THE G.A.L., HEALSDBURG, N.C.A.L., AND ME
by Ervin Somogyi
This is a personal account of my experiences with the Guild of American Luthiers, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival, and other guitar organizations with which I have had long-standing affiliation.
I've written a lot about the guitar and the world of the guitar; much of this has been practical and technical. As a matter of fact, most guitar-related writing has always been technical, archival, historical, anecdotal, iconographic, statistical, commercially oriented, or relying on interviews of personalities that have been significant in the guitar's making or its music. But very little of any of that has been first-hand reporting on anything one has been involved in. I mean, let's face it: guitar makers aren't exactly writers. As I get older and have more and more to look back on and perhaps reassess, I've been doing more personal thinking and writing. I think this is pretty common with anyone who's been doing something for a long time. I don't know that anyone has yet written anything about their own experiences with the seminal organizations in their field of work, though. Much less has anyone written about these things retrospectively, as a sort of revisiting and summing up of one's long-term experiences and insights, social context, watershed moments, one's various victories and losses, etc. I thought that it might be interesting to write something like that. Also, someone may want to some day write a more in-depth future account of these times, activities, and organizations; why not have some material to refer to that was written by someone who was there? In any event this is a longish article, because I'm describing a forty-plus-year-long history.
I made my first guitar in 1970, and The Guild of American Luthiers was the first instrument makers' organization in this country -- or any country, really -- that I ever heard of. I think it was the first such organization to have existed since the waning of the European Guild system three hundred years ago. However, while those groups had been closed to outsiders, the G.A.L. was open to anyone who cared to pay the membership fees. It was founded in 1972 by a few of the newly emergent and hardy members of the American guitar-making-by-hand community -- one of whom was Tim Olsen, a Tacoma, Washington native who early on became (and has been ever since) the director of that organization. The G.A.L. was designed to serve as an information-sharing organ as well as a forum for periodic get-togethers to exchange knowledge, and to enable the members of this normally solitary profession to get to know one another. I worked at guitar making and repairing largely in a vacuum of excited but isolated inexperience, learning as I went along -- until 1977, in which year I joined the G.A.L.. That was, coincidentally, the same period in which that organization was getting up steam and starting to become a point of common reference for the loosely unified brotherhood of workers such as I was -- which included makers of guitars of all types, mandolins, ukuleles, lutes and other early instruments, harps, dulcimers, oddball experimental instruments, harpsichords, balalaikas, etc., and anybody else (except violin makers, who had long ago formed their own societies) who fancied any version of, or approach to, such work.
The arc of my growing up as a luthier is, as a matter of fact, intimately connected to the G.A.L.. I cannot overstate how important this organization was for me, personally and professionally, for the 34 years that I was a member: it helped to give me an identity. As I said, I became a member in 1977 (at the same time that my world was turned upside down at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival that I've written separately about. That event was a seismic shock, but it was a one-time event; the G.A.L., on the other hand, was there decade after decade). As a new member I was a young guy who didn't know very much and had a lot of questions. Gradually and unexpectedly over the years, as tracked by my participating in one G.A.L. convention after another, I grew into someone who had figured out some things and whose opinions carried weight. Having been asked more questions as the years went on by more and more people who knew less than I did, I've more or less become a source of information for others who were/are at an earlier stage of their own development. At the same time there have been fewer and fewer guitar makers who knew more than I did that I could ask questions of -- at least as far as steel string guitars were concerned. I guess that must be what growing up is about and I've tried to not let it go to my head.
As I said, I pretty much grew up as a luthier on this path with the G.A.L.. I can also say, looking back these many years, that the G.A.L. pretty much grew up with me. In the three and a half decades of my association I became part of the Guild by actively participating in it in every way I could. It became part of my life by providing me with a forum for teaching and writing, for trying to figure out answers to lutherie's questions, from which to be a better known luthier in general, and for the sheer companionship of similarly minded folks. And along the way the Guild grew from a modest grouping of anachronists to an organization with members all over the world who relied on it for information. I severed my affiliation with the G.A.L. and Tim Olsen in 2010; but, as I said, we had more or less grown up together.
