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Quick Highlights from Sweetwater's GearFest

We just got done with GearFest, and all we got was this lousy Pro Tools HD Core system.

Fort Wayne, IN (May 31, 2008) -- After a taxing seven and a half hour drive through the finest Illinois and Western Indiana had to show us, we arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana for Sweetwater’s second running of GearFest. We really hoped the event would get to a better start than ours – after losing 1000 magazines; tolerating four hotel fire alarms; missing the final three minutes of the Eastern Conference Finals as the Direct TV signal went out; and enduring one severely pissed-off thunderstorm, we were hoping for a miracle. Not even the soul-drenched stylings of GearFest’s kickoff concert, Tower of Power, could raise our spirits.

Fortunately, on Saturday morning, the clouds cleared and dulcet tones of the electric guitar began rolling out of Sweetwater’s newly minted facility – GearFest ’08 was underway and it was good. A day of deeply discounted gear and hour-long workshops in Sweetwater’s spacious headquarters, it was more than enough to boost morale. To celebrate the changing of our luck, we thought we’d pass along a few highlights, along with links to videos from the event.

Getting Started
Legendary producer Bruce Swedien opened up the show with the keynote address, recounting his studio exploits with heavy hitters like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. One particular story that taught the importance of exploration: he was working with Count Basie and decided to record the trombone solo in a corner of the studio, without any direct mics. One of the studio owners showed up to see what was going on and grew furious when he saw Swedien’s plan. “You can’t record a musician off-mic like that,” the owner said. “It just isn’t done.” When Swedien insisted, the studio owner threatened to fire him if the stunt didn’t work. The band then recorded “Night Time is the Right Time,” and the trombone solo sounded fantastic. Ingenuity 1, Establishment 0. “It ended up making my career,” he recounted.

Koch had the audience in stitches with his Fender demos.
There was a bit of early morning humor to be had with the crowd of musicians. “I haven’t been up this early in ten years. This is not the hour that we make music in the studio,” he said. Also included were stories about recording Thriller (“How do you top Off the Wall?”) and stereo’s shaky beginnings (here’s a hint: studios hated it).

Major Manufacturers
Manufacturer gear demos were the norm, but some were more entertaining than others. Bart Walsh, billed in the schedule as David Lee Roth’s guitarist, gave a spirited demo for Gibson by playing a series of classic rock licks billed as “classic Gibson moments.” We identified riffs from STP, Pearl Jam, the Eagles, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Ozzy and Metallica. A bit cheesy? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. He was playing a 2003 LP Standard stocked with Burstbucker Pros and signed by Les Paul himself, all through a POD 2.0. The closing argument? “Buy a Gibson guitar and chicks will dig you.” Sold.

Also entertaining was Fender’s afternoon demo, hosted by none other than Tele comedian Greg Koch. He showed off Fender’s new American Standard Tele, the VG Strat and the Super-Sonic amp, featuring a great blend of Vibralux clean and Bassman balls. He wowed the audience with some quick pickin’ on an off-the-rack Tele before taking everyone through the always impressive VG. If you haven’t played with it yet, do yourself a favor – from open tunings to convincing 12-string acoustics, it does it all without breaking a sweat.
Deal Central

The flea market was a draw for deal-seekers.
The flea market tent was a bustling place all day long, with dedicated tone freaks looking for sizable deals. There were some great buys to be had – we spotted a great playing, well loved Strat for $260, but weren’t able to get to the ATM in time. Also spotted were some MXL 2010s for $50 dollars, a BBE 882 Sonic Maximizer for $160 and a good-looking EH Small Stone for under $30 -- a nice way to get a taste if you haven''t yet.

Audiophile Paradise
The Pro Audio tent had a great breeze and lots of goodies for recording fans – we quickly lost count of the Cinema Displays and high-powered laptops on display. One of our favorite stops was at the Manley Labs booth, where the “TUBES RULE” stickers were handed out like candy at a parade. While they specialize primarily in super high-end, overbuilt studio gear like mic pres, their VOXBOX was of extra interest. Originally designed as a combo vocal processor, bassists quickly fell in love with its ability to produce the roundest, fattest tones around. If you’re not familiar with the company, check them out at And start saving your pennies – prices start at $4000.

Seymour Duncan and friends closed out the day with a jam session
Pickup Pioneer
Seymour Duncan was everywhere, and not just in the guitars. He gave an illuminating talk in the afternoon, detailing his upbringing in South New Jersey and his discovery of the instrument, including instructional books from Mel Bay himself. Among the names dropped in his talk were Roy Buchanan (who he sat in with at 15) and Jeff Beck (whom he created the JB for, before a little album called Blow by Blow). One of the best bits was related to his early learning of an essential technique: “My soldering iron was my mom’s butter knife heated over the gas stove,” he recalled. A great image, but the Premier Guitar legal team has instructed us to discourage readers from trying it. He also enjoyed an hour-long jam session in Sweetwater''s acoustically perfect Performance Theatre. Lots of blues, and at the apex of the jam we counted five guitars on stage, including help from Johnny Hiland and Greg Koch.

    Here''s a list of our videos so far from GearFest: