From American Lutherie #79, Fall 2004
While the rest of the nation may recall 2004 as the year of the Olympics and the presidential election, for luthiers it was the year of the GAL Convention. And hey, it was a really awesome fest that went off without a hitch! The weather really cooperated with us this year. This is the cool and cloudy climate that makes the Pacific Northwest the dream spot of the USA (but don’t spread it around). And unlike years past, there were no carpenters hammering on the roof of Harstad at 4:00 AM, no power outages, and no basketball conferences where wild athletic teens took over the cafeteria. Our crystal ball must have been working when we set these dates, as we were sweltering at 98°F the very next week!
We can’t imagine having a convention in any spot other than the beautiful Pacific Lutheran University campus. Lush green grass, huge Douglas firs and old oaks, winding walkways to brick buildings... this is a site that can’t be beat. As last time, most people staying on campus got the choice of the new South Hall apartments on lower campus or the grand old Harstad Hall which is the original PLU building from the1890s. With a packed schedule and lots of opportunity to socialize outside after hours, it looked like those dorms were pretty empty until late at night.
One of the biggest pluses of the PLU campus is the amazing Lagerquist Hall, where we held our morning lectures and evening concerts. It was built specifically for music and has a wonderful 40' pipe organ in the front. It is huge but cozy with very comfortable seating and pleasant lighting. The acoustics are perfect for live music, and the interior is a woodworker’s delight.
Once again our favorite graphic artist, Fred Carlson, made banners for the stage backdrop. Fred managed to top his own effort for the previous convention, and that’s a good trick! The theme of this year’s banners was an alphabet of fantasy instruments. He only got through the letter H this time, so stay tuned for 2007. Fred block-prints the panels at his shop in Santa Cruz, hand-colors them, and brings them to the convention where he assembles them to make a glorious backdrop for our lectures and concerts. Cool.
Wednesday at 2:00 PM the crack GAL staff got out the baskets of registration forms, badges, and programs and let the enthusiastic conventioneers sign in. There were lines of old friends and new faces as the excited luthiers quickly got dorm keys so they could stow their stuff and rush to one of the five ongoing workshops. It could be a hard decision which to attend, and each workshop had plenty of participants. It's kind of like a smorgasbord — you can't eat everything but you are sure to get something good.
The first round of tough choices included up-close encounters with Dan Erlewine on Gibson electric guitar setup; Don MacRostie demonstrating the soundboard deflection meter shown in his mandolin-making series; Frank Ford’s hide glue workshop; Ken Altman’s hands-on demonstration of making small brass planes; and Géza Burghardt, Greg Byers, and Cyndy Burton showing French polishing techniques that work.
The first concert was Wednesday evening, and it was worth the fourteen-year wait. Husband and wife duo Tarik and Julia Banzi on oud and flamenco guitar presented a program of contemporary Andalusian music. We have been trying to get them back to Tacoma since they played at our 1990 convention, and this time they flew in from Morocco to entertain us!
After a hearty college-style breakfast in the cafeteria Thursday morning, everyone hiked back over to Lagerquist for the fascinating Fred Carlson lecture on creative guitar making. Fred has developed a system of forms that is able to support any of the wild outlines of the guitars, harp guitars, and indescribables that are his specialty. The entire hall was thoroughly entertained while learning Fred's approach to building.
Electric luthiers Saul Koll and T.V. Jones started things jumping in the midmorning with the electric guitar listening session. The three listening sessions (one each for steel string, electric, and classic guitars) have become important, useful, and highly anticipated elements of the conventions, and all were very well attended this year. Jeffrey Elliott stayed in Lagerquist to give his detailed presentation on restoring TŒrrega's 1888 Torres guitar, during which the famous guitar itself was played by Kenton Youngstrom.
If you've ever been to a convention you know that the GAL convention doesn't really begin until the big exhibition starts. This is the time when the whole thing comes alive. It's time to show off all those new instruments that were just an idea three years ago, time to check out what everybody else has been doing with their time, and time to get in on all that wood the suppliers brought. As usual, two big halls were packed upstairs and downstairs with instrument makers and vendors selling almost everything a luthier could possibly need.
A special treat this year was Jim Forderer and Jim Westbrook's incredible collection of about forty-five historic guitars ranging from 1752 to 1995 displayed in its own large and quiet space in Xavier Hall. Lucky luthiers spent many hours in up-close examination.
By Thursday afternoon we were in overdrive, with the exhibition running along with several workshops. Frank Ford and Dan Erlewine taught steel string guitar repair, while Mike Doolin and John Greven took on the subject of waterborne finishing. In other rooms Eugene Clark gave a workshop on building the Spanish guitar on the solera, and Graham McDonald gave his slide show presentation on the the Irish bouzouki.
