{Xarriviewz III} ‘Luthier Unbound by 6~String Limits: Thomas of Rodriguez Guitars’

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The first time I saw one of his axes up close was a bass for the bassist of Burma Jam. When played thru a few 18″ cabs this thing really shook the house. The workmanship was all there too; no loose ends everything how it should be…built to last! Later a band members housemate  had a Firebird style Rodriguez: again low-frills, built like a brickhouse.

Sometimes in life you just know people through a process of osmosis. You see their band play- lots, sometimes by surprise when seeing another. Then you make food and drinks, or do a gig yourself at this or that rock dive bar. They’re there too and you rap a bit about guitars, and renovating, carpentry and of course music. The more you talk the more you realize this person has a wicked dry sense of humor that’ll either go over your head or slice it off, and they know guitars inside out. Over time you realize almost everyone you know knows this human, and they all dig his multi~string creations aka Rodriguez Guitars.

Eventually someone told me he really specialized in Spanish aka classical guitars. This is a whole other level not all electric guitar builders get into. The tolerances are more demanding and so is the clientele (not to say rockers are not also myopically guitar gear obsessed). Often this 2cd group of players need to play very structured music theory pieces which every timbre must be controlled to what the sheet music dictates. The finger vibrato must sing and the sustain…well if you thought Nigel Tufnel’s ’59 Les Paul could wail, these cats want sustain for miles too! With no further delays, Xarriviewz presents the man with the guitar building plan, Tom of Rodriguez Guitars answers what really counts for quality? How that applies from classical or steel string, from electric to ukuleles!

How does a luthier build a great guitar be it electric or acoustic, steel or nylon or gut string, bass or guitar?
 
TR: Making a great guitar takes an understanding of what a great guitar is. There is no magic or snake oil to doing it, it’s knowing woods and how they react with each other and in changing environments and having good woodworking skills for doing all the sculptural curves that go with guitars. There are a lot off crazy ideas out there on forums from people that may be a good guitarist but never built one, in my 30 years doing this I’ve tried most anything you can do with a guitar and know what works. The things
I look for are playability, comfort, balance, feel, tone and overall reliability.
 
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Is  great guitar in the ear of the beholder or are there certain building techniques that define a quality instrument?
 
TR: I met a guitar dealer once that told me there is a guitar player for every guitar, he could sell anything he just needed to find the right player. I build the guitars to be a joy to play, listen to and look at, I have the ability as a true custom shop to be able to
built anything that the customer might want. Some people like lots of ornate pearl inlay and exotic wood and some like simple elegance. There is no one ‘right’; just me communicating with the customer and what he wants.
 
Do the same concepts apply to electric and acoustic builds or are there very basic differences in goals for both?
 
TR: Acoustic and electric builds are different builds but similar woodworking skills, anything you do takes a long time to master and truly understand. My knowledge comes from 30 years of hands on experience doing this work everyday, most people want to find  
shortcuts and don’t want to dedicate themselves for a long term goal. Everyone wants to know the secrets of Stradivarius violins, the secret is he lived to 93 years old, he had a 79 year career of building, constantly trying to improve himself. I’m still learning new 
things everyday, there is no point where you can say hey I know it all.
 
​How did you get into building your own instruments? Was there a transition from doing repairs on your own and bandmates, or did you just up and build a guitar one day?! Do you generally custom build them all now or do you keep a few favorites for yourself?
 
TR: I got into building my own guitars to try to get combinations of things that either weren’t available or I couldn’t afford. I always loved Gibson Firebirds, I had a 1966 one for my first guitar, but they are fragile instruments that don’t sound that great, for what I play because the body is too thin. I have made and played many beefed up versions over the years as well as some of my own design. I usually only have one guitar, that is my own, at any given time, I like getting to know that guitar and everything it can do.
 
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Some of your more popular electric builds among those who swear by Rodriguez instruments seem to be based on 2 very bold designs: the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Firebird​. What they share, along with Les Paul Jr./Specials, is a focus on essentials to make am amp roar: 6 strings 1 or 2 pickups max, a body , neck, basic hardware and that’s it.

 

TR: Teles, Firebirds and Jrs make up a large portion of what I do with electric guitar building because they are classic designs that work, not many people are into something different. I can sell my own designs for more money but the market is limited and I usually do it through boutique dealers. For as rebellious as “rock & roll “  performers are they all seem to just want a Les Paul through a Marshall and there is so much more out there now.

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Do these type of guitars get down to the real goal of good tone by avoiding the pitfalls of excessive switching and Rube Goldberg type trem (or as you know actually a misnomer, vibrato) bridges? In other words do too many commercial and even boutique builders put too much resources into everything except the critical core that being woods selection & build quality.

