Wouldn’t it be great to have a friendly, nonjudgmental and noncompetitive environment where you can share your ideas and love of music? The Guitar Church in Western Canada and the Guitar League of Syracuse, New York, have been hard at work to create just that: a safe haven for closet pickers and pros alike to come together and share their passion for guitars and music.
“I started it in 2006, and within a few weeks, I had about 100 people coming from 50 miles around,” says Tom Cameron, 48, founder and director of Guitar Church. “I realized that I had hit something unique, something not offered in the community.” He approached his home church and asked if he could use the facilities during their downtime on Saturday mornings. Now, in four short years, Guitar Church programs have spread to eight different locations throughout Calgary and Alberta.
On the other side of the continent, the Guitar League is thriving in Syracuse, New York. Started in 2005 by four close-knit local performers and guitar enthusiasts, the meetings have grown from a modest 18 to a consistent attendance of around 120. Founding member Jim Horesman, 57, originally conceived the idea for a guitar meet-up group in Syracuse. “Within a couple of days, Jim had a website up,” says fellow founding member and local guitar legend Loren Barrigar, now 49. “He really acted on the idea.”
The philosophies of these two groups are identical: bring guitar enthusiasts from all walks of life together to share their love of music. The Guitar Church accomplishes this by organizing 10-week stints that meet once a week, where participants sign up ahead of time for a school-like course. The Guitar League, on the other hand, holds open-ended monthly meetings that happen year-round.
Other than that, the meetings are surprisingly similar. Both groups begin with a guest speaker, usually a local professional or celebrity musician, then the members break off into smaller sessions based on levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced, or as the Guitar League calls them: rookies, minors, and majors.
Participants self-select which break-out group they want to be a part of, which takes out any notion of competition between members. It’s not uncommon to see intermediate and advanced players jumping down into the beginners group to learn something they didn’t know. “I’ve been playing since I was 14, but I’m a sub-rookie at classical guitar,” says founding member Dick Ward, 68. “There are so many different styles you can delve into.”
Unlikely groups of people show up to each meeting, all drawn together by their love of the instrument. “Guitar Church bridges all different levels of ability, ages, and denominations,” says Cameron. “Some people don’t belong to a church at all.” At any given Guitar Church meeting, young goth and emo kids, with their spiked hair and electric guitars, can be seen playing next to retired acoustic strummers. “By the time 10 weeks is up, students learn an appreciation for different styles of music,” Cameron adds.
“The Guitar League allows me to be part of a scene,” says 47-year-old James Horan, a dedicated member of the group who is now a managerial fixture of the Guitar League. “A group of people to share with, who can be excited about what you’re doing, and you can be excited about what they’re doing.”
Many people who show up are afraid to play in public, so it’s important to note that no one is required to play at these meetings. “The guitar league is geared towards closet pickers,” says Horan. “I showed up to my first meeting without my guitar because I thought I would be embarrassed, but I ended up being embarrassed because I didn’t have a guitar.” Now, after nearly five years with the group, he has grown from only playing in the privacy of his own home to regularly performing at open mikes and parties. “I recently played in front of 300 people,” Horan continues. “Certainly I’ve benefited as much as anybody from Guitar League.”
Horan’s story of musical growth is not unique in the Guitar League. “I’ve seen players who have never played outside their living rooms, and [later] some of them have opened up for me at my shows,” says Barrigar, who makes his living as a professional musician. “I’ve been really blessed to be a part of this thing,” he continues. “What’s really helped me is being able to give back to the members.”
Celebrity guests often stop in to perform and share some hard-earned knowledge with the meet-up groups. Names like Paul Colman, a popular solo artist from Australia, and Caleb Quaye, who toured with Elton John, have come to speak with Guitar Church. “I’ve been really blessed to have these guys come teach for us,” says Cameron.
The Guitar League has had pros such as Tommy Emmanuel and Stephen Bennett come perform and give master classes to the group.
Guitar Church’s tuition, which is around $150, is used to hire teachers and performers. To keep it accessible, the cost is negotiable for low-income families. “The underlying thing is benevolence,” says Cameron. “We have never turned anybody away.”
The Guitar League keeps costs down through corporate sponsorships and by keeping a nonprofit mentality. “We don’t make money at this,” says Ward. “We are more interested in making it affordable and accessible.” Yearly memberships are only $50, which often includes free tickets for concerts hosted by the league.
Both of these groups firmly believe that it is never too late to pick up a guitar. “There’s a gentleman in his late 60s who used to follow some of us around in the coffee shops,” Ward recounts. “One day, he said ‘I don’t play the guitar, but could I come to a meeting just to watch?'” Although the man was hesitant at first, Ward convinced him to take some lessons and pick up the instrument. “Now, he can sit down in his living room and enjoy himself with an instrument that he never thought he could play,” says Ward.
“This is really a training ground for musicians,” says Cameron. “It’s not necessarily just for young people, but also people who had buried their talents and are now exercising them.”
Meet-up groups can also bring families together. “One morning, I was cleaning up and a father with two teenage daughters came up to me,” Cameron says. “He thanked me with tears in his eyes. ‘This is the only thing I have in common with my teenage daughters. Now we can go home and talk about guitars.'”
This article is from our July-August 2010 issue. Click to order!