Miguel Acosta Jr. forged his own identity in a legendary San Antonio family of luthiers, craftsmen who make stringed instruments. He was the go-to guy when a guitar needed fixing.
The renowned guitar and instrument repairman, who had been in declining health, died at home Jan. 5 after a brief illness. He was 81.
Acosta ran the family business, Acosta Music Co. on Bandera Road, until his retirement a few years ago. His customers ranged from superstar George Strait to actor Ann B. Davis of “The Brady Bunch” fame and included members of Van Halen and Texas Tornados.
“He made me feel like family,” said Jenn Alva, the bass player in Girl in a Coma and Fea, who posted a tribute on Facebook about how Acosta kept her instruments roadworthy. “He always took care of me.”
Most people knew Acosta as Mike, and to his family and closest friends he was Mickey. He liked it that way.
In the San Antonio music community, the Acostas were renowned. The history of the family business, which began in 1920, is intertwined with some of Texas’ greatest musicians.
Miguel H. Acosta Jr.
Born: July 18, 1939 in San Antonio
Died: Jan. 5, 2021 in San Antonio
Survivors: Wife, Olga Acosta; children Michael Acosta, Bernice Acosta Hinnant and Belinda O’Connor; siblings Sylvia Ramirez, Guadalupe “Sonny” Acosta, Irma Miller, Louis Acosta, Santiago “Jimmy” Acosta, Cynthia Acosta and Yolanda Heinz; and grandchildren Randy Johnson, Brad Johnson and Evan Shelton.
Services: Services are pending.
Guitars built by his grandfather Guadalupe Acosta were played by Lydia Mendoza, who strummed an Acosta 12-string guitar on her hit “Mal Hombre,” Celia Mireles, Rita Vidaurri and bluesman Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, who improvised single-string solos on his 1928 Acosta guitar while playing with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
The instruments — guitars and bajo sextos — were medium size and ranged from simple to ornate with hand-cut checkerboard binding. The musicians who play them say they rival the quality of Martin guitars, a famous American brand, and cite their playability, how they stayed in tune and how their use of woods — mahogany, walnut and long leaf pine — created a rich sound.
“The bajo sextos by Acosta and Martin Macias were the best,” said Santiago Jimenez Jr., a San Antonio traditional conjunto musician and National Medal of Arts recipient.
Macias was the patriarch of another San Antonio family of instrument makers. Tejano Conjunto Festival founder Juan Tejeda has called him the “Stradivarius of bajo sexto.”
Acosta’s father, Miguel Acosta, was a guitar and bajo sexto luthier and innovator. He built an electrified double-neck bajo sexto-guitar combination in 1947, long before Gibson introduced the double-neck electric guitar that Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin popularized. His uncle Jesse Acosta taught him how to repair instruments.
The last to work in the family business, Acosta is remembered for his humility, quiet sense of humor and perfectionism. He was dedicated to putting his customers first.
The original Acosta Music Co. opened in 1920 at 504 W. Houston St. downtown, selling handmade guitars and bajo sextos, other stringed instruments and sheet music. In the late 1940s, Guadalupe Acosta moved it to the corner of Smith and Travis streets on the West Side.
By the late ’60s, the business had transitioned from guitar building to instrument repair. Mike Acosta opened the Bandera Road shop, not far from another San Antonio music landmark, Randy’s Rodeo, in the early ’70s. He ran Acosta Music Co. with his wife, Olga.
Family photos from the old days hung in his shop. The small space had a few guitars hanging on the walls and glass cases filled with accessories. One wall usually was lined with amps awaiting repair. Acosta’s workshop was behind the humble front room.
“Growing up, he didn’t have a lot of things,” Olga Acosta said via email. “And he didn’t want us to do without, so that is why he worked so hard. Three jobs at one point.”
Acosta’s son, Michael Acosta, said his father was a positive and encouraging force who put his three children through college by working as a machinist at Kelly Air Force Base and repairing and customizing band instruments for Caldwell Music on North Main Avenue in addition to his work at his own shop.
“He had a great ear,” he said. “He could tune an instrument without a pitch pipe or a tuning fork. He could just about fix anything.”
Guitarist Steve Owens, a founder of the San Antonio band the Mo-Dels, was a teenager when he met Acosta decades ago because he needed his grandfather’s vintage acoustic guitar repaired. Owens, who now runs his own repair shop, said he saw how much Acosta enjoyed his job and strives to emulate his dedication.
“The reward is in reviving an instrument that’s in disrepair or old,” Owens said, “or making a guitar play really well, to really dial it in.”
Acosta graduated from Lanier High School in 1957. He played drums and sometimes performed in combos at teen dances at Patio Andaluz and Salon Tea, at West Commerce and Colorado Streets. But the musician’s life wasn’t for him.
Neither was building guitars like his father or grandfather. He had built a few as a young apprentice at Acosta Music Co. but got turned on to fixing electric guitars with the advent of the Beatles.
It was a very different era from the one in which his grandfather had founded the family business. He chafed at being called a luthier.
“My dad would say, ‘I don’t know what that is. I’m just a damn guitar repairman.’ He used to laugh at that,” Michael Acosta said. “He never boasted. But he had a saying, ‘Do it right the first time.’”
Fernando “Fern” Hernandez, a guitarist who played with the San Antonio metal band Paradox in the ’90s, worked for Acosta for years, starting in the mid-’70s when Hernandez was a long-haired kid. “He looked at me like I was a caveman,” he said.
His first job was to sweep and mop. Then he got to clean the guitars.
“He drilled me like Sgt. Carter,” said Hernandez, who came to consider the Acostas mentors and second parents. “He was a big-time dude, but he didn’t care about being famous.”
Madison, Wisc., guitar builder Todd Cambio, owner of Fraulini Guitars, was a friend of Acosta’s. He has repaired vintage Acosta guitars and replicated the Lydia Mendoza 12-string guitar. He calls them handmade works of art with a rich tone.
“People don’t understand the impact they had on Mexican American music,” Cambio said. “The quality was excellent. … And Mike was very knowledgeable of that family history. It was a point of pride.”
Even after he retired, bringing Acosta Music Co.’s illustrious run to an end, Acosta maintained a guitar repair workshop in his garage for the rest of his life.
Hector Saldaña is the curator of the Texas Music Collection at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos.