A family business can be either a burden to the generations that follow or an irresistible calling. For Tomas Delgado the latter is true. A charming and passionate man with a fondness for baseball caps, he speaks eloquently about “putting as many high-quality instruments in the hands of musicians as possible before I die.” Delgado is the third-generation luthier at the world-famous Candelas Guitars in East Los Angeles, started in 1928 by his grandfather and great-uncle, Porfirio Delgado Flores (Pilo) and Candelario Delgado Flores (Candelas), who were well-known musicians in their hometown of Torreón, Mexico. They began building instruments to supply the members of a Cuban-style band with which they were performing at the time, and Candelas is credited with creating the first cut-away guitar.
As I walk in, I see on the wall autographed photos from a slew of high-profile artists — Segovia to Los Lobos — but Delgado is quick to point out that one of the main reasons that he took over the business from his father, Candelario, in 1993 was to service the countless working musicians who have been coming to the shop during its almost 78 years of operation. In fact, nearly three-quarters of his business is repair work. And not just of the classical and mariachi-type instruments that one would expect, given the rich history of Candelas Guitars, but also vintage Martins, Gibsons and Gretsches. Westsiders would do well to compare the price difference from East to West when it comes to getting a guitar fixed in this town. As Delgado says, “I bought my building, and I do the work myself. I have a very low overhead, and I pass that savings on to my customers. Even on my custom-built instruments.”
There has been a renaissance in American guitar-building the last 10 years, and collectors and dealers alike talk about a new golden age rivaling the pre–World War II days that produced instruments now selling for up to six figures. But most of those luthiers charge anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 for a custom-made guitar and only make 10 instruments a year, whereas Candelas charges half that. “My main goal is to put a serious instrument in the hands of the people who need one for a lot less money, and to make as many instruments as I possibly can,” Delgado says.
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“When my dad was in the hospital, I wanted to visit with him as much as possible, but he said I should be at the shop,” Delgado says. “It was very hard at the time, but in retrospect I understand why he believed that. Carrying on the legacy is what drives me every day when I get to work.”