe that 650MM, the standard one, is the most comfortable to any guitarist.

I have made a few guitars from Engelmann. Engelmann is good to work and it is a good sounding wood. But as an old timer, I prefer European spruce because I'm accustomed to it. Cedar is all right. It has a big sound, but not too good quality. I always look for the quality of sound.

David Schramm: Did you ever meet Hermann Hauser, Sr.?

Manuel: I went to Munich especially to cut wood and to meet Mr. Landstorfer and Mr. Hauser. He was a tremendous person.

David Schramm: And did that experience influence your guitar making?

Manuel: Of course! For me it was a great honor to meet the greatest guitar maker in the world and to talk with him.

Richard Reynoso: Is the treble cutoff bar just for spruce? I've only really seen that on cedar. Have you worked much with cedar?

Manuel: I've worked a lot on cedar. I still have faith in it, but I'm not going to use it anymore. It's a wonderful wood, but many people don't like the look and the color of cedar. And I do prefer spruce.

Alfredo: The cutoff bar is one of his main signatures. He uses it on all of his guitars.

Allan Greenfield: With the large number of guitars you've made in your lifetime, can you identify some qualities of materials that would produce a better quality of tone?

Manuel: The perfect sort of wood for a guitar is rosewood, Br. or Indian, no matter which. Rosewood and spruce, for me, are the best materials in the world for guitar making. Cedar is all right. Many young guitarists like the sound of cedar because it is louder than spruce. Cedar sounds good immediately, but with time it won't become more than what it is. Spruce sounds better and better. It's like a bottle of wine - the older it is, the better it sounds. That's why I love spruce. Cedar is loud, but I never look for loudness. I always look for quality.

Walter Stanul: Mr. Velazquez, I saw a marvelous guitar that you made. It had ten strings and a detachable neck. Have you made many instruments with more than six strings?

Manuel: I only made two guitars of that type. One was for Juan Orozco in Massachusetts, and one for Narciso ``Chico' Yepes, the Spanish guitarist.

Walter Stanul: Do you feel the detachable neck hurts the sound compared to the Spanish neck joint?

Manuel: No, the sound is practically the same. It has more strings, that's all. Sr. Orozco traveled a lot to Europe and he wanted to take off the neck. That was a lot of work. I had to make a dovetail joint with a bolt inside, holding the neck and the body together so they can be taken apart for traveling. To make a living, you have to please the customer all the time. (laugher and applause)

Alan Perlman: Mr. Velazquez, when you select a spruce soundboard and you've gotten a feeling for that piece of wood, do you adjust the location and size of the braces to suit that soundboard, or do you only adjust the thickness of the soundboard.

Manuel: There is one standard. I have a pattern, and from that I place the piece of wood, and I glue it.

Alfredo: After the soundboard is glued to the body, he adjusts the thickness of the top according to the way it reacts.

Jeff: What do you see as the future of the classical guitar?

Manuel: The guitar is already established and the future will be more, and more, and more. In all the states of the USA, the universities have a department of the guitar. It will be a great future for the guitar. You can see how many young boys are making guitars. Now the problem is, how many are going to stay making guitars? It's not easy.

Bob: And today we also have many women building guitars. Or at least more than in the past.

Manuel: My daughter started to make guitars. But what happened? She couldn't make a living at it. And her work is very good. I don't say that just because she is my daughter. She is a very good guitar maker.

Jeff: It's still a struggle.

Alfredo: As soon as he walked into this room today, my father said to me that back in the 1940s it was impossible to have all this. To be here and to be sharing with all of you is a great honor for him.

Manuel: Yes, it has been a great, great thing for me to see. When I came to this country, nobody knew about the Spanish guitar. I was going to Town Hall to see a concert and I was carrying a guitar. A lady said, ``What are you carrying there?' I said, ``It's a guitar.' She said, ``A guitar?' She didn't know anything about guitar. And now, the guitar is established. All you new guitar makers, don't be afraid to keep making guitars. It's very hard to make a living, no question. But it is the most enjoyable profession for me in this world, making guitars.

Sometimes you will be disappointed when you show a guitar to a person and he says it's no good. If you take that critique in the good way and you start to work on that, it will be for your own benefit. This happened to me. A lot of people in New York stood in front of me and said, ``I don't like your guitar.' Many people are just looking for a big sound, but the guitar is not a piano, it's not a harp. It's a personal instrument. It is the sweetest and most sublime instrument, I dare to say, in this world. You can hear the complete symphony orchestra in one guitar. Many people don't agree, but that's my opinion. (applause)

Bob: Manuel, your career has been very long, you've enjoyed tremendous success, and your guitars are much sought after by many across the world. Are there a few words of advice you could leave us with, something that you feel is important?

Manuel: A guitar maker builds guitars because he loves them. The only thing that I had to do was to keep going, and going, and going. You will be disappointed sometimes, but please keep going. With perseverance you will find success in the work, if you have faith in God.

(To view a video documentary about Manuel Velazquez click here.)
Manuel Velazquez