Ask tour guides and drivers in Cebu to bring you to the best guitar maker in the province and chances are they’ll point you to the 30-year-old Alegre Guitar Factory. The shop, located in Abuno, Lapu-Lapu City, is owned by 72-year-old musician and luthier Fernando “Bebot” Alegre.
ANCX got the chance to meet the man himself during a media tour organized by the Tourism Promotions Board and Philippine Airlines. Mr. Alegre may be in his golden years yet it’s obvious his passion for music and the art of guitar-making has not diminished. He welcomed our guitar-related questions and answered them with gusto. He even led our group to a mini music fest that had everyone singing The Beatles classic, “In My Life.”
Mr. Alegre grew up around guitars in their home in Sampaloc, Manila. His father was also a guitar maker who ran a small shop in their area. Whenever there were clients, the young Fernando would see them test his father’s string instruments. And that was how he developed the inclination to play the guitar. “Parang naengganyo ako nung nakikita ko silang nagtotono o tumutugtog,” he recalls. He eventually became a guitarist and at 16 started performing in concerts and joining competitions.
As a musician, Fernando came to know the importance of an instrument’s sound production and tonal quality. He began exploring ways to improve and innovate on the family’s products and at 18 became a luthier. There was no internet or social media back then. In order to improve their guitars, he had to personally talk to the players and take note of their remarks and critiques. “So it’s a guitarist talking to another guitarist: ‘Hey, how do you find my product?’ ‘Ah, dagdagan mo ‘yung tonal quality ng treble. I-adjust mo, i-balance mo ‘dun sa bass.’” It was by trial and error that he learned the art and science behind guitar-making.
Mr. Alegre later moved to Cebu with his family, and this was when he established his own guitar haven and eventually made a name for himself. For 30 years now, the brand has become synonymous with world-class quality guitars. Their Facebook posts would reveal that there are Alegre guitar owners in different parts of the country—Manila, Baguio, Iloilo, Leyte, South Cotabato, name it—and the world—the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan. These reviews published on Tripadvisor are a testament to the brand’s excellent craftsmanship.
Mounted on the walls of Mr Alegre’s shop are photos of personalities who have once visited Cebu’s most popular guitar factory. There’s 90s boyband A1 and then there’s comedian and recording artist Michael V. They bought their own string instruments from the shop, offers Gerry, an Alegre salesman for 20 years now.
What makes a good guitar
Displayed at the entrance of the factory are a wide variety of local and imported wood that buyers could choose from—mango, mahogany, langka (jackfruit), cedar, German spruce, acacia, dao, red wood. The list goes on. Mr. Alegre says the sound of a guitar varies not only with the kind of wood used for the instrument but also with the luthier making it. “Ang nagagawa ng kahoy, siguro I should say, 40 percent. The rest, yung 60 percent, nasa luthier na ‘yon—kung gaano siya ka-experienced gumawa at ano ang knowledge niya sa sound production,” he offers. He says luthiers are not necessarily good musicians, but they have to be well-skilled carpenters.
The guitars at Alegre fetch for as low as P4,500 (laminated, made of lawaan) to as high as P65,000 (made of cedar and rosewood). Their products are pricier, yes, compared to the ones sold in other local stores. But finding out the laborious process involved, we think the buyers are getting their money’s worth at the Alegre shop. For instance, to ensure better sound quality, the woods are aged (or dried) for six long years before they are used. The factory’s eight workers make about six pieces of laminated guitars in a week. The process takes longer for guitars that are made of solid wood.
The rise of guitar making in Cebu
According to the Lapu Lapu City Tourism Cultural and Historical Affairs Commission, the guitar-making industry in Lapu-Lapu City started when the Spanish friars set foot in Cebu to spread Christianity. They needed to repair the gitara or kitara (from the Spanish guitarra) they were using, so what they did was commission the townspeople of Opon village in Mactan Island to make new guitars and repair the existing guitars they had.
Like in many other businesses, sales have been slow at the guitar shop the past two years. The store was usually included in the arts and crafts tours of travel agencies but these were scarce since March of 2020. “Walang turista e,” Mr. Alegre says with a hint of sadness in his voice. He had no choice but to let go of some of his employees—from 30 his staff is now down to eight.
They sold some guitars online, which somehow helped the business survive. But being a guitarist himself, he would very much prefer the buyer gets to test out the product first. “Kasi ang guitar is a product that you have to touch, you have to listen to. You can’t do that online,” says the old man.
Over the years, he’s had offers to distribute his Mr. Alegre’s guitars in other music outlets. But he says he wants to keep selling them at factory price so he’s okay keeping the business at his Cebu shop. If you ever get the chance to visit the Alegre Guitar Factory in Lapu-Lapu City, the veteran guitarist and luthier would be very much willing to assist you and help you pick the perfect guitar. Who knows, he might just play for you too.
Photos courtesy of the Tourism Promotions Board