How Good Are Alvarez Guitars?
When it comes to answering whether X or Y brand of guitars is any good, the answer will always have three parts:
- How’s the brand’s reputation?
- Which model, and from which period of the brand’s history?
- Good for what?
In this little article, we’ll look at each of those question’s answers applied to the mythical and somewhat obscure brand of guitars known as Alvarez.
The Reputation of Alvarez Guitars
For most of their history, Alvarez guitars have enjoyed a stellar reputation, especially when it comes to their acoustic and classical guitars. Over the decades since their inception, in 1965, they’ve been used by several notable names in music such as Carlos Santana, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa, Thom Yorke, and several others.
Here’s a video of Eric Clapton using an Alvarez 1977 Classical Guitar during the performance of tears in heaven. He also used it for some songs during his Unplugged.
Granted, perhaps Eric Clapton could make any guitar sound great… but thinking of the arsenal that man must have at his disposal, the fact that we would go for an Alvarez should be a good indicator of their quality.
As for the names mentioned, it’s worth saying that they usually use an Alvarez not as their sole guitar, but as a nice acoustic to go to when they need to record or play something that calls for that sweet and warm sound. This is the case even for a bassist. Mike Inez of Alice in Chains used an Alvarez acoustic bass for their unplugged, but he wasn’t rocking one for most of their other shows.
Now we know that these guitars have been indeed used by professionals, you can attest to the quality of their sound by listening to those recordings, but does that mean every Alvarez guitar out there would be considered good? And if so, how come they aren’t that popular?
To answer that, let’s take a look at:
A Brief History of Alvarez Guitars
Alvarez was founded in 1965 by distributor St. Louis Music, a company that had been importing European violins to America since 1922. By the ‘60s the company had grown to be a major distributor of several types of musical instruments and accessories. It was then run by the founder’s son, Gene Kornblum.
During a trip to Japan, Gene met Kazuo Yairi, a Master Luthier that produced handmade concert classical guitars. By partnering with St. Louis Music, and taking advantage of the industrialization that was sweeping the country, Kazuo started to design and develop steel string acoustic guitars at his own factory in Japan and importing them into the US and Europe. The guitars were then branded as Alvarez.
That’s when people like Clapton, Santana, and Graham Nash started using them since they were, and still are, quite a boutique product, at least if it was produced under the supervision of the Master Luthier himself at the japanese factory.
At some point, the company decided to not only use Alvarez for the guitars made personally by Kazuo in Japan but also start producing other less-costly instruments in China, under the design specifications of the Master Luthier.
This is where the big difference perhaps came for Alvarez Guitars. While Alvarez-Yairi guitars became quite well-renowned, as evidenced by the list of people that use them, the other models failed to catch up and have since been limited to rather a small production. Well, small if you compare it to industry behemoths like Gibson or Fender.
The story, of course, doesn’t end there. When the company was most successful, in 2005, it got purchased by LOUD Technologies Inc., which also owns brands like Mackie, Ampeg, and Crate. While this allowed Gene Kornblum and Kazuo Yairi to enjoy their retirements, the new management perhaps didn’t sit all too well with the luthiers back in Japan. I say this because, in 2011, the company was bought again by St. Louis Music, who continue to manage Alvarez guitars to this day.
Now, what does this mean in regards to whether an Alvarez guitar will be any good for you? Well, for starters, there is the difference of origin. An Alvarez guitar made in China will be significantly different from one made at the Yairi factory in Japan. The latter is as good as any acoustic that a seasoned professional would play, so you can be sure it should be good, but it’s going to cost somewhere around 2,000 USD.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that the low-cost Alvarez guitars made in China will never be good. Any search in forums to this same question will lead to numerous testimonials of satisfied musicians that have had one in their families for years and still love how it plays and sounds, or people that are quite content after getting a new one.
Of course, without knowing the exact models that all those pro’s use, we can’t rule out that one, or multiple, of them, might be using made-in-china Alvarez guitars. Who knows? And that’s exactly when the next question enters…
Good for what?
In the end, whether an instrument is ‘good’ or not depends more on the player. If you’re a weekend folk singer, a 12-year old beginning to play, or a classical performer, a Chinese Alvarez might be good. If you got the dough, one made in Japan might be astounding.
If you’re going to be playing in your bedroom, however, having a concert and studio quality guitar might be too much. If you’re going for a not-so-expensive Alvarez, my suggestion would be to ask about its origin. If it’s made in China, the best bet would be to try out that baby first, and then the matter of “good” or not is something you can decide for yourself.
How does it feel to you? How does it sound to you when you put on your finger picks? Those are always the most important things when getting a guitar, as it’s going to be your guitar. If the instrument is to be an extension of yourself, you’re the ultimate judge of its adequacy to you and your playing needs.