Alongside the young upstarts that The Retailer featured in our March “Class of 2016” cover story, we also seek to spotlight companies whose rich, multi-decade heritage attests to the passion and dedication of a family business passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps no company in the music products industry exudes so proud a heritage as that of Manuel Rodríguez Guitars, a company whose history extends back 110 years. For this month’s “Five Minutes With,” we spoke to Manuel Rodríguez, the company’s CEO, to learn the full story behind the widely respected global brand.
Rodríguez provides insight into not only his company’s beautifully crafted instruments, but also his drive to help others, grow the community of music makers, and protect and preserve the natural resources that have enabled his family to make fine stringed instruments for more than a century.
Enjoy our probing conversation.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s begin with your background. Trace your personal history with guitars, making music and creating instruments. Have you been passionate about music since childhood? Describe a bit about your personal musical journey, starting from your earliest years and bringing us through your career highlights.
Manuel Rodríguez: That’s a good question. In 1955, my parents came to Los Angeles. And, right now, I’m actually in Los Angeles. My parents came to make guitars for the Hollywood industry. And, so, I was born here. Coming home from school every day, seeing my dad in the workshop, I smelled the woods and the varnish. So, I was immersed in guitar construction since I was a small boy. When I was 11 years old, I started to make rosettes…the small wood rosettes on the guitars. Then, I went to high school; then, I got my bachelor’s degree. I started making guitars myself when I was 18 years old. From there, it’s been my passion up to now, at 53 years old, covering 122 countries.
The Retailer: Next, let’s discuss Manuel Rodríguez Guitars, a company that has a 110-year history and that’s widely respected in the market. Tell us the story of the company’s creation. Describe how the company evolved from its beginnings and, eventually, reached global prominence. How has Manuel Rodríguez Guitars evolved over the decades?
Rodríguez: The company was created by my grandfather. But, let me go back to my great grandfather. He was a gypsy, so I have gypsy blood. He had a flamenco group, playing for the Czar of Russia around 1880 in Northern Europe. My grandfather had a fishing store in San Fernando CA. During the first World War, a German vessel sank and 1,000 soldiers died. At that time, people were afraid to eat fish, because they thought it was poisoned from all those soldiers who died on the coast. So, he went bankrupt. Then, he started making guitars for my great grandfather. It was like the Paco de Lucía group at that time…all gypsies.
He was successful. He went up to Madrid and worked for the Ramírez workshop, as well as for himself in downtown Madrid. This was around 1910. Eventually, my father joined my grandfather in making guitars. Moving ahead to 1955, a teacher from UCLA, Ted Norman, was walking in downtown Madrid, and he asked my father, “Would you like to come to California? There are no guitar makers here.” In response, he said, “Why not?” Not knowing any English and with a few tools, just recently married, he came to the U.S. to make guitars. And we lived here for 20 years.
The Japanese competition was very strong in 1975 and in the ’80s. So, we had to go back to Spain. Madrid, Spain has one of the world’s oldest traditions of guitar construction. So, our legacy helped to create Martin, Taylor, Gibson, etc. Everything—all the evolution of the acoustic guitar and the electric guitar—came from the Spanish guitar. That’s the history. And we’re the second-oldest nylon-string guitar company in the world, after Ramírez.
Right now, after 53 years of an incredible career in this passionate industry, we’re making everything in Spain. About 20 years ago, we had a small workshop in China. We’ve closed that. We’re back to our roots, creating jobs.
I help world leaders get guitars. When I speak to them, I say, “Please support music. We need to support music for a better world…for kids…for their education.” That’s also why I work with The Carter Center and Antonio Banderas’ foundation. Music is important for our humanity.
The Retailer: You’ve spent many years of your life immersed in guitars and music. What keeps you motivated, inspired and passionate today? What makes you eager to get out of bed in the morning and get to work? What’s the very best part of your job?