The Guild's early Conventions were mostly organized and run by Tim, his wife, and his brother- and sister-in-law. Tim was at that time making stringed instruments along with the rest of us -- although he eventually gave that work up as he was running the Guild full-time and geting his salary from doing so. He and his office-team also worked above and beyond the call of duty by publishing the Guild's newsletter. This was originally a rather modest folio, and it has since grown into today's impressive glossy-and-full-color-page American Lutherie Quarterly. Simply tracking the early headquarters' segue from its unassuming beginnings, with primitive printing equipment, to growing into a modern printing and publishing enterprise that handles photography and advertising and editing, publishes magazines and books, organizes Conventions, keeps up with correspondence and billing, and meets deadlines and a payroll . . . has been an amazing treat. Given that all that started out with literally nothing but youth, energy, and a vision, it's at least as real an accomplishment as most of the rest of us have ever achieved.
The first G.A.L. Conventions were loosely organized and informal. To give you a sense of how modestly this all began, the first Convention I attended was in Tacoma in 1978. Accommodations were tents and sleeping bags (that we brought with us!) in Tim Olsen's parents' back yard -- with majestic Mount Shasta looming on the horizon. Everyone shared the one bathroom that they had and I remember the absolute lack of hot water by the time it was my turn to take a shower. But we were young and excited and our backs weren't yet bothered by sleeping on the ground. A few members had already made guitars for known musicians or written something that got published and we were impressed as all getout by being in their company.
Tim Olsen's idea seems to have been, from the beginning, that the Guild should be an information-sharing organization above anything else. This idea was refined, over the course of the first few Conventions, by these events' increasingly in-house direction. The Conventions had been open to the public in the first years, but it was generally felt that the time and effort the exhibitors' spent trying to sell guitars to the public interfered with their equally strong desire to talk with, get to know, learn from, and teach one another. Public hours and private conversations don't mix; so, public participation and attendance was discontinued and the scheduling was filled instead with lectures, workshops, demonstrations, tutorials, panel discussions, display opportunities for all kinds of new work, and even the occasional formal display of someone's private collection of interesting stringed instruments. It wasn't that the public was excluded, really; the Conventions simply weren't publicly advertised and non-luthiers never became aware of these events.
EARLY GROWTH PAINS
Along with this coalescing of identity, of course, came problems of growth. First of all, the G.A.L. had incorporated itself as a non-profit and had acquired a Board of Directors. Tim was de facto running the Guild, and officially doing it as the Board's employee. Second of all, wonderful though the G.A.L. Conventions were -- and at first they had been annual events alternating in location between both coasts and the Midwest -- the sheer amount of organizational work it took soon rendered them into every-other-year West-Coast-only events. While this was a convenience for us West-Coast luthiers it didn't do much for the East Coast membership. But the Guild was thriving anyway: there was that much popular interest in this new craft.
Selling one's work is too powerful a motivation to deny entirely, however, and by the middle 1980s the Guild's Board of Directors was at least as business-minded as it was education-in-crafts minded. It wanted the organization to become more a more actively commercial forum for promoting guitars, both factory-made as well as hand made. It also wished to put the Guild on a more business-efficient footing and cut costs by outsourcing a lot of the work that Tim Olsen & his staff had been doing. Part of this thrust was a sense that the Guild should have some East-Coast presence to re-enfranchise the East-Coast membership; the Board members were mostly East Coast based at that time, so this was understandable. Tim, as an employee of the Board, was asked to make this happen. Yet, his concept of the Guild, as I said, had been information-centered and based in catering to the needs of the membership in general in an in-house way -- without competing with production-made guitars, and without hiring the lowest bidders to edit and publish the newsletter and run the conventions, and certainly without commercial agendas. The matter was also complicated by the fact that Tim was going to be out of a job, or at least demoted. These differences in commercial outlook, geographic interests, and personal advantage/disadvantage ensured that a power struggle for control of the Guild would inevitably follow. It did. And it became nasty. What should have remained an in-house difference/revolt was even written up in an investigative-journalism style article in Frets Magazine and readers across the nation were treated to various halves of the story and some finger-pointing -- to be entertained, shocked, and informed by, I guess. To this day I don't know why any of those readers would have cared, one way or the other.
THE BREECH-BIRTH OF A.S.I.A.
I wasn't part of the G.A.L's internal power struggles, and I didn't know that they would eventually be resolved by the board of directors leaving the G.A.L. and starting a new organization. I was an involved G.A.L. member who simply felt very happy to be part of the only niche in the business that was for hand makers such as myself. In fact, I contributed a long Letter to the Editor to Frets Magazine in the middle of all this, in defense of Tim Olsen's purist position. I was distressed at the acrimony that was being generated and wished to be helpful in some way, largely because of my personal regard for Tim. What I did was to volunteer to act as a go-between so that I could at least convey information between the factions, without taking sides myself. I had been active enough in Guild affairs that I knew the people involved and they knew me; after all, we'd all been in the same line of work and had attended the same Conventions together. Within a relatively short time I invested eight-plus hours of my time in long-distance telephone calls to various Board members spread out through the East coast and the midwest, and Tim, hoping to find out and clarify positions and see who might have been willing to compromise, and where. (Remember, this was in the days when we were all struggling, and eight hours of long-distance bills represented some real money.)
