There are many options for musicians of all instruments and styles seeking a summer program to help them improve their skills. For acoustic and classical guitarists, however, the Mendocino Guitar Workshop offers a sui generis opportunity to spend a week learning from and hanging out with two internationally renowned guitar masters. For the fourth consecutive year, steel-string fingerstylist and composer Alex de Grassi (whose 1998 album The Water Garden was nominated for a Grammy) and classical composer and performer Andrew York (who won a Grammy with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet for 2005’s Guitar Heroes) are teaming up to mentor intermediate and advanced players. This year’s confab runs from July 15–21 at the Albion Field Station in Albion, California, seven miles outside of Mendocino on California’s scenic northern coast. The number of participants is capped at 20, offering an intimate music learning environment.
The curriculum is structured to improve each player’s ability and overall musicianship by exploring a variety of techniques and expressive skills, including alternate tunings, dynamics, and phrasing. An emphasis on composing and arranging for fingerstyle and/or classical guitar—for which both de Grassi and York are acclaimed—is a distinctive feature of this workshop. Hands-on activities led by de Grassi and York together and separately include master classes, lecture-demonstrations, one-on-one lessons, and ensemble rehearsals in preparation for a public concert held at the end of the week. There’s also plenty of time in the schedule for solo practicing, jamming with fellow participants, and communal meals enjoyed together by the teachers and students. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the inspiration from the camp’s proximity to the ocean, river, and nearby forests. And in its second year, the camp’s Guitars in the Village initiative gives participants the chance to perform casually in boutiques, shops, and galleries around the seaside community of Mendocino.
Additionally, there will be an exhibition of instruments built by top regional luthiers at three local galleries. (See sidebar for a list of participating luthiers.) The program runs concurrently with the Mendocino Music Festival, which features an array of orchestra, chamber music, big band, folk, pop, jazz, and blues music and dance performances that enhance this arts-immersion experience. “We don’t have an official relationship with the music festival; they don’t sponsor us,” says de Grassi. “They host a series of concerts over the course of two weeks in a 150-seat venue and in a tent set up outside on the cliff overlooking the bay that seats close to 1,000. Both Andy and I played in the big tent in previous years, and I approached festival organizers about our students giving a concert. They let us use the smaller venue, where Andy and I do a concert and our students play ensemble pieces.” Guest artists who have dropped by the workshop to teach and perform have included American fingerstylists Ed Gerhard and Sean McGowan, Brazilian singer-guitarist Badi Assad, and French jazz guitarist Serge Merlaud, to name a few.
De Grassi kicked off the annual series two decades ago when he and wife, Alison, began hosting the Alex de Grassi Summer Guitar Intensive for a handful of acoustic guitarists who would gather for a weekend at Laurel Mill Lodge, an old redwood sawmill in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Alex did all the teaching and Alison cooked the meals for participants who stayed in the lodge or camped out on the grounds. Seven years ago, they moved operations to a 19th-century farmhouse at Jug Handle Creek Farm in Caspar, in Mendocino County. The current location, just down the road, is an old biology field station owned by Pacific Union College. “The facilities include dorm rooms, a dining hall, and a big meeting hall there where we can seat 20 players in a circle to work together,” de Grassi says. “It looks out on the river and is a really nice spot.”
York and de Grassi, who began playing and recording their original duo compositions around 2011, have become close friends. De Grassi taught himself folk and blues as a youth and later looked into classical guitar. York began his journey playing folk-based music before pursuing formal classical studies, so they share plenty of common musical ground. “Alex and I both improvise and have wide stylistic influences and experiences,” York says. “I don’t find as much of that in the classical world. I feel lucky that we gravitated toward each other. Four years ago, he invited me to teach at the workshop. It’s unusual to have festivals that hit both the steel-string and classical sides of the guitar world. My presence has opened doors that bring in more classical players. I’ve played other festivals, like the Hersbruck Guitar Festival in Germany, where they have classical, Gypsy jazz, and steel-string players. But the people don’t interact in quite the same way as we do at Alex’s festival: living together, jamming, and doing workshops.”
Part of the workshop’s magic is that it draws players from various locales and across the age spectrum, from precocious middle- and high-school students to baby boomer pluckers who are professionals in non-music fields. “It’s fun to see 13-year-olds learning Dylan songs from people who are 65, and 21-year-olds teaching songs by current artists to the older players,” says de Grassi. “Jams will go on sometimes until the wee hours of the morning,” York adds. “It’s really cool how they respect each other. And it’s not just the blend of steel and nylon. We have older amateur players getting together with young, hot-shot classical guys. You watch them get to know and like each other and start playing together. These are people who might not otherwise cross each other’s paths in this way. Many of them have become good friends who stay in touch.”
In 2011, the workshop began offering two scholarships. Financial support has come from Strings By Mail owner John Wunsch, Tropo Records, Acoustic Guitar magazine, Lowden Guitars, Elixir Strings, Diana Coryat and Ashok Khosla, as well as workshop participant Jeff Titus. “Players under 25 can apply for a tuition-free scholarship,” says de Grassi. “We base the decision on their ability and financial need. Many applicants are in some kind of guitar program; some of the classical players are music majors at colleges or universities.” De Grassi will offer five scholarships this year, and he hopes to see that number rise.
Zachary Seifert-Ponce, a young classical guitarist and composer who recently graduated from Pacific Union College, attended the 2018 workshop. He says de Grassi and York are “a dream team” as teachers. “They would each pick an element of our playing and zero in on it,” he says. “I left with a new level of understanding of how to touch my instrument and express more of its sounds in my own compositions. Interacting with them—learning about their future plans and even how they take their coffee—makes you feel like you’re a part of the lives of the giants.”
Janet Noguera attended the 2015 workshop on a scholarship from Lowden Guitars while majoring in music at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “At the time, I was studying classical guitar but also playing steel-string with open tunings, percussive techniques, and fingerboard tapping,” she recalls. “This workshop was perfect for me, and it was very well organized. Alex has great technique like a classical player, but has a modern style on steel-string. It was really fun playing in the master classes, working as a team on the guitar orchestra piece, and playing it in concert.”
Rick Bostock, a baby boomer who has played steel-string guitar since he was 12, has taught and researched plant pathology as a faculty member at the University of California at Davis for 38 years. “Guitar is a serious hobby for me, and I’ve attended four of Alex’s workshops since 2004,” Bostock says. “Last year, a 12-year-old lad, college music majors, and hobbyists like myself attended. Andy and Alex are so gracious in their interactions, no matter what your level. You come away reinvigorated and inspired to become a better player. I’m a professor, so I know good teaching when I see it, and Alex and Andy are outstanding.”
“I like the cross-fertilization and the disparate energy everyone brings to the workshop,” York says. “It’s a personal setting where we get to spend time together. For the last couple years, we’ve taken canoes a few miles up the river on the last day of the workshop, and after the tide turns, we come back down. It’s unimaginably beautiful up there in redwood country. I’ve done many festivals all over the world, but this one is really unique.”
Six local luthiers will exhibit their instruments at three Main Street art galleries in Mendocino during the week of the workshop.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.