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Making Electric History in Motor City: The Michigan Guitar Show Celebrates 30 Years

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • Anniversary
  • July 2019
• Created: July 10, 2019

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Up near Motor City, there’s a decades-old electric tour de force that just won’t quit.

The road to 30 years of the Michigan Guitar Show has not been an easy one, but at this point, founder Gordy Lupo knows that it’s too much of a necessary event in the Detroit area to ever stop.

Since starting the show in 1989, in addition to ownership of his instrument store Gordy’s Music, the vintage guitar market has taken a handful of turns, from its meteoric rise in the ‘90s, to its eventual decline come the turn of the century. Still, Lupo acknowledges there’s a serious need for what he and his shop offer every year.

So much so, that for the special anniversary edition (which took place in late June), he restored it to the event’s old full-weekend glory, and also brought it to a new locale – the Emerald Theatre.

It’s quite the ordeal that he organized with his small staff at 70 years old. After orchestrating the show for 30 years, Lupo shows no signs of complacency.

“It’s 10 weeks away,” he told MMR in April. It’s actually driving me nuts. I’m not kidding. I mean, I can’t shake it. I mean, I try to forget about it, but it just keeps haunting me.”

Specifically, Lupo took a few extra risks this year for the anniversary edition of the show, which took place June 29 and 30 – he not only secured a special location on the East Side of Detroit for this year, but he made the event two days (as opposed to one in previous years) and moved the show to the summertime instead of the fall.

Lupo founded Gordy’s Music in Ferndale in 1986 with his wife, starting things off by selling about 40 or 50 vintage guitars and a dozen amps from a 400-square foot shop that had no bathroom (“I wanted to play it safe – I didn’t want to go out of business,” Lupo says).

During the early years of the store, Lupo happened upon a guitar show ad in Guitar Player magazine, prompting him to attend the Missouri event 800 miles away. The success of that very first show spurred on a habit for Lupo, as he started to attend upwards of 15 guitar shows a year in Nashville, while still keeping Gordy’s Music going back home in Ferndale. Somewhere in between Michigan and Tennessee, the idea to keep things local hit him.

“Sure enough, the wife and I were on the road doing some guitar show,” he said. “And when you’re on the road you get some good thinking time in. It just hit me and we started talking about it, you know, “When we get back we’re gonna have a guitar show. People want to know why we don’t have them.”

When Lupo and his wife debuted the Michigan Guitar Show in 1989, things escalated quickly – as Lupo puts it, “off the hook”-level – quickly in the 2,600 square foot space they had rented.

“I mean, it was just insane. There were guys setting up booths out in the parking lot,” he recalls. “I way oversold that show. I turned a lot of guys away that wanted to set up and it was a free-for-all, it was out of control. Everybody still talks about it around here to this day.”

Lupo learned quickly from that first year’s overflow, going on to book 50,000 square feet of fairgrounds for the future editions of the show throughout the 1990s. Come the end of the decade, though, matters in the market started to fluctuate in the opposite direction.

“That was our peak, and that was the peak of the vintage guitar industry in the ‘90s,” Lupo explains. “Then the decline of vintage guitar selling and finding [came] towards the end of the ‘90s, it all started to taper back down. The show got smaller again. We just had to roll with the punches on that part of it and we stayed at the fairgrounds for about eight, 10 years, and then we couldn’t afford it anymore. We were getting less dealer participation. We actually added a whole other room, then we took the room away.”

The Michigan Guitar Show adapted each year, moving to smaller venues and eventually cutting the three-day affair to two days, then to just one day. Being an independent MI store with a limited staff, keeping the show in business without sacrificing the security of Gordy’s Music running smoothly has been a huge priority.

“It was a gradual trimming, cutting back on the venue, making it a one-day show. We trimmed it fast and that’s how we survived,” Lupo elaborates. “We stayed a one-day show for over 10 years. Like I said, the whole guitar industry was on a downslide and it got down to a smaller venue. And one day, it was enough. We took care of all of the business that had to be taken care of. We could do it in one day, it was a lot cheaper, and I didn’t want my show to be a boring show where everybody is looking at each other going, ‘What the hell?’ When it started to get like that, I said, ‘I’m not doing this. I’m not going to do this.’ So we made it a one day show. It was very busy. Everybody was happy.”

Come 2009, Lupo even took a year off from organizing the show because he felt depressed about the decline he had witnessed since the late ‘90s. His break would turn out to be extraordinarily short-lived.

“You know what? It was more work, believe it or not, not having that show,” Lupo says. “Because I kept getting all these phone calls. I kept getting all my customers saying, ‘How come?’ It took more time to explain why we’re not having one.”

To Lupo, the significant fuss over the show’s absence just proved how vital is was to the community, despite the fact that the vintage guitar market had become leaner.

“Somebody else didn’t just step right in and take my place, so I felt like I had to do it,” he says. “So I kept doing it.”

For the 30th anniversary, though, Lupo elected to restore the show to two days and bring it to a location on the other side of Detroit at the Emerald Theatre. The theater has three tiers, complete with a small club and PA system, ideal for hosting guitar clinics and performances on both days. Dylan Dunbar with Reverend Guitars, Jake Allen from Takamine Guitars, and Larry McCray with Echopark Guitars will all be in attendance to host free clinics.

“For the past 10 years, we found a real good venue, but it’s out on the West Side by the airport,” he explained back in April. “So we’ve been stuck on the West Side for 10 years [as] a very successful one-day show. Now it’s the 30th anniversary. We’re moving it to the way East Side and we’re sticking our neck out renting this theater for the whole weekend – we’re having a two-day show with a Friday setup like everybody used to do back in the day. We’re recreating that, and so we’re going to see how this goes. We didn’t want to have it in the fall at our other venue because we wanted it to be special.”

Albeit anxious, Lupo said the excitement around town was palpable, especially since the new location was more convenient for many of the guests: “The vibes I’m getting around town, everybody is thumbs up, especially East Side because it’s an hour drive for a guy on the East Side to go to our show [ordinarily]. Now we’re in their neighborhood, we’re going to pull a lot from Port Huron which is north of Mount Clemens on the East Side. It’s a different draw. But we do have 2,600 people on our show mailing list.”

Thankfully, attendance has remained consistent of late, averaging 500 to 750 guests per day. It’s a significant drop from what Lupo saw on the fairgrounds in the ‘90s – more like 1,500 folks per day then – but he was optimistic that there will be a spike in attendance this year since it’s an anniversary edition.

“I’m anticipating 1,000 people a day. That’s my goal. If I don’t do 1,000 people a day, I’m gonna be upset with myself for not doing a good enough job. But I’ve been working on this show for three and a half months already,” he said in the spring.

As of late June, however, Lupo confirmed to MMR that the show was already nearly sold out and he anticipated having to start a waiting list for vendors. Equally exciting is the fact that the Steve Miller Band will be stopping by in the early morning – a secret to the public as we at MMR write this article, but by the time this magazine is in your mailbox, it will have been a highlight of the show for sure.

The news bodes well for Lupo, who earlier in the year expressed a desire to see some faces from the show’s formative years who launched their careers largely using the show.

“I’m kind of hoping to see some old faces from over the decades,” he said. “A lot of guys started out pretty small at our shows – I watched a lot of these guys grow into ‘vintage guitar’ icons. It’d just be nice to get some of the guys in there from the old days.”

And for Lupo, 30 years in, his wish was granted.

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