I didn't get anywhere in particular with this effort, ultimately, except to find a surprising amount of resentment and intransigence from several of the Board members. The more vociferous ones seemed to be the spark plugs behind an effort that they saw as moving toward growth and change, and that Tim saw as a power grab. There were certainly some personal agendas and a certain amount of frustration and righteous posturing mixed up in this, disguised as business-minded savvy. But also, as I said, the Board members were mostly East Coast people, and the G.A.L. was becoming a West Coast based organization, so there had to be an imbalance in operation.
More significantly, the Guild had grown sufficiently and had such cash flow and reserves that it was impossible that the logic of a more commercial use for it and its resources would not enter the picture. It was highly unlikely that running and using an organization that was so successful would not, ah . . . be tempting to the more business-minded, for whom the original educational focus of the Guild would likely hold the potential for being a stepping-stone to other things. Tim, being no less rigid than the others, but much more articulate, seemed to be in possession of all the most persuasive arguments in favor of keeping the Guild noncommercial, informational, and egalitarian on the level of the membership. Also, Tim told me that he didn't understand the Board members' motives; he believed that now that the Guild was solvent for the first time they were being envious and covetous. In fact, Tim said that he suspected that had led the Board into temptation by making the G.A.L. so solvent and attractive a plum. Tim was correct in that he didn't understand the Board; it's likely that they didn't understand him either, for that matter. But many years would pass before I had any more meaningful insight into the emotional elements behind that gridlock.
In the aftermath of an unsuccessful lawsuit against Tim, and a successful countersuit by him, the Board of Directors eventually took the path of least resistance by jumping ship and founding the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (A.S.I.A.). This is a fine organization and I've attended several of its Symposia. It is a virtual East-Coast duplication of the G.A.L. and has alleviated East Coast luthiers' need to travel across the country to attend the Guild's [by now exclusively] West Coast events. But unlike the G.A.L. which is run by a permanent staff, A.S.I.A. has suffered from being based in a political business model: every few years a new Board of Directors is voted in and the direction of the organization changes. This is hell on any continuity. The organization also suffers from its acronym: A.S.I.A. Whenever it has advertised its gatherings A.S.I.A. symposia have attracted civilians who were under the impression that they would be viewing Korean ceramics, Japanese kimonos, and the like -- instead of guitars.
This might be a good time for me to segue into a general commentary about Boards of Directors and Chief Executive Officers. My understanding of the rationale for a Board of Directors is that it provides the equivalent of Civilian Oversight for military or political matters. You know: to give a voice to people who have a different horse in the race, so to speak. This is, in theory, good. In reality, though, it gives people who are only in a position of authority for a relatively limited amount of time impetus to use that time to do something useful, noteworthy, and DISTINCT. This, I think, particularly likely to be true with young men who have not previously had any great amount of authority over others' affairs, and have this limited window of time in which to make their mark. Note that I'm not saying any of the ideas or actions involved are good or bad: I'm identifying a natural dynamic -- which isn't helped by the fact that whoever has been at the helm the longest is likely to resist change and new input. As in any marriage, the various partners need to be well matched if harmony is to prevail. Lamentably, I believe that such a good match is equally rare in both these areas.
A TURNING POINT FOR ME
As I said, I grew up with the Guild of American Luthiers and it grew up with me. Between 1977 and 2006 I wrote many articles for American Lutherie magazine, attended most of the conventions, gave numerous public lectures and workshops, participated in panel discussions, led guitar listening tests, donated goods and materials to the auctions, contributed support and energy of all kinds, promoted the Guild in every way I could, and dutifully renewed my membership each year. I withdrew from the G.A.L. in 2010 because of an intractable breakdown of trust with Tim Olsen. He impressed on me that, after all this time, I held no personal value for him. No one likes to be told that.
