1998 Guild of American Luthiers
15th Convention/Exhibition

Overview | Presenters | Music | Exhibition | Auction | Miscellaneous | Open House | Staff & Helpers

It seems like only yesterday that we all met in Tacoma for the Guild's 1995 convention, and here we were again getting ready for the 15th Guild of American Luthiers National Convention/Exhibition. That was three years ago! Time flies when you’re... getting older.

This time we focused on an idea that has prevailed since the Guild's earliest days: get two luthiers together and they can’t help but have a good time. The three-ring circus atmosphere that was almost too much to handle last time was scaled back slightly to make more time for those two proverbial luthiers to get together. The plan was to keep lectures for the morning, demonstrations and exhibition in the afternoon, and a glorious lineup of musical performers in the evenings. This more open-ended schedule encouraged relaxed, impromptu discussions, jamming, and general luthier camaraderie.

Once again the beautiful Pacific Lutheran University campus provided the background for the five-day event. PLU has been the site for four other Guild conventions and has never been surpassed in the Guild’s twenty-five-year history of hosting large meetings. True to the tradition of Tacoma conventions, the usually-mild Northwest weather surprised us all with temps in the high 90s. The luthiers who stayed in the dorm rooms on the upper floors of Old Main got a double shot of bad luck/timing. The rooms cooled down at about 4:00AM and the hammers started pounding about 5:30AM from the reroofing project going on above them. Fortunately the college paid attention to our complaints, and the weather became cooler as the week went on. But they couldn't seem to do much about the roofers.

Most of the lectures and all of the concerts were held in the fantastic Lagerquist Hall. Everyone raved about the beauty and acoustic perfection of this state-of-the-art concert hall, completed just four years ago. Long time member and luthier extraordinaire Fred Carlson produced a series of amazing block-printed cloth panels of his original designs featuring whimsical instruments and players in bright colors. Sixteen large banners were hung together to form a backdrop for the lectures and performances. The new 40'-tall baroque pipe organ behind that didn’t look half bad either.

The lutherie ball started rolling about 2:00PM on Wednesday when the gang showed up to get name tags, schedules, and dorm keys. They buzzed around the registration area renewing old friendships. Our plan was working. We were well underway.

The first official convention activity began that afternoon with a series of demonstrations that ran concurrently but ended whenever the presenters felt like it. This meant that there was no one like Tim Olsen pointing at his watch and telling them to wind it up to make room for the next demo. Some of the afternoon demos went on into dinnertime. Wednesday's sessions included Fred Campbell's review of the techniques and materials he uses in preparing wood surfaces for nitrocellulose lacquer; Chris Brandt, Dave Zogg, and Saul Koll's tips on the art and business of guitar repair; and Al Carruth’s always-popular demonstrations of glitter patterns and practical methods of tone analysis, this year with assistance from Ken Malsky.

That night’s concerts experienced a few PA problems from the inexperienced PLU tech staff, but were highly enjoyable nonetheless. William Eaton had entertained us back in 1982 at our convention in Estes Park, Colorado, and proved that after sixteen years he’s still got it. The crowd enjoyed seeing and hearing William’s wild collection of instruments, and was amazed to see him do a handstand on stage as part of the unpredictable performance. John Doan, another crowd pleaser who we have tried to get for past conventions, gave his first GAL performance, a beautiful harp guitar concert focusing on Irish music. Both performers used slides to enhance the mood.

Thursday morning saw our first full-length lectures and the first time our entire compliment of convention attendees was all together at once. This was the perfect time for organist Jim Holloway to give us a surprise sampling of what the massive Lagerquist pipe organ could do. That thing can kick it out! It was spectacular and too short. GAL President Tim Olsen officially greeted everyone and introduced Michael Gurian as the “great grandfather of North American lutherie.” Whether or not Michael appreciated this dubious title, it didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiastic presentation on the evolution of marquetry in musical instruments. Always the innovator, Mr. Gurian has become the first GAL lecturer to present a slide show from presentation software instead of a slide tray. Two concurrent lectures followed. Down in Leraas lecture hall, Australian guitar and violin maker Graham Caldersmith spoke on the challenge of reconciling acoustic and structural design in violin making, while Frank Ford held forth on restoration and ethics back at Lagerquist.

That afternoon we went into high gear. The exhibition started and that’s when things get really wild. Preassigned display tables and early setup session for suppliers lessened the stress, and proved to be an improvement over last time's land rush. The suppliers were all upstairs in Chris Knutzen Hall where the loading and unloading of all that wood was easier. Some instrument makers also exhibited in that room but the majority of makers had tables in the plush and quieter Scandinavian Center directly below. Both rooms were filled to capacity with amazing displays of lutherie skill and lutherie products. This is what we consider the heart of the convention: a giant show-and-tell for the GAL members. This is where those two luthiers we referred to earlier actually get to see each other’s stuff.

Demos began again Thursday afternoon. Mike Lindskold talked about electric guitar wiring, using a giant schematic diagram which was actually wired into a guitar and amp, such that adjustments made to the schematic symbols were audible. Cool concept! Up in the art room, Eugene Clark and Geza Burghardt showed the fine points of French polishing to an overflow crowd. Graham Caldersmith took up where he left off that morning, carving a violin top in Australian pine to illustrate his points on arching and voicing violin plates.

Another treat for the ears began that night with Charles David Alexander kicking things off on fingerstyle guitar. If his products table outside the concert hall was any indication, the members couldn’t get enough of his performance. Convention and GAL staff favorites, Pearl Django, finished off the evening with their gypsy jazz repertoire. Guitarists Shelley Park and Neil Andersson played Selmer-style guitars made by Shelley, and Dudley Hill played archtops by Steve Andersen and Michael Hemken. Michael Gray on fiddle and Rick Leppan on bass rounded out the quintet. More than one member was heard to exclaim “I got happy feet!” after their enthusiastic performance.

