Two years ago, the Newport Guitar Festival opened in the Miami Beach Convention Center. The Southeast’s premier luthier event returns again, this time at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Luthiers from all over the world (including a Kiwi from New Zealand) were all here to show off their latest wares proving that this ancient profession is still alive and well in the 21st century.
Rather than covering the entire show, I am going to focus on some of the more interesting highlights I encountered while there. However, there is one over-arching theme common to all of the craftsmen in attendance: the quality of their handcrafted workmanship is exponentially better than anything you can find in a “big box” music store. If your passion is music and your weapon of choice is a guitar, you really need to seriously consider purchasing an instrument from any of the luthiers that attended this show.
[DISCLAIMER] I attended this event as a member of the media. I was, in no way endorsed, paid, or compensated by the show staff, promoters, or luthiers in attendance. Any comments, opinions, or statements are my own. [/DISCLAIMER]
From wikipedia: A luthier (IPA: /ˈljuːtiɚ/) is someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments. The word luthier comes from the French word for lute, “luth”.
The Newport Guitar Festival (now in its second year) returns to South Florida to celebrate the art of guitar-making. Now hosted at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, the event showcases the magnificent craftsmanship of luthiers from around the world.
Considering the number of luthiers in attendance (121 by my count) and accessory makers (33, again by my count) and the high quality of the products they all produce, these craftsmen have to work overtime to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd. So here is a list of my own awards in various categories:
Most Expensive Guitar
This award goes to Linda Manzer of Manzer Guitars for the “Medusa Guitar” a 52-string, enormously complex instrument designed by and built for Danish guitarist Henrik Andersen. I asked Ms. Manzer how much this one-of-a-kind instrument would cost and she reported that if she were to make another one, it would be sold for $150,000 USD. This instrument will require considerable skill to play. I eagerly await Mr. Andersen’s album next year that will feature this unique instrument. How all those string sets pulling in different directions balance out and keep the instrument from crumpling under the stress is a tribute to Ms. Manzer’s skill as a luthier.
This instrument also wins Most Number of Strings.
Most Futuristic Guitar
This award goes to Teuffel Guitars of Germany. Ulrich Teuffel goes out of his way to design guitars that belong on the set of any sci-fi movie you can imagine. With names like “tesla”, “birdfish” and “niwa” these instruments are truly examples of “outside the box” designs.
Best Travel Guitar
There were a few more travel guitars on display this year, but the award for Best Travel Guitar goes to Strobel Guitars for their Strobel Folding Travel Guitar. I first met Russ Strobel and his guitar at the 2008 Newport Guitar Festival. Russ lives in Boca Raton, FL about an hour’s drive from me. If you’ve never been to Florida, that’s relatively close. His design compresses the electric guitar while maintaining full-sized frets and controls, yet allows the guitar to be taken apart easily and stowed in a conventional briefcase or laptop bag.
Performer Roger Heath demoed the Strobel Guitar. States Heath, “It’s a better Les Paul than a Les Paul!” Here is a YouTube video of the performance.
I bought myself a Rambler Classic in Cherry. Here is a picture of my son holding it:
Guitar Most Likely to be Bought by Computer Geeks
Computers geeks are attracted to shiny objects. Especially ones with blue LEDs or that incorporate computer technology in some innovative way. Visionary Instruments wins this year with their Video Guitars which incorporate a computer controlled full color LCD display in the body of the guitar. This is not some integrated diagnostic tool, but is part of the performance as the display plays MPEG videos and JPEG images. The brushed aluminum body helps as well.
Here’s a YouTube video showing the Video Guitar in action:
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I was contacted by Ben Lewry of Visionary Instruments after this article went live and was informed that while his guitars had been featured on CNet and Engadget, the only folks who have bought his instruments are hard-core rockers like Steve Stevens from Billy Idol, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree. This is a call to all musical computer nerds who can hear my voice: ARISE GEEKDOM! HERE IS AN INSTRUMENT THAT IS APPEALING TO YOUR MUSICAL SIDE AND YOUR GEEKY SIDE!]
Best Inlay Work
Inlays are used to beautify the components of the instruments. Mother of Pearl, ivory, and woods of different colors along with paint jobs and custom lute hole covers are all used to turn guitars into playable works of art. There were many fine examples, but by and large Robinson Custom Inlays was the leader of this pack.
Triple C Woodworking takes the prize here as they show that you cannot have too many carvings on your guitars. Their Trixie Combo is a Western Strat with matching amplifier and is a sight to behold. They also produced an acoustic guitar called “The Vine” whose vine and leaf motif went so far as to include a wooden vine inside the guitar body visible only if you peak in the lute hole or through the open scrollwork on the sides of the instrument. I heard this guitar played and it had a very bluesy kind of sound but it was not very loud (due to sound leaking out through the scrollwork on the sides. The luthiers are planning to add a pickup turning this instrument into an electric acoustic.
Best Use of Non-Standard Materials
Traditionally, acoustic guitars are made out of wood. Electric guitars have considerably more leeway in materials used in their construction due to the way sound is acquired from the instrument, but for an acoustic to sound acoustic wood is the material of choice.
Not any more.
Blackbird Guitars shows us that wundermaterial carbon fiber can be used to make an awesome sounding acoustic guitar that is light and very durable. My friend Rafael, who plays Spanish/Flamenco style, gave it a play and the Blackbird Rider with nylon strings held its own very well against some of the finest wooden instruments in the show. All of his models come in under $2200, making Blackbird the most economical luthier at the show.
The Neck Up guitar support takes a different approach to the concept of holding up your guitar. The traditional strap, which slings over the players neck/shoulder, was designed for the artist who plays standing up. Many artists, however, play sitting down and holding up the guitar properly usually meant propping up one leg on something (a box, a stack of books, the dog, your cousin, something…) which is tiring as it is an unnatural way to sit. The Neck Up allows you to “put your foot down and keep your Neck Up”! The neck Up comes in two sizes: normal and Mini. It was so good, I bought one for my son and may get one for myself.
Electric guitars are both simpler and more complex that acoustic guitars. Structurally, the electric is simpler as the body shape has little effect on the sound produced, but at the same time more complex due to the introduction of electronic components. One of the most important components is the bridge which picks up the sound of the cords. This distinction has separated the electric guitar from the acoustic guitar sonically. Lashbrook Guitar’s Naturacoustic Piezo Bridge allows any electric guitar to sound like an acoustic one. To prove it, Larry Lashbrook made a guitar out of the worst solid material possible: a cinder block.
Here’s how it sounds:
Well, that’s about all of the time I have for now. I have only managed to scratch the surface of all that happened at the show. If you are down in South Florida in the spring, you owe it to yourself to attend the Newport Guitar Festival. If not for the guitars, then do it for all of the great music. If you are a musician, you owe it to your art to take a good hard look at the work of these fine craftsmen.
You can see the gallery of photos by clicking on the slideshow at the beginning of the article. Images are available for sale. Contact me if you want to use any of my images on your website or publications.