I began taking flamenco guitar lessons in ’57, and built my first guitar in ’58. This started me on the road to self expression that has lasted for 50 years. Today being middle aged, it’s becoming more clear to me why I have chosen this path. Sometimes I think it’s not so much my ability to make choices, but rather a higher design that directs my choice. Perhaps I could have become a mechanic or a doctor, but in retrospect, I believe this was the best choice.
I’m satisfied with the endeavor of trying to build the very best guitar. Practicing this wonderful craft has taught me many things, but the most important one has been patience.
The motivation to build in the Spanish style started with playing the flamenco guitar. And, I have kept playing in this style for my entire career. My biggest reason for building in the first place was to gain a better guitar to play. Sound was extremely important to me, and there were no guitars readily available in the late 50’s that had a great sound, and a price I could afford. To inspire me to create music, I felt the need to build a guitar with the sound that I heard in my head. After a 25 year search, I finally built it. But by the time this magnificent instrument was born, I had already become so accustomed to building, that I now satisfy my playing habit as I fine-tune my new instruments.
I played flamenco guitar for about 17 years while studying the rudiments of construction. I did my tour of Spain in 1965 and traveled to Madrid to learn a more Gypsy style of flamenco guitar music from Paco Del Gastor.
I grew up transcribing and playing Sabicas’ music off his records, and in 1961 I was offered a position in New York by Fred Reiter of Morro Music Corp. to transcribe Sabicas’ music. I felt I was too young at the time to move to such a big city without any living arrangements and later in ’65 I made a Madrid connection to the Spanish elements. I lived and breathed this art for the three months I was there. Everyday would find me studying with Paco, learning another falseta in the modern Gitano rhythms. Paco accompanied Juan Amaya at the La Zambra night club in Madrid when I was there. I traveled to Moron de la Frontera to meet Paco’s uncle Diego. I stayed there a week and enjoyed playing guitar with the Gypsies, but I felt lonely for Madrid with its more affluent food and housing.
So it was back to studying with Paco until my departure. This was a thrilling experience for me and I would recommend a trip to anyone who has the flamenco bug. What made it so real for me was that I had a good technique before I went, and this made it easy for me to pick up new falsetas from the local guitarists. Paco was very pleased that I would have the falseta he showed me up to speed the next day. All my lessons with Paco were based on show and tell. There was no written music, and after 43 years I still remember most of what he showed me because of good memory retention. Although I played a lot of solo music, there was a time in San Antonio in the 60’s that I worked with an abundance of dancers. A guitarist can develop hands of steel with this much work.
In the late 60’s when my professional playing career came to an abrupt halt, I went back into the retail business with my Dad who was in the men’s clothing business, and continued in that and other related business’ until ….
Finally in 1973, my wife and I moved to San Antonio, and this was the last year of my association with retail. In 1974, all of my enthusiasm for this craft prompted me to make it a full time vocation. This became my life’s ambition, along with running a small carpet cleaning service to provide extra support for my family.
In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, there were many times I would go out to my back yard workshop with ideas how to bring more sound out of the guitar. But since I didn’t have a thickness gauge to measure the dimensions of the top, it was hard to judge how thick or thin an area of the top should be. For lack of a better way, I developed an intuitive feel for it by gauging it with my fingers and flexing the top. As I developed more theories about sound, these theories were inevitably confirmed as fact when I had the opportunity to buy a good thickness gauge and inspect the guitars of a few great makers.
These instruments not only confirmed some of my theories, but helped me to identify the top dimensions that were necessary for good tone. Applying what I have learned about sound since 1974, I’ve been able to refine it even further. I know that once I construct the guitar, there is a final coming together with “The maker and his instrument.” The final tuning technique for the top has become completely intuitive for me, and I believe this is where it becomes Art.
I am very blessed to have a supportive wife and two fine sons, who give me the encouragement I need. I never stopped to think that it couldn’t be done. For this reason, I’ve been content to keep building, and God willing, I’ll continue to build.
Tom Blackshear “On building Rodriguez Style Guitars”:
Finding a certain definitive sound has played a very important role in my career as a guitar builder. It has taken me years of study, searching for the elusive quality that I call “The Antigua Sound.” This quality is found in Spanish guitars made by some of the Old Masters.
These gifted craftsmen had developed intuitive skills, with innate sensibilities of the guitar’s birthing process…..They understood how to bring forth tonal qualities so awesomely beautiful that musicians were motivated to never part with them….. I realize that this art form is a treasure that must be passed on for the benefit of others, so I have begun to teach my understanding of it to some of my fellow builders. ..As I began to research the Miguel Rodriguez design in 1975, it was difficult for me to realize it’s fullest potential, so I modified the plan before allowing it time to prove itself. Not being completely satisfied with the results, I returned to the original design and built it for a period of time. This gave me the opportunity to acquire enough intuitive skills to realize its strength. I found that the design was ahead of its time……
I’d like to say at this point that there is a tendency for young guitar builders to make unnecessary adjustments instead of waiting to gain the skill required to make their instruments work like the old masters. We can get impatient and change something that doesn’t necessarily need to be changed. Sometimes this impatience can lead us down a blind alley and cause a lot of wasted time by our having to turn around and re-do the modification. This is one of the reasons I stress the importance of working with a great guitar design. It will inevitably lead us toward a fine instrument if we practice patience.
The volume, projection, and sustain are very powerful, without sacrificing its subtleties. This is one reason that I chose to work with this pattern. The volume doesn’t wash out the character…..yet the characteristic aspect of its tone doesn’t overpower the performer. I’m convinced that every detail that went into this design was carefully thought out. Much of the bracing inside is constructed with an interlocking system, which allows for the instrument to be made lighter and with greater stability and balance…….. Precise fan brace placement combined with top graduation technique, will cause the guitar to vibrate like a living organism. I have since found that the timbre and tonal characteristics of the top can be adjusted to the builder’s choice, adding more or less to the character of sound without interfering with clarity. This is where the varied top thickness comes into play. It can be adjusted from several different angles for different tonal qualities. The actual strut placement doesn’t need to be changed for this technique. Philosophically, I view the instrument as a whole. I build the guitar with the Spanish Foot as an integral unit and not disconnected like some of the modern factory methods that attach the neck after the box is finished.
The Rodriguez guitars appeal to me because when I was first introduced to a Miguel Sr., I experienced something with the sound that to my knowledge no other guitar possessed. It made an indelible impression on me, and since then I have played many of his family’s works of art. When I went back to building full time in ’74, I yearned to know why these guitars had such an identifiable sound………. For 30 years I have been growing and maturing in this style, developing my sensibilities to this unique process. From this experience, I have learned a great lesson…… indeed, Miguel Rodriguez was a genius……. Along the way I have experimented with new designs, but not without taking the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of a giant. In this particular case, it is a work of art that has been proven, and one that works exceedingly well.
The Blackshear guitar is designed to meet the highest standards in performance. Hundreds of small details have gone into its construction, honoring the Spanish tradition.
The voice of this instrument is very southern Spain but with slight modifications to its basic top thickness to improve its voice and operation.
The voice projection is capable of filling any concert hall for the guitar.
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