10-String Guitar Festival, July 2005
Written and photographed by Michael McBroom / Videos by Perf De Castro

[Michael's article originally appeared at Luthierforum.com.]



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The First International 10-String Guitar Festival was held this past Thursday through Sunday, July 7 - 10, at the White Memorial Conservation Center just outside Litchfield, CT. It was hosted by the internationally acclaimed 10-string guitar virtuoso, recording artist, composer and educator, Janet Marlow.

Attendees traveled to this special event from all over the United States and from the Philippines, Panama, and Spain.

10-string classical guitarists are a very rare breed. It was my estimate, which Janet believes is most likely accurate, that this was the largest collection of 10-string players to have occurred anywhere ever. Even then, only about a dozen of us were in attendance. Most of the attendees were like me -- they had spent most of their playing careers in virtual isolation, rarely if ever meeting another 10-string player.

Prior to the Festival, I had met only two other 10-string players -- the Maestro Narcisso Yepes (who created the modern 10-string guitar in collaboration with Jose Ramirez) way back in 1975, barely a year after I began playing 10-string, and a fellow in Fullerton, CA, who ran a small guitar shop and who owned an Oribe 10-string.

This rarity of meetings is the standard, rather than the exception, with 10-string players. That is, until Janet managed to fulfill her vision of bringing together other 10-string players from around the world. It is our hope that this rarity of meeting other players will soon become a thing of the past.

In the four days of the event, we discussed a myriad of topics, some of which focused on technique, arranging for the instrument, tunings, promoting oneself as a business, working in the studio, and much more. It was a jam-packed event. We were so busy that we had little time for anything else.

We had guest speakers, including Taylor Johnson, a very well known and well respected recording engineer, and Dennis Cinelli, a performer and recording artist of early instruments from the 16th to 19th centuries, including the Romantic-era 10-string guitars. Even I had the opportunity to give a brief talk on building 10-strings. I guess I'm somewhat of an authority now, since I'm almost finished with my second one.

Steve Adelson, recording artist and Chapman Stick player extraordinaire, demonstrated his instrument for us. After his dazzling show, we had the opportunity to try it out ourselves. The Chapman Stick looks intimidating to play, but it is laid out in an amazingly logical manner and requires very little in the way of technique or knowledge of its layout before one can play tunes on it. Most Chapman Sticks are 10-stringed instruments. Steve's is a 12-string, which Chapman has recently begun to offer.

Concerts were held for the general public both Friday and Saturday nights, in which several of the Festival attendees demonstrated their virtuosity on the 10-string to the crowds. The concerts were well attended both nights.

I attended the event primarily as a builder. Two other folks who have experience building guitars were also there. One, a fellow named David Starbuck, has built several guitars, but no 10-strings yet. Perf De Castro brought the 10-string he built. Also in attendence was a representative of Paulino Bernabe -- first name Rafael, don't recall his last. Bernabe is one of the world's most highly respected classical builders and his 10-strings are generally considered to be the standard that all other builders should hope to excel to. The guitar that Rafael brought was built especially for the Festival. It was simply stunning in its volume and the warmth and beauty of its tone. It is the loudest guitar I have ever heard, with a resonance and sonority that just went on and on and on. I now have a clear goal to aspire toward.

Lots of photo and video were shot during the Festival. Janet's husband, Alan, and Perf DeCastro (a member here at the forum) both ran video cameras. Knowing Perf, he'll have much of his video up on his website soon. I took over 100 still images. Following is a condensed selection of some of the photos I took.

The conference was held at the Carriage House at White Memorial. It has a very roomy downstairs conference room/meeting hall with an adjoing kitchen. Upstairs are genuine barracks-style dorm rooms. About half of us stayed in the dorms. Saved a lot of money that way -- $50/night with breakfast and snacks included. The discussions, master-class style lessons, and concerts were held in the conference room. Here's a photo of the outside of the Carriage House.

Yeah. Not bad looking digs, huh.

On the first day of the event, as a way of getting acquainted with each other, most of us played a tune or two on our instruments. This gave us a chance not only to appreciate each other's playing, but also to hear a great variety of 10-strings.

Here's a shot of George Torres playing his Oribe 10-string. George is an Associate Professor of Music at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and an excellent player.

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Stephen Bright, the fellow who bought my Ramirez 10-string, decided to bring his new Lucio Nunez to the Festival. Here's a shot of Stephen playing it.

