Long before rock ‘n’ roll made the guitar the principal instrument of pop culture, associated with such antics as members of Led Zeppelin riding their motorcycles through the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, L.A. was already in love with the six-string. Generations of singer-songwriters have strummed acoustic guitars in coffeehouses; Les Paul played the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic here in 1944; and legions of film studio composers and session musicians have rocked L.A.'s studios since the earliest days of the movie industry. Several local events pay homage to guitarists, but the inaugural Los Angeles Guitar Festival — which kicks off over Fourth of July weekend at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center — stands alone in its attempt to represent the disparate disciplines of acoustic and electric guitar in one tuneful package.
During the two-day festival, the 1,450-seat theater will resonate with top talent, including many Grammy winners and nominees. The acoustic night features Australian fingerpicker Tommy Emmanuel, solo fingerstyle artist Laurence Juber, Hawaiian slack key player Cyril Pahinui and jazz guitarist Gonzalo Bergara. The electric night boasts founding Fabulous Thunderbirds member and blues rocker Jimmie Vaughan, surf guitar legend Dick Dale, electric jazz player Bruce Forman and multitasking virtuoso Ben Lacy.
“I love both acoustic and electric,” said festival organizer Mitchell Chang, who also mounts L.A.'s annual Hawaiian Slack Key guitar festival. “I really hope people will attend both days. People who think it’s all about shredding will be amazed at what you can do on the acoustic guitar and all the acoustic guitar fans who are jaded by rockers and shredders will see Jimmie Vaughan and see that it’s not all about loud and fast.”
“Mitch is a very nonprejudiced person when it comes to the way in which an instrument can express itself culturally,” said Peter Yates, director of guitar studies at UCLA. Yates will treat attendees to an intermission set of classical and original compositions played on his self-constructed arpeggione, a 19th century six-stringed instrument that is fretted and tuned like a guitar, but bowed like a cello.
“Few other instruments are as portable or complete,” said Juber, the former lead guitarist for Wings, who has been honing his craft since he received a guitar for his 11th birthday in 1963. “You can’t strap a piano onto your back and take it to the beach, but you can do that with a guitar.” A two-time Grammy winner, Juber has forged a successful solo career with his unique solo finger style technique.
“The essence of what I play is completely self-contained,” he said. “I’m playing the bass, the melody, the rhythm part, the guitar solos. There’s a certain narrative level to what I do, where everything is in one way telling a story. To make it a compelling performance for an audience it’s not just fiddly fingers doing a recital.”
The instinct to connect with an audience extends to the electric night as well. Racked by medical issues and warned by his doctors to forego performing, Dale nonetheless recently completed a 23-date U.S. tour and plans to take no prisoners when he plugs in his signature Les Paul at Redondo Beach. “No matter what kind of pain I’m in — it goes away when I step on that stage and I look down at them and they look up at me,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody walk away from a Dick Dale concert saying, ‘The guy sucks.’ It’s because they see me busting my buns out there. I don’t stand up there like a statue and just play for myself. I play to them. I’m going to go out there and make their ears bleed.”
The L.A. Guitar Festival electrifies with its high-octane blend of headliners, but it also takes time to investigate lesser-known aspects of the instrument. In addition to Yates’ arpeggione, inventor and musician Tom Shaper’s highly unconventional Jasper Bridge percussion guitar — which is played with drumsticks rather than a guitar pick — will make its festival debut. Shaper will welcome concertgoers to the Performing Arts Center during both nights with a blend of jazz and popular tunes.
“The West Coast does have more original and maverick approaches to the instrument than other places do,” said Yates, pointing to area fads that include fretless guitars and microtonal guitars with unconventional fret boards. “Most guitar festivals are either a straight-up acoustic festival or rock guitar festival, and this one is much more varied and interested in the collision of different styles.”