Wooden Wonders

Day-long guitar fest hits Sebastopol

“Music saved my life,” says Kevin Russell. “When I was a kid, we moved a lot. One of the constants in my life turned out to be music.”

This appreciation led Russell to organize the Sebastopol Guitar Festival, showcasing the art of making and playing the six-string sword on Feb. 2. “I’m just in love with guitars,” says Russell. “Guitar is probably the most popular instrument in the world, and I wanted to do something that celebrated that.”

Not just another guitar concert, the event highlights luthiery, the craft of building guitars by hand. “We have some of the best guitar builders in the world right here,” says Russell—and those luthiers are building the best guitars ever made, he says. “Some people say we’re in the golden age of luthiery right now.”

The eight luthiers scheduled to give workshops at the event are all local, differing from the much larger Healdsburg Guitar Festival, a bi-annual event attracting talented craftsmen from around the globe. Luthiers scheduled to speak at the Sebastopol Guitar Festival include acoustic guitar builder Bruce Sexauer, arched-top guitar specialist Tom Ribbecke, and Harry Fleishman, who runs a luthiery school.

Films about legendary guitarists screen throughout the day in a separate room before the main event at 8pm, when Stevie Coyle and Mike Dowling take the stage. “They’re not the kind of guys that would get attention from the mass media,” says Russell. “But they’re stunning, stunning musicians.” Dowling is a former session guitarist who spent his time in some of the biggest studios in Nashville. “I think the guy is one of the best guitar players on the planet,” Russell gushes.

Russell’s enthusiasm for music stems from a young age. “I fell in love when I was five years old looking at my uncle’s guitar. I know it sounds weird, but I actually had a viceral experience in my body,” he says. “I didnt feel that feeling again until I fell in love with the first girl I fell in love with.” He now plays both electric and acoustic guitar in several bands, including the Rhythm Rangers and the Country Trainwrecks.

Even guitars made in the same factory by the same company in the same year can have different qualities. Some call it “tone”; others have more mysterious names for it. Whatever that special quality is, it’s irreplaceable. Russell sums it up understatedly: “Every guitar sounds different.”

Sonoma County Library