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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guild of American Luthiers Convention 2011 – Part Two

Finally I have triumphed over the procrastinator, part 2 is done. Here it goes ... my experiences at GAL 2011 convention, illustrated with many pictures.

Guild of American Luthiers

In the morning of 20 July 2011, everyone packed their stuffs and loaded onto our faithful Dodge (a MPV). Departed from Motel 6 in Portland, we made our way to the Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma. We were conscious of the destinations we have planned for but deviations from planned routes were common. It was because the man on this trip occasionally turned in boys when they were tempted by the chances to toys shop. With no surprise, we made a detour in that morning for Woodcrafters. The place was stocked with wood toys … needless to say we left with a number of items in our hands. The truth was … we weren’t even sure if those purchased items will be utilized soon enough … pictures are below.

Wood tools and gadgets ... haven

Shopping away ... Jeff was ...

Finally we arrived to the University Centre of PLU. Without any hassle, the registration was completed and we checked into our respective dormitories. The organizers were helpful and friendly in making sure the process was smooth. However, it was peculiar for a group of adults to experience difficulties in deciding which way to go after the registration process. Anyhow we didn’t have to agree with everything. Nevertheless, we made our own ways to where we wanted to go and eventually we met again at one common place. It didn’t really matter to me because I think the excitement that filled me has overwhelmed every other thing. Here're a few pictures of the campus and registration process.

Where registration took place ...

Tables for registration

Figuring out which way

The dormitory I stayed

Being my first attendance, I did not harbor any expectation from it. All the workshops lined up were every interesting to me but attending every one wasn’t possible. The underpinning reason for my attendance of GAL 2011 was to broaden and deepen my knowledge of steel string guitars and I went with this general direction as the deciding factor. Jeff’s inputs were valuable too as he has much more experiences than I did. His nurturing ways has created numerous learning opportunities for me as well. It really helped me in optimizing my time spent in the convention.

GAL Convention 2011 Day 1

After the initial excitement, I knew it was time to decide on the various workshops of my preference. It wasn't too tough because Jeff has offered his past experiences. However I was mindful of the gaps between Jeff and I in terms of knowledge and skills. While certain workshops are not beneficial to him, they might be very useful to me. Nevertheless I have made my selection. The next thing to do was locating the venues of these workshops. It wasn’t a huge campus but the labels weren't exactly intuitive to me. As a result, I was almost late for my first workshop which was John Greven's ( "How to build 48 Guitars a Year with Almost No Tooling".

The essence of John’s workshop was about improvising and trimming unnecessary tools inventory, and above all was to retain the attitude towards authentic guitar building experiences by craftsmanship (primarily by hands) instead of over reliance on hi-tech tools and machines. He believed that good guitars could be made by skills and innovativeness. There are a myriad of guitar makers out there. Each will gravitate towards his or her preferred methods. In John’s workshop, he talked about the key improvising with simple items to emulate the full functions of those commercially available luthiers’ tools. Through years, he has adhered by his minimalist principles in stocking tools and workshop layout. The results were evident for John. We can’t argue with success, can’t we? He also illustrated the use of epoxy with the right composition can create turtle shell appearance pickguards. At the end of the workshop, I was surprised that I didn’t take any photos. Perhaps I was fully engaged and photos taking were forgotten.

Without dispute, his methods and techniques were certainly innovative and clever. While it was inspiring, I would caution any inexperienced guitar makers to build up a strong foundation before imitating his ways. In order to pull it off, a high degree of craftsmanship is required. John has attained mastery over many years in guitar making and he made complicated procedures look simple. It was truly amazing to attend his workshop.

John's Brazilian Rosewood Guitars

John speaking to keen participants after his workshop

Jeff and I proceeded to the dining hall right after John’s workshop. The atmosphere was informal and friendly, unlike most typical convention where things were usually sterile, formal and purposeful. I was introduced to other luthiers and we chatted over dinner. Again, I have found out more about their attitude towards guitar making. Learning didn’t seem to stop in this convention, at least for me.

Day one was great for me and it concluded with 2 great performances at the Lagerquist Theater. Jim Buckland presented a few 19-century guitar replicas and with a splendid performance too. The night was wrapped by the Daneshvar Ensemble that played traditional Persian music and instruments.

Jim Buckland
Taken from:
The Daneshvar Ensemble

Reflecting on day one, there was so much information and knowledge being shared and discussed but they didn't necessary align with each other. On many occasions, they contradicted. They were often expressed as opinions or comments. Invariably when they clashed, owners of these opinions and comments will defend their grounds passionately. These exchanges were excellent learning platform when one opens his ears to listen. I think these opinions and comments stem from their underlying beliefs that are also related to the passion for music, arts and crafts. However the primary intention was common, to construct musical instruments that others can appreciate. Without differences, I guess there will no mean for progress.

GAL Convention 2011 Day 2

It was summertime in Tacoma. The sun rose brightly by 0500hrs. Strangely, my body seems to response to the pace of the sun and I have little difficulty in waking up. The same dining hall I had my dinner served breakfast as well. Many familiar faces I saw during breakfast and I was greeted with warmth from these friends I have met the day before. Day two was kicked off with a plenary session held in the Lagerquist Theater. The speaker was one of the founding members of GAL, RE Bruné. He is also wonderful flamenco guitarist who has established his position over years of playing. From a player, he has now switched to making classical guitars. Suffice to say that his guitars are not at entry level at all.