Rodríguez: We make people happy, Dan. That’s very important in the world that we live in. We live in such a negative world, with terrorism and just so much negativity. We have to make people happy with music, because music inspires peace. It inspires freedom. It inspires intelligence and wisdom. When I wake up in the morning and go to my workshop, I get to be creative when I make new instruments and new designs. I work to get the best sounds out of the woods that we work with, which God made.
The Retailer: When you look at Manuel Rodríguez Guitars as the company currently exists, what would you say you’re the proudest of? What makes your company stand apart not only from its direct competitors, but also from companies in the broader MI industry? Does Manuel Rodríguez Guitars have a “secret sauce” that makes it unique?
Rodríguez: Guitars all sound different; each guitar has its own personality. I like to play with the beautiful woods that we have…exotic woods…with flowers and rosettes. Each one sounds different. What my workers and I do every single day is rich in sound, rich in history and full of beauty. And that’s our best motivation. Not only that, but we’re also a very sustainable company. We run on solar power; we use sustainable woods. We care for our planet. I travel to many countries, doing clinics about music and these guitars. Our species is very rapidly destroying our planet.
So, I’m trying to do three things: First, make the best guitars. Second, help the environment as it pertains to woods, varnishes and sustainability. Third, help humanity through The Carter Center and all these foundations. I don’t have $100,000, but I have hands to make a guitar that’s been signed by famous musicians. That guitar can be auctioned or sold to help humanity. I was with the Mayor of Los Angeles yesterday, and we used signed guitars to help homeless families in L.A. get a home. That is my passion, Dan.
The Retailer: Before the NAMM Show, Manuel Rodríguez Guitars appointed KMC Music to distribute exclusive guitar models to its network of 6,000 resellers in the United States. What factors led you to create that partnership? Why was teaming with KMC Music a compelling proposition?
Rodríguez: Our business has been established in the U.S. for more than 50 years. In the old days, we used to work with Bill Schultz and Fender to do the distribution. Then, we worked with Guitar Center. Now, we think that mom-and-pop stores—not just Guitar Center—must have our guitars. So, we have KMC doing all the distribution to the small, mom-and-pop stores. But Guitar Center and Sam Ash also take our models. We wanted to cover the whole country. The United States is, after all, my country of birth. I need to get the best guitars for my country. You see, I have the Spanish passion, and the marketing and perspective of getting the best guitars for my country and my flag.
The Retailer: Tell us about Manuel Rodríguez Guitars’ involvement with President Jimmy Carter and The Carter Center. Describe some of the important initiatives with which your company has been involved.
Rodríguez: We started about 10 years ago. President Carter loves wood; he loves guitars. He came to our workshop about eight years ago. We started to auction guitars. He signs the necks and the labels, as do my brother and I. When I go to the auction, I share the passionate message of our instruments with all these CEOs: those from Delta Airlines, Citigroup and others. They bid, and we get $100,000 for a guitar. That’s a blessing! I don’t get that money myself. We’re helping humanity: homeless people, people in Africa, kids. We’re helping those who are suffering. We got about half a million dollars in the past 10 years, auctioning guitars. That’s a miracle! And we can do a lot more in our industry to help change things.
The Retailer: Are there any future initiatives planned?
Rodríguez: We just started a new project yesterday helping homeless people in Los Angeles. I came here to the U.S. so I could participate. We have two guitars—beautiful rosewood guitars—that have been signed. We’re going to auction them in a few months to generate funds for homeless people here in L.A. I also work with Antonio Banderas’ foundation, for which we also auction guitars to benefit kids. So, as I said before, it’s not only about making the best guitars. We’re so fortunate in how we live. It’s important to care for others who are living in a worse situation than we are.
The Retailer: Discuss Manuel Rodríguez Guitars’ commitment to the brick-and-mortar MI store channel. Is working collaboratively with brick-and-mortar music dealers a key part of your bedrock, fundamental approach to doing business? Discuss your dealer-focused philosophy, particularly as it relates to the relationship with KMC Music.
