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In Memoriam: Manuel Velázquez

In Memoriam: Manuel Velázquez

February 1917 – April 2014

by Beverly Maher

Originally published in American Lutherie #118, 2014

I am honored to memorialize my friend Manuel Velázquez. I am happy that he was blessed with such a long life and that he touched so many people with his true humility and his greatness as a luthier. He will not be forgotten.

Manuel was born in Puerto Rico, one of thirteen children. He said that at age five he told his father that one day he would build a guitar. His father knew woods, so he learned from his father and began building the guitars he’s known for. He also was playing the guitar, and his father told him that he had to make a choice. “A man cannot ride two horses at the same time.”

In 1946, he opened his first shop in New York City, on Third Ave. I still have his business card from that location and a bill with his stationery.

I met Manuel when he worked in Noah Wulfe’s shop on 57th Street in the late ’60s. He was building guitars and doing repairs and charming guitarists with his stories. He loved to tell about selling his first guitar for under $15. And by the ’60s he was getting $450 for his instruments. As the years passed, his guitars sold for a whopping $1000 and up as he became better known.

Manuel Velázquez and Beverly Maher at the 2006 GAL Convention in Tacoma. Photo by Robert Desmond.

Noah Wulfe loved Manuel’s guitars and was very influential in promoting him. He advertised Manuel’s guitars in the New York Times and in Guitar Review. When Noah passed the mantle to me, I also praised Velázquez guitars and sold so many of them that I soon became known as “the Velázquez lady.”

I have one customer, Peter Williams, who has a Velázquez guitar from each decade. I know several guitarists who bought their first Velázquez guitars in the ’60s for under $1000 and are shocked when they discover what they’re now worth. To me, they were always underpriced and still are. When I first began selling guitars, I knew that one day Manuel would rank amongst the great masters, and that his guitars would command the prices they deserve.

Not only were his guitars selling to classical players, they were also discovered by steel string players and then rockers. Any steel player who bought a nylon guitar from me always chose a Velázquez.

I sold Keith Richards a 1956 Velázquez, chosen from twelve guitars he tried. He played it on the Steel Wheels album and said in an interview in Guitar Player magazine, “He’s the end, man, such a cool cat.” I relayed this message to Manuel in this foreign language he didn’t understand, from a man he never heard of. I then translated it into Spanish: so he would understand that Keith is very famous and loves his guitar and was sensitive enough to choose his from all the others he played. Keith heard that special sound that all Velázquez guitar lovers know, “the sound of angels singing” as someone called it. Manuel was always listening for “the sound” as he tapped the top to find the desired resonance that characterizes his guitars. Besides the clarity and balance, there is that purity of sound that he was able to bring forth from the wood.

In 2008, Paul Polycarpou and his crew made the wonderful documentary about Manuel called Manuel Velázquez: A Tribute to a Legend. It was filmed partly in his shop and partly in mine. Manuel talked about how he talks to the wood and the wood talks to him and his fingers tell him when he has the desired quality of sound. Virginia Luque was specially invited by Manuel to play in this homage video because he felt a connection with her in their shared love and passion for the instrument and the search for the true sound of the guitar. At the end of the video he said so movingly, “Guitar is my life, my soul. It is my life.”