Article on luthier, Mark Berry, and the Healdsburg Guitar Festival

Top instrument makers and musicians gather this weekend at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where . . . Guitars are Stars
Published on August 14, 2003
© 2003 The Press Democrat
Byline: George Lauer

Some of the instrument's best players and builders congregate in Sonoma County this weekend, but the real stars are the guitars at the fifth Healdsburg Guitar Festival.

Every style of acoustic guitar imaginable -- and some bordering on unimaginable -- is on display today through Sunday at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

Headlining the list of performers are classical virtuoso Christopher Parkening performing Brazilian music with baritone Jubilant Sykes Saturday night, fingerpicking stylist Pierre Bensusan and oud player Hamza El Din tonight and The Waybacks Friday night. (An oud is a Middle-Eastern instrument similar to a lute.)

The world's best-known luthiers -- people who make stringed instruments, such as Charles Fox, Tom Ribbecke, Erwin Somogyi, Boaz Elkayam, Linda Manzer -- will show their wares along with relative newcomers like Mark Berry, a furniture maker in Cotati who caught the lutherie bug a couple years ago.

"When I hit 50 and started looking at what amounts to the second half of my life, I decided I wanted to do something at a high level, to truly accomplish something in the time I have left," Berry said. "I'd played guitar -- or played around at it -- for years and I decided I'd take lessons and get serious about it. When I started looking at good instruments, carefully looking, I said 'I could make one of these."'

He's in the right place to do it.

Berry and dozens of other North Bay instrument builders are in one the best spots in the country -- maybe the world -- to be building acoustic stringed instruments. Luthiers Mercantile International and Allied Lutherie, Ltd., two major suppliers of wood, hardware and tools, are in Healdsburg. Luthiers School International, operated by 30-year veteran of the trade Harry Fleishman, is in Sebastopol. The Northern California Luthiers Association has a large, active membership.

Berry enrolled in Fleishman's intensive two-week guitar-building course, and what started as a notion became a passion.

"Very few people who take my classes have what I'd call a gift," said Fleishman. "Mark is one of them. He's got a very good ear and a well-developed sense of aesthetics. The gift is being able to put them together so well."

Berry, like most luthiers, will keep his day job. Only a small percentage make a living at the trade.

"Someday, maybe," Berry said. "But right now I'm just lucky to be where I am. Being around all these quality builders, getting inspired by Eric Monrad's rosettes and Harry Fleishman's experimentation. It definitely makes you want to rise to their level."

Monrad, of Healdsburg, who specializes in building flamenco guitars, is helping Berry perfect the craft.

Berry is making flamenco and classical instruments of high enough quality to catch the eye of flamenco guitarist Mark Taylor, who bought one of Berry's instruments.

Taylor is one of several performers who will demonstrate various instruments and playing styles in 65 "mini concerts" during this weekend's festival. Seminars and workshops for players and builders also are scheduled each day in subjects ranging from fingerpicking blues styles to the art of selling guitars.

Berry's instruments, on display this weekend at the Luthiers School International table, are on the low end of the price spectrum, going for about $2,000. Berry figures each instrument (he's working on number eight now) takes him at least 100 hours.

"So I'm making maybe $20 an hour, not counting materials and tools," Berry said. "You don't do this to get rich."

The other end of the price spectrum for custom-built acoustic guitars goes beyond $20,000.

The festival started in the mid 1990s when a few guitar makers got together one summer weekend to compare notes. It was an informal picnic for sharing innovative techniques, new sources for wood, maybe a couple of tunes.

It's still informal, and there's still lots of impromptu jamming, but now it's a pretty prestigious picnic.

The second festival, in 1997, attracted an international audience with more than 100 luthiers and 10 times that many people willing to pay to see their work. The Economist, a London magazine, anointed Healdsburg the center of the acoustic guitar universe. The next two festivals in 1999 and 2001 spread to several locations in Healdsburg.

This year's move to Santa Rosa has some referring to it as the Not-In-Healdsburg Guitar Festival, but the name probably won't change anytime soon.

"There's good name recognition with Healdsburg," said Natalie Swango, general manager of Luthiers Mercantile International, the festival's major sponsor.

The move allows all the festival's activities -- concerts, seminars, workshops and the main attraction, the gallery of guitars -- to be in one place.

"Plus with LBC involved this year, we've had a major jump in advertising," Swango said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we get 3,000 people this year."

© Mark Berry Guitars