Sweetwater Puts Together an All-Star GearFest

Steve Vai, Eric Johnson and many more dropped by at this year's edition of the annual gear extravaganza.
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Steve Vai performs with
 Sweetwater’s Nick D’Virgilio on drums and Dave Martin on bass.

Steve Vai performs with Sweetwater’s Nick D’Virgilio on drums and Dave Martin on bass.

Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Rudy Sarzo and Billy Sheehan were among the stars who headlined Sweetwater’s GearFest 2019 this past June. Held in the musical-instrument retailer’s home base of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the 18th annual GearFest featured live shows, clinics and workshops hosted by world-class music industry professionals, and, of course, truckloads of new instruments.

In addition to the performers mentioned above, GearFest 2019 included session-master Pete Thorn, gristle-king Greg Koch, Courtney Cox of the Iron Maidens, YouTube sensation Rob Scallon and online Guitar Zoom educator Steve Stine. Rounding out the artists were a number of legendary musicians who performed, shared their knowledge of music and discussed career highlights. These included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Dennis Chambers, Johnny A, Doyle Dykes and country/bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, who performed with his group Kentucky Thunder.

This year’s event was an exceptional assembly of talent, as Vai and Johnson performed separately during their individual workshop sessions but returned to the stage to jam alongside Sweetwater’s All-Stars band during the opening night Customer Appreciation Concert. The show included Vai and Dykes performing an inspired version of the George Harrison-penned Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with the house band. Another notable off-the-cuff performance included Sweetwater’s own Nick Bowcott, Sarzo and Stryper’s Michael Sweet blasting a rendition of Ozzy Osbourne’s seminal classic “Crazy Train.”

Sweetwater’s All-Stars band performs with Doyle Dykes (left) and Vai

Sweetwater’s All-Stars band performs with Doyle Dykes (left) and Vai

Clinics and workshops included Sheehan’s “Transcending Traditional Bass” session, where the bass legend discussed the equipment he uses and prefers, explained his signature performance techniques and practice habits, and provided insights on being a professional musician. Thorn presented his approach to composing and recording in his “Modern Guitar Recording and Production” seminar, where he also shared useful digital-editing tweaks and techniques. The added bonus during this session was watching him record guitar parts for a new song, only to delete and re-record sections of the song to create a polished version near the end of the session. This off-the-cuff moment revealed not only Thorn’s talent and ability as a musician but also the spontaneous nature of the GearFest event itself.

Another highlight from the workshops occurred during Bowcott’s “Tips and Tricks from the Metal Triple Threat” clinic, where he welcomed Cox, who demonstrated Dimebag Darrell’s tremolo-dipped “harmonic screams” technique. Afterward, Bowcott shared behind-the-scenes stories and led an insightful discussion about working professionally alongside Dimebag, Zakk Wylde and Kerry King. He also performed an inspired medley of Pantera music, which brought smiles and applause from everyone in the class.

While there were plenty of attractions and distractions indoors and outside, festival-goers could also climb aboard Johnny Cash’s 1979 tour bus (courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), tour the Shure microphone museum, pose for a photo standing in front of a full-stack wall of Marshall amps, sit behind Slipknot drummer Jay Weinberg’s massive SJC double-bass drum kit and much more.

Eric Johnson onstage with Sweetwater’s D’Virgilio and Martin

Eric Johnson onstage with Sweetwater’s D’Virgilio and Martin

Aside from the scheduled performances, there were plenty of opportunities to see and interact with artists, including autograph signings with Vai, Johnson and other guest musicians who showed up throughout the event. These impromptu moments also resulted in additional jam sessions, product demonstrations and meet-and-greets for everyone in attendance.

If you couldn’t make it to the event, or you did and would like to see more of GearFest 2019, Sweetwater streams video of each workshop session and live performance on sweetwater.com.

GearFest continues to grow in popularity with each passing year, and the 2019 event was attended by a record-breaking 17,000 visitors from the U.S. and countries that include Japan, Denmark and India. Next summer’s GearFest is scheduled to take place June 26 and 27, so mark your calendars and plan to go. It’s highly recommended and completely worth the trip.