Luthiers take center stage in Woodstock this weekend

Above: Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase founder Baker Rorick. Photo courtesy of Rorick.

The Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase, slated to take over the Bearsville Theater and Utopia Soundstage this weekend, is an insider kind of happening, a “low-key, laid-back event for the community of acoustic stringed-instrument builders, players, collectors and aficionados.” Except that Woodstock is starting to catch on, and founder Baker Rorick is starting to think he may soon need more space.

The Watershed Post spoke to Rorick to find out why Woodstock is becoming such a hotspot for makers of guitars, mandolins, violins and ouds. (Yes, ouds.)

Watershed Post: How long have you been doing this?

Baker Rorick: This is the fourth or fifth year, depending on how you look at it. I actually enjoy being confusing about it. In 2008 I had a private party for eight luthiers. We did a kind of “show and tell” thing and I invited around 50 people I thought might find it interesting. A hundred showed up. So in 2009 we invited the public.

I seem to be in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude. There are only three or four things like this, and they're all much bigger and older. And none of them are in this area, which has always had a concentration of great builders.

So the show has become a national, even international event. We have people come from Hawaii, Uganda, California and Istanbul. But I try to balance it and feature as many regional luthiers as possible.

WP: It's invitation-only, right?

BR: Yes. I am a jury of one, which can be problematic. I try to take a holistic approach and tie circles together, and to remain mindful of the Woodstock legacy. But the choices are unfailingly tough. This year we have 50 exhibitor spots, 35 of which go to guitar makers. I had 90 applications and I already have that many for next year. I lose sleep! I want to include as many as possible.

WP: So what are luthiers really like?

BR: They're wonderful. There's a generosity of spirit -- a lot of people will agree to share tables or to bow out for a year to give someone new a shot. In the wider world of big guitar manufacturers, everything is proprietary and trademarked and top-secret. In our world it's, “What are you doing there? I've never seen anything like that!” and “Here, let me show you how I did it.” These are small one-man shops that make 12 to 15 instruments a year. They love having a chance to meet their peers and see what they're doing, trade ideas. There's a wide range of interests and a certain level of intellect in pursuit of them. One guy has singlehandedly trained an entire generation of new builders. Another, Ervin Somogyi, went and got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Berkeley just because he felt like it. There are sailors and bike racers and climbers, world travelers.

Somogyi self-published a book called The Responsive Guitar. It opens with a discussion of the history of the cosmos and a discussion of the forces of gravity and how they affect the formation of a tree trunk. Luthiers tend to take a long view.

WP: Besides talking about building instruments, I gather some playing of them will go on?

BR: Oh yeah. The whole weekend is kinda a unique festival. The luthiers extend personal invitations to people they dream of hearing play their instruments. This year somebody went over the top. Sunday afternoon, we've got two all-time jazz greats coming.

Saturday night will be special too. Americana roots rock and jazz guitar -- this guy is like the new Pat Metheny -- some Celtic, some Middle Eastern oud.

WP: Wow.

BR: Yes. On our home page one of the last lines says we're “set apart by diversity.” The big exhibitions are just guitars. Me, I like mandolins, violins, ouds, Turkish kanouns -- anything stringed and acoustic, bring it on.

WP: So will a member of the non-luthier public get something out of the actual showcase beyond “Wow, cool!” or is it all about peer-to-peer?

BR: This year we've got a lot for regular folks. There's a special exhibit on the evolution of the acoustic guitar. There's a special exhibit from the folks at Martin.

The past years, this has been a national event within the small builders' community, but we've sort of flown under the radar locally. This is the first year people have really figured out what it is.

The Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase takes place October 26-28 at the Bearsville Theater and Utopia Soundstage in Woodstock. For more details and a full schedule, visit the event's website.

Below: Footage of Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo performing at the 2011 Woodstock Invitational.