Here's another shot of Stephen, playing my 10-string:

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During the master class-style lessons, several of us decided to participate. Here's a shot of Perf De Castro and Janet, as she's discussing some of the finer points of technique and interpretation.

Yup, I got up there too. Here's a shot of Janet and my fat self as I played through the 3rd movement of Villa-Lobos' Suite Populaire Brazilienne.

Here's a shot of Steve Adelson playing his Chapman Stick. I just realized I didn't include the bottom end of his Stick in any of my photos. As a result it almost looks like he's just resting his hands on a really big guitar neck.

The concerts Friday and Saturday night were very special.

Perf De Castro, a member of this forum, is from the Philppines, having recently moved to Southern California. Perf is an exceptionally talented player -- I think he has a bright future ahead of him. He played a selection of pieces that were based on popular Philippine melodies and rhythms. My favorite, however, is his arrangement of Dahil sa Isang Bulaklak ('Because of a Flower') -- a stunning piece that literally brought tears to my eyes. He's playing the 10-string he built with the help of a Philippine luthier. He just recently made an extensive modification to it, including replacing the fingerboard, which he documented here at the forum.

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Tom Nothnagle, from Iowa City, Iowa, is a spectacular player who mixes traditional flamenco forms with free improvisations and modern music. He has several CDs out, and is one helluva dedicated musician. The guitar he's playing was built by Spokane, WA luthier Eric Sahlin. This was one of several guitars I had the opportunity to examine and measure.

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We did have one player in attendance who does not play a 10-string. But he plays a 7-string and tunes it such that its range actually exceeds the range of most 10-string tunings (he tunes 7 to a low G). His name is Matthew Grasso, and he hails from Davis, CA. Matthew specializes in arranging orchestral music for the guitar, but his passion is Indian classical music. He played ragas for us, sitting in a traditional Indian posture, and dazzled the audience with his grace, passion, and virtuosity.

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Matthew's guitar was built by Greg Byers of Willits, CA. Byers is perhaps best known for his authoritative treatise on the subject of compensation and intonation on classical guitars. This is an incredible guitar, almost as loud and sonorous as the Bernabe. The low G has great volume and resonance. One way Byers was able to achieve this was by extending the length of the low string, which also increases its tension.

Matthew had Byers install a unique capo-like system for the 7th string as well. The capo is actually a Shub banjo capo. You'll note in the following photos the fingerboard extension and the way the capo can be positioned across a five fret span, which makes it much easier to vary the pitch of the 7th string. No tuning between songs.

I also had the opportunity to measure and examine this guitar.

Gabriel Tapia traveled from Panama to attend the Festival. He is the only 10-string player in Panama, and is a member of the faculty at the University of Panama. His technique is impressive. He played for us arrangements of popular Panamanian melodies as well as some more modern arrangements -- including Hotel California by the Eagles!

Gabriel's guitar was built by a Panamanian luthier. I don't recall his name, but he did a heroic job on Gabriel's guitar. He was telling us that because it is so hot and humid in Panama that this guitar's neck warped badly. The builder had to replace the neck and installed two adjustable truss rods in it, which has gotten that massive neck under control. I ran out of time before I had a chance to examine this instrument. Maybe next time.

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Next, Janet played several of her own compositions, and then she and Gabriel played through a duo that she composed.

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Janet plays a Bernabe. Hers was built in 1977. It differs from the one that Rafael brought in that it has a spruce top, whereas the new one has a Western redcedar top. As far as I can tell, they are identical in every other way. I was able to closely examine and measure Janet's Bernabe. She has six -- that's right six -- pickups installed in that guitar, including a condensor microphone.

Saturday night's concert was a bit more informal. After everybody had finished playing, they all got together for a bit of a round-robin jam session. It isn't every day one gets to see this many multi-string players having a jam session.

And then, the coup de grace. We attendees were invited to Janet's house after the concert, where we got to listen to her and her husband Alan play for a bit. Alan is a multi-talented guy. Not only is he a crack concert violinist, but he plays a mean jazz violin, as well as upright bass and piano.

Can you tell that we had a good time?

Prospects look good that there will be another 10-String Guitar Festival next year. I plan to attend, but this one will always be the one that I'll hold special for the rest of my life.


Videos / Stephen's Photos / Perf''s Photos
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