RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Some artists work in oils or pastels. Tom Rodriguez operates in wood.
But not just any kind of wood. He searches for wood that is handsome and aged and, in a way, sings to him.
He holds a lovely piece of old African mahogany close to his ear and taps it with his finger, eliciting something sweeter than the simple thud you would get rapping a run-of-the-mill two-by-four from the building-supply store.
"I'm just listening," he said, "for if it sounds musical."
The low reverberation, a sort of ringing, tells him it does, and it is destined for a guitar or ukulele, joining in harmony with other tone-rich wood from the shelves of Rodriguez's tiny workshop to become something that is as much art as music.
Rodriguez, 51, has been building guitars for going on three decades, now specializing in classical and flamenco guitars for professional performers and serious music students. Prices for his handmade guitars start at $7,500.
You can see Rodriguez's work at the Science Museum of Virginia in conjunction with "Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World." Visitors to his display can follow the progression, piece by piece and step by step — and gain a sense of the painstaking work required — in the construction of a handcrafted guitar. The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 6.
"I've always liked the creative side of things," said Rodriguez, who studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But I like more of the actual hands-on building. This is the perfect thing because it's sculptural yet functional. It provides a way to make a living and be artistic."
Rodriguez's workshop is tucked in the back of a brick building near Boulevard and Broad Street that also houses an auto-repair business and a hair salon. You have to walk through a stylish waiting room of salon customers to reach Rodriguez, who works at the end of the hall in what amounts to another world. The space is small and cramped, filled with hand tools and power saws, stacks of Brazilian rosewood, among other musical wood, and instruments in various stages of completion. Templates of electric guitar bodies hang on the wall above his workbench, guitar necks on another wall. Sawdust is everywhere. What the place lacks in tidiness, though, it makes up for in inspiration.
Self-taught in the ways of building guitars, Rodriguez's involvement in the craft evolved from his background in art and music. Raised in Northern Virginia, he grew up listening to classical music because his parents did. He came to VCU to study art, yet found he liked playing rock music better than drawing, which didn't do much for his grades but really improved his musical skills.
Over the years, he's played electric guitar in a number of bands, thinking at one time, he recalls with a smile, he wanted to be a rock star. That never panned out, but early on, he learned to tinker with electric guitars, which led to friends asking him to fix theirs, which led to him learning more about the instruments, which led to him making an electric guitar, which led to friends asking if he could build one for them.
In the early 1990s, he took a job as a repairman at a guitar shop owned by John Patykula, who taught in the VCU music department. Patykula is an accomplished classical guitarist, and the shop attracted local classical guitarists, including students. Rodriguez learned about the construction and setup of classical guitars, which are built differently from acoustic guitars used in rock or folk music and produce a more mellow sound. He saw and heard what made classical guitars work — or not work.
"Students were coming in who had just bought guitars they had paid $5,000 for, which was to me just outrageous," Rodriguez said. "I'd look at the guitars, and there just wasn't that much there. I said, 'I need to try this.'?"
When Patykula closed the store in 1994, Rodriguez set out on his own to build classical and flamenco guitars. Like classical guitars, flamenco guitars are played with nylon strings but are generally lighter with less bracing and a more percussive sound. They also often are made of cypress, which was easier to obtain.
Rodriguez finished his first flamenco guitar and had a customer lined up to purchase it, but he never returned to fetch it, which turned out to be fortunate. As the guitar sat for months, people saw it, played it, liked it and offered to buy it. Rodriguez said he couldn't sell it, so they asked, "Can you make me one like it?"
His business, he said, "just blossomed."
"Each time he made one, he would get better at it," said Patykula, now assistant chairman of the VCU music department whose former employee has earned an international reputation. Patykula owns two Rodriguez guitars. "He has an artist's eye for detail and beauty. He also has the patience required in making an excellent instrument. A beautiful guitar with a beautiful sound is a true work of art."
From the beginning, Rodriguez's education in instrument-building has included taking his instruments to festivals and other events and asking accomplished musicians to play and critique them. One of his early contacts was Marija Temo, a professional flamenco and classical guitarist who offered him brutally honest assessments as well as suggestions.
"He was chipping away and getting better and better," Temo said in a phone interview from her home in Gaithersburg, Md. "Every time he came, I found something different and better about the next instrument. There was something consistent in each one. I could hear the potential in each instrument.
"It's just the X factor. You knew he was going to be something."
Temo had been dreaming of a single guitar on which she could play a challenging repertoire of both flamenco and classical music. Rodriguez agreed to try to build one, and for five years, they collaborated on a prototype of such a guitar.
"Every six months, he'd bring me a guitar, and I'd say, 'Nope, this is really good, but . '?" Temo said. "They were good guitars, but I was after a certain combination that would allow me to be at the level I could play."
Finally, Rodriguez achieved what Temo had been looking for. She admires not only his persistence but also his ability to avoid the occasional drop-off in quality that many guitarmakers experience.
"Tom is just amazing," said Temo, who owns two Rodriguez guitars. "I can't imagine playing any other guitar."
Along the way, Rodriguez even won over his father, Henry, who hadn't liked it when his son turned down a high-paying drafting job for, as Tom put it, "a vow of poverty making electric guitars." Henry started to come around when his son began experiencing success making classical guitars.
His father wanted to see how good his son was at his craft so he booked a flight to Spain so they could have experienced makers of classical guitars assess one of Tom's.
"He acted as my translator, and he could tell in speaking the language and how people reacted that they were really impressed with what I was doing," Rodriguez said. "From that point on, he was just the biggest supporter of what I'm doing."
For Rodriguez, much of the appeal of his work is that he is a true one-man operation. A factory might produce several hundred guitars a day; in contrast, Rodriguez might make 15 or so a year. But his limited production, he said, allows endless possibilities. He builds what he wants, chooses the materials, experiments when he can.
He loves using rare and repurposed materials — forgotten but exquisitely musical wood from broken-down pianos or even porch columns — that offer superb musical quality while not further depleting supplies of endangered resources. He's recently started building ukuleles, which are enjoying a renaissance of popularity, out of leftover pieces of wood too small for guitars. He made one ukulele out of mahogany from a friend's mother's coffee table that she purchased in Morocco in the 1960s.
Making a living at building and repairing guitars is tough enough without a struggling economy, which is what Rodriguez has scrambled against since 2008. Now, though, business is coming back. He has more orders for new guitars than he's had in the past four years.
"I really feel like things are getting back on track," he said. "Now it's a matter of me hustling to keep up."
That doesn't leave a lot of time for a father of 6-year-old twins for pursuits such as researching experimental approaches to instrument-making. Or even playing. Rodriguez doesn't really know how to play classical or flamenco style or ukulele.
"The best makers typically don't play," he said. "I guess it helps in focusing on what the customer wants and the engineering task at hand. It also takes so long to master either one that there isn't time for the other."
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com