From the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY BRIAN WISE
Not long ago, it seemed as if lutherie shows were going the way of video rental stores. One of the first events of its kind, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival, in Santa Rosa, California, folded in 2013 after nearly two decades in operation. The beloved Montreal Guitar Show concluded a six-year run in 2012. Events in Memphis, Miami, and also Newport, Florida, reached a coda amid financial strains.
But in the past three years, lutherie shows have staged a resurgence. Whether it’s the Artisan Guitar Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, Germany, or the Vancouver International Guitar Festival, in Canada, new festivals for handmade guitar enthusiasts have surfaced on multiple continents. The field has grown crowded enough that this past January, organizers of six of the largest shows formed an alliance to coordinate their efforts.
The events draw guitar fanatics through a mix of exhibitions, master classes, panels, and demonstration performances, often with a tourism component for family members in search of non-guitar-related leisure activities.
John Detrick, who in 2017 produced the inaugural Artisan Guitar Show in Harrisburg, says he wanted to create a showcase for handmade fretted instruments, as distinct from the factory-made models that dominate large trade shows and traditional retail. “When you think about music stores—and I’ve been in many—you can walk in and see what truly are extraordinary instruments from a lot of mass producers,” said Detrick, 63. “But unless you walk into a very unique guitar store, you’re not going to see these handcrafted instruments.”
An exhibitors’ table at a three-day luthier show can cost $1,500 or more, compounded by additional entry fees, travel expenses, and the cost of shipping instruments. And while sales are not guaranteed, luthiers concede the events are an ongoing part of their business model.
“Guitar shows are still a major player for people moving their stuff,” says Bryan Galloup, a luthier who runs a guitar-building school in Big Rapids, Michigan. “For a young builder, they have to sell a guitar [to break even]. For other people, once they’re more established as builders, it’s the continuously being seen at a show that’s really good for them. It would be bad for me to all of a sudden stop going.”
Touristic appeal is a big part of the festival equation. Italy’s long-running Acoustic Guitar Village was held in a medieval castle in the Ligurian town of Sarzana for 18 years before it merged in 2016 with Cremona Musica, a trade show for musical instruments. “It was very impressive, like a journey into the medieval era,” says artistic advisor Alessio Ambrosi of the old location. The show is now set in the historic violin-making city of Cremona, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where Ambrosi encourages attendees to visit the Museo del Violino and other local landmarks.
Promotional materials for the second annual La Conner Guitar Festival emphasized the historic charms of coastal La Conner, Washington. The event, which drew 52 luthiers in May (up from 40 in 2017), partly drew inspiration from the Woodstock Invitational Luthier’s Showcase, now one of the more established gatherings and scheduled for this October 26–28.
The Woodstock Invitational was founded in 2009 and touts a jamboree-like assortment of performances, workshops, and exhibits held throughout the famed Catskill Mountains town. In October 2017, Woodstock drew 1,500 attendees and 45 luthiers over three days; 63 instruments were sold or commissioned as a result of the show, says founder Baker Rorick. “That’s huge,” he says. Luthiers make up much of the show’s audience, who appreciate quirky touches like break rooms stocked with pumpkin pie.
“Woodstock’s a hang,” Galloup says. “People go because the old guys are there, it’s a funky venue, everybody stays in these cool cabins, and it’s an event. I don’t know if that could survive any other place but there.”
Indeed, when the Santa Barbara Guitar Celebration was founded in 2016, organizers grappled with how to foster a culture of guitar enthusiasts while also luring more casual attendees from the immediate area. Founder Kevin Gillies says he’s still reaching for the right recipe. “We don’t have the same cultural support in Southern California as Baker does at Woodstock,” Gillies says. “There’s a tremendous long history of craftsmanship there. Since we don’t have that same culture, it’s a much easier sell to get people to show up for music.”
After featuring artists including the fingerstyle guitarist Richard Smith and slack-key player Jim “Kimo” West in 2017, for its next edition, in 2019, Gillies plans to spin off the performances in a citywide music festival that will take place in wine bars and restaurants. With the aim of attracting families, Gillies moved the event from a local fairground to the Hilton Beachfront Resort, which includes views of the Pacific Ocean.
Shows in the Instagram Age
For several years, Canada’s rich lutherie tradition was the focus of the Montreal Guitar Show. Organizers of the Vancouver International Guitar Festival, scheduled for August 11–12, have sought to build on that legacy while promoting British Columbia, known as a leading source of tonewood. A lineup of 100 exhibitors is expected at Vancouver this year, including such names as Ervin Somogyi, Nik Huber, and Larrivée Guitars. Festival co-founder Meredith Coloma stresses the importance of effective social media promotion.
