Sunday, April 1, 2018

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (March 1988)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from re-reading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue. Click here to see all of the previous posts!

In March of 1988 I was playing my new Epiphone Sheraton II along with my Peavey T-15 and newly acquired Fender Avalon acoustic, taking lessons with my GIT-trained teacher Jim McCarthy, and continuing to swim in a blend of music, from jazz on radio station WRTI, classic rock on stations WMMR and WYSP, pop and metal on MTV, country on The Nashville Network and Austin City Limits, and blues on a local radio station whose call sign I forget. The varied content in the March 1988 Guitar Player, featuring as it did articles on Chuck Berry, bebopper Rory Stuart, blues/world music/composer for movies star Ry Cooder, country bassist Emory Gordy Jr., and western swing legend Eldon Shamblin definitely would have appealed to my wide-ranging musical interests.

I remember this issue pretty well; in fact I have a very clear memory of bringing it to school with me and reading it there. Re-reading it makes it clear that nearly EVERYTHING I know about Chuck Berry came from this issue; it is probably where I learned about western swing (though I know that I had at least one Asleep at the Wheel record, so that might not be totally the case). I know that this might be one of the first issues that I kept re-reading (mostly for the Chuck Berry parts-- all of which are heavily underlined, starred and otherwise marked up by yours truly) and remember taking it to one of my lessons. That day I showed the Berry article to my teacher, who pulled out several mimeographed basic rock lessons from GIT and gave them to me to study (they are still in my music folder to this day, very well thumbed).

In 1988 Chuck Berry was 62 years old, only three decades removed from the prime of his career (hard to imagine that!) and coming off a mini-renaissance highlighted by the publication of an autobiography and the movie "Hail Hail Rock n Roll", where Keith Richards put together an all-star band (including Chuck's piano collaborator from the '50's Jonnie Johnson) to give Berry a chance to play with competent musicians, as opposed to the local pickup groups specified in his contract riders.  Of course with Berry's death last March (29 years after this article) it feels even more appropriate to learn more about the father of rock guitar.

The late Tom Wheeler wrote the feature based on his interviews of Berry, and it is a really terrific piece of writing:
"Chuck Berry came motorvatin' over the hill in the summer of '55, his Gibson ES-350T blaring and clanging like Maybellene's roadhog Coupe de Ville. It was one of the most compelling and enduring images in pop culture: the loose-jointed, duck-walking hipster with the low-slung guitar, the happening threads, the wicked gleam in his eye.... 
Early rock's foremost singer/songwriter, Chuck wrote classic two-and-a-half-minute novellas of churning hormones and rock fever. In Berry's America, street-savvy hepcats tooled around in cherry-red jitneys and coffee-colored Cadillacs, chasing after sweet little rock and rollers such as Nadine, who moved around like a wayward summer breeze, or Little Queenie, lookin' like a model on the cover of a magazine. A percussionist of sorts who used syllables instead of drumsticks, he fashioned his lyrics into a sly, jivey poetry that percolated with its own gimme five lingo: motorvatin', coolerator, botheration---and pulsed with irresistible rhythms.... 
And even if his writing, singing and stylistic alchemy had not already secured him a place on rock's Mount Rushmore, Chuck Berry would be celebrated today for his guitar playing alone. His style was innovative in its sound and technique, and its ringin'-a-bell tone, jolting syncopations, slippery bends and whole new vocabulary of double-stops simply changed the way the instrument is played... 
At 61, Chuck Berry is a formidable presence, his lean body still moving with the grace of an athlete, his eyes still twinkling with the mischief of a rakish Hollywood leading man. He is at once a tough hombre and a gracious gentleman, obsessively private one moment, expansive and personable the next. Traveling alone and using pick-up musicians who are often under-rehearsed, he is self-contained: singer, songwriter, guitar player, legend... 
A few years ago, US spacecraft Voyager was blasted into deep space, past Jupiter and Saturn and on towards Neptune, four billion miles from St. Louis, Missouri. On board are recorded greetings to anyone who might encounter it. Among the messages representing planet Earth is a recording of "Johnny B. Goode", lending new meaning to the phrase "long live rock and roll". Maybe some day countless millennia from now, across the universe, some unimaginable alien thing will be snapping its fingers (or whatever) and grooving on the ancient tale of the country boy that could play his guitar just like ringin' a bell.

Good stuff!  The interview was quite interesting, especially as it helps one to understand the mindset of a struggling musician, nearing 30 years old and frustrated by his day job as a hairdresser who did whatever he could to become a success. And of course the racial issues faced by a black musician who became popular with white teenagers are never far from the surface. I know that when I first read the interview I was most focused on learning about guitar technique and Berry's influences, but re-reading it, I am struck by more "social history" parts of the interview:

Q. Do you see two distinct sides to your music, the rock and the blues?

A. Well, things like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Carol", those were for the mass market. "Wee Wee Hours", that was for the neighborhood. But this isn't a black/white thing. That irks me. There's no such thing as black and white in music.

