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With this being Back to School season, I feel a bit like talking about “What I Did Last Summer.” Without a doubt, one of the guitaristic highlights was attending the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in August. Now held in Santa Rosa, California (just a few miles south of the original location in Healdsburg, California), the biannual festival turned the city’s Wells Fargo Center for the Arts into a custom guitar and guitar music temple for three days in mid-August.

One of the festival's main exhibit halls

As has become tradition, the festival consisted of four main elements: a luthier exhibit, mini-concerts where listeners can hear many of the guitars displayed in action, player workshops, and lectures on guitar making and the business of lutherie. As a sponsor of the festival, Acoustic Guitar was present not only with a table, free magazines, and an assortment of our books for sale, but we also represented with our entire editorial staff.

I began this year’s festival experience by attending a lecture on Customer Relations, given by pioneering luthier and parts supplier Michael Gurian and Acoustic Guitar contributor and luthier/repairman Charlie Hoffman. Discussing virtually every aspect of marketing custom guitars, Gurian and Hoffman drew from their combined experience in presenting information that, judging by the questions asked by participants, was of great use to many less-established builders.

Michael Gurian and Charlie Hoffman

Then there were the guitars. Probably the most striking observation I made is how the overall level of craftsmanship continues to rise; even after attending Healdsburg and similar festivals for more than 12 years, I’m amazed by the ever-more-perfect fit, finish, and general elegance achieved by virtually all of the nearly 100 builders present.

It is impossible to sample all the guitars exhibited at the festival in three short days, but I did manage to play some amazing instruments and spot a few trends. This year’s festival saw an increase in archtop makers who exhibited, which meant that in addition to such veterans as Tom Ribbecke, Linda Manzer, Taku Sakashta, and Michael Lewis, several newcomers showed innovative designs. One of the most distinctive combinations of vintage design and contemporary craftsmanship was displayed by Seattle luthier Aaron Andrews, whose Zorzi model takes inspiration from vintage Kay Kraft Recording King archtops.

Aaron Andrews Zorzi Model

Minnesota builder Brian Applegate showed a very lightly built, non-cutaway archtop that featured an intricate flower pattern as soundholes in both upper bouts instead of traditional f-holes.

Applegate Archtop

Traveling all the way from New Hampshire to attend the show, Erich Solomon displayed a trio of plainly adorned archtops with unique looks and a strong voice reminiscent of a blend between traditional acoustic archtop and Selmer-style guitars.

Erich Solomon Archops

I also saw new ideas from several flattop and nylon-string builders. Tim McKnight, Paul Woolson, and Kenny Hill were among the makers who brought instruments with double tops (wood and Nomex), showing that the construction can be applied to steel-strings (McKnight’s six-string, and Woolson’s stunning 12-string) as well as the modern classical guitar, which is where we first saw the double-top design. In the useful features department, Mike Baranik showed a new guitar with an adjustable neck angle, a feature he plans to offer throughout his line of instruments in the near future.

Woolson Soundcraft Double-Top 12-String

Mike Baranik demonstrates his adjustable neck design

Several builders brought great baritones to the show. Among the ones I played were instruments by David Berkowitz, Tony Yamamoto, and the first baritone to come out of the Petros Guitars shop. All three offered impressive low-end rumble. Straddling the line between standard and baritone guitars was an instrument shown by Portland, Oregon, luthier Charles Freeborn. Appropriately called the Semi-Baritone, the guitar has a 26-inch scale and is designed to be tuned to one-and-a-half steps below standard tuning.

Bruce and Matthew Petros with their Baritone (center)

Of course there were many more memorable guitars that I came across during the festival, and we’ll discuss some of these in a future blog entry. For now, we can look forward to the Healdsburg Guitar Festival happening again in August of 2011, and if we can’t wait that long, perhaps we’ll go play some guitars at the Newport Guitar Festival in Miami Beach, Florida (scheduled for April 16–18, 2010) or the Montreal Guitar Show (scheduled for July 3–5, 2010).

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Tags: acoustic, custom, festival, guitar, healdsburg, luthier


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Comment by Stevie Coyle on September 21, 2009 at 2:18pm
Great stuff and beautiful shots, Teja. Healdsburg gets more astonishing every year. This last couple of Healdsburgs my distinct impression has been that - strictly overall - lutherie has really caught up with cabinetry. A couple of times ago I remember thinking that that there were a lot of really pretty and rather badly overbuilt guitars. Lots of smaller and lighter guitars these days, which really is my own cup of tea. Your mileage may vary.

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