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A Passion That Resonates A Craftsman Has Created Some Of The Most Sought-After Classical Guitars In The World. But His Masterpiece Gift To The World Might Be The Apprentice He Has Taught For Years.
By Darryl E. Owens, Sentinel Staff Writer
June 16, 2004
Inside a Winter Springs business park, locked behind a glass door identified only by number, two men toil in near pin-drop silence.
At a workbench thick with sawdust, the older man takes into his hands a delicate curved piece of wood. His arms are mottled with age, but his fingers move with ageless grace as he gently rubs away the rough spots.
In the coming weeks, he'll assemble the soundboard he sands, a fingerboard, neck and sides into a masterpiece: a classical guitar of such impeccability that his name is mentioned among those of Torres, Hernandez and Hauser -- among the greatest guitar makers ever.
An instrument that will bear the name Manuel Velazquez.
The master turns toward his apprentice, hard at work, a few feet away.
Velazquez, 87, peers over steel bifocals, knowing the young artisan has a ways to go to match the master. Knowing his mother was right when she said that the passion for the art burns in the blood. Knowing that even the $20,000 guitars the master produces cannot compare with his greatest masterpiece, a life's work in progress, the apprentice who bears his name:
His son Alfredo.
`LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON'
Becoming a luthier -- a maker of stringed instruments -- would be Alfredo's choice. Manuel Velazquez never pressured his son, nor did he push him away.
At age 3, Alfredo showed interest in the work, delighting in his father's workshop, "borrowing" tools. The vise that Manuel uses to clamp the sides of guitars still bears gouges from Alfredo's boyhood dabbling.
Still, Manuel could raise only a faux fuss: After all, Alfredo's fascination for the instrument was "like father, like son.'' Growing up in Puerto Rico, it seemed to Manuel that everyone played the guitarra. His brother Teofilio, a cabinetmaker, learned to make them using instructions that a Spanish cousin -- and a celebrated luthier -- had enclosed in a letter. When he turned 13, Manuel told his mother he, too, would build a guitar.
"It's in the blood," she told him.
Manuel found a cheese crate, cut planks to size, soaked them in gasoline to remove the grease, and washed the wood in soap. Three months later, he sold his first guitar for $11.
In 1941, he joined his sister Virginia in New York. During the war, he worked as a cabinetmaker at the federal shipyards in Newark, N.J. There, in 1946, he rekindled his passion for guitar making. Sailors had tossed a Brazilian rosewood table into the Hudson River. Struck by its beauty, Manuel fished out slabs of it and made a guitar.
Three days after it was finished, he sold it. That moment, with $250 crinkling in his hand, he realized he could make a life doing the thing he loved.
A SIGNATURE TONE
The master blows sawdust from the soundboard and fits the heart of the guitar into the body.
The fit isn't quite flush. He pencils marks on the wood and resumes sanding. Another fitting. Still off. He marks. He sands. Again. And again.
His demand for perfection creates a longing in guitarists such as Earl Klugh, Paul Simon, Keith Richards and Pepe Romero to possess a Velazquez. Stephen Robinson bought his first Velazquez six years ago.
"I am privileged to perform and record on one of Manuel's masterpieces," gushes Robinson, founding director of the International Guitar Workshop at Stetson University. The guitars, he says, "are prized for their inimitable tone."
Given similar woods and construction methods, each luthier's guitar will resonate with a signature sound. Wherein lies the difference?
Some believe a guitar is the vessel into which the luthier pours his soul. That harplike, mellow, colorful sound that Robinson hears playing a Velazquez might just be Manuel whispering his passion for the work.
Manuel loves it all. The feel of the wood. The sweetness of vanilla that issues from shaved Brazilian rosewood. The 42 operations involved alone in constructing just the neck.
But he wondered whether that passion would ever resonate in his son's soul.
A SILENT PRAYER
For a time, Alfredo, now 33, was more interested in playing guitars than building them. He studied woodworking while attending high school in Arlington, Va. Father and son built a cabinet. However, in 1988, Alfredo joined the National Guard and channeled his energies into serving his country. By the time they reunited in 1991, Manuel had moved to his Winter Springs studio, hopeful the Florida sunshine would ease his advancing arthritis.
For Alfredo, stepping into that workshop -- the wood, the vanilla, the passion -- "It was like a drug." He would give it a shot.
Though Manuel had always kept his prayer quiet, Alfredo was "pretty sure, as a father, he wanted me to follow his footsteps, but he wanted me to find that out by myself, and for that I'm very thankful."
But "there was a lot of pressure," Alfredo says, "that I have to do this, have to be exactly like my father. I even told people, `Don't expect my father's guitar.' "
Because of his name and because his guitars were cheaper -- $5,000 to $8,000 -- people were willing to bet on genetics. "I would get a lot of guitars back," Alfredo says. Discontented buyers would parrot his disclaimer: "It doesn't sound like your father's."
That bothered Manuel.
"People don't understand," he says. "He needed more experience."
Alfredo realized he must ignore expectations and carve out his own sound. Already Stetson's Robinson is sold: His collection of Velazquez guitars is now up to five, including two fashioned by Alfredo.
Like his father, Alfredo focuses on the details but sometimes veers from the family recipe.
"At times, we're talking passionately about the guitar, how to improve it, how to make it better. Sometimes, we'll be wringing at each other's necks," Alfredo says. "He has certain standards and he has certain ways of doing things. I try to imitate him, but I usually go a different path. At the end, as long as we have the same results, that's what counts."
What counts most for Manuel is that his son found his path. "I thank God that I am sure now that the name will be the same," he says. "This thing is in the blood."
THE WORK CONTINUES
Only soft strains of Beethoven and a thin scent of vanilla color the silence as two men continue the work of a lifetime.
Just after lunch, Manuel sets aside his tools and pushes away from the table. Red curls of rosewood beneath his feet scatter. He starts to rise, then thinks better of it. A boyhood encounter with a bull permanently injured his hip, and now, at his age, walking has become a chore. Once, he could build 20 guitars a year. Now, Manuel manages at most a dozen. He is weary.
"Yo encolare manana."
I'll glue it tomorrow.
The apprentice looks up briefly. On a hook hangs a strand of wooden circles -- remnants of soundboards that he keeps as a count of the guitars he has made. So far, 35. The master, credited with some 800 guitars, has misplaced more strands than that.
He nods at the master and returns to the work. His work.
Alfredo has made his choice. He will carry on. Soon, he'll present another buyer an instrument that bears the Velazquez name.
That of Alfredo Velazquez: constructor de guitarras.