Founded in 2012, Guitar Mash operates on a pretty simple concept– guitars are Great Connectors, with the power to draw people together and create community through music. Producer Rebecca Weller knew she wanted to create an interactive event, one that would draw people out of their screen-centered lives, so she conceived of a gathering where the lines between stage and audience would be blurred, and amateur and professional guitarists could play together. At the Mash, the audience is encouraged to bring in their own guitars or stringed instruments and play along with all-star “teachers.”
This year, John Schaefer from WNYC will be hosting the event, and guests will include Jackie Greene of the Black Crowes, Binky Griptite of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Bill Kirchen of Commander Cody. The cherry on top is that the money raised from ticket sales will support programs that help disadvantaged teens learn to play and perform guitar. The Fourth Annual Guitar Mash Benefit will be on Sunday, November 8 at the City Winery in New York City. The doors open at 11:30 am, and tickets start at $50. If you can’t make it, the entire event will now be streamed live, so you can play along in your living room! Purchase your tickets here.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Weller as she frantically scrambles to pull off another successful Guitar Mash, and she gave us the inside scoop on the event, from the best moments over the years to the bright future ahead for the Mash.
Elmore: Playing along with the performers… you don’t see that every day!
Rebecca Weller: No, and it’s a pretty simple idea. Erasing the line between the performers on stage and the audience facing them, it can be intimidating at first — to everybody! — but it ends up resonating a lot, not only for the audience but for the performers as well. The performers don’t only play together with the audience at Guitar Mash. They share stories, about their present and past in music, and they share tips on techniques. It’s a pretty intimate thing that happens at our shows.
EM: How did that idea come about?
RW: Throughout my producing career, I’ve gravitated towards making stuff where the audience is actively engaged. I was a co-founder of the Midsummer Night Swing festival at Lincoln Center in 1989, and also created projects like Harmony in the Kitchen, where great artists like Spalding Gray, Mark Morris & Tito Puente cooked for the audience, and shared stories about their lives and their creative processes.
I was on the board of the marvelous community music and art school Church Street School, and in 2010 had the thought of doing a sing-along/play-along to celebrate their 20th anniversary. So we set up a stage in the parking lot next to the school, and had school daddy (at the time) Mike D. of the Beastie Boys lead the crowd in Jason Mraz and “Smoke on the Water.” The production was crude, but the event was a HIT. It was clear that everyone loved playing and singing together, like an old fashioned hootenanny, a campfire on steroids — stuff you just don’t find every day in New York City, in our everyday lives attached to our screens.
I would say an unofficial “founding father” of Guitar Mash was Pete Seeger. I have very clear and happy memories of being in a huge crowd of people at the South Street Seaport when I was 7 or 8 years old, singing “If I Had a Hammer” along with Pete, his banjo and everyone around me. Communal activities like these evoke just a primal warmth and security. To be able to create an atmosphere like this for other people… people who don’t know each other… people who might have been told they can’t carry a tune, or grew up believing they weren’t “musical,” or used to be in a band but now have their guitar stored under their bed — what a privilege to create this kind of space for them. And it’s So Much Fun!!
EM: Were you ever worried it would be too logistically tough to pull off—all of these people bringing in their own guitars?
RW: YES! Our first year at City Winery, 2012, we were very concerned about where we would check guitar cases. So we made a plan with Fresh Direct (one of our supporters) to have a van parked outside of the venue, where we’d check the cases as people entered. Well, Hurricane Sandy hit three weeks before our event and Fresh Direct lost a bunch of their trucks. We ended up asking folks who were bringing guitars to bring soft cases (as we continue to do) to store under their seats. And there is some space at City Winery for hard ones. It never became a problem.
We also have to arrange seating differently to accommodate for the guitars in people’s hands, obviously, and because we want to mix together those playing and those without guitars — singing along — seating is a fluid semi-tricky thing to get perfectly right. We try…
EM: How has the event grown over the years?
RW: This year we are doing a pretty serious live stream — four cameras, so the singing and playing both onstage AND in the audience (our second stage!) will be broadcast out. Alongside the live music, we are streaming the chords and lyrics for each of the songs, so people anywhere in their living rooms or garages can play and sing along.
This year, in our “Play Room,” in addition to D’Angelico providing a selection of beautiful acoustic and electric guitars for folks to try out, we’re going to have a resident luthier working on a few guitars, and folks can come ask questions about their own instruments. We’re making a sign: “THE DOCTOR IS IN.”
We are gaining more support in sponsorship, mostly because companies — and music companies in particular — realize that Guitar Mash provides a place where the instruments and the strings are played. So it’s an audience that likes the feeling of being part of the creative process — and if they didn’t feel that way coming in, they feel that way leaving. They’re hungry for the tools to do more.
EM: Can you talk a little bit about your process for finding your performers? You’ve had such stellar line-ups in the past as well as this year. How do you choose who to ask?
