Interview with Manuel Rodríguez
As CEO of Manuel Rodríguez Guitars, a company whose glorious history extends back over 110 years, Manuel Rodríguez has provided guitars to the cream of the crop of the world’s musicians over the years. Not only focused on creating expertly crafted instruments, Manuel is also determined to bring people together through his passion for music. We were lucky enough to get a few words from the man himself.
Your company is steeped in history. Can you tell us a little about that?
Well, as a company we’ve been around for about 110 years. My grandfather and father both lived through two world wars and one civil war in Spain, and they spent the entire time making guitars and exporting them worldwide.
My parents immigrated in 1955 to West Hollywood in order to make guitars for the Hollywood industry. They moved without knowing any English, and arrived with nothing but a few tools to their name. I was born there, and I lived there for 20 years though. So America is where I started my career as a Luthier. And then in 1970 we came back to Spain. Spain is a country passionate about guitar construction. And that’s what we're doing now, exporting our guitars to over 100 countries and hoping to really put Spain back on the map.
What steps did you take in joining the family business?
That’s a good question because I was really not a good student. As my dad used to say, the books were too heavy for me! It was the passion that drove me though. Because from a very young age my parents always taught me about all the challenges of carrying a family business. It's in my blood.
I come from a gypsy family originally, so my great grandfather was playing Flamenco to the Tsar of Russia back in the 1890s and then my grandfather started up a fishing business and went bankrupt. During the First World War a big German sea vessel sank and the people were afraid to eat fish! [Laughs] So that's why he started making guitars. I continue to make them because I love that I can make people happy with music. Music is a universal language with no borders.
So it’s this passion that keeps you going
Yes, it’s the passion to make people happy. And it’s tough right now because we are battling a war at against the Playstations, and the iPhones, and the tablets. But I really think that kids need to go back to playing musical instruments in their spare time. I believe music inspires wisdom and makes you much more human than toying with some electronics.
You’ve had to balance the business growth along with the more traditional aspects of hand-crafting. Was that difficult?
Yeah, it was tough. My grandfather and father only used to make around 24 guitars a year. So that's the sort of pace I learnt from. But to make this a global company, I knew needed to expand. I had to make lower priced instruments that everyone could afford. We couldn’t just make $20k guitars. So I had to make a bigger workshop to make this a viable business that could span across multiple countries. That's the main reason why I transformed the business into this much bigger enterprise.
It certainly wasn’t easy, because you have to rely on the same handmade skills to make a $300 guitar as you do for a $20k guitar. So the way we reduced the price was by using more affordable types of wood. The aim was that mother that wants to buy a guitar for her son would be able to purchase a decent instrument with a reasonable budget. We’re trying to make that perfect budget guitar for that potential future musician. Because if the mother goes out and buys some cheap Chinese guitar, it won’t sound right and her son will be demotivated and we might lose a potential musician.
Who is the biggest musician you’ve ever made a guitar for?
It would probably have to be Stevie Wonder. He really surprised us because it turns out he loves Flamenco music. We’re so lucky to have met musicians around the world that really value our culture and our music in Spain. The thing is that, in Spain we don't value our own wonderful culture. It’s sad, because only from abroad do other people value our country.
Apart from Stevie, I’ve also made guitars for various World Leaders. And when I give them guitars, they tell me, “This guitar will bring peace to my country”. [Laughs] I’m not sure if they have all had success with that, but it's really remarkable how happy we make people with our instruments.
Who are your top 5 musicians?
Beethoven is number one. No doubt. Second would have to be a man named Joaquín Rodrigo. He is a very famous composer in Spain, and he composed the world-famous ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’. The Spanish people love guitar, and it’s the sound that’s become synonymous with our country. So when you see the Spanish flag, you think of that concert.
For the third choice I’d have to go with the Rolling Stones. You have to have a little Rock and Roll, right? Fourth would be Sting - I love him. He's a remarkable musician and even plays our instruments. The fifth is Andres Segovia, he’s practically the pope of guitars. He’s one of the best guitar players in the world, and really puts the instrument on the highest stage.
Any final words?
I would like to say that I while don’t claim to be the best or worst guitar maker in the world, for me: the most important thing is spreading the joy of music to others. That’s why I make guitars. And that's why I will continue to make them.