Archive for the ‘Gretsch.com’ Category

Elmhurst College Jazz Festival’s 50th Anniversary

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival featured performances by several top professional bands, including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Any time that Elmhurst College holds its nationally-recognized Jazz Festival, it’s a major event on the musical scene. But the 2017 Festival—held this past February 23 through 26—was especially noteworthy (pun entirely intended). It was the Festival’s 50th anniversary, marking a half-century of presenting stellar jazz artists appearing in combination with the finest high school and college bands from across the country.

Although the roster of “name” artists appearing at the Festival was impressive, the focus was—as it has been from the beginning—on the young musicians who took part. The opening day was dedicated to high school jazz ensembles, while the remaining days saw performances by college bands. Elmhurst College director of jazz studies (and Festival coordinator) Doug Beach commented, “I’m so impressed with the dedication of [these young] musicians, and the seriousness with which they take the music. They’re not fooling around; they really care about it.”

February 23rd was marked by the Festival’s first-ever opening night concert. The evening’s headline artist was legendary jazz vocalist and Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater. And in another nod to the 50th anniversary, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters honoree Bill Holman closed the Festival on the 26th with his big band, performing a piece commissioned by the college to commemorate the occasion. Performances in between included the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (which evolved from the former Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra) on the 24th, and the Patrick Williams Big Band on the 25th.

Drummer/composer Dennis Mackrel served as a judge for the band competition, and was a guest performer with the Elmhurst College big band.

Additional jazz luminaries who presented master classes and/or served as judges in the band competitions included pianist and composer Michael Abene, baritone saxophonist and flautist Denis DiBlasio, saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, drummer and composer Dennis Mackrel, bass legend Rufus Reid, and trumpet icon Bobby Shew.

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival actually came out of the ashes of the former American College Jazz Festival. That was a nationwide competition for which Elmhurst served as a regional site. Regional winners received all-expense-paid trips to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where they would compete in the finals. In those days there was substantial financial support, primarily from large corporations. But in the early 1970s the economy took a downturn, and—as often happens—arts financing was one of the first things to go. But when the ACJF organization saw its demise in 1973, the administration of Elmhurst College, led by former dean of students Jim Cunningham, stepped in to keep the concept alive. The result was the institution of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, and the rest is musical history.

That history has been paralleled by the growth of the jazz program at the College itself, which now offers a major in jazz studies, as well as courses in music business. The college’s own jazz band is internationally regarded following several major tours. In 2014, no less an authority than Downbeat magazine named the band a winner in the large jazz ensemble category of their Student Music Awards.

Of course, neither the Festival nor the jazz program at the college could survive without financial support. And while that support comes from dozens of organizations, corporations, and individuals, one major contributor has consistently been the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation, which was established by Fred W. Gretsch in honor of his parents. In addition to being the president and fourth-generation leader of the Gretsch Company (manufacturers of top-quality drums and guitars), Fred is himself a proud alumnus of the Elmhurst College business program, and he and his wife Dinah have been major supporters of musical activities of all kinds at the college for many years. Along with the financial contributions received by the Festival from the Foundation, Gretsch drumsets were provided for use by all of the professional and student drummers. And beyond the Festival, the college also boasts the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble and the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch recording studio.

Jazz great Peter Erskine anchored the Patrick Williams Big Band, on a drumkit provided for the Festival by the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation.

While “popular” music seems to morph from style to style on a constant and unpredictable basis, jazz—referred to by many as the only legitimately original American music—has been around since its inception in the 1920s. But that doesn’t mean it has remained stagnant all that time. As Doug Beach put it, “[Jazz] is very aware of its history, but it’s also looking to see what can develop from what hasn’t been done yet.”

That development is what the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival is really all about. Said Beach, “The Festival provides a place for young students to perform, to be heard, and to develop their craft. It also gives them the chance to hear other musicians. You always learn from listening to someone else. A lot of the pros who have performed here over the years played [at the Festival] when they were in college.”

And it’s entirely likely that some of the students playing at this year’s Festival will return as the pros of the future. In jazz, as in most everything else, what goes around comes around. We can only wait, see, and enjoy.

.

.

.

