Walter Strauss swayed back and forth as he played his guitar in front of the small crowd gathered at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center Saturday, thumping his foot to keep tempo.
He performed alone at center stage, his callused fingers rapidly picking at the guitar strings. Some in the crowd nodded their heads to the acoustic beat. Others sat calmly with their eyes closed.
“What I get out of performing is the connection with the audience,” Strauss, a Sebastopol resident and professional musician, said after his set. “Music is a place where I can freely express myself.”
Strauss’ performance was one of a dozen featured acts Saturday at the Sebastopol Guitar Festival, now in its seventh year. The event included nonstop musical acts from noon to 10 p.m. in the community center’s main hall, and those attending who brought their guitars took advantage of six musical classes and workshops held in a nearby building. Topics ranged from the basics of singing to an intro course on technique for slide guitar, often used in blues. A group of luthiers displayed custom-made guitars in one part of the festival and answered questions from attendees about the guitar- making process.
About 200 people were expected to attend, ranging from novice to lifelong guitar enthusiasts. Many come just to hear the performances, said Kevin Russell, the festival’s organizer and founder.
“These are the kinds of events that bring everybody together, and I love that,” Russell said. “You have young people sitting in these classes with people who have dedicated their lives to learning how to make music on their instrument.”
Russell, 66, started the event in 2013 after organizers of a similar festival in Healdsburg decided they would no longer put on the gathering. Since then, the Sebastopol festival has evolved every year, moving away from its initial focus on acoustic guitar playing and the guitar-building process by incorporating other aspects of musical performance, such as singing and songwriting. The festival also hosts classes on a wide array of musical styles, including swing, rock-and-roll and blues. A $33 ticket earned attendees an all-day pass, while people who only wanted to attend the latter portion of the festival without any of the classes paid $17.
‘‘There’s been a lot of development,” Russell said. “It’s become a lot broader.”
Among the instructors leading classes on Saturday was Chris Grampp, an Oakland-based landscape architecture teacher who’s played the guitar for more than five decades and who has taught courses for the event since it started. His course, “Pentatonic Magic,” taught guitar players how to play a pentatonic scale, which uses five notes and can be adjusted to play different styles of music, such as jazz or Latin, Grampp said.
Several students were able to improvise as he played along with them by the end of the 75 minute-class. Others left with knowledge they could build, working toward mastery of the instrument.
“Most people are really afraid of improvising and I want them to know it’s much easier than they think,” Grampp said. “They can go home and improvise tonight. That makes me feel good.”
Hazel Brown, 69, drove from Burlingame to attend Saturday’s event. She was drawn by a songwriters panel and a class on the Nashville Numbering System, which uses numbers to transcribe music.