Q. In May '55 you were doing some carpentry and studying cosmetology; three months later your first record was #5 in the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. How did the almost literal overnight success change your life?

A. The only thing it changed was my determination to follow through as long as it could go.. My lifestyle did not change one bit. I had been saving 80% of my income as a carpenter, and saved 80% of my income as a musician.

Q. Was fame what you had expected?

A. No, because I didn't expect it! I was making $21 a week at the Cosmo, and it went to $800 a week after "Maybellene". I didn't give a shit about the fame, and you can print that! Still don't. The only thing I cared about was being able to walk into a restaurant and get served, and that was something I should have had anyway, without all the fame. See this was 1955, and [civil rights] marching and things were about to start. I liked the idea that I could buy something on credit and the salesman knew I could really pay for it. I could call a hotel and the wouldn't automatically offer me the economy rooms after hearing how my voice sounded. That I admired.

For all the social history, there is a lot of music and guitar detail in the Berry feature, which spreads over 17 pages of the magazine. The section "Chuck Berry, the records", breaks down guitar highlights from 20 of Berry's classics. For "Carol" (my personal favorite Chuck tune), they promise "next month, Guitar Player will present an in-depth article, with transcription, exploring the intricacies" of the song. Unfortunately, that promised article never materialized, and I've always wondered why.  There's also several good pictures of Chuck's guitars including the bit of proto-gear porn below:

Another guitar legend who helped create the vocabulary for an entire genre was Eldon Shamblin, who played lead guitar for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.  The profile of the then 72-year old was very informative. I learned a lot about Texas swing and other music that I enjoyed when it would be on TV's Nashville Network or (more rarely) on a radio show. Gear wise, dig the guitar Eldon is playing: a gold-finished 1954 Stratocaster with chicken-head knobs given to him by Leo Fender himself. According to the article the Texas Playboys were used by Fender to road test his early equipment. In 1954 while visiting the factory,
"Leo said, 'Hey-we're coming out with something. Why don't you take this? Just it and try it. If you don't like it, you can bring it back.' I found I liked it...I've tried other Fenders but I can't find one that compares to this one for rhythm. I have never found one like this. I read in Guitar Player that mine was the first metallic color Fender ever put out. Everything is original--controls, frets, pickups, everything."  
Pretty cool!  Also neat was to read that he blocked off the tremolo and used heavy strings, two things that I eventually did with my own Strat (a metallic pewter colored ax) when I got it in 1990, but that's a story for another day.

The article with Ry Cooder was interesting to me for a lot of reasons. First of all, as a young blues fanatic, the movie Crossroads --where Karate Kid Ralph Macchio basically recreates that movie in a blues guitar context (young classical guitarist Eugene secretly loves the blues and Robert Johnson; he helps Willie Brown break out of an old-folks home and they go down south to the crossroads in Mississippi where Eugene battles the devil's guitarist, played by Steve Vai, for Brown's soul) was a favorite of mine, one that I saw twice in theatres and several more times on cable. It's simultaneously terrible and amazing! Even at the time I was uncomfortable with how Eugene wins the head cutting contest by replacing the blues with Paganini, but it's still a cool scene:

I know that the showdown between Vai and Macchio is still frequently discussed on internet guitar forums, so here is Ry Cooder's description of how the scene came to be. It's a neat glimpse behind the scenes:

I enjoyed re-reading this issue, and I hope you found it interesting. Unfortunately I've been dealing with a nerve issue that makes typing difficult, so I haven't gone into as much depth as I could have. March 1988's GP was a really interesting issue, and April's was even better, featuring articles on Joe Walsh, Tuck Andress and others. More on that next time--until then, keep on picking!


Saturday, February 24, 2018

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (February 1988)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from re-reading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue. Click here to see all of the previous posts!

February, 1988 seems to have been a relatively quiet time, but some noteworthy events took place. It was the month when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart (cousin to musicians Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley) confessed his sins (consorting with prostitutes), and Anthony Kennedy joined the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-0 against televangelist Jerry Falwell in an important case upholding First Amendment rights. Guitar-wise, I was playing my new Epiphone Sheraton II, taking lessons with my GIT-trained teacher Jim McCarthy, and continuing to swim in a blend of music, from jazz on radio station WRTI, classic rock on stations WMMR and WYSP, pop and metal on MTV, and blues on a local radio station whose call sign I forget.

