The National Guitar Summer Workshop

In 1984, David and Barbara Smolover of Lakeside, CT founded the National Guitar Summer Workshop (NGSW). (It was a time when you could go into a bank with a 1-page business plan and get a loan.) The idea was to create a summer program for all levels and styles of guitar, from rock to blues to classical to jazz to acoustic.

The curriculum quickly expanded to include courses in bass, drums, keyboards, voice, songwriting, theory, and technology. A central part of the experience from the start were the Master Workshops with many of the world’s leading musicians including Chet Atkins, Pat Metheny, Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde,  Yngwie Malmsteen, Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of Phish (both are Workshop alum), Jim Hall, David Russell, John Scofield, Michael Hedges, Jordon Rudes and John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Larry Coryell, Leo Kottke, the Assad Brothers, Buddy Guy, Leslie West (Mountain), Marty Friedman (Megadeth) and many, many others.

It wasn’t easy finding a home for the Workshop. No college or prep school wanted to rent their dorms and classrooms to a guitar program. They had to dispel the idea that guitar meant sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Literally, the last school on the list, The South Kent School, not only agreed to house the program, but their business manager helped arrange financing with the school’s bank. 

Over the first four years NGSW grew from 163 students to over 1000. They ranged in age from 14 to 80. In 1988, they were operating 7 weeklong-sessions at the Canterbury School in New Milford, CT and opened a West Coast campus in San Rafael, CA. Over the next 24 years the National Guitar Workshop (Summer was dropped in the early 90s) became the country’s largest summer program of its kind with 11 campuses (Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Texas, Illinois, Washington, California (LA & SF), Canada, England and Germany). 

The week-long session was described by students as a guitar bootcamp. Classes ran from 9 to 12 then a break for lunch followed by classes from 1 to 4. At least twice a week a master artist gave a workshop at 4 and a concert that evening. Often the visiting master artist would bring students up to play on stage with them. After dinner the students rehearsed for the evening performances. The faculty performed on the first night and every other night the students performed. 

One of the most unique features of NGW was its inclusive and supportive environment. Over 94% of the students rated the Workshop as one of the three best educational experiences of their life. The tuition not only covered classes, but also included room and board. The staff and students lived on campus, took meals together and formed life-long friendships. From its first year the age breakdown of the students was remarkably consistent: 50% between 14 and 17, 10% between 18 and 39, and 40% between 40 and 70. Many adult students brought their daughters and sons. And in 2011 a student who was 16 in 1987 returned for a week of classes with his 14-year-old son. 

The National Guitar Workshop spawned a publishing company that partnered with Alfred Music to publish over 450 instruction titles in everything from guitar to banjo. In 1999 NGW created a day program for younger students (8 to 15) and opened over 25 camps across the county. Finally in 2005 NGW brought its program online in the form of 2400 video lessons under the name WorkshopLive.

Over the years NGW had more than 45,000 students. Unfortunately, due to the recession of 2008 enrollment in summer programs declined rapidly and NGW had to close its doors in 2012.

(by David Smolover)

Published on June 8, 2022

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