Whew, we needed a break after that afternoon! Dinner and concerts were just the ticket. First up in the concert hall was Kenton Youngstrom playing the carefully-restored Torres guitar in a program that included music by Tárrega, the former owner of the instrument. Then our old pal Bruce Harvie and friends took the stage with mandolins, guitar, and string bass. Hearing bluegrass treatments of British Invasion hits was a treat for the crowd. But the biggest treat was yet to come as Bruce forced six “lucky” wood dealers to join in that old convention favorite, “Floppy Tops”. GAL old timers will no doubt remember this classic written by Bruce and Lawrence Smart, a lament to the tune of “Rocky Top” about certain GAL members and their quest for the perfect instrument wood. At the end of the number Bruce prompted his six assistants to actually split the tops they'd been given for a show stopping finale that won't soon be forgotten!
Michael Darnton started Friday morning off with his informative lecture which took a deep look at the simple geometrical underpinnings of classical style and line in violin making. Then the members poured out of Lagerquist for another convention favorite, the group photo. Our otherwise perfect weather broke into a slight mist. We tried to take the photo on the indoor steps leading to the lower floor of Lagerquist Hall, but there was no way we could all pack into the field of view. Back to Plan A, we lined up outside while official GAL daredevil stunt photographer Hap Newsom mounted a large ladder and snapped the impressive group.
Back in Lagerquist Hall, Mike Doolin, Harry Fleishman, and Fabio Ragghianti ran through a number of different methods for attaching necks to acoustic guitars while Kenny Hill moderated the classic guitar listening session down the hall in the large orchestra rehearsal space.
Back to Day Two of the exhibition and more workshops. Friday's lineup brought Charles Fox's demonstration of his universal vacuum island, a nifty little sucker that can clamp and hold guitars in several phases of construction. Meanwhile, Greg Byers showed his method of making classic guitar rosette marquetry, Bruce Harvie gave a slide show on harvesting tonewoods, and Steve Kauffman explained his techniques for integrating carbon fiber into the construction of steel string guitars.
Friday night's concert featured guitarist and author Paul Schmidt performing original material on beautiful Klein 6- and 12-string guitars, followed by Tacoma's own Gypsy jazz favorites Pearl Django.
Late Friday night is normally the time during the convention to let loose and the luthiers did their best to keep to that tradition. Everybody headed down to the campus cafe known as The Cave to join the jam session into the wee hours. Bruce Harvie took the Master of Ceremonies duties this year as talented GAL members took turns kicking out the jams for each other. Bruce played to a packed house with Brent McElroy on drums, David Minnieweather and David King switching off on bass, Mike Doolin, T.V. Jones, Don Alder, and Leif Jacobssen on guitar, and Dan Minard on vocals.
The fact that everybody managed to get up Saturday morning for Kenny Hill's lecture is a testament to the interest generated by his topic of the many choices faced by the guitar maker. He was followed by Géza Burghardt's presentation on developing the model and forms of a string bass. Harry Fleishman took his turn to moderate the steel string guitar listening session.
Wait a minute... didn't we just start this event? Hard to believe that we were on the last exhibition day. Saturday has always been crazy at the convention. Besides luthiers feverishly running around trying to see everybody and everything one last time, and then tearing down and packing up their own displays for the trip home, it's also time for the silent auction to begin.
In the hallway outside the main exhibition hall, fifteen tables were brought out packed with a wide variety of great lutherie items and interesting wacky stuff. This year the countdown was provided by filmmaker Isaac Olsen who made a hilarious video that counted down the time and featured loud special effect explosions to end the auction of each table. By the end of the auction luthiers were packing out stacks of magazines, various forms of lutherie wood, used tools, old “project” instruments, and an oscilloscope that looked like it came from Dr. Frankenstein's lab.
After the hubbub of exhibition teardown and a quick meal, it was time for the big GAL Auction Party. You can get all the in-depth coverage on p. 30. About the only thing that could get a bunch of partied-out luthiers up early on a Sunday morning would be two more top-notch lectures. Rick Turner is one speaker that our members have been wanting to hear for many years. He finally made it with a lecture on his groundbreaking work on digital modeling for acoustic guitar pickups. A GAL favorite, Tom Ribbecke, closed out the 2004 schedule with his explanation of why he is making his archtop guitars flat on one half of the soundboard. Read all about this, plus all the other lectures and workshops, in future issues of American Lutherie.
And that was it, another successful GAL convention under our belts. Many of us traveled north on Park Avenue to GALHQ where Tim and Deb Olsen laid out a big spread of cheese, breads, fruits, desserts, and other goodies. Luthiers munched snacks and basked in the glow of five days of nonstop convention until it really was time to say goodbye.
These conventions don't run by themselves. There is a megaforce of additional help behind the scenes that makes it possible for the staff to keep things running smoothly. A shout-out must first be given to Todd Brotherton who devotes months of his time to making the event happen, including moving into the GAL press room for a month before the event. Now that's dedication! We were also fortunate to have Cyndy Burton, Hap and Annie Newsom, John Calkin, Woodley White, Mike Doolin, Jackie Stewart, Ed Nadorozny, Jim Waller, Margie Reichlin, Olsen kids Isaac and Sam, and Peterson kids Ola, Marty, and Bjorn on board to help out in different capacities.
But the real thanks goes to all of our wonderful members who consistently make this event better and better each time we do it. Regardless of the planning and work, it's the incredible GAL members that make our conventions what they are: rare opportunities for sharing and camaraderie. Thanks gang, and see you again in three years!