Dinah Gretsch Named to The Women’s International Music Network New Advisory Board

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL MUSIC NETWORK

Leaders from all walks of the music industry join to advance advocacy for women in music

The Women’s International Music Network (the WiMN) is proud to announce the members of its newly-formed Advisory Board. Comprised of a dynamic group of leaders, its members represent a broad range of roles in the music industry. The group will serve to advise and guide the WiMN, contributing time, ideas, and resources to aid its growth and outreach.

Members of the new Women’s International Music Network Advisory board include:

  • Mindi Abair – GRAMMY-nominated saxophone player and singer/songwriter
  • Brian Berman – Vice President of Marketing, Guitar Center
  • Janet Billig Rich – Founder, Manage This Media
  • Dawn Birr – Commercial Manager, Audio Recording, Sennheiser Electronics Corporation
  • Monique Boyer – Director, Artist Relations | PRO Membership, M.A.C Cosmetics
  • Rob Christie – President of A&R, Robo Records
  • Tish Ciravolo – President, Daisy Rock Girl Guitars
  • Lisa Foxx – On Air Personality, MYfm Los Angeles, iHeartRadio
  • Dinah Gretsch – Executive Vice President and CFO, The Gretsch Company
  • Leslie Ann Jones – Director of Music Recording and Scoring, Skywalker Sound, and 4 time GRAMMY® Award-winner
  • Karrie Keyes – Monitor Engineer for Pearl Jam/Eddie Vedder and co-founder Soundgirls.org
  • Beth Marlis – Vice President, Musicians Institute
  • Dani Markman – Director, A&R, Disney Music Group
  • Heather Dembert Rafter – Principal, RafterMarsh US
  • Paula Salvatore – VP/Studio Manager, Capitol Studios
  • Brad Tolinski – Editorial Director of Special Projects, AMG Parade
  • Karen Webb – Founder, PR Squared Public Relations

“I am thrilled to have so many women and men from varied backgrounds aiding in expanding our ability to advocate for, educate, and provide opportunities for women and girls in the music and audio industries,” notes WiMN founder Laura B. Whitmore. WiMN director Bonnie Gallanter adds, “We couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and enthusiastic group of advisors. I look forward to working closely with all of them.”

To find out more about the members of the WiMN advisory board, visit www.thewimn.com/advisoryboard

About Dinah Gretsch:

Dinah Gretsch is the Executive Vice President and CFO of the Savannah, GA based Gretsch Company. Gretsch has manufactured high-quality drums and guitars since 1883. The Gretsch Company has also owned the Bigsby Vibrato company since 1999.

Dinah has been a prominent figure in the Musical Instrument Industry for almost forty years. Her prominence has been recognized by numerous awards. In 2003 the Atlanta Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) presented her with the Heroes Award, a distinction awarded to community leaders in the Music Industry. In 2008, she was inducted in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the Georgia Music Industry. In 2014, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University honored her with the prestigious Betty Foy Sanders Patrons of the Arts Award. The same year she was honored by the Women’s International Music Network (WiMN) with the She Rocks Award for her leadership in the Music Industry.

In support of the Gretsch mission to “ENRICH LIVES THROUGH PARTICIPATION IN MUSIC”, Dinah created Mrs. G’s Music Foundation in 2010 to fund music programs in Southern Low Country schools. She also gives grants to individuals to attend guitar and drum camps.

Dinah devotes much of her spare time serving on the Georgia Music Foundation Board and Loyola High School Board in New York City. She also serves on the Finance Board for her church, Sacred Heart in Savannah, GA. Dinah also enjoys her family time with her husband Fred, six children, sixteen grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

.

.

Women of “That Great Gretsch Sound.” Generation 3: Sylvia

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Multi-talented First Lady to Bill Gretsch and mother of current president, Fred W. Gretsch.

Sylvia Gretsch was an independent, outgoing, multi-talented lady who helped her husband, Bill, during the “scaled-down production” war years at Gretsch during World War II. After the war Sylvia was caretaker to Bill during his serious illness until his untimely death in 1948.

Maxine Lois (“Sylvia”) Elsner was born on September 14, 1917 in Joplin, Missouri. As a child Sylvia was fascinated with radio (a relatively new invention), and at an early age began studying dramatics and training in theater and speech.

Sylvia and Bill, July 12, 1940

In 1939 Sylvia graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois majoring in speech. While at Northwestern she crossed paths with Bill Gretsch, a 30-year-old bachelor who managed the operations of Gretsch’s Chicago Distribution Branch, and a special friendship was born.