Revisiting the February, 1988 Guitar Player was an interesting experience. It features the wide diversity in genres that I am getting used to seeing, but the focus was largely on artists just breaking through on a national level.  In addition to the cover story on Joe Satriani (supposedly his first ever on a national magazine), there was a very interesting triple profile of bluesmen Charlie Baty, Ron Thompson and Anson Funderburgh; features on Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, classical legend Christopher Parkening and studio/sideman extraordinaire Kevin Dukes as well as a number of interesting lessons and gear reviews. Re-reading it now reminds me how comparatively narrow guitar magazines are now; not just in terms of genre but in terms of the relative fame of the musicians covered. While Satriani's Surfing with the Alien had just come out and was getting chart success, most of the other musicians featured were far from what one would call "popular".

The triple profile of the blues guitarists by editor Dan Forte is an interesting example. 15 pages (out of a very sizable 186) are devoted to three musicians who combined had probably not sold more than 250,000 records. The article purports to introduce "the new breed of young bluesmen", frontmen of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Ron Thompson and the Resistors, and Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. As a teenager I probably would have just focused on "new breed" and "young", but re-reading the article makes it clear that all three had been working musicians for a long time; Baty says he's been a professional "for 12 or 13 years", Thompson had been playing in clubs since his mid-teens, and Funderburgh was a 33 year-old Dallas contemporary of Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and had led the Rockets for "almost 10 years".

The articles had some good information about gear: Baty (despite being pictured with a Strat) extolled the virtues of his P-90 equipped 1950's ES-150 and Fender Super Reverb; Thompson discussed the differences between his ES-175 and a Strat and why he preferred the Gibson for slide ("you can plug into anything and it's gonna sound good") and Funderburgh relied on the tried and true Texas blues recipe of Strat through Vibrolux, but had one of the most valuable tips in the article. When Forte asked what the secret was "behind his remarkable range of tones":

"Funderburgh smiles: 'I think my tone and knowing when and when not to play are my best points. I've always been a firm believer in leaving people wanting a little bit more. If you play everything you've got, there's nothing left. I'd hate to be like Stevie (Vaughan) and have to come out there and scald every night. I think tone is something that maybe comes through years of playing; you kind of develop into your own style. It's all in the touch....the control, where you place your hands, the attack, where you strike the string. "
This is really good stuff that might not be as readily apparent nowadays when so few options for live music exist, and most guitarists are playing in their bedrooms or on YouTube (where restraint isn't valued).  Funderburgh also made a point of putting over Ronnie Earl, who was the player responsible for my own tone revelation when I saw him live in 2001. In Funderburgh's words:
"Ronnie Earl really plays from the gut, and I'll guaran-damn-tee ya, there's something that I try to do, and all those guys try to do, and Ronnie is really good at it: He may mess up, but he gets up there and tries to say something every time he plays....If you try to say something every time you play a solo and think about the song and try to get something across--that's what it's all about."
In November of 2016 I went to a blues concert at Buz and Ned's, a local BBQ restaurant in Richmond, Virginia featuring harmonica player Mark Hummel backed by Charlie Baty and Anson Funderburgh. It's both inspiring and humbling that more than 28 years after this article 2/3rds of the subjects were traveling in vans, setting up their own equipment, and roaming the country to play their music before small, appreciative audiences. It was a good show, and after re-reading this article I tip my hat again to real musicians who just HAVE to play.

One of the most enjoyable parts of re-reading these old issues is being able to appreciate the careers of band members, sidemen, studio hotshots and others who were never headline stars but who were significant contributors to the music world. One example is Kevin Dukes, who earned 10 pages in this issue, hailed as "Sidemaster with Billy Joel, Boz Scaggs and Jackson Browne". The article starts with strong compliments from Browne, who hired Dukes to play lead on his 1985 world tour (a great example of which can be found in this video below):

"My records had featured some distinctive players, including Steve Lukather, Gary Myrick and Rick Vito, and I needed someone who could fill their roles. I also needed a sideman who could reproduce some of the old sounds with the fluidity and emotion that characterizes David Lindley's work with me. Kevin has the technical ability to play all of their parts and make them sound like his own."

This article, by the evocatively named Vic Trigger uses Dukes' "burgeoning career" to show that "the professional rock scene has evolved a new breed of chameleonic guitarist: a journeyman who prides himself on the art of mimicking other players with recording-quality proficiency." Dukes, who grew up in Mississippi was a graduate of GIT (like my teacher) who used his (pre-internet!) ability to recreate artists' tones to get gigs with Scaggs, Browne and Don Henley, as well as lots of tv show work, including a year as the guitarist for the Alan Thicke talk show. His versatility is a good reason for his choice of a hallmark of 1980's LA guitar, a Charvel. The article notes that "Kevin observed that most of his peers were playing Strat-style guitars."
"I broke down and got a Charvel Strat-style with a Floyd Rose and Seymour Duncans. Strat-style guitars are the most versatile instruments for the money, because you can go back and forth from pseudo-Gibson sounds to pseudo-Fender sounds."
17-year old me was pretty unaware of the differences in tones between different kinds of guitars, but now that I have so much more experience, this makes so much sense and I understand the "super Strat" phenomenon better. Speaking of gear, check out the Fender Telecaster with Floyd Rose that Jackson Browne strums in the concert video--did he put that on just for tuning? And by the way, Dukes' playing is terrific.

