After his father, Alberto, died of cancer in 2009, bajo sexto maker George Macias said he began to feel alone. For years, the two had worked together in the workshop in southwest San Antonio that Alberto had built, painstakingly crafting precision instruments one at a time. Third in a line of bajo sexto makers renowned throughout the world of Tex-Mex music, George continued to carry on the family legacy without his father’s quiet guidance.
One day, while dining down the street at what had been Alberto’s favorite restaurant, a waitress delivered a somewhat mysterious message to George. “Your father wants something moved back where it belongs,” he says she told him.
George had hired a cleaning person to help out at the shop, and his father’s chair had been moved from its usual perch behind the counter, where it had remained since he’d passed on. George moved it back, with assurances that it wouldn’t be moved again.
Having received that message, as comforting as it was enigmatic, George eyed the brown wooden chair and said, “I felt alone, but all along he’s always been here.”
A Family Tradition
The Macias family legacy has never been far from George. He grew up watching his grandfather Martín Macias (1895-1983) make bajo sextos, 12-string acoustic bass guitars, and grew to eventually assist his father in the shop, fulfilling orders that came in from all over the world. Today, even as George completes two to three bajos per week, along with the same number of restorations on older models, there is still a six- to eight-month wait on orders for new custom-made instruments.
Alberto’s workbench, where George’s sister Martha can sometimes be found working, is still in place in the shop, as is the seemingly ancient workbench of the family patriarch Martín Macias, who started the family business back in 1925.
“If this bench could talk,” George said, “it would tell you all about the bajos” built there, he said. A fresh bajo lay atop the bench, awaiting its finishing touches.
The bench might speak of the many musicians who visited the shop in search of the best bajo sexto they could find. That parade would not only include well-known conjunto musicians like Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs and the Hernandez brothers of Los Tigres Del Norte, but also pop stars like Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos or San Antonio legend Doug Sahm, who played his Macias bajo sexto during a 1990 appearance on “Austin City Limits” with the Texas Tornados.
Why so many musicians seek out Macias-made instruments is a matter of quality in sound, design, and construction, according to those who play them.
San Antonio conjunto musician Armando Tejeda plays an original 1971 bajo sexto made by Martín Macias. He inherited the instrument from his father, Rogelio, who would bring it out to play once a while, Tejeda said. “It does have a unique sound compared to other bajos that I hear,” he said.
Somehow, he said, the 47-year-old instrument has only gotten lighter over time. “It has a resonance that’s unique,” he said of its rosewood body, with a sound that can be recognized as a Macias by other knowledgeable bajo players.
‘Toca Por Mi’
Another original Macias bajo sexto owner, whom Tejeda calls “the best bajo player in history,” is Lupe Enriquez. “He’s like the Jimi Hendrix of the bajo sexto. He’s unequaled,” Tejeda said, assuring that a YouTube search will reveal Enriquez’s distinctive style. “When I first heard him it was like, ‘What planet did this guy come from?’” Tejeda said, citing Enriquez’s unusual use of jazz chords in Conjunto music.
Normally, the bajo sexto acts as a low, rhythmic, and chordal accompaniment to the melodic accordion and voice of conjunto music, and the wider array of instrumentation in Tejano and Norteño music styles. Over time, the role of the bajo evolved, with Enriquez as one of its leading innovators.
Now an inductee of the Conjunto Hall of Fame at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Enriquez said he used to visit the Macias family as a young kid. “Martín Macias would come in and tell me to sit down. He’d go to the back and get a beautiful rosewood bajo sexto. ‘Toca por mi,’ [play for me] he’d ask, and have me play for two to three hours.”
At that time in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Martín did not have his own shop and sold his wares through the Acuña Furniture store nearby, Enriquez said. He’d originally heard about Macias’ instruments from fellow musicians and quickly grew to appreciate their distinctive qualities. “I liked the body, the contours, and how he made them,” he said. “He perfected that shape.”
Martín handed down his original molds for shaping the guitars to Alberto, who then passed them along to George. “All my molds, all the patterns and everything, are original,” George said. The only difference, he said, would be “my two working hands.”
Nowadays, many competitors may try to copy the famous Macias bajo sexto, which also comes with custom-made strings, but to Enriquez, Tejeda, and George Macias himself, none has yet matched the level of quality first achieved by Martín and now carried on by his son and grandson.
“The original still to this day commands respect because of how it is so well-manufactured,” Enriquez said. “It had a sign inside, a little label that said ‘Built With Exactitude.’ Everywhere you put your finger, it will be right on the money,” he said.
Though he uses a regular acoustic guitar for playing each Sunday in the Macdona church where he worships, Enriquez still plays his 1961 medium jumbo bajo sexto two or three times per month, mostly with Mambito Ybarra y los Conjunto Champs.
“To us old guys who knew what a bajo sexto is, there’s no better bajo sexto in the world than Macias,” Enriquez said. “It became the state of the art way back in the early ’50s, and in my opinion it still is.”
Because of the Macias reputation built over three generations, demand continues. “I start early, and I’m busy until 8 p.m. every day,” George said. According to the Macias bajo sexto webpage, production time for each instrument is six to eight months, and “they have more orders than they can handle.”
Macias’ only regret, he said, is that his busy schedule does not allow him more time with his family. His sons sometimes help out in the shop, though.
“So you test them yourself, right?” George asked 7-year-old Caleb.
“Yeah, I tested those two,” Caleb said, pointing toward finished bajos in the back room. “I’m still working on the others, waiting for you to put the strings on.” George smiled.
Reminded that one day, the family legacy could be in his hands, Caleb said, “Yeah, but that’ll take a long time.” He then asked his father if he could go outside to play.