My realization of the fact that this otherwise capable man could not or would not see me as a person, but only as an object or a thing -- and with about as much value as a sackful of bottle caps at that -- actually began in 2004. And it was, weirdly enough, on the occasion of my getting triple-bypass heart surgery. I'd been scheduled to attend the G.A.L. Convention that year but I was prevented from attending at the last minute by that medical procedure. I was, in fact, flat on my back in the I.C.U. during the Convention, full of morphine and other drugs, and I stayed there for nine days. This was no mere band-aid-and-superglue job, I must say; having your chest cut open is a serious experience. It majorly limits what you can do with your body for a long time afterward. It's scary and there's pain involved. You should avoid having this experience if you can.
Ironically -- and specifically for reasons of safety and health -- I had bought a car with air bags one month before this. A friend had been in a car collision shortly before and his life had been saved by his airbags -- and I'd worried about being in an accident and being laid up because I was driving a car without that safety feature. So, as I lay in the I.C.U., with my chest wired together and tubes running into me and out of me, I could at least be thankful that I finally had air bags. To you existentialists out there I say: with a sense of humor like that, how can God be anything but a Marxist? A Groucho Marxist, that is. Anyway, I was pleased to get a note from Tim some two weeks after the Convention, as I was convalescing at home. He forwarded a poster sized get-well card that had been signed by a lot of the attendees, along with the information that "the Guild . . . had taken up a collection in [my] name and we were pleasantly surprised with how much had come in from that. Get well soon, Tim". Quote unquote. Short and sweet! I waited several weeks for the money to be forwarded and when nothing happened I wrote Tim a letter saying that the moneys would be welcome: I was not working nor generating any income, and the medical bills were mounting up; so any help would be appreciated.
I cannot adequately express my surprise when Tim wrote me back a note saying: "You misunderstood what I said. We didn't take the collection up for you. We took it up for us. Get well soon. Tim." Wow. Verbatim, pro-forma, succinct, and that was it. But . . . where was there any friendship or even basic human regard in this? Tim had, in fact, just told me that they were pleased with the money they'd collected, using my name as leverage. Without asking me. As I lay in the I.C.U. And the subtext, quite obviously, was that I wasn't getting a dime of it, and I could stop bothering him now because I'd never been its intended recipient in the first place. (Well, okay, I did get the signed card. But I never did get a dollar of actual help, or even genuine sympathy. You do understand my consternation, do you not?)
Having expected something at least minimally personal after having known Tim and been a contributive member of the G.A.L. for (at that point) twenty-seven years, I felt slighted, dismissed, betrayed and, quite frankly, dehumanized. I called Tim up a few days afterwards and asked him how he could do something so insensitive and thoughtless? Whatever response I might have expected, though, I instead found that it hadn't registered on Tim that I'd have any feelings about this. He certainly didn't seem to have any feelings of his own about the episode; it simply didn't make a blip on his radar. He very matter-of-factly explained that he hadn't instigated the collection; rather, one of the G.A.L. members had gotten up during the convention's auction event and announced that I would have wanted to raise some money for the Guild if I'd been there, so how would people feel about chipping in some donations? The money had been raised for the Guild and not me, Tim went on, and if he had offended me through some personal failing he was sorry. As far as he was concerned this whole thing represented nothing more than a procedural glitch -- the kind of thing set a bad precedent for auction running -- and he would see to it that it didn't happen again. The most appalling thing was how impersonally and matter-of-factly Tim told me all this: as though the episode had nothing to do with him and I was expected to say something like, "oh, o.k., why didn't you say so in the first place? Thanks so much". Personal failing indeed; it was a catastrophic failure of empathy. And cheap. As I remember, I'd even donated a bunch of stuff to be sold at that same auction.
THE RESPONSIVE GUITAR BOOK PROJECT
My association with the Guild limped along somewhat after that memorable event but, like my body, never really regained full youthful vigor. I attended one more Convention but my heart (no pun intended) wasn't really in it. What my heart was in during that time, instead, was writing my book about guitar making -- which effort had taken up more and more of my time since 2002 and would increasingly dominate my life well into 2009. I think that having had a fender-bender with mortality helped motivate me to get that enormous project completed. And it was enormous. I described my experiences of writing that book and trying to get it published, in a separate article titled "My Adventures in Book Publishing"; I would previously have submitted this to the G.A.L. for eventual publication, but the organization didn't really feel like my friend any longer. I put it on my website instead.