Joe Satriani was the cover star of this issue, in a 16 page article by Jas Obrecht, including a vinyl flexidisc soundpage (with transcription). Satriani is, of course, one of the most famous rock guitar instrumentalists, organizer of the G3 tours which have attracted legions of (mostly male) attendees for two decades and the inspiration of numerous signature guitars (Ibanez), amps (Marshall), and effects pedals (Vox). Joe was featured in the February, 2018 Premier Guitar, showing that he has more than maintained his pre-eminence over the last three decades.

Re-reading this article, when Joe Satriani was just bursting into the public's consciousness is really neat. Like the other musicians profiled in the issue, he was hardly a "new" musician, having worked hard to eke out a living with his guitar while still persisting in developing his style. It's interesting to contrast Satch to Kevin Dukes, who found the path to success in music through "chameleonic" interpretations of other artists. According to Obrecht, Satriani studied jazz with Lennie Tristano in 1975, then "struck by wanderlust, he then explored LA and Japan before settling in Berkeley, California in 1977. From 1979 through '84 he played with a much-heralded, but ultimately unsigned power-pop trio, the Squares."

The Squares?! This would have meant nothing to me in 1988, but now, with the power of YouTube, it's easy to hear some of their songs, and that was a hot band, with a guitarist who was clearly bursting at the seams with creativity. Obrecht then details Satriani's self-produced and financed eponymous EP in 1984, followed by Not Of This Earth in 1985. But we have to interrupt the tale of his inexorable rise to success with Surfing With The Alien for some important work to keep the lights on:
"While awaiting the release of Not Of This Earth, Joe joined the Greg Kihn Band for its 1985 Love And Rock And Roll LP and tour. In other studio projects he collaborated with drummer Tony Williams, worked on commissioned pieces for PBS, Dole Pineapple, and Otari, and sang backup vocals for Crowded House. Most recently, he co-produced Possessed's EP Eyes of Horror and sight-read a solo for drummer Danny Gottlieb's Aquamarine."
Wow. That is quite a busy year (and I would LOVE to hear those background vocals!), and perhaps it explains Joe's answer to the question "what's your favorite part of playing?": "Being paid!"

This is a typically excellent interview piece by Obrecht, who asks great questions to bring out the most in his subject. The theme here is of an instrumental genius finally getting his due and it's really good to re-read. The following are some of my favorite passages:

Q. Does it bother you to see less inventive players achieve broader success than you have?
No. I don't feel competitive with other guitar players. Over the years, I see both success and failure as imposters. They cannot be what you use for your standard operating procedure for how to write music, for how to play.