After college the career-minded Sylvia accepted a job at a Missouri high school teaching English, drama, and supervising the traveling debate team. A year later in 1940, she moved to Wichita Falls, Texas and wrote copy for a radio station. In 1942 Sylvia was hired as the editor of “Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter” magazine. Sylvia’s relationship with Bill also deepened during this time.

1942 was an important year in the Gretsch family for many reasons. Bill’s father, Fred Sr., retired and Bill’s older brother, Fred Jr., was named Gretsch Company president. Soon afterward he left to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. With his brother’s departure, Bill moved from Chicago to New York to assume the reins as company president. Bill, whose polio as a child prevented him from serving in World War II was, nonetheless, very involved in the war effort. Bill worked with the Red Cross to supply Entertainment Kits and musical instruments to thousands of soldiers around the world.

Shortly after relocating to New York, Bill proposed to Sylvia and they were married on December 14, 1942. During their marriage Sylvia helped with the layouts and development of Gretsch ads in music trade magazines. She and Bill had four children (Charlotte, Katie, Fred, and Gretchen). After having been married and Gretsch president for only five years, Bill developed cancer and was very ill for 18 months before losing his battle in 1948 at the young age of 41.

Upon her husband’s untimely death, Sylvia continued the Gretsch tradition of preparing the next generation to learn the family business and continue the Gretsch legacy through her only son, Fred. He began working in the business as a boy, preparing for the day when he would run his great-grandfather’s company. Fred’s grandfather and uncle were both great teachers and exposed Fred to many aspects of the music manufacturing business.

Sylvia never remarried and remained a loyal, loving mother dedicated to raising her and Bill’s four children. In early 1964 Sylvia became seriously ill and passed away on February 29, 1964. Like Charlotte Gretsch, Sylvia lost a brave battle to cancer and died in her mid-40’s, but during her life played an important role in the Gretsch legacy and helped prepare her son for future success. When his uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Music Company in 1967, Fred wasn’t in a position to buy the company. Fortunately, in 1985, Fred’s dream of buying back the family business from Baldwin and reviving the Gretsch name back to prominence came true. Fred remains president of the Gretsch Company today.

.

NAMM Show Inspiration on Display at Gretsch in Pooler

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Music truly is a universal language for Dinah and Fred Gretsch

Inspirational music signs find their way from Anaheim’s NAMM Show to the Gretsch Company in Pooler

Dinah and Fred Gretsch, CFO and fourth-generation president of the Gretsch Company respectively, which has been manufacturing world-famous guitars and drums since 1883, recently attended the annual Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show in Anaheim, California. In addition to showing off the newest lines of Gretsch guitars and drums (and getting a slight tan), Dinah and Fred also brought back a few mementos: inspirational NAMM Show promotional signs that are now displayed in the front windows of their Pooler office.

Colorful NAMM Show promotional signs are displayed at the Gretsch Company headquarters in Pooler.

“These signs just speak to us. They’re colorful and eye-catching, and I really like their messages,” added Fred. “One reads, ‘Where words fail, music speaks’, and another reads, ‘Music is for every single person that walks the planet.’ Those messages really sum up the special connecting power of music. Whether you live in the state of Georgia, or the country of Georgia over in Eurasia, music is the universal language that connects everyone.”

The Winter NAMM Show is the world’s largest trade show for the music products industry. This four-day, star-studded annual event at the Anaheim Convention Center in California is the music industry’s “Super Bowl” where over 1,700 exhibiting companies (representing 7,000 brand names) show their newest musical products to more than 107,000 attendees from 125 countries. The show is not open to the public, and is the only place in the world where practically all of the distributors and dealers in the music industry come together under one big roof.

The Gretsches were busy being brand ambassadors and connecting with friends and business acquaintances at the Gretsch Guitar and Gretsch Drum booths as well as the Bigsby booth, the guitar and guitar vibrato company Dinah and Fred purchased in 1999. They also took a sixth-generation family member, grandson Logan Thomas, a junior at Thomas Heyward Academy in Ridgeland, S.C., to the Anaheim show.

“It was really special having Logan with us to experience his first Winter NAMM Show,” added Dinah. “He was blown away by how big it was and all the live music events, especially the Gretsch Guitar-sponsored concert featuring rock guitar legends Duane Eddy and Jeff Beck.” Eddy performed on his new line of Gretsch Duane Eddy Signature electric guitars, and Jeff Beck flew over from England to honor one of his guitar heroes:  50s rockabilly legend Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Beck performed on one of Gretsch’s new Cliff Gallup Signature Duo Jet guitars; a reproduction of Gallup’s famous 1954 black Duo Jet guitar.

