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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Guild of American Luthiers Convention 2011 – Part One

Finally, I have attended this greatly anticipated event, the Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) Convention 2011. Here is the quick introduction to this wonderful event, extracted directly from the website. (

Since 1972, we’ve been the foremost source of information for makers, repairers, and restorers of all kinds of string instruments. The Guild of American Luthiers is a non-profit educational membership organization whose purpose is to facilitate learning about the art, craft and science of lutherie.

Essentially, this is a membership driven interest group that started small and humble in the 70s that grew into a successful and relevant organization. Biennially, GAL has organized a gathering of such to enable sharing and learning among string instruments’ makers. It has progressed into a full fledge 5-day convention filled with enriching workshops and amazing performances for music lovers. It was truly a memorable experience for me. Below is a collage to represent my impressions of this convention. Picture galore will be presented at the tail end of this feature story.

My Impression of GAL 2011 in a collage

Before I indulge myself into these fond memories and experiences, I would like to make special mention of these people who have made my trip a wonderful one. Nothing beats great company … firstly my “sifu” Jeffrey Yong who generously showed me the long and short of the luthiers’ world. Jeff’s friends were such amiable people to hang out with. They are Brian Yarosh, Dr. Jeff, Kelly and Kit. Last but not least, Nicolai who is Jeff’s apprentice. Thank you all!

Here are the group pictures taken of the entire convention! Apologies for some poor pictures as they weren't taken at hi-res.

I am in the white circle

Closed-up, Kelly, Dr. Jeff, Brian, Me and Jeff Yong

Here I go … the convention took place from 20 Jul to 24 Jul 2011 at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma. A beautiful university indeed that provides music and instruments related programs.

A beautiful chapel in the background

Lagerquist, the campus performance hall

In the campus, it was common to see students backpacking musical instruments, singing, jamin, dancing, playing guitars in the garden … very welcome sight indeed. I guess this is the authentic musical culture. No need big durians liked infrastructure, hoping to score well in Oscars or Grammys …

Prior to the convention, I arrived at Seattle on the 16 July 2011. Jeff and I have made arrangement to meet at Seattle to take a road trip of Luthier workshops’ visit. Jeff has participated in the Montreal Guitar Show in late June 2011. After the show, he traveled from Montreal to Vancouver and finally to Seattle on the 16 July when we met.

Jeff remarked that the Montreal Guitar Show was very successful for him as his guitars were highly regarded by many industrial practitioners. A French guitar authority La has feature Jeff’s Tiger Myrtle guitar. Below is a video clip of Jeff’s guitar being played by a renowned French acoustic guitarist Michel Gentils. It was only good words they said about Jeff’s Tiger Myrtle. Here are the clips.

We didn’t only just talk guitars. The group went downtown Seattle and spent a nice evening at the harbor area and fed a few seagulls… they were sharing our dinner … pictures talking ...

Downtown Public Market, like our Wet Markets
Fruits galore
Seafood ... not cheap ...
A busker singing Lambada ...
It wouldn't be Seattle without ships
Great company - Me, Kelly, Kit, Jeff and Dr. Jeff
Jeff shared his views regarding yellow
Seagulls ... waiting for ...
It is not shy at all
Our dinner ... also the seagulls'

The following morning, 17 July 2011, Jeff changed his mind about hanging around within Seattle. We were kind of activated to pack and leave for Portland in the morning. But it was a pleasant surprise. Some thing about artisans … they change their minds all the time … along the journey, we dropped by at Mount Rainier National Park. The scenery at the park was indeed worthy to be praised. Check out the pictures below.

Mount Rainier National Park
A locality map
On the way to Paradise
Breath-taking, isn't it?
Snow caps, glacier and river
Our faithful Dodge
We have arrived at Paradise, the visitors' centre
The visitors' centre
A Red Wood tree. Jeff is counting the number of guitars ...

The next two days were spent in visiting Luthiers and friends. We have visited Mike Doolin and Saul Koll, both are Luthiers and Myles Glimer who is “dee” wood supplier. Many people claim they could supplier wood for instruments making but they might have just over 100 sets of instrument making woods but Myles … has mountains ...

