The renown artisan from Carolina PR is a model of dedication and commitment to his art
Miguel Méndez in his shop circa 1994 Photo by Juan Sotomayor
Interview with don Miguel Méndez
by Efraín González
Well, Don Miguel, tell us about yourself.
My name is Miguel Méndez Benítez. My shop is located in Carolina, in Canovanillas, Pisaflores Street, O-13, Urbanización Parque Ecuestre, Carolina, Puerto Rico. I’ve been in this place since 1978.
Describe to us your first stringed instruments.
The first instruments we built were requintos, between my brother and I. Guitars and requintos, that is where we started, back then from 1964 to 1965
Talk to us about the construction of instruments back then, as compared to now.
Well, there aren't many differences, other than you keep evolving and learning. But basically it is the same.
What inspired you to construct stringed instruments?
Intonation, the accuracy of pitch of the notes of the instruments. For I played in trios with my brother, and the instruments were always out of tune, had no good tuning. And that moved us to it, to work with the intonation.
Explain us some about the intonation.
Well, the intonation of the instrument, they don’t play in tune well. The octaves are out of place. The instrument has certain tuning points and they all need to be properly located, up and down. And you don’t get that in many guitars. About 99% of the guitars are out of tune at this time.
Your interest in the cuatro, when did it get started?
Our interest in the cuatro, that was later on, we became interested later in the cuatro. I started with my brother, making instruments together. And we started there. Later on we separated and each one continued on their own. And we kept working.
How did you learn to build instruments?
We had the calling back when we were young to make instruments, since we were young. Since we were young we had such a calling. My brother started to make guitars and bend sides with hot water, and that is how we started. That’s how we started, around back before the sixties. And since we were young we had all that drive to make instruments.
And have you had assistants in your shop?
Well, when I started my sons helped me, yes, here. But later I remained with my son and later he left, and since then I am here working alone.
And your cuatros, what special characteristics do they posses?
Well, what’s most important, most important is the intonation. For a cuatro might not have a powerful sound, or not very much, nor very big, but as long as it plays in tune with itself, it always sounds good. And that is most important in the cuatro, the pitch accuracy. There is where you need to focus on, on the tuning, for it is a little complicated. And I already have all that squared away.
Talk to me about the intonation of the cuatro?
The intonation of the cuatro is just as in the guitar. It has to be in tune at the octaves. First it is set up with the tuner and then the scales, up and down. It has to be perfectly in tune. If the second is no good or other strings are no good, well it is not in tune, it will not sound good. It has to be perfectly set all across.
And what materials do you use to build your cuatros?
I use laurel, guaraguao and mahoe on my cuatros. Those are the three principal woods.
Which is your favorite?
The laurel, for it has fewer problems and produces a better sound than guaraguao. It is a denser wood.
What problems do you see with the world of the cuatro?
The principal problems of the artisans is to get the intonation right. In the last three years I’ve been working much with it, the intonation.
What can you tell us about the market for cuatros today?
The market is so-so. It is average, for the woods are expensive, the materials are expensive, the paints expensive, and you have to make adjustments for that.
How do you see the quality of the artisans today in Puerto Rico?
Well, the cuatros, there are some cuatro artisans around, yes. There are many, many artisans. Some are good, bad, and average. But as I’ve always said the intonation is the most important thing. And you know, to say that one is the best and the other one is better, well one cannot, it cannot be classified as such. For as you know, to say this is better and when they bring me here one of his cuatros and it fails to tune properly, then the theory fails right there. But there are good artisans around, various good artisans. Certainly, I’ve had to work on their cuatros also, in some occasions. But there are plenty of cuatro artisans around.
How many cuatros have you constructed?
My goodness, since I started? I have no account of that. But there must be thousands, thousands of cuatros. Yes Sir.
What you like the most about your work?
I like everything, everything, everything I do I like. And when people come out satisfied with my work. For the good work I did they recommend me to others, and that is a source of satisfaction for me. The people supporting you and endorsing you--certainly.
Since you also build guitars and requintos, talk to us about your guitars.
The guitars, since I am a person who also repairs guitars, then I have certain experience that others do not, for they do not repair, only construct. For they do not perform repairs. And I do have that experience, and I receive guitars from famous Spanish makers, from America, and from all over the world. Then, I check them out and study them. And I keep searching until my guitars are at a level, not in the out of this world realm, but they are very fine guitars.
If someone is interested in acquiring one of your instruments, how can it be done?
Well they have to call me at my phone number. For I work by commission. I do not have finished instruments stacked all around, no. I build them as they are ordered. I can be reached at (787) 762-2233, in my shop.