Dinah and Fred Gretsch, along with grandson, Logan Thomas, after an Anaheim dinner with long-time friends and business acquaintances. From left to right: Tauna Tuokkola of TV Jones, Inc., Dinah Gretsch, Tom Jones of TV Jones, Inc., Fred Gretsch, Logan Thomas, and Gretsch guitar endorser Duane Eddy.

When asked about his favorite memories of the trade show, Logan said he really enjoyed attending meetings with his grandparents where they were conducting business with people from around the world, including Japan, Korea, Germany, and China. “It amazes me how people can do business together when they do not speak the same language,” shared Logan. “But, those who didn’t speak English had a translator, and the meetings were very productive and very educational for me.”

Like his grandson, Fred Gretsch attended NAMM Shows as a teenager when his uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., was president of the family’s Brooklyn-based music manufacturing company.  “In the 50s and 60s, the NAMM Show was a much smaller event and held at the historic Palmer House Hotel in Chicago,” Fred added. “Music companies rented out rooms on the hotel’s floors and you literally went room-to-room to see the latest products. It was a far cry from today’s 800,000-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center extravaganza and floor show.”

Fred also shared that the NAMM Show signs he brought back to Pooler also reinforces the mission of the Gretsch family: to enrich lives through participation in music. Fred and Dinah are both actively involved in foundations they created. The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch Company, has a long history of providing financial support, scholarships, instruments and more, to schools and organizations across Georgia and the United States. Dinah’s Mrs. G’s Music Foundation was established in 2010 and provides funding and instruments for local music programs in Savannah-area schools. “Over 40% of people playing music today got started in school,” added Fred. “That’s why music education in school is so important.  Nothing makes us happier than seeing a child smiling and channeling that inner joy through making music.”

.

.

Women of “That Great Gretsch Sound.” Generation 2: Charlotte

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Gretsch’s First Lady during the decades of great growth.

Charlotte Gretsch was at her husband, Fred Sr.’s, side to help build the Gretsch Company into the nation’s largest musical instrument manufacturer in 1920.

Charlotte Sommer was born on December 16, 1880 in New York City to American-born parents who owned a successful grocery store in Manhattan. She was the sixth of eight children and grew up in a house with five brothers.

In January 1904, 23-year-old Charlotte married Fred Gretsch, Sr. in a small ceremony at her parent’s home. Charlotte most likely sailed with Fred to Europe on a business trip as part of their honeymoon. Annual musical instrument buying trips to Europe with her husband became part of Charlotte’s life.

Charlotte and Her Three Sons

On March 10, 1905, the first of three sons, Fred Gretsch, Jr., was born. A year later, William Walter (Bill) was born and in 1908, Richard (Dick) Gretsch was born. Bill was stricken with polio as a child which, no doubt, took more of Charlotte’s care and time than her husband’s expanding company. Fred Sr. and Charlotte exposed their children to the family business early. The brothers worked many Saturdays doing everything from packaging phonograph needles to picking up drum heads at the tannery.

The first two decades of the 1900’s were years of astonishing growth and innovation for the Fred. Gretsch Manufacturing Company. In 1916, the growing company expanded again and moved into the famous 10-story Gretsch Building in the Williamsburg District of Brooklyn at 60 Broadway. This landmark building was built by partners, Fred Sr., brother Walter, and their mother, Rosa Gretsch.

Shortly thereafter, Fred Sr. invented the industry’s first “warp-free” multi-ply drum lamination process. This revolutionary new construction method had tremendous advantages over the then-current method of steam bending wood. Drum shells and hoops were not only lighter, but were more perfectly round and stronger.

In April 1928 with her husband and oldest son, Fred Jr., in Europe on business, Charlotte became seriously ill and was admitted to St. Catherine’s Hospital in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, she lost a battle to ovarian cancer and died on May 12, 1928 at the age of 47.

