Top photo: The view from the Thanks Jimi Festival stage in the Old Market Centre of Wroclaw, Poland.
I'm no crazed daredevil, extreme athlete, circus performer, or awesome oddity, so the possibility of my sharing a Guinness World Record never zipped into my consciousness. But an invitation from Wroclaw, Poland's Thanks Jimi Festival founder, Leszek Cichoński, dropped that accomplishment right into a bucket list I didn't know I had.
On May 1, 2016, my wife, Cheryl Munoz, and I stepped onstage in Wroclaw's Old Market Centre, and joined a group of 7,356 guitar-playing crazies on a colossal rendition of "Hey Joe" that set the Guinness World Record for Largest Guitar Orchestra. The previous record — also held by the Thanks Jimi Festival — was set in 2014 with 7,344 players.
The Thanks Jimi Festival debuted in 2003, broke its first Guinness World Record for Largest Guitar Orchestra in 2006, and has claimed a total of seven Guinness World Records since then. Cichoński, who calls Wroclaw "The Guitar Heart of Europe" during the event, is an extremely enthusiastic and dedicated guitar evangelist, and he dreams of a world-wide "Guitar Union" in the future, where Jimi's music can vibrate across the planet. The man was a fantastic host, and he always seemed to have a smile on his face — even while dealing with what must have been thousands of little details on show day. He and his wife Jola even found the time and energy to cook a wonderful lunch for us and some friends at his home the day after the festival.
Leszek Cichoński at his home's
guitar-neck gate in Wroclaw that
was crafted by a neighbor.
Given the madness of the May 1 event, we were lucky to have a "personal" guide, consultant, and cultural attaché at our disposal, David Price — an American bassist and actor, who currently lives in Poland, and helps out with the Thanks Jimi Festival. Interestingly, Price is from Big Sur, California, is the son of Esalen Institute co-founder Dick Price, and returns to California each year to stage-manage the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was a blast hearing about his work in the Polish film industry, such as acting with American indie-film bad boy Vincent Gallo in Essential Killing, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.
David Price and Cheryl Munoz at a
The day of the festival was rather carefree, and it was easy to negotiate around town — something I hadn't dreamed of, given the throng of people crowding the square. Everyone was courteous and excited, and nothing but good vibes appeared to be beaming across the city. I said "hi" to Al Di Meola in one of the artist tents, just before his acoustic performance that preceded the world-record attempt (see video below). As we climbed the stairs to the stage for the big moment, I could only wave at Scott Henderson — who was one of the guest stars of the event — as there were a vast number of guitarists crowding the main stage area (students, Polish rock stars, friends of the festival, the mayor of Wroclaw, and so on). I was handed an Ibanez Andy Timmons Signature guitar to play, and Cheryl was provided a Reverend Six Gun — a rarity in those parts, as Ibanez appears to own Poland. Every electric guitar seemed to be an Ibanez, and the company had a product tent and an artist representative on hand.
From my vantage point between a
Marshall amp and the front of the
stage. Yep. It was a tight fit!
Cheryl and I onstage just minutes before breaking the
Guinness World Record for Largest Guitar Orchestra
with 7,354 other guitarists. The song was "Hey Joe."
Cichoński called a rehearsal to get the cameras, audio, and, well, all of the guitarists prepped and in sync, and then he launched into the real deal — the tremendous group performance of "Hey Joe" that set the 2016 Guinness World Record for Largest Guitar Orchestra. You'd think that all of those attendees — many carrying guitars in "suspect" tunings — would make one heck of an off-key racket, but that wasn't the case. Led by Cichoński and an inspiring solo by Henderson, the sound actually swelled into something huge and powerful and kind of beautiful. Looking out at the stunning city square on a sunny day and absorbing the joyous barrage of 7,356 guitarists playing together does not suck — trust me! If you adore the guitar — and also have a hippie's sense of community (hey, I was born in San Francisco and experienced the Summer of Love at a young, impressionable age) — this is a life-changing event. I walked around with the glow for weeks.
It was also a surprise to see myself all over European television in news coverage of the show. The Thanks Jimi Festival is a super-big deal over there, and, as someone dedicated to sharing the joy of guitar playing, it was fantastic to see guitars all over the popular news media — even for just a short spell.
I should leave you with one fun fact about Wroclaw — it's a city of gnomes. In 2001, to honor the Orange Alternative — Poland's subversive anti-communist movement — the group's symbol was installed on Świdnicka Street, where it held many of its "happenings." That symbol was a dwarf, and today, there are more than 300 of the figurines hidden in plain sight all around the city. Tourists make a sport of finding the little sprites and photographing them, and souvenir shops even sell maps to aid your quest. I won't reveal how many I found...
Where's Editor Boy?
Al Di Meola Makes the Scene!