The thing about my book -- which is actually a two-volume set -- is that it's differently organized and more comprehensive than any of the other books available at this time on the subject of instrument making. I have written about the whys, whens, whats, wheres, how muches, how do we know this, and what ifs as well as the hows, and included comparative, theoretical, experimental, aesthetic, personal, scientific, philosophical, and historical-developmental information that is nowhere else available. Those of you who have seen my book(s) know what I'm talking about. But, initially, my writing was going to catch a few people off guard with its unique way of presenting information, as well as the amount of it. I asked one of my students, who understands my thinking, to write a book review at the time of publication and submit it to the G.A.L. He did so. When the review hadn't appeared more than a year later, he got in touch with Tim to ask when he might expect to see it; Tim said that he had decided to have someone else write a different review instead. Again, no thanks, no explanation, no apology: just a cold fiat.
That review eventually appeared. While being pretty much on the mark, it had neglected to mention several elements that I felt would have been worth pointing out. The reviewer -- one of the newer G.A.L. staff, it turned out -- doesn't seem to ever have been a guitar maker. I wrote a Letter To The Editor in response, pointing out the things that I felt were important that had been omitted. This led, very shortly, to two bizarre and unsatisfying telephone conversations (and several similar emails) with Tim. To my dismay, he seemed uninterested in my feelings or opinions about the G.A.L.'s review of my books, and he urged me, as a friend, to drop any response to it. But Tim had already shown me what kind of a friend he was (I mean, let's face it: he'd dropped me like a hot potato when I was flat on my back in the hospital and of no discernible use to him) and I was getting an added strong whiff of what felt like personal disapproval. I had said in my Letter to the Editor that, nearing seventy and having a bad heart, these books were likely to be my legacy. Tim's response to that was to tell me how dare I say such a thing? He really did. He obviously thought that I was playing the impaired-heart card as some kind of hitting-below-the-belt manipulation; for my part, I began to think that Tim can't tell the difference between sympathy for a fellow human being and a disease, and finds both equally distasteful. I had also pointed out that my books, besides being chock-full of useful and pertinent information, represented the nicest visual and user-friendly product that I could put out: hard-cover, bound so that one could open the book out flat on the workbench without breaking the spine, with high quality glossy paper, color photos, nice dust jackets, font sized for the many grey-haired luthiers among us, and a special embossed slipcase. I added that, in Japan, they don't call me a crass act for nothing. But I don't think Tim appreciated that either.
Subsequent communication was unproductive. One particularly bizarre exchange has stayed with me, that resulted from my asking Tim what was he thinking to treat a long-term supporter like me so offhandedly. I don't think he understood my question at all; he instead quite floored me by saying that "you have lots of friends; you've got a thousand friends; so why do you want approval from me?" Yes, he said exactly that. And he went on: "I'm not one of you: I'm not a guitar maker any longer" and again added: "so why do you want approval from me?". That's word for bizarre word. (Approval? Dude: how about just basic acknowledgement?) I replied, quite honestly, that if he had to ask I didn't think I could tell him. I was otherwise really at a loss for words: what kind of person would come up with an administrative distinction such as the fact that I make guitars while he no longer does -- and try to use it 30+ years into things as a reason for distancing himself from me? This was surreal, to say the least: here I'd written two really good books about guitar making, as well as put out a DVD about voicing the guitar -- which the G.A.L. has ignored -- and was, once again put in the position of feeling very much like a non-person.
THE END OF THE ROAD
I must say that was a real low point for me. While getting such a load of cold-shouldering didn't quite reduce my world to ashes (the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 actually did do that), the discovery of such a vast pool of hostile narcissism shocked me and stung like hell. It still hurts. I should add that by "narcissism" I mean the condition of someone's lacking the capacity or desire to take someone else's reality into account. "Hostile" is what it felt like to me: I got the sense that Tim enjoyed putting me in my place.
I had rendered Tim and his organization many services, and I'd done them gladly and for free. But when all was said and done I was unable to detect an echoing of reciprocity, or even just basic acknowledgement; I was instead on the receiving end of a style of withholding from, and barely-concealed contempt for, someone in a subordinate position. I mean, the flip side of "I'm not one of you" is clearly "you're not one of us", right? At my most bitter, I thought that as the G.A.L. had served as the virtual Alma Mater within which I formed my social and intellectual identity as a luthier -- and it really had -- then that venerable institution, with Tim at its head, was really feeling like dear old F.U. In any event the door felt firmly closed to any input from me and I gave up hope of any reconciliation. I withdrew from membership in the G.A.L..
