The History of Alvarez Guitars – From Missouri to Japan

Alvarez Guitars are one of the longest-running names in the acoustic guitar world. For over half a century, they've been building world-class guitars inspired by international luthiers. In this article, we'll take a look at their journey from St. Louis, Missouri to Kani in central Japan, and how it shaped their impressive range of instruments.

Sam Beattie

Sam Beattie

Alvarez are a company whose story simply needs to be told. As one of the longest-running acoustic manufacturers in the business, their colourful history is echoed in their diverse range of instruments. We spoke to Senior Vice President Chris Meikle about the Alvarez journey and the legacy of the late, great Kazuo Yairi.

St. Louis Music

Alvarez was founded in 1965 by Gene Kornblum of St. Louis Music. This legendary company, based in St. Louis, Missouri (naturally), was pivotal in bringing musical instruments to the USA from all over the world. This included everything from violins to classical guitars, and the company was always on the lookout for new manufacturers and fresh ideas. The Alvarez name was originally given to St. Louis Music’s line of Spanish-style guitars.

Kornblum met Japanese luthier Kazuo Yairi in the late 1960s; Yairi was part of a revered family of luthiers who’d made world-class instruments for generations. Kornblum was impressed by Yairi’s commitment to his art, particularly his Spanish-style guitars.

Kazuo Yairi - Andertons Music Co.

(above: the late Kazuo Yairi, who was instrumental in the Alvarez design & manufacture process)

Prior to their meeting, the Yairi luthiers didn’t make steel-string guitars, so Kornblum seized the opportunity. He proposed that they form a partnership and start making steel-string guitars for the Western market. Kornblum decided to use the same name as St. Louis Music’s Spanish line – Alvarez.

Alvarez & Yairi in the USA

Kornblum and Kazuo Yairi spent years designing, testing and tweaking their steel-string instruments to perfection. The first Alvarez Yairi guitars came to USA in 1970, and were a massive hit. It seemed the market was looking for an alternative to the old-guard names of the industry, and the reputation of Japanese manufacture and attention to detail was a winner.

The momentum of the brand only grew when their guitars were brandished by some of the biggest names in the business. The Grateful Dead, Paul McCartney, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Steve Winwood, Johnny Cash – to name a few. Good company, right?

Revitalised for the modern audience

Fast forward to 2005 when Alvarez was at its height and St. Louis went through a change of ownership. This unfortunately led to Alvarez suffering from a lack of guitar-building knowledge and  commitment. Thankfully, it wasn’t long after that Mark Ragin (a St. Louis Music distributor) bought St. Louis Music and brought Alvarez back home. Then, in 2011, Chris Meikle began to rebuild.

St. Louis, Missouri - Andertons Music Co.

(above: St. Louis, Missouri, the home of the legendary St. Louis Music company)

The goal was to design and build the best imported guitars in the USA and then take the brand to a more international stage. This required a fresh range designed in conjunction with Yairi that channelled the same passion that started the company all those decades ago. So they set out to make the best range of versatile acoustic guitars that money could buy, with a number of key focuses in mind:

  • Always put the player first
  • Constantly learn and improve
  • Offer unparalleled value and quality through better design
  • Respect and understand the guitar better than competitors

As Kazuo Yairi once said, “Perfection is a journey, not a destination.” This simple but effective approach allowed Alvarez to develop an attractive range of instruments that ticked all the boxes. It’s since helped them cement their position as one of the most innovative manufacturers in the game.

The Alvarez Guitars Range

The Alvarez range is arguably one of the most diverse selections of acoustic instruments on the market. Spanning ukuleles through Parlour-style guitars to Dreadnoughts and Baritones, there’s something on offer for everyone. In addition, the range aims to cater to every need, with affordable budget options, versatile mid-range instruments and luxurious pro-grade guitars on offer. Having said that, at the time of writing all of their instruments are sub-£1000. Here’s a quick summary of the Alvarez range:

  • Artist Series – The flagship line at the core of the Alvarez brand. Affordable solid-top Dreadnoughts to premium 12-string Jumbos and just about everything in between.
  • Artist Elite Series – As the name suggests, the cream of the crop. Premium instruments with unique tonewood combinations, eye-catching looks and ergonomic design appointments.
  • Cádiz Series – Named after the spiritual home of the classical guitar, a selection of beautifully authentic nylon-string instruments.
  • Masterworks Series – All-solid tonewoods with designs inspired by the undisputed classics of the guitar world. Alvarez’s Masterworks tagline is ‘Truly Eloquent Professional Guitars’.
  • Masterworks Elite Series – Builds on the foundations that were laid by its predecessor – the Artist Elite Series. Featuring unique cutaway models, these guitars stand well apart from their competitors.

Alvarez AG60AR Artist Grand Auditorium Acoustic - Andertons Music Co.

Find out more

If you’d like to know more about the Alvarez guitars range, you can check them out on our website, click here to browse all models, or read our article on what makes them so darn special. If you’ve enjoyed this piece, why not check out the rest of our industry content while you’re here?

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Sam Beattie
Sam Beattie
Sam is one of our content writers, as well as being our resident southpaw and synth enthusiast. He spends his free time composing for music libraries and playing in a post-rock band. Sam's desert island gear would be his Mexican Tele, Strymon El Capistan and Teenage Engineering OP-1.

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