Where can you catch Larry Carlton, Adrian Belew, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Reed Smith, Nita Strauss and many other industry legends, all in one go? They were among the participants at Sweetwater’s GearFest 2018, held this past June 22 and 23 on the music retail giant’s campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Now in its 17th year, GearFest has grown into a truly educational and entertaining experience. The annual two-day music trade event combines the latest and greatest musical equipment and products from countless manufacturers with workshops, presentations and clinics — all hosted by an impressive roster of talent, including modern musicians and industry legends. As always, this year’s activities included workshops and performances inside Sweetwater’s massive indoor campus, but much of the action took place outdoors. Guests enjoyed booths and exhibits housed under spacious and waterproof tents, as well as a flea market of used gear and “open-box” equipment at radically reduced prices. A generous number of food trucks were on hand, along with free bottled water, to keep attendees fed and happy throughout the activities.
Perhaps the biggest thrills were reserved for Sweetwater’s massive 24,000-squarefoot Pavilion performance stage and seating area, where a number of live performances and workshops were held during both days of the show. The venue hosts high-profile acts and national touring artists throughout the year and can hold up to 3,500 people.
The gear tents numbered more than 20 and were arranged by instrument — which was good news for guitarists, who didn’t have to compete for volume with drummers, vocalists, keyboardists or other musicians and instruments. Indoors, Sweetwater offered plenty of additional presentations, ranging from workshops and clinics in traditional classrooms to events held in the company’s state-of-the-art recording studio as well as in performance halls and conference areas. Every session revealed an array of inspiring and notable talents who shared knowledge on a variety of subjects covering a range of musical styles and instruments.
The first day’s events included Greg Koch’s “Guitar Pickups and Amplification” seminar, Mark Halcomb’s “Achieving Great Tone on the Road” workshop and Adrian Belew’s “Power Trio Clinic.” Each of these one-hour sessions allowed time for plenty of interaction between presenters and participants. The day closed with a double-billed live performance featuring Chicago’s Little Kids Rock All-City Modern Band and the Sweetwater All-Stars, a nine-piece group made up of the retailer’s talented employees. The concert was sprinkled with a number of special guest artists, including Paul Reed Smith, who performed a number of songs during the set.
The majority of workshops and product demonstrations combined live performance and general instruction with informative Q&As, where attendees could dig deeper into the minds of their favorite musicians, such as studio guitar legend Larry Carlton. Hosted by Sweetwater’s Mitch Gallagher and held in the company’s luxurious indoor Performance Theater, Carlton’s revealing session saw him answer a range of questions — compiled by Sweetwater via the internet — about his lengthy and extensive music career. The guitarist also found time to take additional queries from the audience during the presentation. Carlton gave the crowd cogent and lucid advice, including the gem: “You won’t run out of ideas if you play less” — one of the many examples of useful information and instruction passed around Sweetwater’s property on both days of the festival. Needless to say, there were plenty of performers to watch, a ton of gear to demo and much to please the senses — but there were also plenty of opportunities for attendees to learn more about their artistry and craft.
The second day delivered another full schedule of workshops and live performances that showcased an entirely different selection of musicians and sessions. This included Act of Defiance guitarist Chris Broderick’s “Mindful Practice” clinic, John Scofield and Peter Erskine’s “Inside the Groove” session and Alice Cooper guitarist Nita Strauss’s “Tips and Insights” workshop. But without a doubt, the highlight of the day was the event-closing live performance and Q&A session with shred-guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen. Hosted by Sweetwater’s Nick Bowcott (of Grim Reaper fame) and presented by Fender, Malmsteen’s finale gave attendees a taste of his neoclassical shred mastery and provided additional insights into the guitarist’s music career, practice habits, influences and more.
Sadly, the festivities coincided with the death of legendary Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, who passed away at his home in Las Vegas on June 22. News of his demise filtered through the crowd on the first night of GearFest. The next day, during an emotional dedication and live performance, Bowcott joined forces with Strauss at the end of her clinic for a brutal rendition of Pantera’s “Walk,” which was dedicated to Vinnie and his brother — and onetime bandmate — the late Dimebag Darrell. The crowd roared its approval at this beyond-fitting tribute to the fallen metal legends. The performance reportedly took place without rehearsal, and it proved to be one of the festival’s highlights.
By anyone’s estimation, GearFest 2018 was a hugely successful celebration of music, musicians and gear. More than 15,000 people attended, including visitors from all 50 states and beyond — even as far as Japan. Sweetwater’s GearFest has established itself as one of the summer’s premier music events. Preparations are already underway for GearFest 2019, which will take place next June 21 and 22. Visit sweetwater.com/gearfest to stay up to date on the latest developments.