A Third-Generation Luthier Tells His Story
Our new columnist bares his family’s roots in guitar-building, going back to 1928 and his grandfather, who made instruments for Segovia and many others.
I’ve had the honor and blessing of growing up as a luthier’s apprentice. My entire life, being around instruments and music was the norm, and creating with my hands was equally a joy as playing hide-and-seek or baseball in the street. I’ve never known a world absent of artists or craftsmanship. In fact, many of us who’ve grown up the children of immigrants have had similar experiences, from watching our mothers and grandmothers create amazing traditional meals from raw ingredients to our fathers and grandfathers building what was necessary for shelter or creature comforts. My grandfather would often remind me, “If you can’t make it with your own hands, you probably do not need it.”
It was this patriarch who built the foundation that shaped my father’s future, my future, and the potential future for my two daughters. Porfirio Delgado Flores and Candelario Delgado Flores started our family business in 1928 in Torreón, Coahuila, México. The two brothers, although orphaned at a young age, stayed close to one another and played music together. My grandfather, Porfirio, or “Pilo,” as those close to him would call him, was a craftsman. Mainly starting out as a furniture maker, he would later get requests for repairing instruments, and then be encouraged to build one for a town fair or “faria”. He and his brother, “Candelas,” started a journey out of opportunity and passion.
In the mid-1930s, the business moved to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México, just 10 minutes from the México/United States border. In 1944, my father was born in an El Paso hospital, but registered and raised in Ciudad Juarez and baptized in the guitar shop. My grandfather named him after his brother, Candelario.
“My grandfather would often remind me, ‘If you can’t make it with your own hands, you probably do not need it.’”
Seeing greater opportunity, Pilo and Candelas left their families behind and made their way to California and opened a shop in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1948. Their guitars were already gaining notoriety in other countries, and this move helped them garner a clientele, including Theodore Bikel, Narciso Yepez, Celedonio Romero, and Andres Segovia. While concert classical guitarists were commissioning instruments from them, they also had musicians from multiple genres seeking other types of traditional stringed instruments.
My father came to the States in the late 1950s and built his first guitar by the age of 14. After his time in the Army, he made his way back to the shop and helped take the business to new levels and reach even more clients—Arlo Guthrie, José Feliciano, Charo, Burl Ives, the Kingston Trio, and some high schoolers who formed a band called Los Lobos, to name a few.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. The youngest of three children, I stuck like glue to my father. I started playing classical guitar at 5, I started repairing guitars by age 7, and I built my first guitar when I was 12—a requinto romántico that I still have. Everyone called me “Candelitas.” I apprenticed under my father and grandfather and would spend time in the shop every day after school in middle school, and most Saturdays and summers in high school. My father also raised us boxing, and he trained the Los Angeles Police Department’s boxing team.
In December of 1996, I lost my father to cancer. He battled it for three years and even helped the L.A.P.D. win a championship in November 1996, just one month before. My father was and continues to be the greatest man I’ve ever known, and I miss him every day.
In 2005, my wife Julie and I made the move to Nashville. I started over, but quickly made a name for our business. We are very involved in our community and work with music education around the United States. I was also blessed with two daughters who have beaten my record. My oldest, Ava, built her first instrument and completed it just two weeks after her 10th birthday. My youngest, Lila, is nine and in the final steps of her debut instrument. We also moved my mother to Tennessee two years ago, and she, along with my wife and daughters, are all involved in our family business.
Delgado Guitars continues to make instruments using the old-world, hand-crafted methods taught to me by my father and grandfather. We still make over 45 different types of string instruments, and I hope to share some of those with you in the articles to come.