Having thought about this for a long time by now, I think that this man got badly damaged somewhere along the way and that this is an acting out of his pathology in a nutshell. But be all that as it may, enough of that. With the conversations that I just referred to being the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and that prompted me to exit from the G.A.L. -- then this might also be a good time to take a broader look at matters of splitting off and going off on one's own in general.
Such actions are interesting in both the abstract and the specific if only because life is FULL of these kinds of things. Growth in most areas of adult life is, in fact, inseparable from a debit of some kind. Gain, pain of loss, learning, differentiating, acquiring perspective, fulfillment, success, moving on, failure, maturation and disintegration are all sort of a package-deal thing that is further spiced and flavored by the fact that betrayal is the kind of thing that people kill each other about. The key to surviving it all is: can you learn anything from any of it? A case in point in this matter of splits and divisions is the origin of Healdsburg Guitar Festival -- whose beginning, in fact, came out of very much the same kind of split as the A.S.I.A.- G.A.L. one that I've described. The Healdsburg Guitar Festival (which is a close version of the G.A.L./A.S.I.A. Board of Directors' original idea of the kind of show that the G.A.L. should have been promoting) came out of a split within The Northern California Association of Luthiers. Let me explain what this was all about.
THE BIRTH OF REGIONAL LUTHERIE ACTIVITY
In the beginning, as I said above, one of the things that made the early G.A.L. conventions so great was that their venues rotated between both coasts and the Midwest; however, the sheer amount of organizational work it took eventually rendered them into every-other-year West-Coast-only events. This scheduling came with an obvious plus and a minus for the West Coast members: we wouldn't have to spend a lot of money on airplane tickets and shipping guitars to events on the opposite coast. But we'd have to wait two years between events on our own. On the one hand this alternating-year schedule eventually worked just fine for A.S.I.A. because it would be able to schedule its Symposiums (Symposia?) so as to alternate with G.A.L. Conventions. On the other hand, a West Coast event-vacuum was created. In 1992 the first American REGIONAL luthiers' organization -- something that people could drive to instead of having to buy a plane ticket for -- was created to fill it: this was the Northern California Association of Luthiers (N.C.A.L.).
(NOTE: By the way, the G.A.L Conventions and the A.S.I.A. Symposia are of course both events at which people gather. The difference is etymological and a matter of, shall we say, focus. A Convention is from the Latin con + venire, meaning with + come or coming, as in a coming together with . . . Symposium, on the other hand, is from the Greek sym + potein (or posein), meaning with or together (as in symbiosis), and potein (or posein), meaning drink or liquid (as in potion, potable, potage, or Poseidon, the God of the seas). So to go to a Convention is to gather together for any particular reason, and talk; to go to a Symposium is to have a drinking party and have a convivial time.)
Painful and acrimonious as the G.A.L./A.S.I.A. split was, it was also a fertilizing influence on lutherie work in the rest of the country. It freed up time and territory for others. N.C.A.L. was created to fill the time gap between West Coast lutherie conventions. The bi-annual scheduling of A.S.I.A.'s Symposia created a similar vacuum and opportunity on the East coast. Local and regional groups had the opportunity to coalesce and carry on the work of both organizations in smaller doses, and to give continuing support and educational opportunities to members who lived reasonably nearby. The same happened in the geography in the middle, as exemplified by the Luthier's Invitational of North Texas (L.I.N.T.), which is still going strong. The G.A.L. had created lots of aficionados who could and would do better as part of a local group that met every so often, than by working isolatedly in their garages and basements and going to a convention every two years.
Getting back to NCAL, I was one of its five original founding members -- although our group didn't have a name at first; we were just guitar nerds getting together. The others were Marc Silber, Steve Newberry, Brian Burns, and Pat Smith. This was in 1992. While our initial group was small and happy to meet informally, we soon found that there others within driving distance who were happy to also show up. So, we needed a name, and in 1993 came up with BASSIC -- the Bay Area Society of Stringed Instrument Crafters. One of our members, Colin Kaminsky, came up with that.
Pretty soon, even more people joined us. Northern California hosts just about as many independent instrument makers as the greater Portland, Oregon, area does. But while Portland has had its own handmade musical instrument show for decades, BASSIC yet lacked the cohesion of the Oregonian lutherie community. We had to create it. And, if we were going to do so, that cohesion was going to be achieved by BASSIC becoming a greater-than-simply-local organization; I mean, the Bay Area is larger than Portland. We accomplished this in several ways. First, it didn't hurt that we were the only game in town. And we were all-inclusive: no one was turned away. We had bi-monthly meetings with scheduled presenters and Show-And-Tell opportunities -- and had a regular newsletter (that was my personal project; I kept it going almost single-handedly for two years). Meetings were rotated to anyone's shop who was willing to host the next meeting, so we roamed the region meeting-wise, from Santa Cruz to Healdsburg. This is a span that represents a three-hour-long car ride; we've been able to have meetings in Berkeley, Oakland, Lafayette, San Francisco, Felton, Petaluma, Martinez, and more.
