Culture

Scenes from a Guitar Festival

 There’s an economic concept known as a positional good, in which an object is only valued by the possessor because it’s not possessed by others. The term was coined in 1976 by economist Fred Hirsch to replace the more colloquial, but less precise “neener-neener.”

—Dr. Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory, episode Season 3, Episode 15, “The Large Hadron Collision,” 2010.

What is it about the guitar that makes it so desirable among players? Is it the sound, its portability as an instrument, its beautiful feminine shape? Its role in shaping the history of rock and roll? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above, but touring a guitar convention it’s possible to see both the guitar in all of its forms, and to see some of the world’s most desirable instruments.

On the weekend of May 29th through the 31st, in Dallas’ Fair Park convention hall, the annual Dallas International Guitar Festival held its latest edition. Now in its 38th year, on display were some of the world’s most desirable guitars, including rare 1950s Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, 1958 through 1960 Gibson Les Pauls, Martin acoustic guitars, funky Danelectro guitars, and countless others. Plus some unique accessories and amplifiers as well. The following is just a tiny taste of what was available there. (The photo selection is rather slanted to the Les Paul, but rest assured, every major guitar was well represented there.)

While I look far too serious in the above photo, for me, one of the greatest joys of the festival was to briefly play an ultra rare 1958 sunburst Les Paul Standard owned by collector Tom Wittrock of Third Eye Music of Springfield, Missouri. Gibson’s Les Paul was a popular solid body electric guitar since its introduction in 1952 as a competitor to Leo Fender’s pioneering Telecaster solid body electric. Gibson’s goal was to match the Telecaster’s lack of feedback at high volumes, but with the more refined qualities of Gibson’s woodworking skills when compared to the “plank” style of the Telecaster body and its lag bolt-attached neck. Throughout the 1950s, as Les Paul and Mary Ford were popular recording and television artists, the Les Paul guitar was a popular model for Gibson, but by 1957, sales begin to decline. There are a variety of reasons held accountable, and the topic is still hotly debated amongst aficionados of the instrument at venues such as the Les Paul Forum. But for whatever, in order to make the instrument “pop” in showroom windows, Gibson replaced the standard model’s somewhat sedate gold finish with a cherry sunburst finish to better show off the instruments’ beautiful hand selected maple tops. But for whatever reason sales lagged, and the original Les Paul shape was discontinued after 1960. A few years later as Beatlemania pumped new life into rock and roll, the instrument was rediscovered by blues and rock players on both sides of the Atlantic such as Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and later Jimmy Page. Today, ’58 through ’60 Les Paul “’Bursts” fetch prices in the six figure range for anyone lucky enough — and wealthy enough — to find them. (Gibson would reintroduce the Les Paul model in 1968, and they’ve been a staple of their product line ever since.)

Wittrock owns several 1950s Les Pauls and brings them to the Dallas, Arlington, and other guitar shows, to allow those who have never seen or held a ‘Burst to spend a few moments with one of rock’s most legendary instruments, and it was truly an honor to spend a few moments with both Tom’s ’58 and ’59 Les Pauls.

The “Black Beauty” Les Paul Custom was positioned as the more upscale model of the line that Gibson offered in the 1950s, and this rare late 1950s three pickup model was owned by the late Danny Gatton, who customized it with his iconic pinstriped finish and added “Magic Dingus” box, inspired by the early effects wizardry of Les Paul himself. It was displayed by Jim’s Guitars of York, Pennsylvania. It’s pictured next to Gatton’s blonde Fender Telecaster.

Bicoastal Rumbleseat Music of Ithaca, NY and Carmel, CA had one of the most intriguing Les Pauls for sale, a damaged 1960 Sunburst “husk” that will make an incredible fixer-upper guitar. Those willing to invest the time and money to have it restored to its former glory will eventually own a fine instrument, with tremendous resale potential.

Along with the endless arsenal of guitars for sale, the Dallas Guitar Shows, more so than most (including the annual Arlington Texas shows, just as big, though produced by a rival company) feature lots of “lifestyle” oriented booths. These include the beautifully-made custom leather guitar straps by Eldorado Straps (Full disclose: I own a few of them, and they’re incredibly well crafted out of creamy soft thick leather). The woman selling books on how to make it as a woman in the male-dominated heavy metal world. The folks offering massages. The booth promoting dog rescues. A booth sponsored by the Hard Rock Café, offering discounts to anyone who stops by the Dallas Café with a coupon from the show. A booth selling old ‘60s and ‘70s board games, toys, and plastic model kits. Another booth selling bootleg DVDs of live rock concerts. And several booths selling out of print books catering to musicians and fans of classic rock.

So who attends these shows? Everyone from professional musicians (some of whom are also hired to give performances and seminars to semi-pros and weekend warriors in bar bands, to guitar collectors of all sorts, to recording enthusiasts in search of a new instrument and new sound to inspire their songwriting and productions. There’s also a minor element of cosplay at the event, with a few middle-aged guys in Stevie Ray Vaughan hats (not surprising, considering we’re in Texas) and Allman Brothers ponytails.

What unites all of the attendees is a love of the guitar in all of its facets — the Strats, Telecasters and Les Pauls that dominate the electric guitar world, and the mellower sounds of the acoustic and nylon-string guitar. Ever since Les Paul mounted six strings to a railroad tie, Leo Fender bolted his first guitar neck and body together, and Chuck Berry turned up his amp and duck-walked across the stage, the guitar has been the instrument of popular music for almost 65 years, and despite its Social Security-ready age, shows no signs of retiring anytime soon. If you’re a fan of the instrument, you owe it to yourself to attend the next Dallas International Guitar Festival, or a similar equivalent near you.

And for more background on the Dallas International Guitar Festival, don’t miss my interview last month with Jimmy Wallace, the festival’s co-founder:

(All photos copyright 2015, Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. All rights reserved.)