MANILA, Philippines – Walking into Alegre Guitar Factory in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, visitors are greeted by the smell of wood and the clear, silvery sound of the acoustic guitar.
A wall near the entrance displays different soundboard patterns and a selection of materials – all kinds of wood including mango, acacia, cedar, German spruce, and rosewood.
On one particular afternoon, owner and luthier Fernando Alegre regaled visitors with music – pop classics like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “In My Life” brought to life by his deft fingers and the clarity of his instrument.
Fernando learned to play guitar at 16. His father didn’t know how to play the guitar, but he made them and sold them near their home in Sampaloc, Manila. The young Fernando learned to play from his father’s customers.
He then became a luthier – a person who builds and designs string instruments – when he was 18. Later on, he moved to Cebu and established his own guitar factory. Now 72, Fernando has been running Alegre Guitars for 30 years.
Cebu’s guitar-making history
Cebu has a long history of guitar-making. As the first place in the Philippines to be Christianized, the province was introduced to guitars by Spanish friars who used them for church. At the time, while waiting for guitars to arrive from Mexico, friars taught locals to repair their existing guitars and make new ones.
Hundreds of years later, Cebu guitars have become famous throughout the country – with Alegre among the oldest and most popular of the Cebuano guitar makers.
In its glory days, Alegre was a sure stop on Cebu city tours and a go-to for musicians all over the world. On a wall inside the shop, you can see their celebrity clientele, including the likes of Steven Bauer, Apl de Ap, and members of the English boy band A1.
But when the pandemic brought tourism to a halt, the factory lost all their customers.
“Nawala ang turista, so what happened to us? All dead. Ang mga workers, binayaran namin sila, wala kaming issweldo, walang sale. For two years, walang turista,” Fernando said.
(The tourists disappeared, so what happened to us? All dead. The workers, we paid them even if we didn’t have income and there were no sales. For two years, there were no tourists.)
As the pandemic raged on, Alegre’s workforce of 30 was whittled down to seven. Desperately needing to pay his workers, Fernando was forced to do something against his will: sell his guitars online.
Online selling has become a lifeline for all kinds of businesses during the pandemic. In the last few years, everything from home appliances, to furniture, to clothes, to food has been easily bought and sold with the click of a button. But it’s not quite the same for guitars.
Buying a guitar from Alegre isn’t simply that. There is a certain reverence that comes with the experience – from walking into their workshop, to holding the weight of a guitar and feeling the strings, and then hearing it played.
“Ako mismo, as a guitarist, dinidiscourage ko yung online. Napilitan lang kami dahil kailangan,” Fernando explained. “Kasi ang guitar is a product that you have to touch, you have to listen.”
(As a guitarist, I discourage selling online. I was only forced because it was needed. The guitar is a product that you have to touch, you have to listen to.)
Now that tourism is picking up again, Alegre Guitars may see an uptick in their sales, putting their lovingly-made guitars in the spotlight once again.
For Fernando, a good guitar is as good as two things: the wood used to make it, and the luthier who designed it.
“Dapat maganda yung kahoy mo. Second is the luthier, yung gagawa. Gaano siya ka-experienced gumawa, at anong knowledge niya gumawa ng sound production,” he said.
(Your wood has to be of good quality. Second, it depends on how experienced your luthier is, and what knowledge they have about sound production.)
With Fernando’s 54 years as a luthier and a wide selection of woods aged for years, it’s no wonder many consider Alegre Guitars as world-class. But don’t take anyone’s word for it. As Fernando said, it’s best to head there and feel it for yourself. – Rappler.com