I spent this past weekend attending the Fretboard Summit held at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. AMAZING, is the best word to describe my visit and I thought it’s only fair to share my experience with our Guitar Gavel community… it’s worth making an effort next year.
Oddly, I’ll start with the admission of a few regrets as it helps provide some context for this newsletter write-up.
• I did not take nearly enough pictures and I am a terrible picture taker.
• I still don’t know much about the Old Town School nor do I understand its prominence to the musical community. Fortunately a 10-minute internet session can solve this problem (which I’ll do later). If my internet friend Jim Newcomb is reading this please forgive me.
What I can say is the Old Town School is a world-class facility encompassing two separate buildings across the street from each other and it must be a gem of Chicago. The term “mini-campus” may be a better descriptor and I’d be curious to know the combined square footage including an intimate (several hundred seat) auditorium. The school was large enough to house 70 exhibitors, space for breakout workshops, and enough space leftover that approximately one-fourth or more of the facilities were not being utilized.
Concert performances included Jeff Parker, Jorma Kaukonen, and Tommy Emmanuel. Of course Tommy knocked it out of the park, but his opener was a young artist named Nathan Graham and the guy absolutely killed it. No band, just Nathan playing an ES-335 with a few hundred guitarists, musicians, and guitar enthusiasts staring at his hands. It’s worthwhile to spend some time listening to Nathan- https://www.nathangrahammusic.com/home
It was nerve racking taking a picture of Tommy as I only saw one other person whip their phone out during his entire set. Surely I wasn’t alone, but I waited until his next to last song before snapping a few shots.
The Summit started Thursday afternoon and ran through Saturday. Doors opened at 10am and in addition to the exhibitors there were various workshops running in both buildings pretty much nonstop. One of my favorites was hearing the history of Henderson Guitars with Wayne Henderson joined by his daughter Jayne. Wayne lives about an hour from me and our guitar circles intersect to some degree though I had never met him before last week. The picture below is Wayne talking about the guitar in his lap, build #900.
Another great workshop was a free-for-all Q&A with Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars. He spent 50 minutes answering any questions the audience asked… the audience was about 40 people. Bob spent much of that time discussing the wood supply situation for guitar builders (and others) and how Taylor has stepped-in to conserve and reforest ebony trees. Without getting into specifics Bob talked about how much of the world’s guitar wood has been harvested illegally. Some of that is a dirty industry secret, but most of the use of illegal harvested wood is because manufacturers can’t trace the source of the harvest, plausible deniability.
One guitar history tidbit that Bob shared was the day the guitar died, the day John Travolta strutted into the movies with Saturday Night Fever. I know disco put a hurting on the guitar business but Bob brought that narrative to life. He said at that time Taylor Guitars was building 4-6 guitars a day. Martin was building 70 per day (he may have said 90). Almost overnight Martin’s production dried up to 9 guitars per day, Taylor’s only dropped by one or two. His story reminded me of some oddball electric guitars I’ve seen online recently, Takamine solid body guitars from the early 1980s. Takamine couldn’t sell an acoustic guitar either so they got into the solid body game for a few years. Ever seen one in the flesh?
Bob Taylor went on to say when the market bounced back they increased their output linearly with Martin so all of a sudden the two manufacturers were nearly neck-and-neck with production output. Nowadays, Taylor produces 1,000 guitars per day and Martin produces approximately 200.
I was also able to sit-in for a studio audience taping of the Fretboard Journal’s Luthier on Luthier podcast and the guest was Richard Hoover, founder of Santa Cruz Guitar Company. Richard was a hoot, super gracious, and very talkative. I was able to speak to both Richard and Bob and thanked them for their time. I asked Richard how many employees Santa Cruz has and he said 22 including himself and one dog.
That brings me to a point I realize I have omitted, the Summit was very intimate and never felt crowded. It’s hard to guess a specific number of attendees but it had to have been less than 1,000 and I’d say closer to 500-600. Even the concert with Tommy Emmanual could not have had 500 people in the audience. In terms of the exhibitors and attendees, the bread and butter of the Summit is geared towards acoustic players. Household manufacturers included Collings, Martin, Taylor, Yamaha, Santa Cruz, Pre-War, Huss & Dalton, Preston Thompson, and Gallagher. From there it got really boutique-ie and you know that leads to $20,000-$30,000 individual guitars in a hurry. That said, every attendee was welcomed to pick up any instrument and play it.
Electric guitars were not ignored by any means, but the electric builders were far outnumbered. There was one guy there whose name may ring a bell, Paul Hamer, co-founder of Hamer Guitars. He still has a hand in building guitars for his H-Guitars line and his two sons are also involved in the company. Paul’s main line of business is framing pictures and owns Frame Warehouse with two locations in the Chicago area. In the picture below with Paul I’m nervous as can be so I cannot remember what they called the Explorer style guitar I’m holding. The black and white checks are made from custom cut and individually laid pieces of black ebony and mother of pearl. They said they had close to 1,000 man hours doing the inlay work and finished the guitar three days before the show, damn!
Another stop included the vintage amp room which was really much more of a collection of old PA tube amplifiers. My gearhead friends can laugh at me because I didn’t really appreciate the fact you can plug into a PA head. The picture is terrible, but the Masco PA amp shown was gnarly. The collection was available through a private individual (can’t remember his name) and he probably had close to a dozen PA amps. He said you used to be able to pick these up for less than a hundred bucks and now some of his stuff is selling for $800-$1000. The guy went on to explain there are still plenty of deals to be had on the old PA market so keep your eyes open, mine will be.
In closing, this was truly a fantastic show. Everyone there, whether it was Bob Taylor or Richard Hoover, and every single exhibitor was super kind and approachable. They were there to talk guitars, answer questions, and welcomed you to play their instruments. I did feel bad for the Yamaha custom shop guy… I am one of Yamaha’s biggest fans, but as you can imagine they were somewhat like a fish out of water :-).
Here are links to the exhibitors and daily workshops if you are interested: