MADE WITH PRIDE IN THE USA – And in Canada, too. The art of making guitars was on display in Maple Hall last weekend. Music filled the town for the second annual La Conner Guitar Festival. Over 1,500 attendees handled fine, handmade instruments from 52 luthiers who came from as far away as Montreal and New York state. – Photo courtesy of Susan White
The luthiers came to La Conner last weekend, setting up in Maple Hall for the second annual La Conner Guitar Festival. The bait set by festival organizers Shirley Makela and spouse Brent McElroy brought some 1,500 guitar playing enthusiasts from across the country for three days of workshops, cabarets, mini-concerts, concerts and an exhibit hall full of the finest hand crafted acoustic and electric guitars, harp guitars, mandolins and ukeleles made in North America. Luthiers make stringed musical instruments. Fifty-two, from Alaska, provinces and states down the west coast, and across the continent, from Alberta to Texas, and Nevada to New York, set up tables in Maple Hall. They were followed by over 1,500 guitar playing and music loving admirers, men, mostly, who had time on their hands, songs in their hearts and money in their pockets. The baby boomers have become the reflective retirees. They know what they like, and it is quality. Mike Smith from Seattle was in Maple Hall’s fireplace room Saturday afternoon, strumming a guitar while waiting his turn at the amp. He was one of eight adults, three of whom held guitars. Out of the din of the exhibit hall, they could caress and put their ear to the instruments in relative quiet. Smith said he was here just for fun. He has played professionally and confessed to “already having too many guitars.” He was attracted to the tone, craftsmanship, feel and finish, but “mainly, how it sounds.” Three hours later he was outside on the patio, probably strumming a different guitar. Upstairs, where half hour mini-concerts featured noted guitar players highlighting specific guitar makers, Toni and Scott Cuhwake, from Sedro-Woolley, sat. Scott had broken his guitar while practicing “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Scott didn’t think buying was possible, but he appreciated the opportunity to handle and play guitars. Factory guitars start in the low hundred dollars and go into the thousands. Luthiers will put in over a hundred hours building one guitar. The price range seemed to start in the high $4,000s and went above $10,000 and the most renowned makers might get twice that. Rob Goldberg had come from Alaska. This was his first festival. He didn’t expect to sell any guitars, but was glad for the experience. He shared a common trait of being an artist. Back home he made instruments, including violins and cellos, to order. He had made his first guitar in 1973 and started again about 2008. He appreciated meeting his peers and thought his “guitars will be much better after talking to other guitar makers” here. Tad Brown came up from Laguna, CA. His entry 22 years ago came from repairing and setting up guitars. Sean McGowan, who played four of Brown’s guitars in a mini-concert, praised their look, calling them “visually stunning,” and marveled at their light weight, under five pounds, and ergonomic aspects. He was impressed with the internal electronics. McGowan’s playing show-ed off the musical qualities of the instrument.
Sunday morning Charlie Fox’s workshop on “Getting Started in Lutherie” needed the more accurate title of “Zen and the Art of Guitar Making.” Fox had founded the continent’s first school of guitar makers in 1973. Also trained as a fine artist, he came to guitar building from taking Spanish guitar lessons and needing a Spanish guitar. He spoke more as spiritual counselor than craft mentor. Comfortable in his role of adult educator, he reflected on the many retirees, some captains of industry, who are looking for a satisfying challenge in retirement. Lutherie, he mused, satisfies “values and qualities in life that will not be delivered by the day job.” This guru reflected, “There’s guitar making and lutherie. It means who’s working to understand the invisible behavior of this musical instrument.” At the registration coun-ter, co-producer Makela was directing traffic and solving problems. The festival was a success beyond her expectations. The Shelter Bay resident praised La Conner, like a tourist booster. “People are absolutely stunned by the beauty of the town of La Conner and the Skagit Valley. Our goal is not just to support the lutherie community but also to support our community of La Conner.” Makela said their two goals were met.