The day started with a lunch appointment with Luthiers who live within Oregon, Portland. A great guy made this informal gathering possible. He is Mark Roberts who is Ukulele maker. He kind of coordinated these appointments with Jeff and I simply tagged along.

Mike Doolin (, was the first stop. He is a wonderful guy, very generous and approachable. He freely shared with us some trade secrets of guitar making and gave us a tour at his workshop. Mike has a unique capability to blend art form and engineering ingenuity into his guitar design and making. To Mike, the regular truss rod adjustment was the past. If you ever own a Doolin guitar, there will be no truss rod nut to turn. Check out his website and you will be in awe. Here’re some pictures of our visit to Mike’s place.

Jeff took this picture. Kelly, Mike, Me, Dr. Jeff, Mark and Abe
This is the coolest guitar Mike owns
Jeff getting some help from Mike ... too many strings
My turn ... how to play this thing?
Better now, six strings again. This is Mike's archtop
Mike with his new built, Spruce top, Brazilian B/S
Listening intensely
A Doolin headplate

The following morning, we visited Saul Koll, a.k.a. Koll Guitars ( He is another great guy who was simply earnest in exchanging his thoughts about guitar making in various aspects. I was stunned when I saw his guitars. His guitar design was absolutely alternate and out-of-the-box design and aesthetically pleasing. Saul also managed to produce his guitars with very high quality of craftsmanship. Pictures of Saul’s visit are below.

Saul Koll's workshop
Saul's very unique design, teardrop liked 
Jeff and Saul, holding a wonderful archtop 
What do you think? Beauty isn't it?
The teardrop design ... amazing ...
An honor to stand beside the man 
Exchanging ideas 
Abe and Mark
It is easy to tell that it was enjoyment!
What a gathering!

With some time in the afternoon, we headed to visit Gilmer Wood Co. owns by Myles Gilmer. He is "dee" wood supplier. While many so-called wood suppliers will have a few hundred sets for sale, Myles has three storehouses filled with lumbers and timbers. He doesn’t deal in hundreds but thousands … He is very knowledgeable, great to converse with, also very thoughtful and helpful. Let the pictures speak.

Theee Wood Supplier
This is just a tiny stack ... 
A rare find ... can you see it? 
Boys at work 
A section dedicated to guitar woods 
Myles, Pam, Jeff, Dr. Jeff and Me

I was plagued by jet-lag but the over-driven enthusiasm to learn has managed to kept me awake. After Myles’ place, we have conclude the Luthiers’ workshops road trip. The next day, we drove back to Tacoma for the convention.

The visits were invaluable to me as I am still learning more about guitar and the trades governing it. Witnessing all these has certainly broadened my views. Limited by geographical and history, the local guitar industry has much to catch up and innovate to get to where they are. It was also evident that these Luthiers I have met are filled with passion with their work and products. They displayed great respect for quality craftsmanship and are very open-minded attitude in learning.

However not everything was a bed of roses, as the Western luthiers became finer in their craftsmanship, there were signs of diminishing returns. Great amount of work went into instruments making that doesn’t necessarily translate into expected quality. Some were caught up by science rather than art. Some have too much ornaments but lack tonal quality. Another distinct group is the young and emerging luthiers. While The young luthiers are constantly trying to push the boundaries by introducing new ways without realizing these many “new ways” have been tried and discarded by senior luthiers who some of them are at cult status today. It is probably not about the lack in information sharing but the curiosity to verify. Many young luthiers are passion driven and creating a fine instrument is on the top of their to-do list. It might be a case of "Travel too fast and ye might miss what you’re traveling for". Regardless of re-invention of wheels or square wheels, I think their unending passion is the key to their progress. Such passion is indeed lacking in the people of the red dot.

I reckon that writing the entire trip in one posting might be too lengthy and boring to read. At this point, I shall conclude part one. In the next part, I will focus on the convention activities and some insights I have gained.


  1. Wow, what a great post Adam - wish I had been there! I'm looking forward eagerly to the next instalment.

  2. If you can afford the time, you should attend this convention. Learning and sharing were greatly emphasize instead of selling ... hope to meet you at GAL someday.

  3. Adam, maybe I'll see you in Singapore later this year. I'm currently researching airfares.