Sorry we’re a little late getting to this, but there is still more sad news to report from our little guitar world: Tony Acosta, the much-loved founder and president of the highly respected New York–based string-maker (and classical- and flamenco-guitar seller) Luthier Music, passed away on February 8 at the age of 77. He died from complications of pneumonia.
We received the news from the great composer-guitarist Jorge Morel, who was one of Tony’s oldest friends in the U.S. As Jorge wrote, “The world of the guitar has lost an invaluable friend, and I have lost a best friend. Tony made an immense contribution to my career, and at a time when I most needed it. Honesty, humility, generosity—these are the abiding characteristics, the trademarks of a man who will live on in my cherished memories of him. Tony was more than a brother to me; he was the best friend anyone could ever have and he will be greatly missed. God bless him for coming into my life; a life made richer by his unique and loving presence.”
Indeed, pretty much everyone who ever encountered Tony will tell you what a warm and friendly guy he was. I only met him twice—both times at NAMM shows—and he couldn’t have been nicer. Tony’s Luthier Music company was a longtime supporter of Classical Guitar magazine, and he was famously generous with his time and energy for anyone who came into his shop, encouraging young and experienced players alike, offering advice on guitars and strings, maybe selling them sheet music, or just letting them try out instruments and chat.
Antonio Acosta was Born in Bogota, Colombia, on October 1, 1942 the son of a professional guitarist who performed in a popular trio called Santa-fe. “When I was six years old, I’d asked my father if he could take down the guitar hanging on our wall so I could play it,” Tony told Julia Crowe in the May 2007 issue of Classical Guitar. “But he didn’t want me to follow in his footsteps with the guitar professionally because it’s a hard life. I saw, myself, how he did not come home sometimes until 3 .a.m. I came to the [United] States when I was 15 years old and started studying guitar with Gregorio Ayala. When I returned home five years or so later, I asked my father again if he might take that guitar down from the wall for me. ‘You’re still interested in playing the guitar?’ He seemed surprised. I sat down just as before, but this time I played a Carulli etude for him and the tears rolled down his face. That whole week he followed me around the house asking me to play it again and again, because he had never heard anything that beautiful before. My father used to play with a thumb pick, so me using my fingers was completely different from how he was used to playing.”
It actually wasn’t music that brought Tony back to live full-time in the U.S. in 1977. According to Crowe’s story, he came to play semi-pro soccer for a Colombian team called Quindio, and was later recruited to play for a team fielded by the German airline Lufthansa, which led to a successful career with that company as a tariff analyst—at the same time he was becoming increasingly immersed in the classical-guitar world in New York City in his spare time.
Morel, who would go on to make four CDs for Tony’s Luthier Records label, recalls, “Tony and I met in New York in the ’70s; he was a professional soccer player back in Colombia, but he also loved the guitar and that’s how we met at a party: playing and singing. He studied with me for a little while and we became friends.
“Tony then became interested in the manufactory of guitar strings and I introduced him to Juan Orozco Sr., a luthier and string maker. Tony learned a lot about the business from Mr. Orozco, and eventually became his partner for a couple of years. Later, when Mr. Orozco retired, Tony became the owner of the firm and relocated with the name of Luthier Strings. He opened a small shop in Queens, New York, for some years, but his vision and ambition made him find a great place on Manhattan’s West 44th Street, where he did most of his work.”
The move in 1992 to the downtown Manhattan location was risky for Tony. “I had a future with Lufthansa; I could have retired [there eventually],” Tony said in a video interview with NAMM in 2007. “When I told my friends and colleagues ‘I’m quitting Lufthansa to start my own business,’ they said, ‘Are you crazy? At this stage?’ That was, like, in 1982, but I didn’t quit Lufthansa until 1990. I found a space in Manhattan, and I spoke to my accountant and he said, ‘If you take that space you will [go] bankrupt.’ He wanted me to take another space, but I loved [the 44th Street location], so I took it. He said ‘In three months you will be bankrupt.’ I took the space and three months later I fired him! I think you have to follow your intuition.”
The new location became the center of Tony’s ever-growing operation, with the string manufacturing business sharing the facility with a guitar showroom, a space for lessons (a service that was discontinued after a few years), and more retail. There was a line of Luthier Music classical guitars made in Spain, and even their own accessories, ranging from nail-care kits to guitar straps. The company’s nylon/super-carbon strings were unquestionably the flagship of the operation, with great success in both the classical and flamenco guitar worlds: endorsers included Morel, the late Paco de Lucía, Gerardo Nuñez, Pepe Habichuela, Juan Martin, Jose Luis Merlin, Paul Gregory, and many more.
Morel notes, “He was always looking to improve the strings’ sound and flexibility, and he accomplished that very well.”
In more recent times, Tony moved from the Midtown location to “a spacious and modern upper-floor atelier on 24th Street in Chelsea [in lower Manhattan],” Julia Crowe wrote in an online appreciation of Tony that appeared on the-guitar.com.
“In his new location,” she continued, “He’d dispensed with selling sheet music and CDs in favor of expanding his classical and flamenco guitar offerings, guitar repair, and on-site string manufacturing of his Luthier label strings. . . And Tony was so much happier for it! (No more Birdland patrons staggering into his storefront and manhandling the fragile guitars.)
“His wry humor will be fondly remembered from so many occasions, especially at gatherings at composer Jorge Morel’s apartment. Morel would cook his special chicken and rice dinners for us at his small kitchen table, recount various guitar tales, and then everyone adjourned to Morel’s living room to play music. There was also a time when Tony shooed customers out of a guitar practice room to allow me to interview Carlos Barbosa-Lima at his old shop. Tony fostered the guitar community in the city with his enthusiasm and generosity, and his shop served as an active hub and scene for anyone who was dedicated to the art of Spanish flamenco and classical guitar. He will be greatly missed.”