This past weekend was an event which I had been anticipating for several months. This was the weekend of the La Conner Guitar Festival. Unlike the Bellingham Folk Festival back in January, the focus was more on the instruments than the music. Specifically, it was a luthier event. I now own three guitars, so I wasn’t looking to acquire a new one, but I was still looking forward to attending.
NOTE: I’m about a week (or more) behind with blogging. I had a computer crash that put me out of commission for a couple of days.
For weeks leading up to the big event the official Facebook page highlighted participating luthiers. I would follow the links to their pages, then quickly backtracked as sticker shock set in. These were beautiful instruments, works of art, with corresponding prices. There was no way I could afford any of them.
The event would last all weekend. I decided that it wouldn’t take me that long to look at expensive guitars and I wasn’t in the mood to attend many workshops, so I opted for a single day. Friday was the first day of the event, so that’s when I decided to go.
The event was scheduled from 9:30 am until evening, so I decided to head over a little after 10:00. When I arrived at Maple Hall and checked in they said that the main vendor floor didn’t open until 11:00. However, the showcase vendors were open, so I browsed. There was one guy selling expensive guitar picks and accessories and another with various woods for luthiers. One vendor offered climate-controlled cabinets for your hand-made guitar collection, and another sold beautiful wood-grained stands to display your…art. There were also a couple of very pricy amplifiers.
There was one vendor selling affordable folding stands. I’d been looking for one for my Alverez guitar, and these turned out to be perfect. That, and a free guitar pick and a free T-shirt from the Fender folks was all I could afford.
I still had some time before the main room opened. I took my purchases back down the street to my car, then grabbed a cup of coffee, followed by a leisurely stroll along the waterfront. From there I headed back to Maple Hall.
Folks began to gather. As with the Bellingham festival, there were quote a few “intentionally” dressed people. There were also lots of folks with guitar cases, which puzzled me. Why would you bring your own guitar to an event like this? Then I remembered that there were some workshops during the day, so it started to make sense. As we waited groups of middle school students on a field trip were doing some kind of scavenger hunt around town.
The doors opened and it was almost immediate sensory overload. I didn’t know where to begin. The room was actually a large auditorium space. There was a stage and balcony, but where the seats would be there were rows of tables displaying the various guitars.
I made one pass up and down the rows, afraid to touch anything. I made a note of some of the exquisite woodwork and design.
On the second pass I gained a bit of confidence. I played several instruments and asked questions about construction. For some reason I was drawn to the arch top guitars. They are quite different from the traditional folk styles I’ve been playing. One that I really liked had a deep purple tint to the wood.
After playing a couple of these and talking with the luthiers I decided that the arch tops were not really for me. Overall the sound seemed a bit thinner than the folk designs. I don’t know if this is the case with all arch tops, but one luthier’s design had a floating bridge held in place by the strings, much the same way as my banjo. It can be a pain when you have to change strings.
There were plenty of other designs to keep me entertained, though. A Hawaiian luthier offered a collection of classical guitars with a naked woman in mother-of-pearl on the tuning head. He said that a Baptist minister bought one on condition that he add a bikini to it.
Another luthier named each of his guitars and inscribed the name in mother-of-pearl on the head. He does mostly custom orders (as do most of these luthiers) and usually inscribes the name of a wife or girlfriend. I played a couple of these guitars. They were small, but had a surprisingly deep tone. They were also surprisingly heavy, which I didn’t like.
The “Fibonacci” model had a bejeweled golden mean spiral that extended into the sound hole. It was striking, but at $30,000 I was hesitant to touch it, let alone play it. It had a beautiful tone, though.
Several weeks ago I was at Dusty Strings in Fremont and played a Collings Guitar. It was about the same price as these luthier guitars at $5,500. This guitar sang. I’ve never held a guitar that was such a joy to play as this one. If it had been just a little be less I would have sold my Martin and bought it.
Here none of the guitars sang for me. Most of that was the setup. There was so much background noise that you couldn’t get a good feel for the instrument. At a starting price of $5K you want to know that you’re getting the right instrument. If you were truly shopping for a guitar, there were isolation booths available where you could take the instruments and spend some time. Like port-a-potties at a crowded event, these were usually occupied with a line waiting to get in. I happened to catch this photo before the rush.
No, this wasn’t meant to be a normal shopping experience. Some might purchase a guitar off the floor, but serious buyers would play a few instruments, find a designer they liked, then later commission an instrument from that luthier.
The crowds were starting to get to me. I decided to check out some of the ongoing concerts. There were venues all around town, but the closest were upstairs in Maple Hall. I headed up to find one in progress.
This also served as a showcase for the guitars. Each artist was playing one of the instruments from a festival luthier. Often the luthiers themselves were the artists.
I stuck around to listen to the next artist, Giaccomo Fiore. I don’t remember whose guitar he was playing, but he used a classical/finger style of picking.
Here’s a bit of video…
I’m glad I came early on the first day. The crowds were already getting bad and it was hard to move through the vendor floor. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like on the actual weekend. I did come away with a nice collection of guitar picks. These served as business cards with the luthiers’ information embossed on the picks. They would be less likely to be thrown away than a card.
I’m still glad I went, even though I couldn’t afford any of the guitars. It was more like walking through an art gallery for me. Interestingly, I was chatting with my friend Patty at one of our Scottish sessions later and was commenting on the high prices of the instruments. I mentioned the Collings guitar in Fremont and Patty said that $5k for a fine instrument that would last didn’t seem all that steep.
And she’s right. Any professional instrument would run that amount and much, much higher. I think about the price of a fine violin or other bowed instrument or any other orchestral instrument, for that matter. I guess the difference is that the guitar isn’t my primary instrument and I don’t play professionally. Should that ever change I know where there’s a beautiful Collings guitar that’s still singing out my name.