RE Bruné in flamenco style

His speech focused on Lutherie trade, the past, present and future. He has presented the history regarding the foundation of modern lutherie and the origins of one such string instruments, the Lute. It was indeed intriguing to learn about its history. RE Bruné presentation was likened to time traveling. He presented both the glory years and dark ages regarding this trade. He shared passionately about the past power struggles in gaining trade control, the survival means of certain featured luthiers, the evolution of luthier’s attitude towards instruments building, the exodus of luthiers by market forces, etc. all these events have significance influences on the modern days Lutherie.

Profoundly, his message of tomorrow’s lutherie trade has invoked the most responses from the audience. The hot topic in question was the governing regulations related to lutherie. CITES ( and Lacey Act ( are two main regulations that continually affect the future of lutherie. Many luthiers and emerging luthiers have expressed their concerns pertaining trading efficiency with both regulations evolving to full enforcement. There was no straightforward answer to such situations however the trend in getting luthiers and other affected associations and trades to band together was increasingly obvious and even eminent. With greater numbers and wider influences, these affect traders may be able to effect certain changes to the mentioned regulations at congress’s level.

Immediately at the end Bruné’s presentation, I rushed to attend the Classical Listening Session. Cyndy Burton of Portland OR, also a contributing editor was again asked to moderate this year's Classic Guitar Listening Session. A guitarist will play every classical guitar with the same tune. Audience will be asked to provide feedback immediately after each playing. The session provides an opened platform for luthiers to publicly share their dear instruments without the need to compete. A Cuban origin guitarist was invited to play in this session. He is Edel Muñoz ( who is a very talented and passionate young classical guitarist.

Needless to say that I was in awe seeing and hearing Edel’s beautiful playing. Each luthier who has submitted his or her instrument(s) to this session waited anxiously for their classical guitars to be played and commented. Before each playing, the luthier will reveal certain fundamental specifications of the guitar to the audience. Thereafter the playing commences. A total of 27 classical guitars were submitted for playing.

Cyndy opening the session, Edel seated
Taken from:

The crowd eagerly awaits for the first note to be played

Edel Muñoz in action

In this session I have witnessed traditionally built classical guitars, modern classical guitars and experimental classical guitars and certain hard-to-classify nylon strings guitars. The variety was more than I can bargain for. Invariably, the price points have huge disparities too. Ironically, the listening session did not create the proportion distinction in performances to disparity in price points. Perhaps the value of each guitar was not merely tied to its performances.

Felt totally satisfied with the morning, Jeff and I went for lunch at the same dining hall. I was beginning to enjoy the company of new friends.

After lunch, I attended a workshop on acoustic guitars repair called “Acoustic Guitar Repair: Sweat the Details”. The workshop presenters were Brian Michael and Alex Glasser from Palo Alto of Gryphon Stringed Instruments. There were many good and smart repair tips for me to take back. I guess that was not all they have emphasized. They were talking a whole lot of going the extra mile in taking care of details that will keep the customers happy. I could not agree more.

The detail repair guys

The repair workshop only took half the afternoon and the remaining half was meant for the instruments’ exhibition that was opened to members only. Only on day 4 the public will be allowed entry. With great excitement, I assisted Jeff in setting up his table. Nicolai who is Jeff’s apprentice was at the convention too. The exhibition should be the most exciting part of such conventions for any stringed instrument player, I would assume. At least that was true for me.

It was hard to describe the experiences in words but I will say, “so many guitars, so little time.” I simply hopped from one table to another, played any guitars available. Along the way, I conversed with the instruments makers, and learned abundantly from their experiences in building. Again the variety was huge in designs, features, quality, makers and prices. With higher price points, one can expect to see quality parts, premium appointments, and master graded materials. However they may not necessarily translate to performances and likings. Even guitars built by highly regarded makers, their instruments will not guarantee sales transactions. The perception of quality in such interest was indeed mystifying and illogical. Pictures galore of my table hopping trips.

Mike Doolin Guitars

Bruce Petros Guitars


Bruce and I

Herb Taylor Guitars

Stewart McDonald

Kerry Char Guitars

Myles Gilmer of Gilmer Wood Co.

Nicolai and I

Jeffrey Yong Guitars

Surely I did not manage to cover all tables within the short afternoon. However I was again totally satisfied and I looked forward to more tables hopping in the following days. You can see more exhibition pictures at GAL’s website:

A wonderful performance by Doug and Mark

The excitement didn’t end as the exhibition closed for the day. I was anticipating for another wonderful evening performance as I was dining at the same dining hall. At the Lagerquist Theater, the audience was entertained by Mark Hanson and Doug Smith’s rendition of country blues tunes. It was a great day for me to watch a splendid performance as the concluding segment of day 2.

The abundance in diversities of my day 2 experiences made it hard to summarize. Suffice to say that it was totally enjoyable, fun and yet insightful. The sessions covered various topics that were close to hearts of luthiers. The listening session was interesting as luthiers were hoping to hear the best of their instruments. The exhibition was like a kaleidoscope; the reasons for being there were individually colored. To me, the exhibition has displayed great diversities in passions relating to stringed instruments. While some love to build and some love to play. Some live for innovation whereas some live to sell. Above all, some merely yearn to interact but I salute them all.

Stay tuned to part three …

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