We had plenty of enthusiastic members and within the first years of our excited growth we organized two full-blown handmade musical instrument shows in the Bay Area, as well as a third show in tandem with the main local crafts community organization. For the former we all chipped in, both exhibitions were great (with programs that had paid advertisements!) and we managed to break even on both events! We were quite proud, and justifiably so. By the way, I mentioned that BASSIC was the first regional lutherie organization, and I also said that Portland has had its annual musical instrument show for many years. The Portland show is institutional; as far as I know, it's run by the local Forestry Center but there's no separate regional luthier's organization that co-produces or operates independently of it.
Then, as we were growing into genuinely regional organization, it was time to find a name that better reflected that reality. One of the rejects was the Professional Luthier's Union of Northern California. One might think that this strong-sounding name would capture the aspirations and breadth of our organization, but its acronym, PLUNC, somehow didn't project as much, uh, sheer string-instrument-making professionalism as we'd have liked. So we eventually settled on the ordinary-sounding NCAL: the Northern California Association of Luthiers.
I must say that NCAL has had a nice, long run. We had "Presidents" for some years (I was President for a while), but we eventually found that we could function pretty well without . . . ummm . . . adult supervision. NCAL is 20 years old at the time of this writing and is still going strong, in spite of the fact that none of us early members are very active in the organization any longer. The work has been taken on by others; at present the secretary-ship (which handles alerts for stuff for sale, date and place of the next meeting, announcements, notices of looking for help or services, etc.) is being handled by L.M.I., one of the two leading American lutherie supply houses. And the mailing list for this first American regional luthier's group is up to about 400 members! Most meetings attract 20 to 40 people, usually from the area nearest the current meeting place.
THE HEALDSBURG GUITAR SHOW
And now we approach the time and reasons for the split that I mentioned. While NCAL happily chugged along as an informal and information-sharing community event, some of its members -- primarily those for whom this was their day job, who were building or planned to build in greater quantity, and who were looking for a way to market their work -- wanted something a bit more ambitious than a communal barbecue event as the year's high point. People being people, economics being economics, and human restlessness and entrepreneurism being what they are, there was NO WAY that something like this was not going to sooner or later come up for discussion. And these entrepreneurs were now ready for a money-making event. Welcome to Capitalism, and all that.
The matter was debated back and forth at NCAL meetings without much resolution -- just as happens in City Council meetings and labor-management negotiating sessions all over the world. After a while it became clear that agreement by consensus was never going to be reached in time to prepare for a Summer show, so three brave hotheads -- Tom Ribbecke, Charles Fox, and Todd Taggart (founder of L.M.I.) -- took the bull by the horns and simply went ahead and took it on themselves to find a venue and organize a handmade musical instrument event. As these worthies were living and working in Healdsburg (about an hour North of San Francisco), the Healdsburg Guitar Festival was born. It did have a bit of community and Chamber of Commerce support, but these three men actually started the festival that has by now become the premier handmade guitar show in this country. I take off my hat to them, and the greater lutherie community owes them: they created something important.
Fast-forward some years: the Healdsburg show, like the G.A.L. conventions, is now bi-annual. There's simply too much work in organizing and running a commercial show. On the one hand, there is all the paperwork to be managed, as well as fees, security, correspondence, budgeting, organizing presentations and coordinating lectures and events, food catering, listening tests, sound equipment, physical setup and take-down, showrooms and sales rooms, advertising, getting sponsors, publishing a program-magazine (and coordinating the photographs, biographies and ads), deadlines, waiting lists, etc. etc. etc. On the other hand are the problems of growth: The Healdsburg festival has outgrown available facilities in that city and now takes place in Santa Rosa;. As a matter of fact, the festival has outgrown its first Santa Rosa location and is now in its second one. The Healdsburg Festival is run by L.M.I. Inc. and I doubt that these folks find it a big money-maker after all the costs are paid out. I'm grateful to them for taking this complicated task on; I mean, it's not as though they have nothing else to do the rest of the time: they're running a complex business.
