The unpretentious guitar shop has been on the same block of César Chavez Avenue for the last 63 years. Inside, the scent of exotic woods and lacquer is warm and inviting. There’s tradition here, and it’s as deep as the sonorous note of a plucked bass string from one of the many beautiful handmade guitars that line the wall of the intimate showroom.
“The West Side has McCabe’s and the East Side has Candelas,” notes Ulises Bella of the band Ozomatli, comparing Candelas Guitars to Santa Monica’s folk music bastion.
Despite a changing musical landscape where digital sampling can often seem the norm, Candelas Guitars manages to adhere to tradition while meeting the demands of a new generation of musicians who are taking folk and classical in new directions, as does the L.A.-based Ozomatli, which incorporates these older styles into urban funk and hip-hop.
The shop, which currently employs two assistants and a receptionist, is run by third-generation luthier Tomas Delgado, who has been incorporating modern twists into very traditional instruments. The business was founded in Mexico by Tomas’ grandfather Porfirio and his great uncle Candelario, for whom the store was named. “The business started in 1928, and then they went from Torreón to Chihuahua and from Chihuahua to Tijuana. In the early ‘40s, they came here to Los Angeles,” Tomas says.
Tomas, 40, who has been working in the store since he was 19, talks with affection about his apprenticeship under his father, Candelitas, and his grandfather and uncle. For Tomas and his brother Manuel -- now a notable luthier in his own right in Nashville -- his father had a no-nonsense approach to learning the family business. “When I started, I thought I’d just sit here and play guitar all day,” says Tomas. “But my dad said, ‘You either build or you’re gone.’ My dad was tough.”
The first instrument Tomas built was a vihuela, a small, guitar-like instrument used in mariachi music. Tomas says some of his ideas did not always meet with the approval of his elders. After Tomas built a few larger-than-normal instruments to achieve a bigger sound, Porfirio told him, “There’s a reason why we do build them this size, and this is how we’re going to do them.”
Tomas, acknowledging changing musical styles, says he builds hybrid instruments to the specific requests of his customers while incorporating traditional elements, even to the point of using such exotic woods as tacote from Mexico for the tiny vihuela or koa from Hawaii for the ukulele.
David Hidalgo of Los Lobos is one of many musicians who appreciate the shop’s adherence to tradition: “Once we got into the traditional music, they had all the templates for that type of stuff. They saw we wanted to play the traditional music . . . and they liked the idea of young guys trying to play the old stuff.”
This mutual fondness has been a hallmark of the store through the years. Jazz-pop guitarist José Feliciano tells of arriving in Los Angeles as a teenager from New York. Not able to afford a Candelas guitar of his own, he recalls Candelario lending him one. “Who does that?” he asks.
Tomas’ innovations as a luthier have produced a unique instrument he calls the “official” mariachi guitar. “When mariachi players go to purchase an instrument, they have to buy a standard guitar. I’m making adjustments on the guitars exclusively for the player of that specific style of music,” he says.
Tomas builds these guitars with a thinner neck and a higher action than the typical classical or flamenco guitar. These alterations allow mariachi players to avoid the buzzing that can often accompany the harder attack they use. The instruments have found favor with such modern mariachi acts as Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles and Sol de México.
Candelas’ ukes, which combine traditional designs with updated hardware, are favored by modern-day master Ukulele Bartt, who has taken the instrument to places that Arthur Godfrey and Don Ho never could have imagined. Tomas says, “Ukuleles aren’t being played the way they used to be played. Bartt came in here one day and started playing flamenco style on the ukulele. These guys are not doing the typical strumming anymore.”
Despite the labor that goes into a Candelas instrument -- Tomas shuns the computer-controlled machines that bigger companies use to manufacture guitars, relying instead on hand tools -- the high-quality instruments command reasonable prices. A standard mahogany Candelas classical guitar will retail for about $2,800 -- not an outrageous sum in a market where similar instruments can --and often do -- sell for twice that amount. Tomas plans to keep building the types of instruments his family has long crafted, producing 40 to 45 over a year’s time.
For the customers and East Side residents, the store is also a point of pride. Raúl Pacheco of Ozomatli, who plays several Candelas instruments, says: “When I was learning how to play guitar, I remember walking past the store and seeing guitars being built right in my neighborhood. That made an impression.”