Q. Did timing come naturally, or did you teach yourself?
I taught myself. Timing is natural, but you have to practice it and work at it to convince yourself that it's there. When I was a young kid listening to the Beatles and the Stones, I didn't say "Boy, he could have played groups of three there!"I wasn't thinking of that. But once you get exposed to that, you can feel things like groups of five. You'll like them, and you may use them with discretion and taste. I think I learned a lot from the timing of other people--Hendrix, Stevie Wonder or Larry Graham. I listen back and say "Yeah, they're late here, and they're early here, and that creates a sound." Some people push the beat when they are creating a certain kind of a song, some people drag, some people go right in the pocket. As your sense of time gets better, the idea of the beat becomes this huge circle and you see that you can play with it and use it as a tool to get a song to come off a certain way and evoke a certain emotion, especially with bass.
Q. Is there an inherent mood in every key and scale?
Not just one. In the hands of an artist, what you can do is almost limitless. I definitely operate on that assumption. I've heard so much beautiful music done in major keys, and yet very little of it is in heavy rock, exploratory jazz fusion, or whatever you want to call what we're doing.... One scale can sound a lot of different ways, and I've really tried to work with that on the last two records. With "Always With Me, Always With You", I tried to use those major scales to be tender and sharp and haunting and a whole bunch of things. 
Q. Do you imagine a melody before finding it on guitar?
Yes. It's like it comes to me; I hear it being laid out. But I do spend quite a lot of time editing. I edited the hell out of "Always With Me..." because I was intrigued with how beautiful it was. I wanted the song to start with a melody, go into a slight improvisation, give a countermelody, go back to the original melody, do another little improvisation and return to the melody. I wanted to be as cool as the sax player you see in a nice jazz club where there is a bassist, a piano player, and a drummer with brushes. And this guy just stands up with his sax, plays the melody, and the song is over. No big rush, no ego solo, no exploding things. ...I had to find that sort of player in me, those sensibilities, and then figure out the technique. 
Q. You must have had a lot of self-assurance to finance your own album with a credit card.
It was a sign from God. I wanted to do a project, and the company mailed the card to me. It was completely at random: "Mister Satriani, you have been selected because of your..." So this little light bulb went off in my head...
Q. Do you have any special guitar setup tips?
I like to use just two springs in the back of the guitar. They are very tight, and they go straight across the outside positions. I routed out just a little bit more wood for the Floyd Rose, just because I like it more flush...My tone control is disconnected. When I pull up on that knob, it engages a bass roll-off; when the knob is down it's inactive. That's just the way it's set up now. We've been doing up-to-the-minute modifications on it....I like a an early '60's Stratocaster. I don't like high frets; I like them quite low so I can apply different kinds of pressure to the strings to get different tone qualities and nuances of intonation. 
Q. Do you have any suggestions for guitarists who want to explore different styles?
Yes. Let's say you're a heavy rock player who is wondering about blues or soul. Get a 4-track tape recorder, because we are in the age of recording, and people's sound is built around their records. Put down a mock soul piece and retain your personality, but try to go with the track and pick out lots of different things...just work on it until you find your own voice in that particular form of music.
Q. Were you experimenting with fingertapping before Van Halen came along?
Sure. Oh there were a lot of people who were. But I'm a huge Van Halen fan. When I first heard their first record, I just loved it. It was great...Eddie put together that little two-handed hammer-on thing in such a great way. It was so gutsy! It wasn't progressive rock; it was really a go-for-the-throat kind of thing...Eddie must be definitely crazy, and I like that. 

I enjoyed re-reading this issue, and I hope you found it interesting. The reviews of recent music didn't have quite so many "big" artists, but there was a short review of Chuck Berry's autobiography. But more on that next month, when Chuck was on the cover of the March, 1988 issue. Also, I hope you join me in sparing a thought in memory of Tom Wheeler. Wheeler was the editor in chief of Guitar Player, and founder of Bass Player as well as a longtime professor of journalism. He was a major reason for the excellence of the magazine I've been trying to share with you, and he'll be missed.

I'll see you here next month; until then, keep on picking!


Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (January 1988)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from rereading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue. Click here to see all of the previous posts!

Welcome also to 1988! This was a landmark year for me: I graduated high school, moved to college, met my future wife, and joined my first band in 1988. I look forward to revisiting this time period with you.

January is a time of beginnings, and some of the highlights of January, 1988 include the first Royal Rumble for the (then) World Wrestling Federation, the Broadway debut of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera (which my theatre friends and I were obsessed with), and Vice-President George Bush's Presidential career got a boost with his antagonistic interview on CBS news (I watched this live!) when he seemingly vanquished his reputation as a "wimp" by refusing to answer questions about his role in Iran-Contra. Unfortunately it was also a time for some noteworthy deaths, including Greg "Pappy" Boyington, who was portrayed by Robert Conrad on TVs Black Sheep Squadron (a favorite of my military-obsessed friends and mine), basketball star Pete Maravich, who was only 40 when he died playing a pick-up basketball game as a result of an undiscovered, congenital heart defect.  Guitar wise, I was digging my new Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow and trying to progress musically with my GIT-trained teacher Jim McCarthy and my high school "Music Theory I" class.

The January, 1988 issue of Guitar Player was chock full of interesting content. The cover touted the return of Lynyrd Skynryd to touring a decade after the devastating plane crash the band experienced in 1977, as well as interviews with Carlos Santana, Richard Lloyd, Omar Dykes of Omar and the Howlers, and a review of the amp now known as the Fender "Evil Twin". Inside the issue, the Spotlight section touted a young guitarist from Easton, PA named Greg Howe, a short interview with Steve Katz yielded a remarkably interesting trivia factoid, and there was a flexidisc recording of Carlos Santana playing "Blues for Salvador".

