By Nikki Hedrick
Chris Alvarado has gained a following as an area musician, and he’s gotten a slew of national recognition—finalist in the 2014 American Songwriting Awards, semifinalist in the Unsigned Only Music Competition, third place in the prestigious 2013 Telluride Troubadour Competition… Oh, and a hefty amount of Beachcomber Music Awards.
Alvarado surprised most of us with his handcrafted brand of guitars, made from scratch in his two-car garage. Dubbed Driftwood Guitars, they have caught the eye of Florida George Line’s Brian Kelley, who not only personally owns a couple but plans to help Alvarado launch a line at Kelley’s Nashville storefront.
Alvarado also built a guitar for the Grammys, specifically 2018 MusiCares Person(s) of the Year Fleetwood Mac. That guitar now resides in Fleetwood’s on Front St., a restaurant and bar owned by Mick Fleetwood in Maui, Hawaii.
“Driftwood was a way of putting the word ‘wood’ into it, and it’s just what stuck. I liked it,” says Alvarado of the brand’s inception. “I like the way that it rolled off the tongue, too. It’s been great but also bad because so many people who see it just automatically assume that it’s literally driftwood guitars.”
Seeking out a fine craftsman look and feel, Alvarado says he was always making things as a kid. “My dad and I were really big into RC airplanes, and back then you had to make them all from scratch.”
The Air Force introduced him to the fabrication of things on a larger scale—metalworking, welding, even painting cars on the side.
“A guy that I worked with built an electric guitar as just something fun to make even though he didn’t really play,” says Alvarado. “That was like, Holy shit. Like, I can build an acoustic guitar. I hadn’t thought about that as something that one can make.”
While stationed in Alaska, Alvarado was venturing out to play music. Between those open mics and “little one-hour gigs,” he purchased a few books that would set the course for Driftwood Guitars. “I bought like two or three books on just how to build an acoustic guitar. I read them from cover to cover for like two months so that I had kind of built a guitar in my head over and over again. And then, when I felt comfortable enough, I just started buying the tools and some of the materials.”
That first guitar was built around 2007, and Alvarado was hooked. With each guitar built, he strengthened his skills and the concept of what he wanted a guitar to look and feel like when one plays it.
When Alvarado and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Naomi moved into a Santa Rosa Beach townhouse with a garage, it gave him the opportunity and freedom to build guitars more steadily. “As soon as we moved in, I started getting back into guitar building again. I was building just for me. I think I built three guitars that year, and one of them ended up being my gigging guitar. In fact, I revealed it at the (2011) Beachcomber Awards.”
A couple of commissioned instruments later, Alvarado began to look at the business venture in a more serious light. As Alvarado tells it, he considers Duke Bardwell to be his first “real” commission and the first to request an inlay—something that Driftwood Guitars has become known for.
“When I built that guitar for Duke, I got a commission right after that, and then I got a commission after that. Basically, since 2013, I’ve never not had somebody on my wait list, and it’s just snowballed.”
While some luthiers shy from custom pieces and personal requests, it’s an aspect Alvarado wholeheartedly embraces. “I’ve found that’s where the real joy in it is, because I’m building for clients and I’m trying to put together the vision of what they think that they want and meld it with what I think they need.
“Mostly, though, what it’s done is it’s pushed me to do all kinds of things that I never would have done before, (like) the inlays. Because I’ve always said, hey, if you want an inlay, I’ll do it. I don’t change for my inlay work. I consider that part of the art piece, and it’s pushed me.”
Part of the Driftwood Guitars story includes a moving tribute to Kenny Oliverio, the longtime member of Dread Clampitt. “Right when Kenny passed, immediately…I got ahold of April, his wife. I said, ‘You know, I hate to make this phone call now because you’re in the middle of going through it, but this stuff happens quickly, and I really want to do something. I don’t know exactly what that is yet, but I want to build some instruments to give back to Kyle and Balder (of Dread Clampitt). I want to incorporate Kenny’s ashes into the guitar in some way. So don’t scatter all his ashes out in the ocean if that’s what you’re gonna do.’”
With her blessings, Alvarado began on an octave mandolin for Balder Saunders and a guitar for Kyle Ogle. “We put Kenny’s ashes in the necks to get the band back together, essentially. So every single time those guys play together now, they use those instruments…the three of them are up on stage playing.
“Those are probably the two most important guitars I’ve ever made.”
With the continuous growth of Driftwood Guitars, Alvarado often fields questions about expansion or the possibility of moving away from his garage workspace. He is quick to shoot both ideas down.
“My running joke that I tell people all the time (is), who’d have thought that you could go from building guitars in your garage in Freeport, Florida, to building guitars in your garage in Freeport, Florida? What I mean is, no matter what kind of big success comes around my horizon, that’s still what I’m gonna keep doing, you know? Maybe I’ll get a bigger garage, but I’ll still be up here, just doing my thing.”
The base price for a Driftwood Guitar is $6,550, with a $500 deposit required to slip onto his growing waitlist.
But Alvarado’s own music has taken a complete backseat. He has a new album of cover songs due out in early 2019, and weekly gigs along 30A, where you can see a Driftwood Guitar in action.