By Friday everybody pretty well knew the routine. Morning brought an informative and entertaining panel discussion on the far-out future of steel string guitar design with Harry Fleishman, Fred Carlson, William Eaton, and Saul Koll. The entire group then spilled out onto the amphitheater risers just outside Lagerquist for the official group photo. This is an impressive display of lutherie might. Mess with us, we dare you.

Next up was Tom Ribbecke’s lecture and slide show on the special problems of building with carved plates, running concurrently with the classic guitar listening session, with Kenny Hill moderating, assisted by Robert Lundberg. Players included David Franzen, Michael Partington, and Mark Wilson. These sessions have been ably moderated by Dana Bourgeois in the past, and while Dana couldn't be here this year, we were glad to see that Kenny, Bob, and steel string moderator Ralph Novak were able to facilitate sessions which were fully in line with the noncompetitive attitude that has characterized Guild events. Our thanks to Dana for showing the way, and to Kenny, Bob, Ralph, and all the builders, players, and listeners for keeping such a productive and accepting attitude. The Guild is Great and Good!

During the end of Friday’s exhibition schedule, three more demonstrations got underway. A small but devoted group watched closely as lute maker and American Lutherie author Robert Lundberg carved sample lute roses; Joseph Curtin discussed his approach to designing a violin; and hide glue techniques were demonstrated by Frank Ford and Don MacRostie. It is interesting that the hot technologies at this convention were both so low in toxicity as to be edible: shellac and hide glue.

The last of the formal concerts took place on Friday night. The members were treated to an extraordinary classic guitar concert by David Franzen on guitars by Jeff Elliott, George Smith, and Clarence Burnett, followed by Baroque music played by James Kline on a small 11-string archguitar built by Gary Southwell. Everyone agreed the concert series was fantastic this time around.

Music of another kind kicked up down in The Cave, the student basement hangout. Tom Ribbecke took up the considerable challenge of organizing the electric-oriented, free-form jamming session that went on late into the night. This is where the members showed their skills in rocking out. Players included Tom, Pat Smith, Jay Hargreaves, Ralph Novak, Neil Andersson of Pearl Django, Paul Bristow, Dennis Froelich, and Brent McElroy and Evan Davis on drums. A real surprise was the hip R&B chops of Italian luthier and Gepetto lookalike Fabio Ragghianti. That brother is funky! The legendary Northwest rock combo Girl Trouble even played a short set.

If you’ve ever been to a GAL convention you know that Saturdays are nuts. This is always the most action-packed day of the whole event. Things got off to a good start with the Classic Guitar Perspectives panel of Jeff Elliott, Eugene Clark, Greg Byers, and Gary Southwell discussing their work and their ideas of the guitar's future directions.

Joseph Curtin gave an enlightening lecture on new directions in violin making, covering both design innovations and new materials, using such interesting props as a viola cut in cross section. The steel string guitar listening session ran concurrently with Joseph's lecture, with Ralph Novak moderating. Playing chores were split between Jere Canote and Mike Doolin.

It was hard to believe this was the last exhibition day. Both halls roared with the excitement of members buying up more lutherie supplies, getting one more look at each other’s stuff, buying Guild publications, shipping stuff home, and checking out the auction preview.

This year’s auction was organized by Nicholas Von Robison. He took in over 200 items, tagged and numbered them, and spent a lot of time cooped up in the room where the items were on display. Now that’s dedication. Just when the exhibition is at its craziest is when the silent auction is held. There are so many generous contributors it’s necessary to divide the items into two groups. About two-thirds of all the items are sold during the day, while a selection of the high-ticket, more visual, or just plain strange items are sold at the auction party. The silent auction was in the hall outside Chris Knutzen. Luthiers frantically buzzed around each table to be auctioned off, hurriedly trying to scribble their bid just after the other guy. When the timer went off, the table was sold and each item went to whoever had written their name and bid down last. Many happy luthiers walked away with some mighty weird items.

Maybe we’re getting smarter in our old age. Instead of trying to cram more lectures, concerts, and demos into an already exhausting day, we decided to let the auction party be our only event after dinner Saturday. Everybody got freshened up and headed to the cafeteria where the auction was held.

How many people would drag themselves to the lectures on Sunday morning after a late night Saturday? Just about everybody, and that's a testimony to interest and respect the members had for our last two speakers. Gary Southwell's thought-provoking talk on 19th-century guitar design included a few minutes of music played by James Kline on a small Stauffer-style guitar. It sounded a lot bigger than one might have imagined. John Monteleone capped off the whole convention with his talk on designing for sound in the archtop guitar. Makers flocked around to admire his experimental four-holed, streaked-maple guitar and ask questions.

This officially ended the convention, but over at the GALHQ/Olsen home a couple of miles from the campus, Deb and Tim had opened the place up for anyone that wanted to come over, relax, eat delicious food, see the Guild office, and get in that final good-bye before catching the ride back home. It was a good way to end what turned out to be the most relaxed and smoothest run convention in GAL history. If the rest of the members were any indication, we think those two luthiers back in the second paragraph had a blast.

It takes a lot of people working behind the scenes to make everything appear to run without a hitch. This year’s suspects (other than the staff) were Nick Von Robison, John Calkin, Hap Newsom, Nancy Donaldson, Margie Reichlin, Ed Nadorozny, David Donaldson, and John Leach. But the man of the hour was Convention Coordinator Todd Brotherton. His selfless and tireless work toward making this and several other GAL conventions the successes they were cannot go unmentioned. We can’t do it without ya baby! The staff sends a big shout-out to Todd.

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