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The Guitarmen of Guagua
By Aldrin O. Pelicano

Photos by A.N. Noriel

When Filipinos are asked, what’s the one thing they will never give up beside their incessant tendency to eat? That will certainly be their passion for music. To mention Filipinos’ love for music is to think of guitars. Guitars have long since become a permanent fixture of Filipino homes. Though there are families and clans who are musically-inclined or what others may say that “music runs through their veins”, it is nearly impossible to imagine not a single member of a Filipino family not knowing how to play the guitar and singing as a basic familial bonding activity. 
Guitars abound in the Philippines. You do not need to search far to find a guitar shop in every town or city throughout the country. Filipino guitar makers pride themselves as successful producers of excellent guitars for all kind of players, both professional and novice. Such are the guitar makers from Cebu. Our kababayans from the Queen City of the South have established a strong and still living tradition of fine craftsmanship in guitar making.

But not to be outdone are our Kapampangan brothers, who proudly share that is they who have started the guitar-making tradition in Luzon.

Pampanga is not only the home of exquisite and mouth-watering delicacies, but it is also where Luzon’s guitar-making tradition started. Did you know that the famed Lumanog guitars that made Sta. Mesa, Manila a guitar-enthusiast’ paradise originally came from Guagua?

In fact, guitar making in Guagua, Pampanga continues to be a vibrant and persisting industry. This despite the enormous challenge posed by the force we know by the name of globalization. Spare us please with economics but what’s important is that guitar makers from Guagua are still alive and kicking.

One of the best guitar makers in Guagua is JR Guitars located at 10 San Anton St., Guagua, Pampanga. Its owner, Mang Federico Capati Baul has been in the business and craft of guitar making for over four decades.

Mang Federico shares that he started making guitars as a teenager. Back then, he was helping out his uncle’s business, which sells locally produced stringed instruments under the name Capati. It was there he learned the ropes of guitar making.

It was only after marriage when Mang Federico decided to start his own business. It was a bold leap, especially since he has not much back then but he knew that in order to have a successful enterprise, he has to begin somewhere.

Armed with years of experience, he began making 15 acoustic guitars. Word of mouth spread and soon he sold all the guitars at a makeshift store across their house along San Anton Street. With a taste of his own success, Mang Federico decided head strong to make his own brand of guitars.

Today, the makeshift store has been transformed into a spacious, air-conditioned store selling mini, acoustic and electric guitars, stringed instruments for rondalla groups such as lauds, bandurias and octavinas, and percussions such as drum sets and beatboxes.

Mang Federico recalls that during the early 90’s, they sold a lot of bandurias, owing it to youngsters who wanted to become part of a rondalla group. Perhaps their eagerness is comparable to that of adults and adolescents today to form their own rock bands.

Rondalla groups are proudly Pinoy. Town fiestas especially in the provinces were never complete without the conciertos of the town’s Rondalla group. There was a time when most elementary and secondary schools had their own rondalla group and almost everyone played the guitar and banduria. Though the popularity of bandurias and ukeleles has waned, JR Guitars continue to make them, believing there are still some who has the passion for rondallas.

Mang Federico points out that in making their guitars, they only use materials manufactured in Guagua. They don’t need to look far for materials, which can explain the guitars’ low prices. 

JR Guitars sells guitars under its own brand, Chestone. Mini guitars are sold at P200. Regular guitars start at P800 (the quality of which is comparable to those sold at the malls for P2200) while electric guitars fetch prices of P4200 and above. Their most expensive guitar costs P6800; for the same amount, one can only get the cheapest electric guitar in the city.

What’s more commendable with our maestros from Guagua is their open-mindedness to the times. Aside from making guitars, they too produce ”beatbox” made from the more sturdy Narra tree. To keep up with the pace of the modern times, they also carry other products such as drum sets, which are imported from China, perhaps to provide for the complete musical needs of a band.

Mang Federico’s buyers come from different places. Many come from Pampanga but more and more visit Guagua and buy Mang Federico’s guitars. In fact, one of the Lumanog retailers used to buy body frames of guitar from him. Owners of other musical stores also buy instruments from JR Guitars. Recently, JR Guitars had expanded and now sells more guitars than ever before.

Currently, his son Joselito Marvin manages their business and Mang Federico credits their business growth with his son’s management. With the recent expansion, Mang Federico is optimistic that his business will grow while we remain confident that one of Luzon’s crafts and tradition will carry on and flourish, thanks to the likes of Mang Federico.

This article was first published in Sidetrip’s Pampanga issue. Sidetrip is a free quarterly travel magazine that features fresh and exciting destinations in the country.  

Issue: July 23, 2008
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