Like Rosa Gretsch, Charlotte was a strong, loving, independent woman who played a key role in supporting and assisting her husband during a critical growth period of the Gretsch Company. She exposed her three sons to the family business at an early age and felt strongly that her sons should attend college (although Fred Sr. did not). She also took up golf when it became a big part of her husband’s life and helped Fred Sr. plan the first unofficial world golf championship in 1921 at the Soundview Club in Long Island. Like Rosa, Charlotte had a big heart and was involved with and supported Goodwill Industries. She was known to often visit stores and pay bills for less fortunate families.

Learn more about Charlotte at www.lookingoppositely.com.

Women of “That Great Gretsch Sound.” Generation 1: Rosa

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Rosa Gretsch: Gretsch’s “First” First Lady to founder, Friedrich Gretsch

Next to her husband, Friedrich, Rosa Gretsch is the second most important person responsible for today’s Gretsch legacy and continued family dynasty.

Born Rosa Behman on June 18, 1856 in Brooklyn, New York to German-born parents, Rosa’s parents died in a Cholera epidemic when she was a baby. Fortunately, she was adopted by friends of her parents who had no children.

In February 1879, 22-year-old Rosa married Friedrich Gretsch who had immigrated to Brooklyn from Germany six years earlier and was working at Albert Houdlett & Son, a drum and banjo manufacturing business.

A year after getting married, Rosa and Friedrich started the Gretsch family legacy with the first of seven children. Fred Gretsch, Sr. was born on February 10, 1880. A second son, Walter, followed two years later. Being a talented piano player herself, Rosa was very encouraging to her husband to start a family musical instrument business. In April 1883, Friedrich “Americanized” his name to Fred and opened a small music shop in Brooklyn manufacturing banjos, tambourines, and drums for music wholesalers.

Five more children (Louis, Elsa, Helen, Hertha, and Herbert) were born between 1885 and 1891, and Friedrich’s small music manufacturing shop prospered and expanded to 12 employees. Rosa’s life was nearly shattered in 1895, however, when Friedrich, while in Germany on business, was stricken with Cholera. He was only 39 when he died.

Rosa Gretsch with Her Seven Children

A strong, independent woman for her time, Rosa was determined to pass along her husband’s successful musical instrument manufacturing business to her children. Today’s Gretsch legacy and family dynasty started with Rosa’s bold decision to turn her husband’s company over to their oldest son, Fred, Sr., who was only 15 years old at the time. This proved to be a wise decision as Fred, Sr. guided Gretsch for 47 years, leading it to become one of the world’s largest and most respected manufacturers of musical instruments.

In addition to being remembered as a loving mother, totally dedicated to her seven children and large German-American extended family, Rosa also encouraged and worked with her two oldest sons, Fred Sr. and Walter, to keep the family business growing. In 1905, Rosa, Fred Sr., and Walter also incorporated the Fred Gretsch Realty Company with all three serving as directors.

During her life, Rosa was dedicated to the local Goodwill Industry chapters in New York. Rosa was a great cook and found time to bake and play piano at Goodwill fundraisers and enlisted her children to volunteer as well. Rosa later remarried David Kling (a friend of Friedrich’s who was also born in Mannheim, Germany) and passed away in 1934 at the age of 78. When Rosa’s household effects were inventoried, her most prized possession was her beloved Steinway Walnut Parlor Grand Piano.

Learn more about Rosa at www.lookingoppositely.com.

.

.

Great Gretsch Educators: Mark Guiliana

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

by Fred W. Gretsch

We’ve featured Mark Guiliana before, as one of the Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters. He is indisputably a superstar on the jazz scene. And on the fusion scene. And, frankly, on just about any scene he cares to take part in. Recently, he added the “education scene” to his resume, with the release of an eighty-eight page book and accompanying three-hour video, titled “Exploring Your Creativity On The Drumset.”

Of course, just listening to Mark play is an education in itself, and I highly recommend that you check out his playing on any of his recordings. (Some YouTube clips are included below for your enjoyment.) But Mark’s book/video package has already received so much acclaim that it’s been nominated in the “Best Educational Project” category in the prestigious Modern Drummer magazine 2017 Readers Poll. Not bad for his first effort in this area.

What makes Mark a Great Gretsch Educator is the way he shares his information. Instead of claiming to have a secret formula for success or a quick way to get good, Mark simply lays out the practice methods that he himself used to achieve his unique voice on the drums. He doesn’t suggest that you learn to play exactly like he does; he simply suggests that you might benefit from studying the way he learned to play that way.

