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Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

18 Years of GearFest

Michele DeVinney

Michele DeVinney

Whatzup Features Writer

Published June 13, 2019

Fort Wayne’s contribution to the arts has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and a big part of that explosion has come alongside the higher profile of Sweetwater on the world stage.

As Sweetwater and its hometown have come to be the gear capital of the world, it’s only right that GearFest, the annual celebration of music and all the tools needed to make it, has grown too and is now highly anticipated by musicians and music fans alike.

The Personal Touch

The origins of GearFest, now in its 18th year, stemmed from the somewhat impersonal nature of interstate commerce. Sweetwater Founder and CEO Chuck Surack wanted to change that dynamic.

“It really began because Sweetwater was doing most of its business over the phone,” said Bob Bailey, executive director of the Sweetwater Academy of Music and Technology and of GearFest. “That’s how the business itself really began. It was before the internet so those earlier years it was all just the catalog and phones. Chuck wanted to invite friends and customers to meet the staff and the sales engineers, and it has since grown to one of the largest trade shows in the country.”

Last year’s GearFest drew 15,000 for the ever-growing list of seminars and events. It has evolved over the course of these 18 years in ways that even Sweetwater might not have anticipated.

“It really has changed over the years,” Bailey said. “We used to focus on seminars, some of which were educational, some of which were entertaining. Hopefully some were a little bit of both. Now people come to see the gear, and we’re bringing in big-name engineers and artists. Of course, the deals are also a big attraction.”

Customer Appreciation Concert

The week culminates with a concert which takes place at the beautiful Sweetwater Pavilion. With GearFest held on June 21-22, that Friday night following the close of that day’s GearFest workshops and sessions will see the world-class musicians of Sweetwater All-Stars take the stage at 6:30 p.m. for the Customer Appreciation Concert. The All-Stars include many of Sweetwater’s renowned musicians featuring, among others, Surack on saxophone.

After their set, some of the week’s guest engineers and artists share the stage for a jam session sure to please the crowd which last year grew to 4,000.

Bailey calls this year’s lineup “the most broad and diverse that we’ve had in recent memory,” and it includes people who have worked with some of the biggest names in music.

Among those artists will be Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Sylvia Massy, Randall Smith, Keith Carlock, David Pack, Billy Sheehan, and Dennis Chambers. Others include guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, formerly of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, whose credits include James Taylor, Carole King, and Linda Ronstadt. Ricky Skaggs is bringing his entire Kentucky Thunder band to talk about microphones.

This list barely scratches the surface of the talent coming to town for GearFest. With 30 workshops on Friday and another 34 sessions on Saturday, there’s something for everyone including musicians, engineers, songwriters, performers, and any other area of musical interest.

Camping and (of course) the gear

Many who attend GearFest are local, but many others are not. For those who wish to stay overnight during the festival, Sweetwater is providing primitive campgrounds for up to 500 people to stay. On-site camping, with either a tent or recreational vehicle, can be secured for free by registering with Sweetwater (at the same website as above).

And then, of course, there’s the gear.

“We have more vendors introducing and launching new products this year than ever,” Bailey said. “People who visit GearFest will be the first people to see the new products that are available.”

That in itself is exciting, but what people who visit GearFest are likely anticipating are the deals available throughout the two-day nirvana for gearheads.

“The deals are amazing,” Bailey said. “I don’t think we really talk about that enough. Everything is on sale. The off-the-sheet deals, which the vendors won’t let us publish, are outstanding. If anyone is looking for a new guitar, new drum set, or a new keyboard, they should head here for GearFest. It’s the best deal they’ll get all year.”


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