Strings and soundboards: Putting together the quintessential Cebuano guitar

The guitar is the building block to many songs in the Philippines—but how have Cebuanos perfected the craft of guitar making?

There is no other instrument that has withstood the test of time more than the guitar.

An all-around instrument, it can be used as an accompaniment to virtually any event, from a sweet and crooning harana to a loud and boisterous drinking session. Truly, the versatility of the guitar knows no bounds.

But do not let its rather simple-looking, peanut-shaped structure fool you—guitar making is an intricate art, and the luthiers are its diligent artists. Even the grain of wood used for its body is carefully chosen, with no room left for carelessness lest the instrument loses its quality of sound.

Many of these talented luthiers are located in the island of Mactan, Cebu, where the history of the complex and greatly-detailed craftsmanship of guitar-making runs deep. It is these same luthiers that provide a walk through what truly goes into the construction of the romantic stringed instrument.

Into the finer details

“There are certain processes sa pagbuhat sa gitara, of course—kung buot hunahunaon, you’re just making a box with strings,” says Fernando Dagoc Jr., fourth-generation owner of Ferangeli Guitars. While caressing an unfinished piece in his hands almost absentmindedly, he shares that Ferangeli Guitars has been in the family since 1919. Although it has been more than a hundred years since its establishment, their guitar-making business has only fairly recently started its endeavor in improving their production process.

(There are certain processes in the creation of a guitar, of course. To put it simply, you’re just making a box with strings.)

Prior to the improvement, much of their work had been done by merely “eyeballing” the measurements and amount of material needed. “Though guitar making is traditional, wa kaayo’y technical aspect ang [amoang] methods.”

(Though guitar making is traditional, there isn’t much [of a] technical aspect in our methods.)

To remedy the situation, Dagoc and his family manufactured guitar molds to ensure consistency in later models. He shares wryly that this had been met with some resistance by some of the more traditional employees, but as he puts it, “Tawo mangud ta, mosayop mangud ta…makita gyud nako’ng naay hiwi gamay.

(We’re just people, we always make mistakes…I can really see that there are some small imperfections.)

After ensuring that the determined shape of the guitar is up to par, the more complicated step comes next: choosing the right wood to use for the instrument. Fernando Alegre, third-generation proprietor of Alegre Guitars, emphasizes the importance of using “seasoned” wood. He explains that internationally, the accepted moisture content of the wood is at eight percent, “That’s very critical in guitar making, [that’s what we call] the seasoning of the raw materials.”

Stayin’ alive

Most of Ferangeli’s orders are exported, a move they intended to extend their reach. Alegre, on the other hand, thinks otherwise. “You have to touch it, you have to listen to it—[the] tonal quality, the sustain—everything! You have to play it. Sa online, hindi mo magagawa,” he says. He prefers that his buyers come visit the store to test if the product really suits them. However, in a decision to keep the business afloat, they also opened their virtual store during the pandemic.

(You won’t be able to do that online.)

Seeing as the process of guitar making is quite complicated and detail-oriented, it’s no surprise that some major musical industries prefer to cut corners in their manufacturing process; the boom of industrial, profit-driven corporations has daunted Alegre and Dagoc no less. “Mass [produced] na gyud ang tanang guitars—though artistic siya tanawon, the craft of kanang pagbuhat gani, [kay nawala],” Dagoc contends.

(If all guitars would be mass produced—though it looks artistic, the craft of making the actual guitar is lost.)

Alegre agrees, citing that mass-produced guitars often use hasty production methods that may affect sound quality and durability, “Pagdating ng panahon, magcacrack siya talaga. Madedeteriorate ang sound kasi nagchange ‘yung wood.”

(Over time, it will crack and because the wood ages, the sound will deteriorate.)

The efficiency and profitability of mass production, however, is tempting–especially when a Japanese conglomerate proposed a joint venture to Alegre in 1975. Asked to produce 15,000 guitars, they promised machinery if the business provided six hectares of land and manpower. Alegre knew this was an immense multimillion dollar offer, yet he contemplated, “Mawawala tayo sa mapa. We’ll be [a] Yamaha country.” Choosing prestige over money, he rejected the offer in favor of producing quality products.

(We will disappear from the map.)

Some have gone, some remain

Yet, as time passes, some luthiers face a recurring dilemma of continuity amid modernity. Dagoc says, “Most makers are old. Kanang, kinsa may mosunod na [when] almost all new generations want to have an office job?” At 72 years old, Alegre remains unsure of Alegre Guitars’ fate as well. “[I‘ve] got three children but I don’t know if they will follow my footsteps,” he expresses almost wistfully.

(Who would follow when almost all new generations want to have an office job?)

In spite of the uncertainties, Alegre holds dearly his father’s words: “‘Wag niyong mamaliitin itong ginagawa kong gitara; pagdating ng panahon, ganito magiging kabuhayan niyo.” This holds true, as the island’s luthiers strive to perpetuate traditional guitar making, not only to preserve the craft, but their family names as well.

(Do not belittle these guitars I’m making; eventually, this will be your source of livelihood.)

Besides family, Dagoc associates being a luthier with the happiness on their workers’ faces, knowing their instruments have been reaching different places. “Bahala’g di nalang kuno sila ka-larga didto sa United States (US), basta ilahang gibuhat tua na didto sa [US],” he shares with a fond smile.

(It doesn’t matter, they say, that they themselves cannot travel to the US, as long as what they have crafted has been brought there.)

For generations, Cebuano luthiers continue to craft a piece of Filipino culture in their guitars. Although modern ways of music making have risen, one thing is certain: guitars will always have their way of reminding Filipinos of their love for music and for each other.

Bea Cruz

By Bea Cruz

Marie Angeli Peña

By Marie Angeli Peña

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