Mark’s system involves what he terms “D.R.O.P.,” which stands for dynamics, rate, orchestration, and phrasing. Each of these concepts has a section in the book defining and explaining it, with plenty of challenging material to work on.

In the accompanying high-quality video Mark personally demonstrates many of the exercises contained in the book. There’s also a great studio performance featuring two of Mark’s long-time collaborators—bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner—that puts all of Mark’s instruction into a clear and entertaining musical context.

In their December 2016 review of Mark’s project, Modern Drummer called it “a rare look inside the systems and practices of one of the most distinctive and influential drummers of the past decade.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Video Clips:

Mark in clinic performance at the 2015 Percussive Arts Society International Convention. (PASIC).

Here’s Mark soloing (in 7/4, no less) with the group Now vs. Now, recorded back in 2010. He was remarkable even then.

Not a playing clip, but a nice backstage interview with Mark at the 2016 London Drum Show, where he discusses how he unlocks creativity.

.

.

.

Today’s Tech and Young Thumbs

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Today’s technology helps Millennials discover – and learn – fingerstyle guitar playing.

By Fred W. Gretsch

Today’s young guitarists are taking advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. Without a doubt, digital technology has played–and will continue to play–a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians. The rise and success of these young guitarists can still be attributed to good, old-fashioned drive, hard work, and hours upon hours of practice…but with some help from today’s technology to boot.

Okay, now about these “Young Thumbs”…

“Who are these kids, and why are they winning these awards?” That was the question fingerstyle guitar fans were asking back in 2013 and 2014, as a wave of young guitarists – many of them barely teenagers – were not only competing against adults in national guitar competitions, they were also winning.

Young Thumb members pose for a group photo at the 2015 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. From left: Evan Twitty, Gracie Constable, Chelsea Constable, Samuel Grounds, Parker Hastings, Kirby Jane, Tanner Duckworth, Sojourner McClure, and mentor John Knowles CPG. Photo: Jennifer Keller Easler.

John Knowles CGP (left) and Parker Hastings performing together at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. Photo courtesy of Parker Hastings.

Sixteen-year-old Sojourner McClure placed first in the Traditional Category at the 2013 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Championship, held annually at the Merle Travis Music Center in Powderly, Kentucky. The following year, history was made at the competition when 14-year-old Parker Hastings won BOTH the traditional and the contemporary thumbpicking categories (and history would be made again two years later when two young ladies swept the thumbpicking event for the first time).

In Nashville, the same youth movement was being noticed at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) Convention. Although not a competition, the largest gathering of fingerstyle guitar fans and performers in the country saw an increase of young attendees who were jamming with each other in the hotel lobby, and signing up for as many Open Mic slots as possible at the four-day event. Older, more established performers were noticing too, with several of them inviting these young up-and-comers onstage to play and get exposure.

At the 2014 CAAS Convention, John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, two legendary master guitarists who were both awarded Certified Guitar Player (CGP) honors from their mentor, Chet Atkins, were impressed and excited with this infusion of new talent at the Convention. John and Tommy decided the time was right to gather these teenagers in a room and have them perform for each other for the first time. The result was magical. The room was packed, the young players were jaw-dropping good, and the older players realized the future of fingerstyle playing was in very good hands. As a result, a new club was formed: The Young Thumbs. “At some point, someone suggested calling the players the Young Guns,” said John Knowles. “But I said, no, this isn’t a shootout. It’s a family. What about the Young Thumbs? It was a paraphrase of Young Guns and everyone liked it.”

The original goals of the Young Thumbs were to get them noticed at the CAAS Convention so they could perform their own sets onstage; help them make connections with the older, established guitarists and find a mentor; and encourage them to connect with each other. Two years later, these initial goals have been met. The Young Thumbs currently total about 25 male and female members up to the age of 21, with some residing as far away as New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia. In addition to the invaluable advice and encouragement they receive from John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, there’s also a small support group of adults volunteering their time to manage the Young Thumbs’ Facebook page and assist them with basic marketing and promotion.

When talking with these young guitarists and asking them about influences, two answers come up regularly: Tommy Emmanuel and YouTube. “I think it’s Tommy’s world travels and YouTube that are the two biggest factors,” said John. “Tommy is the gateway to this style of guitar playing now because there’s more people hearing him and there’s an electrifying energy in what he does. They’ll find Tommy on YouTube, then click on the recommended links and discover who came before Tommy and influenced his playing: Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Merle Travis.”

