The low-temperature microwave-assisted hydrothermal method was used to successfully grow pure and Al-doped ZnO (AZO) nanorod (NR) arrays on glass substrates. The combined effects of doping and pH on the structural properties, surface chemistry, and optical properties of all samples were investigated. Thermodynamic-based simulations of the growth solution were performed and a growth mechanism, that considers the effects of both the pH and Al-doping, is proposed, and discussed. Tuning the solution pH is key parameter to grow well-aligned, single crystal, highly packed, and high aspect ratio nanorod arrays. Moreover, the optical absorption in the visible range is enhanced by controlling the pH value. The PL spectra reveal a shift of the main radiative emission from the band-to-band into a transition involving deep defect levels of Zinc interstitial Zni. This shift is caused by an enhancement of the non-radiative components (phonon relaxation) at high pH values. The production of well-ordered ZnO and AZO nanorod arrays with visible-active absorption/emission centers would increase their potential use in various applications.