Third generation luthier Manuel Delgado is keeping his family’s legacy alive.
Manuel Delgado’s grandfather and great uncle started building handmade guitars in Torreon, Mexico in 1928.
Ninety years later, Delgado is the third-generation luthier to continue the exquisite craftsmanship of making top-quality, flat-top string instruments, and his unique guitars are revered by many of today’s most accomplished guitarists.
Only now, the instruments are made in the United States.
“I am the first generation born in the United States and I started out at a very young age,” Delgado said. “Flat-top instruments is what we make, which is concert classical guitars, flamenco guitars, dobros, mandolins, ukuleles from Hawaii, banjos and even electric guitars. We make over 40 different string instruments. A lot of them are Latin instruments from different regions of Mexico.”
The Delgado family moved to East Los Angeles in 1948 and opened a small guitar shop creating hand-crafted instruments that catered to musicians of many genres. In the mid-1960s, his grandfather and father were commissioned to build three guitars for Andres Segovia, considered to be the world’s greatest classical guitarist.
Manuel Delgado was born in 1971. Even though he had started repairing guitars at age 7 and built his first guitar when he was 12 years old, he considered a career in law enforcement in Los Angeles.
But when his father passed away from cancer in 1996, it was only a matter of time before Delgado returned to the guitar shop to carry on the family tradition.
Delgado moved the business to Nashville 14 years ago at the behest of his wife Julie, a singer/songwriter who wanted to be closer to the thriving Tennessee music scene. Since the move, Delgado has gotten even more recognition as a master luthier.
“We have a lot of well-known people we do work for,” Delgado said. “Most notably, recently we’ve done a lot of work with the band Los Lobos. They’ve been customers since my grandfather, and they continue to entrust me to buy and work on their instruments and that is something I am very proud of because they knew the caliber of craftsmanship from my father and grandfather. And so for them to still feel that I can live up to that standard means a lot to me, that the they trust me to do that.”
The list of Delgado guitar aficionados is not a short one. The family has either built or repaired guitars for Arlo Guthrie, Jose Feliciano, Jackson Browne, blues master Buddy Guy, Hoyt Axton, Charro and Grand Ole Opry alumni Old Crow Medicine Show.
"We Don't Make Customers, We Make Friends"
All Delgado guitars are made by Manuel Delgado. He is only able to build about 20 to 25 of his exclusive hand-made guitars each year, and the starting price is $5,500.
Delgado prefers to build his guitars the old-fashioned way, and his instruments are recognized for having a tone that can’t be replicated when mass-producing instruments with machines.
“Everything I do is all made out of solid wood,” Delgado said. “We don’t use any laminate or plywood – everything is solid. When you buy something that is handcrafted, there is a whole different energy and knowledge that goes into it.”
Delgado makes every guitar from start to finish. He likes to say he doesn’t need electricity to build a guitar.
“We hand-make everything that we do,” he said. “We still use a lot of the old-world techniques. In fact, on my business card it doesn’t say ‘Luthier’ is says ‘Old World Luthier.’
“It’s not so much because of my age, it’s because of the techniques we use in creating instruments. It’s all hand-made from conception to completion. We have no CNC machines, no lasers, no shapers. It’s just Bill and I.”
Bill is Bill Foster, who began working with Delgado a little more than a year ago. Because of the many hours of labor it takes to make one guitar, Foster helps with the La Tradicion brand of the business, which are all prototypes and are much more affordable.
“I say I’ve known Bill my whole life, but we only met one year ago,” Delgado said.
La Tradicion guitars are often compromised of Yamaha or Cordoba guitars that the Delgado team upgrades with added features. This is done so that Delgado can continue to give back to the community.
“An example is somebody in a school district is starting a program, and they need anywhere from one to as many as 300 guitars,” Delgado said. “But they can’t afford a Delgado guitar, so we offer them a really well-made entry level guitar that we improve or actually have input in the construction of, and then we do a lot of added features to make sure the instrument is going to last.
“We work with many school districts because when it’s budget time, the arts are the first thing that are cut. We use the world STEAM around here a lot because everybody always talks about STEM which is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, but we say STEAM to add the A for arts. So, we say let’s not talk STEM, let’s talk STEAM.”
At the age of 47, Delgado finds satisfaction in helping young musicians and working with the National Endowment for the Arts.
But he remains highly regarded as a caretaker of the history of flat-top string instruments.
“We’ve had a couple of exhibits at the Smithsonian, and we also work with different museums around the country when they have vintage instruments that need to be restored,” he said. “I feel like I am just trying to continue what was passed on to me, so I am very fortunate. I am just trying to be a good steward of what was given to me and make sure I am doing good work with it as well.”
The world has changed dramatically since that first guitar was built in 1928 and Delgado takes advantage of these changes even though he still creates his guitars the “old world way.”
Traditionally, guitars got their tonal sound from the wood that was used in construction. That sound came from a region where a certain type of wood was readily available. The sound all depended on what region of the country or what country the instrument originated.
Today, Delgado can source wood from all over the world.
“There are companies that actually provide wood for different luthiers as myself, but then I also have relationships with different people from Canada, Italy, Germany, Mexico and India so we are able to import a lot of the wood that way and build the guitar in Nashville,” he said.
Delgado is excited about an upcoming project that will take additional time away from his traditional acoustic guitar building, but will add a new series of electric guitars to his portfolio.
The guitar is called the 3764 Highway 51. The series is the 3764 and the model is Highway 51.
“And where that comes from is because the original one I built was sourced from a famous home in Memphis owned by a very famous singer that people still tour. That is why I trademarked 3764 Highway 51,” Delgado added.
Stumped? Highway 51 is now called Elvis Presley Blvd., and the address belongs to the King’s Graceland.
That’s not Delgado’s only connection to royalty, as he also sourced wood from a bed that Prince Philippe of France slept on in the 1600s.
“The tops of the guitars are made out of Honduras Mahogany, which is what the bed frame was made out of,” Delgado said. “And right now, we are in talks with a couple of distilleries to use some barrel wood to make some guitars.”
While a true gatekeeper of the 90-year-old family business, Delgado is not afraid of growth or taking risks.
“For me, these little moments are what it’s all about,” he said. “The thing I enjoy most is being behind the bench and building, but secondary would be talking to folks and educate them about our history and show them how we build instruments.
“If it’s got the Delgado name behind it, it’s got to be done well. We don’t make customers, we make friends. I tell people we are the greatest guitar company you’ve never heard about.”