You've probably heard his guitars played before, but you may not have seen them. Tom Rodriguez, a 49-year-old Richmond musician (now playing in the current incarnation of punk stalwarts White Cross), has been building and repairing electric and classical guitars for most of his life. In 1995, he started Rodriguez Guitars, the products of which serve as studio guitars for well-known musicians. His latest project is crafting classical guitars from wood salvaged from century-old pianos.
Q: You've been making electric guitars since 1986?
A: Yes, I'm still doing it a little bit. There have been points where I've completely phased it out, because I got so busy with the classical guitars. I got into a rhythm, and then when the economy went bad, orders started to drop off. So I started playing in bands again, and I started making electric guitars again — because if I'm playing, I typically like to make them. The electrics are much more grinding up wood, making a huge mess, and the classical is very refined hand carving and detail work.
Q: Are you originally from Richmond?
A: I came to Richmond to go to VCU for art, and when I came down here, I fell in love with the city for its old architecture. I've spent a lot of time renovating old houses. The one that I live in now is the newest one that I've ever owned, and it was made in 1923.
Q: Do you use 100-year-old piano wood on all of your guitars?
A: No, this is a project that I've been doing more recently. Some friends of mine were doing salvage work, and they were clearing out a church up the street, and they had all of these upright pianos from the 1890s. It wasn't economical to fix them, and so they just wanted them out of there.
Q: Where do some of your other materials come from?
A: I have all kinds of crazy materials in here, and I get them from all over. I met a man who's a knife maker, and he's getting ready to retire. So I've been going out there and buying things like fossilized walrus ivory and mastodon ivory that's 30,000 years old. Ordinarily I steer clear of using any of these materials, but when this opportunity came up, [I decided I] might as well put it to some good use.
Q: Has anybody famous ever played one of your guitars?
A: I think the most well known would have been David Lowery from Cracker. He played one of my guitars for a while, and he played it on David Letterman several times, so he really got it seen. Later on, they picked up bass player Brandy Wood, and I made her a bass.
Q: Who you would like to play one of your guitars?
A: These days, I've kind of given up on chasing celebrities. I would love to get my hands on someone like Keith Richards, but he has a circle of people around him, and to get beyond that without being in the right place at the right time is really a tough thing. These bigger companies are very shrewd. They'll give the people guitars and make them sign a contract that they can't play anybody else's guitars. Dickey Betts [of the Allman Brothers] was saying that he wanted a guitar, but he was only going to use it in the studio, because he had an endorsement with a major company, and he had to play those guitars when he was [in concert]. Lamb of God's Mark Morton has one of my guitars that he used on their first album, but he won't take it on stage because he's afraid of it getting stolen or beat up.