I doubt that I paid much attention to the interviews of producer Steve Katz (late of the 1960's group The Blues Project and co-founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears), and guitarist Richard Lloyd (late of 1970's group Television) since I wasn't interested in record production at the time, and I was totally unaware of Lloyd (who I didn't really grok until he contributed fiery leads on 1992's Matthew Sweet record, Girlfriend. This was a mistake, because I missed out on some good stuff. Katz described his techniques for live recording (one highlight, separate tracks for live amp and direct signal for guitarists) and related a very interesting fact about Lou Reed's Rock n Roll Animal (now one of my favorite live albums, totally unknown to me at the time). In Katz' words:

"During the recording of Rock n Roll Animal, a trumpet player friend of mine came back to the remote truck and almost fell over the 2" tape machine. Very few people know this, but we lost half the applause to that concert. The audience noise on that record is actually from a John Denver concert that RCA had in its vaults!" 
How about that!   The interview with Lloyd touts his live record "Real Time" (for which Katz was the producer), recorded at New York's CBGB club. If you haven't heard it--check it out in this month's Spotify playlist--killer songs! Lloyd comes across as an enthusiastic devotee of the guitar, and I definitely plan on listening to more of his records having re-read this interview. Some of the best quotes are:

"A Stratocaster is a guitar you can make a fist around.  A Strat asks you to play a certain way; it demands a certain grasp. It's just the way the neck is shaped, I guess. That kind of neck is really conducive to a certain kind of string bending that you can't get on most guitars; it's a really narrow neck with a slightly curved fretboard. And one of the first things I was told, and that I've held on to, is that what makes the electric guitar a special instrument is the bent note."
"When I was in junior high I was at this guy Zeke's house and he said there was somebody coming over who said he knew Jimi Hendrix. Everybody laughed. I mean, we were kids; who could know Jimi Hendrix? Hendrix was, like, somebody from outer space. Well, this guy's name was Velvert, and it turned out he was one of Jimi's best friends; Jimi called him his 'little brother'....Jimi was trying to teach Velvert things in a mirror, and Velvert would show me that stuff second-hand, But at the time I couldn't really play the guitar, so there's very little that I got from Jimi, except energy. My playing isn't like his at all, in terms of phrasing and turnarounds. But what he did for the electric guitar, historically was just awesome. 
I just listened to that "Live at the Winterland" CD recently, and it reminded me of why I've played guitar for 20-odd years. Here's this cat, running hard with the guitar, and I saw it. I started chasing him and I'm still chasing him and I still haven't caught up with where was back then. But that's okay. There are 50 million guys who are more technically proficient than I am, but there's something special about putting your heart and soul on the line the way Hendrix did, and I believe I've got some of what he had, in that sense."
Interestingly, Lloyd recorded a record in 2009 called "The Jamie Neverts Story", on which he cuts his own versions of several Hendrix classics. It's also in the playlist below if you want to check it out. This contemporary article from Guitar World indicates that Lloyd has had some troubles in his life, but also sheds light on his more recent recording approach.

I wish I could have included the picture of Carlos Santana from the article in this magazine, but I cut it out and hung it on my bedroom wall back in 1988! Carlos was joined with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and BB King on my personal wall of fame. Sadly, not only is the picture missing, but so is a full page of the interview. In retrospect I should have cut out this ad instead...oh well. This was the first of many interviews I've read from Carlos, and his earthy spirituality and deep sense of the power of music have never failed to inspire me.

Jas Obrecht wrote the Santana piece, so that already tells me to expect an in-depth interview that covers all aspects of the musician's approach. The article starts with Carlos walking into the Record Plant studio (boldface is my emphasis):

"Remember when we used to go see a band in the '60s? You'd see Wes Montgomery play at the Matador from 9:00 to 1:00, and then you'd follow him to another funky club on the other side of town, and he would play there until 4:00 in the morning. Well, that's the kind of feeling I'm trying to get lately on certain ballads. It's funny, because 4:00 in the morning is 4:00 in the morning. What do you do at 8:00 at night? How do you capture that after-the-party feeling? It's challenging. Somebody from the Grateful Dead said to me 'When music starts playing you, don't play music anymore,' which makes a lot of sense. Music starts playing itself through you, instead of you having to make it happen."
You're one of the few guitarists who is instantly recognizable. Why is that?
 "It's an accumulation of a lot of things man. My love for John Coltrane and his tone. My love for B.B. [King] and his tone, or Aretha [Franklin]. All the things that my father passed on to me. My father is a musician; he taught me everything I know on the guitar, as far as technical chords and stuff like that goes. His father before him was a musician, and my grand-grandfather was a musician. The main thing is the cry. It's not whining. You know, sometimes you go to a funeral, and maybe the guy wasn't such a good guy, but people still want to say something nice about him. Well, the tone in the music I'm trying to write now is for people to learn to let go gently and quietly. It's to enhance the beauty that, let's say, Jaco Pastorius had. I immediately erase all the National Enquirer stuff out of my mind, so all I remember is the great times I had with Jaco Pastorius when we did get to jam and spend some time together. That's what I'm trying to do with the tone. It's the cry of exalt the elegance in humanity

