La Conner, Washington is a sleepy little town located about an hour north of Seattle. For us locals, it’s best known more for its tulips (the region holds an annual tulip festival that draws thousands), cute little shops and fresh oysters. Guitars? Aside from a few guitar makers who happen to have set up shop near La Conner and a few cool Skagit County dive bars, it’s never been considered a fretted instrument paradise. That fact may change with last weekend’s La Conner Guitar Festival. For three days, this little town hugging the Swinomish Channel became an acoustic guitar mecca.
Around 40 luthiers filled La Conner’s Maple Hall with gorgeous instruments (notable exception, Colorado’s Greg German, who had a table without any guitars thanks to a FedEx screw-up). Exhibiting were well-known makers like Bryan Galloup, R.S. Muth, Marc Beneteau and Tom Ribbecke along with younger and lesser-known makers from around the continent (and everyone in-between). [The Fretboard Journal was proudly the media sponsor and also in attendance.] The mix was welcomed – I love a six string with a pretty rosette as much as the next guy but it was great to see small-bodied archtops, resonator instruments, harp ukes and oddball drone guitar creations on display. If you wanted to try anything out, the La Conner crew had built soundproof quiet rooms where you could audition things away from the din of the hall. A vendor room in the front housed a handful of non-guitar items, including tonewoods for sale, handmade guitar stands, Humphrey amps and more.
As great as the guitars were, the element that really set this guitar apart was the town itself: It was a star attraction. This is the first guitar show I’ve attended where your significant other could take a walk around the neighborhood, grab a bite to eat or see some music while you talked fanned frets and Brazilian. After the show, you might run into some of the builders you just met at the local dive bar or Mexican restaurant. The weekend was, dare I say it, the most fun I’ve ever had at a guitar show.
Since the demise of the legendary Healdsburg Guitar Festival, there has been no shortage of gatherings large and small attempting to fill its wake. Some have flourished, some have stumbled, some new ones haven’t even launched yet. Where does La Conner fit into the grand scheme of things? Time will tell. But attendance on Friday and Saturday exceeded my expectations by a long shot and the customers I spoke to seemed to know their stuff and repeatedly mentioned to me the other high-end guitars in their collections. We met guitarists from around the country and Canada, including at least one overseas attendee.
On his drive back home to California, Tom Ribbecke posted a note on Facebook that called La Conner “a great new show destined for a wonderful future arc!” If enough builders share the same sentiment, it sounds like we’ll driving past the tulip fields to check out guitars for a long while.