Woodstock Guitar Show

November 9, 2010

I attended the Woodstock Guitar Show on the weekend of October 23-24. I’d like to tell you a bit about it. It didn’t strictly speaking take place in Woodstock; it took place in Bearsville, which is close by.

The Woodstock area is a lovely, semi-rural, rather upscale series of townships in upstate New York that are, historically, associated with the legendary Woodstock music festival of the folk era — in spite of the fact that the event was rained out and that the property became a sea of mud. Still, with luminaries like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and others, and plenty of hallucinogens around, the mud didn’t seem to matter all that much. I didn’t go to that event myself, but I’ve heard about it for most of my life. Anyway, it’s beautiful there in October, and I got to spend the weekend (indoors) with a bunch of my fellow guitar makers. It was quite something. (There’s a photo-essay book about the Woodstock festival and its various luminary performers — and signed by Bob Dylan — currently for sale through www.abebooks.com; they want more than $5,000 for it. Wow.)

Apropos of nothing, the Woodstock area is in the Catskills, a famous resort and retreat area, that has traditionally offered lots of fishing, food, whitewater, and entertainment. The Catskills, I’m told by someone who lived near there for many years are not, technically, mountains (and indeed, the Woodstock area is not at all mountainous). The Catskills are actually a “dissected peneplain.” The real mountains (the Adirondacks) are a couple of hours north. Again, wow.

Anyway, I got there by taking my first-ever redeye flight: from eleven p.m. to eight a.m., across three time zones. An overrated experience, I must say. I cannot sleep on planes. Especially sitting upright in a padded, seat-shaped sardine can.

Guitar-wise, the Woodstock guitar show is in the stomping grounds, and the descendant of, the famous-but-no-longer-happening New York Guitar Show — for a time the most prominent American handmade guitar show. It was heavily weighted toward archtop and jazz guitars, as New York and its surrounds is the epicenter of jazz’s musico-geographical territory and home to legendary archtop guitar makers such as John D’Angelico, Jimmy D’Aquisto, John Monteleone, Ken Parker, and many other talented-to-legendary makers and jazz players. For archtop makers and players, Woodstock is very near Mecca.

Unfortunately, of course, I make flat-tops. But no one minded that. [My former apprentice] Michihiro Matsuda and I got invited to Woodstock. I think, because our names — like so many of the legendary archtop makers — end in vowels too. I think there’s some rule about that. (The vowel in Ken Parker’s last name is silent; or they make exceptions for the letter ‘r’.) Speaking of Ken Parker, spending time with him was one of the really high points of the festival for me. For those of you who don’t know him, do please look his website up; he’s creative beyond words — and whereas I kid a lot about many things I’m not at all kidding about Ken. He’s awesomely smart, capable and original — and a human being of impressive integrity.

One thing that I couldn’t help noticing about the Woodstock festival was how many collectors I met who had REALLY IMPRESSIVE COLLECTIONS of archtop guitars made by several of the most legendary makers. Usually, I meet people who have three or five or ten guitars, most of which are pretty ordinary; these collections SPARKLED. But then again this geographic region is home to a lot of people who can afford the best several times over… and they go for it.

Interestingly, one reason for the preponderance of interest in archtop guitars in this region is the climate: the marked Summer heat and humidity alternates with the severely dry Winters. Archtop guitars can survive such weather whereas flat-tops will often crack, warp, and be subject to other problems of wood movement.

The reason for this is that wood expands and contracts with changes in the weather, and of course guitar tops and backs are also more fragile and delicate than furniture is. Archtop guitars allow such ‘accordioning’ freely because they lack across-the-grain bracing. The flat-top guitar does have that. While this is good for tone in the flat-top guitar it simultaneously prevents wood movement, as the woods fibers are ‘locked’ into one configuration that allows very little movement. Therefore, if the wood wants to shrink but is prevented from doing so by the bracing, it will instead crack from the resultant pent-up tensions. As most luthiers know, making any flat-top guitar destined to live out its life on the East coast requires attention to the conditions under which the soundbox is assembled: a humidity-controlled room is a must.