[Parenthetically, for those of you who don't know, L.M.I. (Luthier's Mercantile, International) is one of this nation's three largest lutherie supply and materials outlets; the others are the Stewart-MacDonald Company and Allied Lutherie, which Todd Taggard left L.M.I. to found. Both the G.A.L. conventions and the A.S.I.A. symposia have performed the additional and valuable commercial service to the lutherie community of giving these supply houses -- as well as other independent vendors -- a forum for meeting their customers face to face and make sales. Regardless of which exhibiting guitar maker sells or doesn't sell anything at any show, the suppliers always sell stuff.]
It's interesting for me to view the parallels between the two organizational splits that I've described. In each case their genesis was rooted in very similar economic and ambitional realities: things had reached a point at which someone thought there was money to be made. But one event was handled like a train crash -- with drama, struggle for power, accusations, and lawsuits. The other was more like a fairly easy birthing in which the midwife mostly kept her hands off, and allowed neither mother nor child to be much damaged by the experience. Of course, there was a real treasury involved in the former, and Tim was going to get demoted (and perhaps ousted) from an organization that he'd helped found. As I said, welcome to Capitalism.
WRAPPING IT UP
To sum up, I've been a significant part of and participant in the above organizations and movements; this includes many years of memberships, writing articles (and books), showing my guitars at many events, and many educational experiences and opportunities of all types. I'm happy to have been a founding member of the first regional lutherie organization. And if anyone ever writes a comprehensive history of the first generation of American luthiers my narrative will be part of that. The divorce from the G.A.L. does leave me with an ache that's not likely to ever go completely away. My distancing myself from it -- and in its director's having most emphatically distanced himself from me -- has been a mutual loss. I mean, it's loss for the Guild too. But, three and a half decades into this, I need to be met with more than just name, rank, serial number, it's time to renew your dues, and we'll let you know if we need something -- if I can put it like that.
My understanding of Tim Olsen is based in the assumption that Tim is telling the world, through his behaviors, the story of his own emotional betrayal and abuse by his own father. And it is undoubtedly also the essence of how he treats himself, his employees, and his family. We all take on our same-sex parent's style to a great extent; it's what we learn first and best and usually keep on doing -- the gift that keeps on giving.
Outside of that, and my personal feelings aside, I know that Tim Olsen's accomplishment is to have devoted most of his life to keeping the Guild of American Luthiers going and successfully viable. To have kept such a vital organization alive for so long is a significant accomplishment and one that I would never have been able to carry through had I had that responsibility. Tim needs to be given credit for that. I furthermore believe that Tim was right in maintaining control of the direction of the Guild way back then, rather than surrendering the organization that he helped start to the we're-on-the-board-of-directors-for-four-years-and-we're-going-to-make-some-changes folks who went on to form A.S.I.A. -- although I can appreciate with hindsight that he did, just as much as anything else, seem to see the Board's behaviors moralistically, as something tinged with the sinfulness of being unable to stand up to temptation. Tim's statements to me at the time suggested that. More recently his disapproval of me for daring to make public mention personal weakness (i.e., my age and health) likewise suggests perception of a certain depleted moral fiber, or at least ethical impropriety, on my part.
As far as A.S.I.A. by itself goes, it is an organization that for all its good points has been so riven by disorganization, internal strife, and financial problems that I believe that the Guild would have long ago folded under such leadership (Bob Taylor, who was with A.S.I.A. from the beginning, was from the outset of the opinion that it was an unnecessary organization). And I would have lost out on the relationship I had with the Guild and its various events between then and when I finally withdrew from it. At the same time, I am hopeful that A.S.I.A. will thrive; I like and admire it; it's worthwhile; and it's recently come under the direction of David Nichols (of Custom Pearl Inlay), who has a good head on his shoulders and some real business savvy.
Otherwise, things change and nothing is permanent. The Newport/Miami guitar show that was luthier Julius Borges' brainchild, and which eventually became the Miami-Newport show, has come and gone away. Ditto the long-running Long Island Guitar Show. The Montreal Guitar Show and the Woodstock Guitar Invitational are here now to keep the Healdsburg Guitar Festival company. The Northern California Association of Luthiers (NCAL) and the Luthiers' Invitational of North Texas (LINT) are alive and well, as are other groupings that I hear about but haven't met with yet. I don't go to G.A.L. Conventions any more, but I continue to make guitars, write articles for other publications, teach, and show up at other shows and festivals. I hope to see you at one of them.