TR: I’ve gotten to the point where I like things to be as streamlined as possible, I want to eliminate anything that can go wrong on stage, maybe because I only bring one guitar to a show. I don’t like coil taps out of phase switches tremolos, it doesn’t mean I won’t do them but… A lot of people think that a custom guitar should be exotic woods but woods don’t have a class system like people. I like using woods like poplar, birch and straight grain maple and others that don’t normally get used, limiting choices because it is a cheap wood limits the possibilities. My current guitar has a sassafras body and a red birch neck, nobody would choose those but every one that plays that guitar is blown away. Build quality really is the most important thing.

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How much does being a player affect your choices in builds? Not to say that every guitar designer has to be a decent picker, for example Leo Fender or Ted McCarty certainly added much to the cause and neither played; or Paul Bigsby was making motorcycle parts he raced on before inventing his patented whammy bar bridge tailpiece combos.
 
TR: I rely on customers a lot for choices, my playing is pretty much as simple a setup as possible. I will advise my customers if I’m petty sure something is a bad idea but most of them are better players than me.
 
That being said, your playing as far as the loud side of it seems to also about paring down to the foundation of the sound & song as opposed to tons of embellishments like extended jam solos or flashy gimmick tricks. In so many words does the apple not fall far from the tree in terms of how you want an instrument to balance, play and sound and the music you play?
 
TR: I like single pickup guitars, I know this is not for everyone. I’m looking for as pure a tone as possible, there a lot of theories that one pickup guitars sound better because there is less magnetic pull, from the pickups, on the strings and you are not taking wood away from a critical area, where the neck meets the body. I learned to get a neck pickup sound by rolling back the tone and picking by the last fret, I saw Billy Gibbons do this on a video recently and someone commented “hows he do that?” I call it virtual neck pickup, I explained it to the guy and he responded “ you think you’re better than Billy!!! “ I guess it’s a one pickup player thing?!
 
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The actual pre-corporate independent rock scene was always DIY…still true? Your craftsmanship seems to be entwined w/ a renegade approach that also uses the best of the tried and true ideas of guitar builds, almost a future primal type vibe that allows innovation but also is built for the working musician : straightforward to repair, not overly complex things to go wrong, yet def done Rodriguez style!?
 
TR: I don’t follow what’s going on in the independent scene anymore, I live out in the country and work in my basement, I don’t leave much. From what I can gather, it’s a bunch of irreverent millennial hipsters using huge pedal boards and playing through crappy amps with no stage presence. Because they are too concerned with there pedal board or whether their MIM Strat is better than is better than someone else’s MIJ Strat?! That’s why I’ve been leaning more towards acoustic guitars these days.
 
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Do you think the focus at times near anarchic chaos, that informed the ‘pre-alternative’ independent & punk rock scenes {in the mid 70s thru early 80s} of the bands to be unique and original influenced your philosophy of instrument designs? Like when some other builder or set of ideas says “it has to be done this traditional way and no other” can that actually get you motoring in the opposite direction which his to say proving it can be done in a new way?
 
TR: No. My ideas come from experience, I don’t do anything for the soul purpose of trying to be different or rebellious or punk rock. So much of the industry is stuck the past, Martin guitars are still pretty much the same as the were 100 years ago. They still make Telecasters with the straight saddles that don’t  intonate right; even though there are a host of after market bridges that have solved this problem. Les Paul’s still have a bent guitar string holding the saddles on and cause all kinds of buzzing problems but that’s the way it was. I hear acoustic guitar makers talking about sealing the wood with egg whites, or having to use hide glue to get the tone, or this wood or that wood won’t work. There are so many areas for improvement that these small things don’t matter. I just made my first steel string guitar with a maple fingerboard, unheard of for an acoustic but it sounded great, I had also incorporated a lot of structural elements that I use on my classical guitars, things that I think are improvements over traditional steel string design.
 
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To wrap it up (no guitar geek ‘top~wrap’ stoptail jokes please, drumroll…} how lucky was it to be sort of out of the spotlight in RVA where both your the builder and the local bands could develop the guitar ideas based on quality not quantity… that being said you must feel pretty fortunate to have the likes of Lindy Fralin wind many of the pickups on your electric guitars. What is it about the capital of Virginia that creates so many world touring bands and your internationally requested guitars?
 
TR: I feel very fortunate to have been in Richmond, working with people like Lindy Fralin and his pickups and John Hanor with his amp skills has taught me more than I could have learned otherwise, I still drive to Richmond about once a month to have lunch with Lindy, we have long discussions of our geek talk. Touring bands aren’t really flocking to me, when a band reaches any kind of success the end up getting endorsement deals, I can’t afford to do that, it’s like asking a band to play for free, for exposure. My classical guitar customers don’t expect free stuff, I have made a lot of my connections there by traveling to festivals and through the VCU music dept. The students and professors at VCU have been great too, helping me with my classical guitar development.While I’m giving shout outs I would also like to thank John Gonzalez, from Fan Guitar and Ukulele for all his help with developing my ukulele line, you can’t get more punk rock than making ukuleles.
 
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