I mentioned this to a friend and he is of the opinion that the sovereignty of the archtop in that area is not a function of weather but of culture. He said, quote: The NY tradition of jazz guitars going back to D’Angelico remains strong but I don’t think it’s related to weather as much as to NY’ers insularity — for one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities, NY breeds a strong sense of local superiority. It’s the one place I know where “not a prophet in one’s own village” doesn’t apply. To a real NY’er, if you’re not from one of the five boroughs, you’re a yokel — and if you’re from Staten Island, you’re not really a NY’er either — and only things from NY are good enough for a real NY’er. So if people in Manhattan are making archtops, well, there you are: they’re the best no matter what people are doing anywhere else. End quote.

The truth is in there somewhere, I’m sure. But okay, enough technical talk.

My apprentice Jason Kostal came with me to help at my table, which was a big help to me. He also came with his partner Catherine, whom he took a few days off with to show her the area. Jason graduated from West Point Military Academy, which is not far from there; they visited his old Alma Mater and saw a few of his friends who are still in the area. From what I’ve heard West Point’s discipline and work load are legendarily fearsome: only about a third of any entering class graduates. It says a lot for Jason’s stick-to-it-ness that he made it through.

The Woodstock show itself is the brainchild of Baker Rorick, a local fellow who knows a lot of the wider guitar community. Several years ago he thought that a small showcase event for his friend Ken Parker’s work might be simpatico and fun; they started inviting a few fellow luthiers in and it grew into what has the potential to become a really special national-level show. Baker will of course now have to deal with whether to keep it small or allow it to expand — and deal with the accompanying organizational logistics. I don’t know how much money he made off this event, but he seems to have earned it: he was everywhere, all the time, running errands and problem-solving and pressing the flesh and everything else in between. I gotta say he looked tired. As a rule, first- and second- and perhaps even third-time events don’t make money; they’re too new and the costs are high. But if the show gets a good reputation and grows, then some money starts to roll in. I have been working on unusually heavily inlaid guitars of late; I made a rosewood Andamento guitar a year ago and just finished a second one in maple, which I showed at Woodstock. Working ornamentally in maple is an act of madness. The thing is, a dark wood such as rosewood is forgiving: you can make a mis-cut and no one will ever see it. You can’t get away with that in maple: any glitch or miscut will be visible. So, this project took infinite care and patience. I’m indebted to my apprentice Chris Morimoto for having the patience to take much of this work on; that guitar really shone! That guitar was quite well received and got tons of compliments. But as a matter of fact, I was surprised to be told by a good handful of people that they’d only come to the show because they’d heard that I was going to be there, and they wanted to meet me. I’m flattered that they would make the effort of driving several hours each way, to talk with me. I guess my reputation as a maker of things really worth seeing has gotten out there. Next, I’m gonna work on my reputation as someone whose work you really have to buy to be considered cool.

Michi Matsuda, by the way, also makes highly lookable-at guitars that are brilliantly designed. He was two tables away from me and attracted more of a crowd than most people and he made a sale to Steve Earle, the very prominent Nashville guitarist. Go Michi!

Lodgings in the Woodstock area require a rental car; there are lots of little communities in the surround, each a few miles from one another, and each with its Bed-and-Breakfast or small hotel. But there’s no big central area such as you’d find in any city. Ken Parker got me put up at a friend’s house, and I have to say that meeting Perry Beekman turned out to be another high point for me. Like so many people who attended the show, Perry has been in the music biz for years and is impressively knowledgeable about people whom I’ve read about for years but never before met. And I’ve got to say that Perry is one of the wittiest people I’ve met, and a pretty hot jazz guitar player. I’d like to meet him again. Perry hosted a Sunday evening dinner at his house for some of the attending luminaries; we were all in exalted company! I should add that some of our group are home vintners; we did some pretty good male bonding over some of their bottled hobbies.