Santana goes on to answer questions about gear, and his preference for tube amps and triangular-shaped picks (this might be where I started using those kinds of plectra) and his trick of using pencil lead to lubricate the guitar's nut (which I also do). The discussion of tone leads Carlos to praise Eric Johnson as having "the best sound I've heard lately":
"He had the most beautiful tone all the way around. It was very, very masculine, and round and warm and dark. And his playing is great, man. I'd like to record with him someday, because he is very pure. You can tell what people have in their eyes--malice, expectations, the beauty of things, this or that. With Eric it's 'OK, I've got my tone and my vision and that's enough. The Lord will provide the rest.' He has a beautiful soul. Even though he is from Texas, he doesn't have the gunslinger mentality 'I'm going to kick your butt with my gun.' When we jam, we both complement each other, which is what musicians are supposed to do. Eric is somebody who should be playing with Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis and people like that."

Carlos later explains his vision of something that is more than "mortal music", beginning with a discussion of his regret at never playing with Bola Sete:
"Mortal music deals with my baby left me, I can't pay the rent or whatever. Bola's music tells you that inside we have roaring cosmic lions and that we're elegant and beautiful. His music enhanced the beautiful side of humanity to a supreme extent....If I was going to a Santana concert, what would I want? I want joy and a lot of vitality. I want the spirit of when a pastor tells you something really precious at church that applies to your life--something that's not condemning you or making you feel like you should apologize for being a human being. Whether in a cry or in a party atmosphere, the music should exalt humanity and the spirit of humanity, which is the Lord. That's enough, because anything else will be the crust. This is the real pure water. 
Later in the lengthy interview, Obrecht asks several questions about what kind of advice Santana would give to young musicians and other guitarists. The answers are, as you probably can expect by now, flowing and expansive:
"My son is four-and-a-half years old, and he's already asking me, 'Is Jimi Hendrix badder than Michael Jackson?' First of all, I would just give him heavy doses of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins for two or three years. Once I feel that he's got that combination, then I'll say Muddy Waters is the Miles Davis of Chicago, and Little Walter is the John Coltrane. By the time my son is listening to something like 'A Love Supreme' by John Coltrane, he would have understood the order all the way from Django Reinhardt to Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery. I want him to understand the order, because I don't want my son to be fooled by fool's gold. And there is a lot of it out there for kids, a lot of flash and guys who have the right poses for the right strokes on the guitar. But that stuff doesn't cut it when you really know how to play, and you put the note where it's supposed to be. I want to teach my son not to fake anything, but to earn it. "
"I saw Jimi Hendrix two or three times in person. The first time I was with him was a real shocker. He was in the studio overdubbing "Roomful of Mirrors". He said 'Okay, let's roll it,' and started recording and it was incredible. But within 15 or 20 seconds into the song he just went out. All of a sudden the music that was coming out of the speakers was way beyond the song, like he was freaking out having a gigantic battle in the sky with somebody. It just didn't make any sense with the song anymore, so the roadies looked at each other, the producer looked at him, and they said 'Go get him'. I'm not making this up. They separated him from the amplifier and the guitar, and it was like he was having an epileptic attack. I said 'Do I have to go through these changes just to play my guitar? I'm just a kid!' When they separated him, his eyes were read and he was almost foaming at the mouth. He was gone.
To me, it was a combination of the lifestyle--staying up all night, chicks, too much drugs, all kinds of stuff. It was a combination of all the intensities he felt, along with a lack of discipline. In the rock style of that time, there was no discipline. You took everything all the time. I know one thing man--it drained me. It made me realize that, like John McLaughlin, I needed to know about discipline. Now I know that out of discipline comes freedom. When you've got discipline in your pocket you've got punctuality, regularity, meditation. When things get too crazy with the record, the companies or the world you can flick a switch and go into your own sanctuary and play music that is stronger than the news.  
"Whether you are doing it in the bar, the church, the strip joint or the Himalayas, the first duty of music is to complement and enhance life. And once you approach it like that then there is order....People come up to me, and tell me that I [changed their lives]. Someone said to me 'Man, I was ready to check out, put the gun to my head, and I heard this song. It made me cry and it made me want to try it again. Now I feel better.' That's not me though, it's a spirit through me that wants to exalt itself. It says 'Don't take that out. Don't treasure frustration. Don't treasure depression. This is an imposter--don't make friends with him. You're more than that. Don't focus on the negative things in life--accentuate the positive; otherwise you become darkened. Light up a candle.' That's the tone; that's the story that I want to do through my music as much as possible....What means something is to be able to tell a story and put wings in people's hearts."
Over the years I've re-read this and other interviews with Carlos Santana multiple times (his autobiography is also quite excellent). I know that many people find him to be kind of weird, but his words move me as much as his music, and I believe that both are equally genuine.

