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A First Timer’s Guide to the Fretboard Summit

 

Our annual Fretboard Summit takes place August 23-25, 2024 at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.

Wondering what the heck the Fretboard Summit is?

You’ve come to the right place. We’ve created this first-timer’s guide to help you wrap your head around the proverbial tailpiece of this special gathering. Our 2024 Summit will be our fifth, and biggest, to date.

What is the Fretboard Summit?

This is the toughest question of all, because the Fretboard Summit is unlike any other event you’ve ever attended.

Basically, it’s our take on the ultimate guitar geek weekend, where you can meet the heroes we celebrate on our pages and podcasts (players and builders); see some ridiculously cool concert lineups; try out (and buy) some insanely unique guitars; learn a bunch; and make some new friends.

It’s also one of the only open-to-the-public conventions that features a who’s-who of legendary guitar and gear makers. And, yes, you can actually meet them all.

Why?

Because traditional guitar shows tend to be pretty one-note: Great if you’re in the market for a new guitar; not that much fun if you aren’t. And music camps can be transformative, but intimidating.

We wanted to make a festival that any guitarist at any level – especially those of you who enjoy our Fretboard Journal content – can have fun at. And we wanted to celebrate our extended community of guitar lovers, acoustic and electric.

You don’t need to be a serious collector, gigging musician, or virtuoso to attend. Just have an open mind and you’ll have a blast.

Who is playing this year?

An eclectic bunch of artists you’ve probably read about in our magazine and a few we can’t wait to turn you on to.

Blake Mills and Joe Henry – two incredibly inspiring performers close who met at our very first Fretboard Summit in 2015 – will be performing. We’ve got John Leventhal (who just released an amazing solo album) coming to teach us the art of accompaniment. Nathan Graham – a Chicago local who wowed us last year at the Summit – is coming back by popular demand. Guitar fanatic Colin Hay (Men at Work) is playing one of the nights, as is Valerie June. Adam Levy and Rich Hinman are performing, as is former FJ Podcast guest Ryan Richter.

We’ve also heard that bluegrass dynamo Jake Eddy is returning for his third consecutive Summit and that swing jazz heroes Matt Munisteri and Jonathan Stout have something fun brewing. Recent Fretboard Journal podcast guest Sofia Wolfson is going to teach a songwriting class. We’ve also got sessions on everything from the history of the dreadnought to guitar trivia. YouTube guitar stars Rhett Shull and Molly Miller are even teaching workshops.

Truth be told, we have so much programming over multiple stages that you’ll left making hard decisions on what you’ll attend, but that’s the fun of the Summit.

Last but not least, you will be playing. This is a festival made for musicians of all stripes. Beyond all the included guitar workshops, there are unlimited opportunities to play, jam with friends, or try out new guitar gear. We have soundproof rooms if you want to rock out (or just try guitars in private).

Space is limited because this is about as interactive as festivals get. We want you to get hands-on time with cool gear.

What is the Old Town School of Folk Music?

A Chicago institution. Founded in 1957 the Old Town School of Folk Music provides a wide range of music, dance, theater, and visual arts courses to people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. It’s a magical 501(c)(3) not-for-profit with an expansive campus featuring two buildings across the street from one another. We take over both facilities and fill them to the brim with sessions, workshops, jam rooms, and demo spaces.

When you picture Chicago, you may think of Wrigley Field or some busy downtown street or that one Wilco cover with the two buildings. The neighborhood that Old Town is in is easily walkable and there are dozens of nearby cafes, shops and restaurants. It’s like the cool neighborhood in your town, but in Chicago.

Who attends the Summit?

An eclectic mix of guitar fanatics (of all abilities), collectors, luthiers, industry members, and working musicians from around the world. Our crowd tends to be more eclectic and diverse than you’d think – young and old, all genders. But we all connect over a love for guitars.

Having said that: We limit Summit all-access passes to just a few hundred. We want everyone who attends to see the concerts, meet their heroes, and have fun without crowds. So if you want to come, it’s best to register soon before it sells out.

Who will I meet?

That’s up to you!

This year’s Summit has some of the most respected names in guitar craft: From Chris Martin IV of Martin Guitars, to the crews behind Collings, JHS, Yamaha, Gallagher, and Chase Bliss. Lutherie legends like Michael Millard (Froggy Bottom Guitars), Dan Erlewine, Richard Hoover (SCGC) and Bob Taylor are attending, too. A bunch of newer brands are debuting their creations, too, like Madsen Amplification and Travis Wade.

Beyond the exhibitors, a lot of folks from the industry just show up. Creston Lea of Creston Guitars will be in the five-timer club this year, having attended every Summit we’ve ever thrown. He doesn’t come to exhibit, he just loves the Summit.