RW: We want everyone to leave City Winery feeling inspired to make more music, to make singing and playing a bigger part of their social lives. Part of what inspires is learning something new and cool, and hearing the stories that accompany. So we want artists who are comfortable relating to the audience, talking to the audience, laughing with the audience, trying things with the audience.
Kaki King showed everyone her tapping technique, Nels Cline (of Wilco) went into the audience and had people letting loose on an improvised music soundscape… Then you’ve got guys like Larry Campbell leading Bob Dylan, Robert Randolph leading Stevie Wonder, just straight ahead rock-starness. What also inspires is hearing stories accompany the songs being played. Songs are breathing things, that get passed down from person to person. Copyrights aside, they don’t “belong” to anyone, and certainly not only to the professionals. Kirk Douglas (of the Roots) told a story of his father asking him to sing him “the old Pirate song,” and launched into Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. That was a magical moment singing and playing “Redemption Song” with Kirk, who had just told everyone what a special place that held in his heart from his childhood. Another element critical for me to include: exposure to a different cultural approach to music. Abdoulaye Alhassane from Mali, for example, taught the guitarists in the audience to play polytonally.
The booking and the repertoire choices are made in concert with our incredible musical director Mark Stewart, who is also the longtime guitarist and music director for Paul Simon, and one of the founding members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Nothing phases him in terms of genres, and because he is so comfortable on a wide variety of instruments (cello, saxophone, the Xaphoon!) he is free to go on whatever musical journey our guests throw his way. And he’s brought on to the bandstand some of his old friends — like Nels, like Larry — this year, we have Jerry Douglas (who Mark worked with) — probably the world’s best dobro player — flying up from Nashville. Just for us!
We put an awful lot of asks out to get our final roster of 6-8 “guitar heroes” secured. We pay only honorariums (stipends), so no one is doing this for the money, needless to say. But they often leave our gig feeling transformed, and certainly fulfilled, and it is our job, as we put out our asks every year, to convey to artists how unique and fun the experience can be.
EM: We really like the idea of music being used to create a community, especially the Teen Acoustic Guitar Project. Have you kept up with the program’s “graduates”?
RW: Some of our Teen Acoustic Guitar Project kids are back with us and will be playing on stage during the Teen-led moment we’re doing (6 Mash Teen guitarists — including a couple of students through Little Kids Rock — will be leading the audience in a Tom Petty medley, with chorus members from the Lower Eastside Girls Club, one of our non-profit partners). One of our Teen Acoustic Guitar Project kids is actually one of our featured guest guitarists this year… Brandon Niederauer. I found out about him thru the folks at Gibson a few years ago, and he was interested in being a part of the Project. So I delivered the guitar to his home, and he wrote a great little song. After seeing him on stage with Gary Clark Jr. at Summerstage in 2013, I realized we needed to get him front and center at a Mash. I’m thrilled he’s with us this year (leading Higher Ground and Back in Black) in particular, because he opens on Broadway in School of Rock November 9th!
Some of our Project kids are just starting college, so we are hoping they will be ambassadors — and that they’ll play along with our live stream next Sunday! We are planning to do a night where the kids in the Project can share their songs, and it’s one big musical party. We are launching chapter two of the project at the event… we’ve got a nice shiny Breedlove Acoustic Guitar just waiting to be composed on and sharpie-d!
And we will be doing a second Mash Mob (a.k.a. a Flash Mob) with our teens this spring. Last time they stopped traffic in Columbus Circle with Pete Seeger and Stephen Stills. “Stop, What’s that Sound?” indeed :).
EM: In the future would you consider expanding Guitar Mash to other cities in the US? How can we all work to further music education and create a nationwide guitar movement?
RW: Yes, we plan to go to other cities — we’ve had several asking that we come — but want to make sure we have the right support and infrastructure in place before we do. The success of a Guitar Mash event is not just putting star guitarists on stage and having a bunch of people come play and sing with them. Creating the right atmosphere in the room takes the right leader and a production team that knows how to make the person in the audience as much of a star as the artist on stage. Getting the right mix of audience, one that includes teens who might not otherwise have access to these kinds of experiences, requires connecting with local music educators and schools. Finding the right leader that engages every person in the audience– whether they’re beginners or more serious players, or don’t play at all– and makes them feel welcome and open to share; this is critical.
Of course, every Mash does not need to be such a production and part of our goal — in addition to expanding Mashes in New York (dream: 1,000 guitars and singers playing with guitar stars at The Armory) and to other cities — is to provide the tools for guitarists to create their own Mashes. Tools like digital master classes with Mark Stewart showing you how to lead and a selection of appropriate song charts. It’s all in the Master Plan! But we like the word “movement.” That’s good.
EM: Anything else you’d like to tell us about your event!?
RW: I need to go plan it now!