Katelyn Prieboy, Grand Champion (left), and Bella Speelman, Runner-Up, with mentor John Knowles CGP, after receiving their Gretsch guitars for being the first females to sweep the Legends Thumbpicking Championship. Photo by Ron Denny.

Two Young Thumbs members, Katelyn Prieboy and Bella Speelman, made history at the recent 2016 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, by being the first females to place first and second in the 28-year history of the event. And, both credit YouTube as being their primary teacher.

“YouTube has been simply invaluable. I don’t know how many hours a week I’m on it,” shared 19-year-old Grand Champion Katelyn Prieboy. “There’s so much music for this genre available that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s such a great resource for watching videos of your guitar heroes and learning from them.”

Runner-Up Bella Speelman, 17, and a senior in high school added, “My teacher didn’t know this style, so YouTube played a big role in me finding Chet Atkins and learning how to play like him. Although I’ve listened a ton to Chet and I’ll listen to a song at least 50 times before I try to learn it, it’s so helpful watching a video of Chet; seeing where he played things and learning by watching his movements on the fretboard.”

Fellow Young Thumbs member Parker Hastings added, “YouTube is a pretty powerful tool to see footage of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau and other artists. Literally with a click, it is all at your fingertips; an endless supply of visual inspiration. Plus, YouTube now has a feature that lets you slow the video down if you’re trying to learn or steal a lick without affecting the song’s pitch. A far superior method to how the older pickers learned back in the day: loading a turntable with coins or weights to slow the record down.”

Kirby Jane

Kirby Jane, 22 and a Young Thumbs “Alum,” is one of several female fingerstyle guitarists making a name for herself in Nashville. When asked about the importance of YouTube, Kirby shared, “I was one of those kids that started with YouTube. Joe Robinson is one of the first guitar stars of the YouTube generation. He taught himself primarily through YouTube because, like me, he lived in a small town. Joe’s videos on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’ led me to Tommy Emmanuel’s music, then Tommy’s music lead me to John Knowles. I can still remember watching Edgar Cruz’s `Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Tommy Emmanuel’s ‘Beatles Medley’ videos on YouTube. They’re the two videos that lit a spark and led me down this road to learning fingerstyle playing.”

In addition to YouTube, today’s young guitarists also take advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. GarageBand and JamUp are two apps that give them access to dozens of stompbox effects and amps and makes recording easy. GuitarToolkit is a popular app containing scales, chords, a metronome and a tuner, and Audacity TempoSloMo, and BestPractice are apps that let them import and export audio files and slow songs down for practicing and learning. Many Young Thumb artists also use OnSong, an app that replaces binders and paper, and digitally stores music and set lists. And, Skype is a very popular tool these young musicians use for staying in touch, sharing songs they’re working on, and swapping guitar licks back and forth in real time from practically anywhere in the world.

Without a doubt, digital technology has played – and will continue to play – a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians.  And, with one hour of video being uploaded onto YouTube every second, (that’s right, every second!), it will continue to be the primary site musicians go to for learning and inspiration. But, these young musicians are quick to point out that technology is only a tool. The human element of playing together with other people, jamming, sharing guitar licks, and getting feedback and encouragement from fellow musicians is still vital to their growth and development as artists. John Knowles, the main mentor of the Young Thumbs, shared, “I haven’t seen any parents pushing their kids to play like Chet Atkins. Each of these Young Thumbs found this fingerstyle playing in their own way, but once they heard it, something clicked, and from then on they were relentless like I was, like Tommy was, like Chet was, like all of us were. The Young Thumbs are all self-motivated, and they’ve gotten this far by being self-learners, self-motivated learners.”

Check out these great videos from these fantastic Young Thumbs:

Bella Speelman performing “Black Mountain Rag” at the 2016 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville, TN:

Parker Hastings performs an original composition “Looking for Licks” at 2016 CAAS Convention:

Katelyn Prieboy performing one of her favorite Chet Atkins arrangements, “Swedish Rhapsody,” from Atkins’ 1956 “Finger-Style Guitar” album:

Kirby Jane performing her arrangement of Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top”:

Parker Hastings and John Knowles CGP, performing “Cold, Cold Heart” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN:

More videos from the 2016 CAAS Convention can be enjoyed on The Gretsch Company’s YouTube Channel.
.
.