As Labor Day approaches, we wanted to get back to a concept of ours to highlight other individuals who combine creativity and a strong work ethic to create their own striving business. Labor Day is all about the worker and so are we. It's one thing to be artistic, it's another to have the drive and stamina to create a business out of it. Maintaining high standards in your work, bringing in an income that can sustain yourself, your family, and possibly other employees. To do this, to do it well, and to maintain integrity and joy all the while, well that takes something extraordinary. WORK Labs looks at some of these remarkable individuals working and creating in our own backyard, so to speak.
We start with Tommy Rodriguez of Rodriguez Guitars.
I first met Tommy working in a hair salon located in the same building as Tommy's workspace. Tommy is the quintessentially punk rock; if punk rock grew up, had children and a mortgage. He does not suffer fools. I once heard him read an entire 10-page contract over the phone to his provider to prove he did not need to pay a superfluous fee because it was not, in fact, "in the contract" as the poor gentleman on the other end of the line had insisted. He and his band Vapor Rhinos has on more than one occasion smoked out a venue by putting his smoke machine on maximum power during one one of their performances. Pretty sure he was banned from ever playing one of those venues ever again, yet he seems to think it was worth it. He'd come out of his shop with so much wood dust and dirt on his black clothes, that we'd joke that he was a true Crusty. But his guitars...his guitars are true works of art.
I asked Tommy recently about his work, work ethic, and inspiration, and this is what he said:
I hand make classical guitars and ukuleles, all built by hand to the highest standards. I do every step in-shop, including milling my own lumber and cutting my own veneers for the rosettes and other marquetry work on the instruments. I’ll often salvage and repurpose the woods I use from old pianos, furniture or just collections of old wood that I purchase.
I started making electric guitars 30 years ago exactly, about now. Around 22 years ago I started making classical guitars, and most recently, ukuleles. In cutting my own wood, I often have nice pieces left over that are too nice to throw away. I started making ukuleles to use up these smaller pieces of wood since the ukuleles have nylon strings they were very much like miniature classical guitars, which is the approach I took designing them.
I became inspired to make guitars after playing in bands, looking for that perfect instrument, I also thought, if I was self-employed, I could go out on tour and not have to worry about getting time off from work, if I was my own boss. Knowing lots of musicians also helped get my name around. That all back fired because I became so busy I didn’t have time to tour with a band.
I use a lot of hand tools in what I do, some I have made, some are very old, some are from high-end tool makers. One of my favorites is a Japanese paring chisel made by a fifth generation blacksmith, whose family used to make Samurai swords. He uses no power tools and you can see the hammer marks on the back of the blade. The steel is of a quality that has disappeared long ago in favor of profits and ease of manufacture.
One of my biggest influences or inspirations has been Antonio de Torres, inventor of the modern classical guitar. It was a book about him that inspired me to start making classical guitars. As I grow and refine my craft I can still look back as Torres' work and be amazed at how far ahead of his time he was. Some of his marquetry work is difficult with the help of modern power tools, I couldn’t imagine doing it all without, back in the 1800’s.
A lot of guitar makers CAD programs for designs and CNC to make the parts for their guitars, I still like the hands on approach, working with the wood, getting to know it. There is a lot of variation in a single species of wood, learning how to adapt to these changes is how to make every instrument great. A machine is not going to tell you that. There really are no short cuts at the level I’m working at. I enjoy the whole process, from rough cutting lumber to the final finishing. Even if I do make money, I’ll never get rich doing this but at least I get to do what I love.
For anyone wanting to start out in this I would say, there is no magic, it’s a lot of work and a lot to learn. A 3-month guitar class cannot teach you everything there is to know. After 30 years of building, I am still learning things every day. Spend your guitar school money on a shop and tools, have at it, screw things up, learn from your mistakes and know that most people on guitar forums are assholes…
...Told ya, he doesn't suffer fools.
Check out some pics of Tommy's work below and see more here: