Shredheads, start your engines: we're officially mere weeks away from the 2019 Melbourne Guitar Show, where for two days in August (Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th, to be precise), every guitarist worth their fretboard will cram themselves into the Caulfield Racecourse to see, try and buy the latest in guitars – and guitar-related technology – cop some A+ lessons from virtuous hailing from all around the world, and witness the soul-melting magic of a performing lineup that's nothing short of incredible.
In case you've been living under a rock, we at Australian Guitar have spent the better part of the past two months getting down to the wire with a handful of the top-notch musicians taking to the stage at this year's event. But of course, the performers are just one part of a much larger puzzle when it comes to organising the biggest gathering of guitar lovers in the country. To learn a little more about how it all comes together, and why 2019 is the best year for punters to get involved, we caught up for a chat with Rob Walker – CEO of the Australian Music Association, NAMM Award winner, and the head honcho behind the Melbourne Guitar Show.
So before we jump into everything about this year’s event, I wanna go back in time a bit: where did the idea for the Melbourne Guitar Show first come from?
The history goes back a fair way, because I started the Melbourne Guitar Show in 1992 when I was involved in an organisation called the Victorian Rock Foundation – we used to run the Melbourne Music Festival, and I initiated the Melbourne Guitar Show as part of that. We ended up at the Melbourne Town Hall in ’93 and ’94, and then the Melbourne Music Festival sort of ceased to exist in the mid ‘90s and I moved on to other things. I started working for the Australian Music Association [henceforth AMA] shortly thereafter and we used to organise big music shows in Sydney and so forth, so the Guitar Show went to one side for a while.
In the mid 2000s, I started working with Allan’s Music and we ran a couple of Melbourne Guitar Shows throughout the 2000s, and we also ran some shows in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane – they were mostly retail shows. And then in 2015, the opportunity popped up for the AMA to introduce another event into our calendar, so I proposed that we look at revisiting Melbourne Guitar Show. So we had a go in 2015, and the rest is history! We’ve been going strong ever since!
How would you say guitar culture has shifted between the Melbourne Guitar Shows of the mid '90s and now?
I think throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the guitar was electric and rock bands were really popular in the mainstream and with young people – and people have grown old with that as well. Y’know, we get a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s come to the show, and they’ve lived with the guitar their whole lives. I think the guitar is used a lot differently now – there’s a lot more electronic music, of course, which is mainstream – and the genres have really divided; there weren’t as many genre divides in the days when we first started. The electric guitar was absolutely peaking in the mid 2000s when we ran guitar shows for Allan’s Music. But the electric guitar has sort of changed – it’s completely turned around on itself, because acoustic guitars are now much more popular than they were in the 2000s. The roles have reversed.
Personally, I like that there's a lot more genres of music today – it opens up the opportunity for the guitar to be used in more interesting and unconventional ways.
If I look at electronic music, I see guitars being used in a different way. Rather than being the hero lead instrument, it tends to be a more textural one. You can even turn the guitar into a synthesiser with the right software! But y'know, the electric guitar has got to try and grow with the technology that's available as well. In numbers, there's a lot fewer [electric guitars] imported than there were ten years ago, and I think that's reflected in what we would call mainstream pop or rock music. I don’t know whether you could say that the emergence of more singer-songwriters and acoustic acts has diluted [the effect of the electric guitar on mainstream music], but there's no doubt that that style of music has grown. I think there’s more women playing the guitar these days as well, and I think a lot of women – like most of us – start on the acoustic guitar. So that’s probably helped in that reversal of fortunes.
Since the Melbourne Guitar Show made it’s "comeback" in 2015, now leading up to what is arguably going to be the biggest one yet, how would you say the event has grown in the past five years.
Well, I think one main thing is that we’re using the venue a lot better. We’ve been able to work with the Caulfield Racecourse so that in August, we don’t have any outdoor events – we've been able to adapt to the venue inside, and I think that's helped the show grow in the quality of its presentation. In terms of floor space, we've got three levels now, whereas when we started the show, we had one and a half operating. We didn't have a dedicated acoustic floor then, for example – but after the first year, and seeing the general noise that goes with the electric guitars and amps and everything, we split the show. We put acoustic guitars up on the first level, and we put in a bigger stage for acoustic performers.
I think that having an indoor event in August is a really good thing, for a start, because Melbourne in August gets a bit chilly; we were really lucky in the first couple of years with our weather [laughs]. And we've got roughly 50 percent more stands than we had in our first year. We've attracted people who specialise in acoustic guitars, because they can have their own floor with no noise. The punter also likes that because they come to the show to see, try and buy, and to be able to listen to an acoustic guitar on a floor where there’s no amplified noise makes a huge difference. And we’re getting great support from the industry – we’ve got more interstate retailers onboard, for example, and the Melbourne Guitar Show is starting to become a central marketing platform for the music products industry.
What is it about this year’s event that you’d say is going to make it more special than any of the Melbourne Guitar Shows that have come before it?
Well, that’s a good question, because I really liked last year's event too, and the year before – they’ve all been great shows, so what we try to do is just maintain that level of quality. They might not be household names to a lot of people, but we've got some very talented guitar players coming to perform this year. We've had a couple of English superstars come to the show throughout the years – last year we presented Albert Lee, which was a great thrill – but we have a few guys coming down from the US this year. It looks like we're going to have Jake Bowen from Periphery come to perform and do a workshop for Ibanez. We’ve got Keith Merrow coming over with D’Addario and Schecter, and we have another blues player, Dennis Jones, who we’ve sort of discovered ourselves – we met him in the States earlier this year, and he’s a great blues player in the Stevie Ray Vaughan style.
We’ve also got the likes of Ash Grunwald, Lloyd Spiegel, Phil Manning, Minnie Marks, Anna Scionti, Van Larkins… The list goes on! It’s really just the quality of the presentation, and what the punter’s going to get for their $25, really, is what we try to keep really consistent. We’ve got workshop sessions from Fractal Audio, Roland, Schecter, Yamaha, Vox, Fender… It just looks like a really solid lineup lineup this year. And we’re maintaining a strong focus on diversity, too – there’s lots of different styles on show this year.
As the man behind the Melbourne Guitar Show, what are you most excited to see at this year's event?
I feel pretty lucky that I can get around the whole show and check out a little bit of so much. What I'm most excited about is seeing people enjoy themselves. I’m excited because the Melbourne Guitar Show is run by a not-for-profit organisation, so all of our proceeds go back into projects and events, advocacy for music making, and things that benefit the whole industry. I’m excited about that aspect, and the way this thing has developed. The AMA represents most of the exhibitors and members, who are all passionate people. So I'm excited that we’re putting money back into music, and investing in our own industry. I’m excited to see a lot of the young players we have this year – we try to not have the same lineup all the time, of course, and we’ve got some fantastic young talent this year.
And really, I’m just excited for all the happy people that come to see the show, and walk away feeling inspired to play the guitar. That’s what we do it for; we do it to excite and inspire people, and we try to do that with the best possible examples, the best players and the best equipment.
Melbourne Guitar Show 2019
Stars (ft. Mal Eastick, Nick Charles and Roger McLachlan)
James Norbert Ivanyi
Cartridge Family (ft. Sarah Carroll and Suzanna Espie)
Simon Hosford’s Fair Warning
Saturday August 3rd + Sunday 4th
Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne VIC
Tickets on sale via australianmusician.com.au