“I went to a few guitar shows and they were basically an expensive trip to hang out with other luthiers,” says the 27-year-old Coloma. “They were very poorly marketed and the luthiers were pretty upset at the turnout of buyers. You don’t want to compete among 100 luthiers for three people who walk through the door. After two guitar shows that were not up to snuff, I thought about my city. This is a destination for people from rich countries, so I do really well in terms of my sales locally.”
Around $250,000 worth of instruments were sold at the inaugural Vancouver event in 2017, says co-founder Shaw Saltzberg. But those sales represent only half of all transactions; others trickle in months later as a result of festival meetings. This is largely because buyers seek a degree of customization. “Buyers want to be involved in the process, which is really important when you’re spending $7,500 to $15,000 for a guitar,” Saltzberg said. “It’s an experience. The builders like to build these relationships.”
While guitar show veterans will describe pre-event deals in hotel rooms and out of car trunks, these may constitute a minority. “It’s pretty rare that you’ll get a sale right over the table,” says Alton “Bear” Acker, executive director of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA), a trade group.
When ASIA formed in 1988, the vintage instrument craze was just gaining traction, as Baby Boomers were rekindling their love of guitars. That boom had waned by decade’s end, but guitar shows, including Healdsburg and Montreal, continued. (ASIA hosts a biennial symposium near C.F. Martin’s guitar museum and factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania).
Inevitably, guitar show audiences skew toward men over 50, a demographic that’s saved enough money for a handcrafted instrument and is often reaching retirement age. “I definitely see that there’s an aging nature to the audience at the show,” says the Artisan show’s Detrick. Sensing a need to highlight diversity, both the ASIA symposium and Berlin’s Holy Grail Guitar Show have recently hosted panels on women luthiers, while Woodstock’s organizers are planning a slate of workshops featuring women in the field for 2018.
Saltzberg of the Vancouver festival is less pessimistic about the age balance, suggesting that choosy Millennials drawn to artisanal products are starting to attend. “These are people making their own small businesses devoted to camping gear and bicycles that are built by hand,” he said. “The old-school barber shops have turned into social places. With our guitars, we get a lot of great response from just that alone. It’s not just for old men like me.”
Not to be downplayed is the role that seminars and performances play in a successful luthier show. Weeks or months before shows, guitarists offer their services for instrument demonstrations; some festivals distribute musician rosters to exhibitors who shop for a performer to play their instruments.
Linda Manzer, a Toronto luthier, says guitarists offering demo performances of her guitars routinely approach her, but she cautions that it’s a tricky relationship. “I used to avoid it, because even really good players have a hard time adapting to an instrument they’ve just met,” she notes. “Their job is to showcase the guitar. That’s why they’re being hired by us. So you have to have the kind of player who understands that dynamic.”
Manzer has also learned to manage her expectations about sales. “I’m a little different because I expect very little in the way of sales,” she says. “I actually go mostly for the sense of community because I really enjoy being around all of the other guitar makers. Also, I like players to be able to see and try my guitars.”
This communal atmosphere is an intangible factor that new shows strive to create, including those in Europe, where a tradition of guilds has tended to segment the field into distinct camps. But this may be changing due to organizations like the European Guitar Builders Association, founded in 2013. “In the last seven or eight years, the scene of acoustic guitar in Italy has grown very much,” says Ambrosi of the Acoustic Guitar Village. “There are events in little towns all around Italy. That means fingerstyle, flatpicking, and songwriting.”
“The luthier community is a community and there’s an incredible generosity of spirit,” adds Woodstock’s Rorick. “I’ve watched it happen again and again in my own show where some fledgling luthier will approach a luminary, and say, ‘Gee, could I ask you a question about a certain technique or material or construction?’ Invariably the guy will say, ‘I’ll show you everything I know. It’s going to help you make a better instrument—and inspire a musician to make better music.’”
August 11–12, 2018
Vancouver International Guitar Festival
September 28–30, 2018
Acoustic Guitar Village at Cremona Musica
October 26–28, 2018
Woodstock Invitational Luthier’s Showcase
August 10–11, 2019
Twin Cities Guitar Show
August 23–25, 2019
Santa Barbara Guitar Celebration
RECENTLY HELD SHOWS
(No follow-up shows announced)
Artisan Guitar Show
Holy Grail Guitar Show
La Conner Guitar Festival
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.