Manuel Delgado | Photo: Michael Weintrob

Manuel Delgado

2019 East Nashvillian of the Year | Business

When custom luthier Manuel Delgado relocated Delgado Guitars to Nashville 15 years ago, he brought more than just tools, building materials, and a desire to expand his family’s business.

“My dad always included us in anything that was going on with the business,” Delgado says, “Whether it was working with the tools, helping with clients, or meeting with the Los Angeles Museum of Art about exhibits he was helping with. We have a longtime connection with museums and music education programs. I’ve worked with the National Endowment for the Arts, and I’m a Commissioner of the Arts here in Nashville. There’s a lot of overlap between what we do, music education, and community involvement.”

Through three generations, Delgado’s family business has been hand-crafting stringed instruments. From guitars to Irish bouzoukis and ukuleles to vihuelas, Delgado has designed them, made them, and played them. “We don’t make bowed, archtop instruments,” he says, “but otherwise, I don’t think there’s been an instrument I’ve said no to. If somebody comes to us with an idea, we work with them.”

Commitment to quality and adaptability of craft reaches back to Delgado’s great-uncle and grandfather who founded the family business in Torreón, Mexico in 1928, eventually moving it to Juarez, Mexico, and then East Los Angeles. Manuel Delgado was born in L.A. and grew up learning the family business from his father, Candelraio, until he decided to follow a different path as a law enforcement officer — a plan cut short when his father was diagnosed with cancer.

After his father’s death in 1996, Delgado returned to the family trade, eventually relocating to Nashville in 2005 with the encouragement of his wife, singer/songwriter Julie Delgado. Delgado brought his talent, tools, and commitment to community service to the Music City. Settling in the Eastwood neighborhood, he became a leader in the neighborhood watch program and served on the board of the Eastwood Neighborhood Association, as well as dedicating time to many other charitable and community causes. Working with young people through music education soon became his greatest commitment and cause.

“I was very fortunate to have good role models and opportunities, but I grew up with a lot of kids in the Boyle Heights/East L.A. area that did not,” Delgado says. “So we are very strong advocates for education and in particular music education. When my grandfather and great-uncle moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, ukuleles were very popular, especially in public school programs, so they built ukuleles. We have a long history and a good reputation. When people want to start a school music program and most especially when it’s focused on mariachi music, sooner or later our name comes up.

With Delgado’s familial and business roots in Mexico, the connection to mariachi music is a natural one. With the spread and growing popularity of Latin culture in the U.S., many school systems have adopted music programs focused on this traditional Mexican form. Regardless of the details, Delgado says his company’s approach to music education remains the same.

“We approach [education sales] from a different angle,” Delgado continues. “Instead of just trying to get the sale, we ask how can we help to either start, grow, or revive a music program. If they want information or contacts, we supply them, and if they decide to order from somebody else, that’s okay. We can leave that situation knowing we’ve done something positive.”

A long-term view has also influenced Delgado’s founding of the Music City Mariachi Festival. Launched in 2018 in partnership with the Nashville Symphony, the annual event features a free concert by a 54-piece Mexican mariachi ensemble. Delgado plans to eventually develop the event into a four-day music festival and educational conference, attracting mariachi students and educators from across the U.S. His commitment to music education and community engagement is at the core of Delgado Guitars.

“We have what would not be considered a good business model by some people,” Delgado observes. “We look for ways to invest in the community without waiting for the community to invest in us. For example, we built the Music Makers stage in our shop, and we do have events that bring in business, but our dream for the space is to rent it out for corporate events, album release parties, or whatever that might be and use the profits from that to do free events for kids — concerts, movies, inspirational speakers and more. I always like to say we’re a small business that does big things.”