Rodríguez: It’s not fair that families have these stores, they put all their passion and commitment into selling musical instruments, and then they have a hard time just surviving. You cannot buy musical instruments only via online channels! Every single guitar, piano, violin or flute sounds different. It’s a very personal choice. It is important to go to that store, play the guitar, and get the right feeling and information. Of course, the market is changing, and we have to adapt ourselves to new distribution channels. So, we sell to some online vendors, such as Amazon in Europe. However, we have different pricing strategies and exclusivity partnerships with our dealers. It’s the same thing here in the U.S. I like to protect our dealers. It’s important for the industry. They’re the ones who have the passion, and they’re musicians who know exactly what they’re selling. We’re not selling…I don’t know…clothes or shoes. We’re selling something very personal that has to be touched and played. And you cannot play an instrument online.
E-commerce has given people the opportunity to access our instruments all around the world, and it’s important to be aware of that. However, our main goal is to build close and honest relationships with traditional dealers that can transmit our passion and the uniqueness of our products.
The Retailer: Is there anything the dealer channel could do that would be helpful to Manuel Rodríguez Guitars as a company? Do you have any suggestions that you’d offer to American dealers of your products…ideas that, in addition to helping boost their sales, would also add to your own bottom line?
Rodríguez: I would advise American dealers to sell instruments that will dignify future musicians, not just create a sale. I know you need to find some cheap instruments, because mom and dad cannot spend $300 for a child who’s going to start to play guitar. But, you can dignify that future musician if you get the right instrument. It’s not only about China, either. Chinese products might get very expensive in the future, and European products are continuing to be strong. We need to get the right products for musicians. That is very, very important.
The Retailer: What would you say the future holds for the music products industry? We’ve talked about trying to nurture the next generation and inspire passion in the next generation. Are you optimistic about the future of the music products industry? Do you think we have a steep hill to climb? Are people too distracted to focus on making music?
Rodríguez: Well, one of the battles we have in creating future musicians relates to all the gadgets we have now: Playstations, tablets, iPhones, etc. All of these are hurting the music industry, because they’re distracting kids from playing musical instruments. They spend so much time on their screens…all those hours with these games. We need to figure out how to swap those gadgets with musical instruments. That’s another battle for the music industry: to find a way to get more people involved with musical instruments, and to make our industry bigger. I don’t know how to do it, but I am trying to take action myself. For example, I bring in a lot of schoolchildren to see our workshop. That way, they can see how a guitar is built. It’s like Disneyland for them! They enjoy the smell of the woods. They learn that woods are disappearing and that, eventually, it’ll be a luxury to have a solid-wood instrument. We’re killing our planet and our forests.
That’s my point of view for how we can get guitars out there and how we let musical instruments play a role in kids’ schools, their education and their maturity.
The Retailer: What does the future hold for Manuel Rodríguez Guitars? What can company-watchers expect over the next year…five years…10 years?
Rodríguez: We’re focused on finding more sustainable woods. We’re very “green” in our company. We need to find resources so we can protect our forest and our planet. We’re looking at different varnishes we can use so that we won’t destroy the oxygen we breathe every day. I’m working with Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars, to try to find ways to regenerate our forests. For example, FSC [Forest Stewardship Council]. Basically, if you cut down a tree, you have to plant another tree. It’s very important for our planet. I’m also making guitars with recycled wood backs and sides. They’re selling terrifically, too. We must be greener!
I’m seeing the U.S. being too slow and taking too much time to think that way. In Europe, I would say they’re more concerned about this. I don’t know why the U.S. is taking more time. We, as an industry, have to join together and protect our planet—in all the ways we can—for future generations.
The Retailer: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’d like to discuss?
Rodríguez: We need people like you, Dan, who help spread the joy of music with your magazine. As I said before, times are changing, and we have to adapt quickly. For example, this year, we made a new Web site: mrguitars.es. But, it’s also important to support traditional channels like the printed media. As with touching wood when you’re playing, it’s great touching paper when you’re reading. So, please keep your passion going. We need you guys to help us share our passion and our story, and to express it to the industry so we can get a more peaceful planet through music. The music products industry is a very small industry and, from the perspective of world leaders, we barely exist. But I ask these leaders all over the planet to support music. It adds so much to the world.