Manuel Velázquez (1917-2014)

Manuel Velázquez was born in February 1917 in Manatí, Puerto Rico, the twelfth of 13 children. His mother’s parents were from Spain, relatives of the famous Spanish guitar master Santos Hernández. Fascination with guitars additionally came at an early age to Manuel from his oldest brother, an avid guitarist who also built a few guitars and quatros. Although he was born into a farming family, Velázquez began training as a cabinet maker while still in high school in the city of San Juan. He completed his first real guitar at age 16, and shortly after showed one of his instruments to Jorge Rubiano, who at the time was conductor of a large string orchestra.

Rubiano was impressed, and ordered two guitars for the orchestra. Velázquez was building guitars good enough to sell before he was 20 years old, and thanks to Rubiano a few orders began to come his way. The conductor also advised Velázquez to move to New York City to further his career. Velázquez did so in 1941, and when the United Sates entered World War II he found employment as a woodworker in the shipyards. Years later, he recalled the experience of salvaging the mess tables from a sunken troop ship that had been refloated and brought to the docks. Each table top was about 15 feet long and 2 1/2 inches thick, with matching benches- and all of solid Brazilian Rosewood, the source of Velázquez’s first guitar in the US.

He made little more than two guitars a year during this period, in the dining room of his apartment. By the late 1940s Velázquez was becoming known to top players in New York, first for repair and gradually for the instruments he made. Rey de la Torre was one player who championed his work in those early years, and around 1950 as more orders came in Velázquez was able to move to a better workshop at 420 3rd Avenue, devoting all his time to guitar making. Players such as Vladimir Bobri and Noah Wolf, among others, helped Velázquez establish an international reputation. As early as 1955 a review in Guitar News called him “by far the best master in the United States” and mentioned favourable comments from Andrés Segovia. Velázquez returned to Puerto Rico in 1972, where he settled in the southern portion of the Island, near Ponce, later having a new home built in Juana Diaz. From the basement workshop in his new residence he continued to build guitars, most of which were sold in Japan. In 1982 Velázquez and his wife Beatriz again returned to the United States, spending nine years in Virginia before moving to Orlando, Florida, where they now live. His son Alfredo and daughter Graciela have recently joined the business, and they work together.

While Velázquez cites Torres, Santos Hernández and Hauser as influences, he has been critical in the past of the long string scales and oversized bodies preferred by many builders of recent decades. He has preferred to search for increased power and clarity in the trebles through calibration of each individual soundboard rather than by using strongly-angled, transverse bracing. In general his guitars display somewhat thicker soundboards than usual, but with lighter bracing. When William Cumpiano asked him about soundboard thickness in a 1980 interview, Velázquez gestured by rubbing thumb and forefinger together, replying: “I prefer to use these rather than a caliper. It does not really interest me what the measurement is.” He seeks the best tone, volume and balance through careful selection and working of the wood, rather than meddling with the traditional designs.

By Richard Johnston. Published in “The Classical Guitar Book, A Complete History.” 2002