Last year, Bill Frisell led a guitar orchestra that anyone could join; the year prior the Milk Carton Kids all taught us how to harmonize. We also attract some of the biggest YouTube and podcast influencers around (Rhett Shull will be in attendance for 2024).

Best of all, you’ll meet a bunch of great players who probably aren’t currently on your radar…and fellow collectors.

What does a day look like?

Each day has over 12 hours of programming planned. We don’t expect you to catch it all (that would be crazy), but it’s there for you.

Get to Old Town School on Friday morning (August 23) at around 9 or 10 a.m., get your pass, browse the schedule and decide whether you want to browse guitars at the lutherie showcase or attend a workshop. Proceed however you like. The Old Town campus has two buildings and it’s a little daunting at first, but just consider it a giant guitar funhouse. (Someone from the FJ or OTS will be at the front registration desk to help you if you have any questions.)

I encourage pass holders to take their time and not expect to attend everything. Some of the coolest music moments happen in the lobbies or just by sticking around a sponsor booth for a while. A lot of Summit attendees are still talking about the time Julian Lage and Nathaniel Murphy jammed in the Collings’ booth back in 2022. Pure magic.

There’s a lunch break every day where attendees and their new friends grab a bite nearby. You’ll see lots of Summit badges at neighboring restaurants. Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself. In the afternoon, there’s a whole new slate of afternoon sessions.

Concerts tend to start after dinner in the two theaters: The historic Maurer Concert Hall (capacity 420) is where our bigger names play, while across-the-street at Szold Hall you can catch some of the more adventurous programming. Your pass gets you into everything.

What are the workshops like?

Once you find a class or session you’d like to attend, just show up. No reservation is needed with your all-access pass. Some classes are intimate affairs, some have 20-50 people. We put the bigger draw workshops in the big theater, but there’s typically room for everyone. We’ve had live podcast tapings, serious master classes on guitar technique, AMAs with guitar celebrities and more.

If you want to leave a session early, just politely get up and go. There are usually two to three sessions going every hour so you can try something else.

What styles of music are represented?

Rock, bluegrass, roots music, blues, jazz, folk, singer-songwriters, and all points in between. Basically, the pages of the FJ coming to life.

How expensive is it?

Three-day passes are $400.

This includes everything: Admission to all the concerts, all the instructional workshops, opportunities to win some truly cool guitars in our raffles, the ability to buy Summit exclusive gear, networking events, a great swag bag, and surprises. You also get early and unlimited access to the lutherie showcase featuring over 70 guitarmakers.

Even without the rest of the Summit programming, this is the largest handmade and boutique guitar showcase in the entire Midwest.

Walkable dining options abound near the venue at every price point. You can stay wherever you like (see below).

Where should I stay?

We get asked this a lot. Honestly, you can stay wherever you like in Chicago. Probably aim for a hotel or Airbnb that fits your price range somewhere north of downtown Chicago and south of downtown Evanston. If the reviews online look good and it fits your price range, go for it. (Checking your cab fare ahead of time using an online calculator is also a good idea.)

All Summit activities take place at Old Town School, from morning to night. So once you’re there each day, there’s no need to go anywhere. Hotel Zachary near Wrigley is an Old Town staff favorite, but you really can’t go wrong if the Tripadvisor reviews and room rate meet your standards.

If you’re on a guitar forum or have friends into guitars, post about the Summit and see if you can go in on an Airbnb. There are many in the vicinity of Old Town, but they tend to get reserved quickly.

What guitar should I bring?

Over half of our attendees don’t even bother bringing a guitar, but we’ve also seen plenty of pre-war dreadnoughts, Taylors, homemade creations, and all points in-between. We’ve seen plenty of new and old electrics, too.

Our Truth About Vintage Amps Podcast Room – filled to the brim with great, rare and obscure vintage amps – always has a few electrics to use, too.

Yes, there is a fully secure guitar check-in room if you want to drop an instrument off while you attend concerts or go out to eat.

What brands and builders are attending in 2024?

It’s a long list that includes Martin, Collings, JHS, Yamaha, Henriksen, Chase Bliss, D’Addario, RØDE, and Taylor. We’ve also got smaller-batch builders like Mike Baranik, 3Bender, Cardinal, Bruce Guitars, Cedar Mountain mandolins, Flammang Guitars, Uberfrank, Thorell, Comins, Grez, Greenfield, Frank Brothers, Healy, Huss & Dalton, Kostal, R. Robinson, Lame Horse, Mule, Nicole Alosinac, Maegen Wells, Riviere Guitars, Noemi, Shock the Fox, Paul Woolson, and dozens more.

Also, if you’re in the Chicago area and just want to go guitar shopping and not attend any of the panels, concerts, parties or workshops, we’ll offer single-day lutherie showcase passes soon.  

How do I sign up?

Register today at www.fretboardsummit.org. And holler if you have any questions.

Still trying to picture this event? Check out these totally unsolicited videos posted by some of our past attendees…