In spite of the wide availability of Chinese and Japanese mass-produced guitars in nearby malls and music stores, most Filipinos’ favorite pasalubong from Cebu is still an authentic handmade guitar. The Queen City of the South is well known for its prowess in producing this instrument. It rewards with a rich experience in sound, playability, and feel that doesn’t take a professional to discern.
The town of Abuno in Mactan Island welcomes visitors with a giant guitar at the mouth of the street. It is here where much of the industry has set up shop. Among them is the Alegre Guitar Factory, one of the oldest in the guitar-making town. Fernando M. Alegre, its proprietor and third-generation luthier, continues to produce and sell guitars the old-fashioned way—all handmade and sold strictly through personal transaction. “The guitar was brought into the Philippines through galleon trade,” he notes.
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“The first galleon trade was between Mexico and the Philippines. They brought the guitars because of Spain’s Christianization of the country. The priests needed accompaniment when singing gospel songs. There were no other instruments here at the time, so they brought Mexicans from Acapulco with guitars.”
Being one of the most active ports in the country at the time, Tatag Maribago (just two kilometers away from Abuno) was one of the main ports of commerce. Enterprising locals soon learned the trade and set up shop nearby. It wasn’t until the recent surge in tourism that beach resorts began taking over the coastline, eventually moving the industry inland to Abuno.
Nevertheless, little has changed in the way guitars are made. Much of the wood is sourced locally while material for the soundboard and inlays are imported. The necks and headstocks are assembled from blocks of wood and sanded into shape. Bodies are made by bending strips of wood into the hourglass form or hollowed out from a single piece. Chambers and patterns are laid into the soundboard before they eventually meet with the rest of the body. They are pressed together for hours using nothing more than glue and crude vices. Holes are drilled into the neck for strings and machine heads. Grooves are cut out for the fretboard. Once all inlays are set, the two pieces are joined together. The guitar is then strung up and tested. If anything sounds amiss, it will be disassembled and repaired. Once it passes inspection, it will be coated, polished, and given the final touches. It is tested one final time and if it passes, only then does the guitar receive its tuners and label.
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Grooves are cut into the fretboard for the inlays.
Ring inlays are also inserted into the more expensive variety of guitars.
From left: The walls of the body are held by crude vices to keep their shape as the glue dries; The back and walls of the guitar body are secured by string and left to dry for four hours.
From left: Once glued, the soundboard is secured to the body with steel rods in a special shelf; Completed bodies are hung, waiting to be coated, polished, and strung up.
Holes are drilled into the head for the tuners below.
From left: Each guitar is varnished by hand; Even display guitars are subjected to regular quality tests.
In spite of the abundance of materials and workers, the stringent process only yields a dozen guitars a day. Amid proposals to sell by mail order or online, Alegre prefers customers to come to Cebu and pick one out for themselves.
“You have to play and touch it. It’s one reason we don’t sell online. There are some who really come here to have a Cebu-made guitar, especially professional guitarists,” Alegre explains.
“Ours have exceptional sound, action, and playability. You’ll feel everything from the finish of the body, the clearness of the sound, its playability and flow. These are the features guitarists look for.”
Photographs by Ian Castañares
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 9 No 1, 2013.