As a guitarist, I've always been absurdly undemanding of my instrument. My first guitar was a warped-neck beater handed down to me by my dad; my second was bought for $100, and slung around my neck with a scrap of rope; my current working guitar was fished out of a dumpster and given to me, thoughtfully, by my mother-in-law. After some toolbox tinkering, it plays beautifully.
None of this, it should be noted, exempts me from absolute awe and wonder at the luthier's craft. Guitar-making is a fine and precise skill that resides miles above my common comprehension. Drilling some screws into a busted neck to fix a dumpstered axe is one thing, but building one from scratch? I'd be disqualified before I even began, which makes the return of the long-running Healdsburg Guitar Festival all the more welcome.
Now in its 10th year, the festival recently moved to Santa Rosa in order to accommodate the works of over 130 world-renowned guitar makers from as far away as Japan, South Africa, Australia and Italy. But the festival's appeal isn't limited to guitarists, says organizer Chris Herrod. "Anybody who's interested in arts and crafts--and in fine workmanship--will really love to see these instruments," he says, "and the guitar builders are very open to questions. It's really just a whole world to discover."
Within the world of woodworking, guitar makers are a highly respected bunch. "They're dealing with an element that other woodworkers do not," Herrod says. "Namely, sound." One of the goals of the acoustic-guitar builder is to make an instrument that's light, so it resonates, but is also strong enough to support the pressure of the strings. Herrod describes the skill as "a portion of experience, a portion of science and a portion of intuition."
Kathy Wingert, a luthier from Long Beach, has been coming to the Healdsburg Guitar Festival since 2001. Most of her colleagues are men, a fact that Wingert brushes aside as unimportant. "Somebody said to me once, 'You know, they're only paying attention to you because you're a woman,'" she remembers. "I said, 'I don't care as long as they get a beautiful guitar.'"
Wingert cites the festival as a hallmark of the openness and sharing that raises the level of everyone's work in the luthier community. Along with hundreds of guitars, the weekend also offers concerts, workshops, demonstrations and seminars on guitar-making, although something tells me Wingert's sound advice to beginning luthiers is applicable on a universal scale. "Find somebody who will tell you what you're doing right and find somebody who will tell you what you're doing wrong," she cautions. "And then stop doing things wrong."
The Healdsburg Guitar Festival runs Friday-Sunday, Aug. 17-19, at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 11am to 6pm. $12-$22. Special Saturday-night concert with Martin Young, Alan Thornhill and Michael Chapdelaine at 8pm (separate admission). 800.477.4437. www.festivalofguitars.com.