I usually simply fly back home after one of these shows but this time I took an extra day off. I’d been contacted by Bob Visintainer, an audio-visual media guy who’d found out about me and my work a few months back, and liked what he found. He wondered whether he had any contacts that would be useful for me, to enhance my professional presence on the East coast — and volunteered to help me. So I spent Monday with him in Manhattan, being introduced to some of his professional network in the world of art and furniture galleries. I must say there’s some really impressive and expensive stuff in these places. I don’t know yet what can come of these introductions; they are like planted seeds. But it was a pretty amazing day. Bob makes a living by selling outrageously expensive high-quality audio-video equipment for home entertainment centers and security systems. He is the dealer for Goldmund (Swiss) speakers that have extremely high fidelity and output: the top-of-the-line system weighs 1200 pounds and is rock-solid STABLE; it’s installed in a sensurround way, all around a room. I mean, it practically takes a home remodel to install these… the speakers go into and behind walls and screens so no one sees them… and they are soooo impressive when you hear them. Bob sells to clients like Jerry Seinfeld, who is a non-guitar player I’ve actually heard of. Interestingly, Bob had a significant life-changing (and very near-death) experience about a year and a half ago; it caused him to slow down and spend some time enjoying some of the flowers growing at the sides of the road through life, which he told me he’d been zipping down at a respectable Type-A speed. So now he involves himself in things that are interesting, enjoyable, broadening, and ‘feel right’. I have to say, the world would be better if more people made those kinds of things a priority.

I got home about one o’clock on Tuesday morning. At 1:30 that afternoon I was at the Santa Rosa (about 75 miles North of me) courthouse to read a Victim Impact Statement at the sentencing event for Taku Sakashta’s murderer. Taku was a very much loved member of our Northern California lutherie community, who was killed last April by a drugged-out paychopath. The guy had been caught, a lot of forensic evidence was collected, he was judged and found guilty of murder, robbery, burglary, evading police officers, and something else. I was a close friend to Taku and Kazuko, his widow, had asked me to be part of this.

Without going into detail, I might say that it wasn’t like they show it on television. The event was hushed and ponderous and full of legalese. Everything moved slowly and inexorably forward, like the sound of a grandfather clock in the hallway at night. The culprit — who was wheeled into the courtroom shackled to a wheelchair (he’d exploded in rage when the jury announced its verdict three weeks before, and had to be restrained by the courtroom police) — was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus eight years (there are convoluted legal formulas for adding ‘enhancements’ to sentences, for reasons of special circumstances).

I’ll miss Taku: he was very special; and he certainly didn’t deserve to be killed with the brutality that he was subject to in the last moments of his life. I have to say that Taku was a sort of genius in lutherie, and he said more than once that he expected to die young; I don’t know how he came up with that piece of wisdom. My partner Karen and I had a Japanese maple tree planted in front of my house that we will call Taku’s tree. Otherwise, it was horrible; a real lose-lose. Kazuko lost a husband, we lost a friend and colleague, the perpetrator’s mother lost a son… the murderer is 28 years old and basically has thrown away his life; no one outside of the prosecutor’s office didn’t lose something from this.

I got home from Woodstock to find my emailbox chock full of new mail, and my shop basement a little bit flooded. Email-wise, who knew I could be so popular, or how many people know that I need viagra? I’ve spent several days answering emails, and I’m pretty much done with the flood. Now I’m almost done with this letter, too. The basement is being taken care of tomorrow.

Apropos of nothing, while I was out of town Karen saw a play that was extraordinary and that she’s recommending to anyone and everyone. It’s playing in Berkeley now, but for anyone in NY who likes theater, “The Great Game: Afghanistan” will be there, at the Public Theater, in December. It’s a British production (Tricycle Theatre). Karen chose to do it as a one day marathon, but that’s not mandatory. It’s many mini-plays clumped into three performances. The first performance starts with British imperialism, the second performance involves the USSR and the US arming Pakistan, etc and the third performance is very recent history. Well, that makes it sound like a history lesson, but it is great theater. Lots of different points of view. Brilliant acting.

Love, Ervin S.