That he would become a luthier fixated on perfection caught Rodriguez off-guard, but he was not daunted by the difficulties of such a career. "I am a humble person," he says, "but I am trying to build the best all-around guitar for concert performing that will last, that I can stand behind. A lot of instruments are impressive when you play them in a small room, but you need to hear these in a concert hall as well."
Rodriguez takes an instrument from its case and strums it softly, then with forcefulness, to demonstrate the dynamic range his guitars allow. "My job is to make a guitar that feels comfortable, that fits the client well, that is able to go from a whisper to a scream, and that will be with you for life. This is the best that I can do."
After a few years spent repairing instruments in a guitar shop, Rodriguez began to build electric and then classical guitars. He traveled to Spain to develop his skill by visiting master guitar-makers there and was rewarded with encouraging responses to his methods and ideas. Now, after 20 years of steady work, he competes on a level he didn't expect, offering custom-designed instruments that are so sought-after, musicians are willing to wait many months for the finished product.
On his bench now are an unusual eight-string guitar and a classical model with a four-piece, book-matched back that's comparable to a fine piece of handcrafted furniture.
It takes weeks to build such a guitar, beginning with a search for the right woods. Rodriguez seeks out rare stashes and scraps, sometimes trading for exotic pieces of Bolivian rosewood or flame maple or the ziricote of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. These materials are cut to form backs and decorative strips of inlay; the guitar tops are most often made of spruce or cedar, which are lightweight but strong and allow the sound to push forward from the denser backs.
Rodriguez developed an original method of bracing the insides of each instrument with an interlocking grid that gives strength, tone and durability. "It's a lot of extra work," he says of the bracing design, "but it makes a big difference in terms of sound. It's more complex, more three-dimensional, like the difference between mono and stereo."
He turns up the volume on a CD from Maryland-based classical guitarist Marijah Temo, for whom he has designed custom instruments to fit her particular style of playing. Her intense fingering and dreamy phrasing are masterful, and as Rodriguez listens, it is with the pride of a collaborator who is well-satisfied with his work and eager to continue.
Corey Blake, a classical guitarist who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes Rodriguez's guitars as champion stallions, adding, "They are astonishing world-class. I've played hundreds of fine classical guitars, and his are in the upper pantheon."
"I never thought I'd be the best at something, but I feel that now I am," Rodriguez says, still somewhat astonished by his growing success, and without the braggadocio that his assessment implies. "I'm always surprised because they keep getting better."
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