The cover story was about the re-formed, newly touring edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Titled "10 Years Later, Lynryd Skynyrd Rocks Again", Jon Sievert's article was a good overview of the band's history leading to the tragic plane crash, what the musicians did afterwards, and a summary of the new tour. The article is quite interesting if only because Gary Rossington opines freely on topics like songwriting, and the role of Al Kooper (Steve Katz' co-founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears) in the band's success. I recently watched a documentary called "Gone With The Wind", which was a nice band biography, but Rossington was conspicuous in his absence. The movie would have been better if he was in it, even if only to share his feelings about the crash (in which he broke both arms, both legs, both wrists, both feet and his pelvis), "Plus my heart got broke real bad. It took me a long time to even want to play again."

According to the article, "At the beginning of the tour, the goal was clear. Lynyrd Skynyrd would play 33 concerts in 40 days; then the members and crew would return to what they were doing before it all happened. The response to Skynyrd's return has changed all that." It sure has. Though the band has announced that 2018 will be the end of the road as a touring entity, the hard traveling band has thrilled (and formed) millions of new fans in the last thirty years. While I've not been a big fan of what has sometimes seemed to be an ersatz tribute band, I have to tip my hat to the group for staying true to the music and their audience for so many decades. Well done, Lynyrd Skynryd.

During the '80s Mike Varney, who owned Shrapnel Records, had a section of every issue of Guitar Player to give capsule descriptions of guitarists or bassists who had submitted demo tapes to him. I used to love reading these at the time, and now it's fun to try to find the musicians on Spotify to see how their careers turned out. But sometimes, a famous name jumps out at you. For instance, this month Varney showcased Greg Howe. Only four years older than me, and living about 40 miles to the north, Howe was already on the way to fame as one of the decades' most talented shredders. Varney notes that "Greg's demo tape is among the most exciting I've received, featuring great chops and strong original instrumental compositions. His diverse yet cohesive style is hard to categorize. It successfully combines both legato and speed-picking techniques similar to Allan Holdsworth's and Yngwie Malmsteen's respectively, but it's still jazzy and bluesy, at times sounding like Larry Carlton with a George Lynch feel....Well worth checking out." You can hear the resulting Shrapnel Records album in the playlist to this post. Greg Howe's career is still flourishing, and his signature guitar is pretty rad looking. Check him out if he comes to your town, or hit him up for an online lesson to take your playing to the next level.

This was a really excellent issue. I find it particularly interesting that two of the featured musicians (Lloyd and Santana) both had the chance to see Jimi Hendrix recording and both had similar experiences of shock at his ability to channel his music, with both men trying to take that energy and apply it to their own art.  Meanwhile, to see what guitarists were listening to in January of 1988, check out the playlist below for some of the music featured in articles, reviews or ads--the Omar and the Howler record is really good.  Jas Obrecht reviewed Joe Satriani's breakthrough "Surfing With The Alien" in this issue, praising its "ten inspired instrumentals from rock guitar's outer limits" and hailing a "major new guitar voice". But more on that next month, when Satch was on the cover of the February, 1988 issue. I'll see you here next month; until then, keep on picking!


Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (November and December 1987)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from rereading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue.

This is a holiday special bonus, comprising highlights from the November, 1987 AND December, 1987 issues. A combination of being very busy, plus finding the issues rather boring in retrospect has led me to combine the two. 

Some of the highlights (or lowlights) of November, 1987 include: Anthony Kennedy being nominated to the Supreme Court (after the previous nominee, Douglas Ginsberg, admitted to having once smoked marijuana). Matrimonially, rocker Lenny Kravitz married former Cosby kid Lisa Bonet, blues aficionado Bruce Willis married Demi Moore, and comic actor Phil Hartman married the woman who would eventually murder him.  Some of the highlights (or lowlights) of December, 1987 include: Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall becoming the first netminder to score a goal, and President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev had a summit meeting in Washington and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, which led to the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons.

On a personal level, I was into my senior year of high school and for the holidays I bought what I thought would be my first good guitar: a brand new Epiphone Sheraton II. Remarkably, when I showed up for my next lesson proudly clutching the plush case, my teacher Jim McCarthy was excited to show me HIS holiday present--the Gibson ES-335 that was hanging next to my guitar at the local store! Unfortunately the guitar's hardware was not very good and it refused to stay in tune--I eventually traded it in for the Stratocaster I still have, but that's a story for another day. 

The highlight of the November, 1987 Guitar Player the cover story about "George Harrison, Guitarist". It's no coincidence that his solo album Cloud Nine was released that month, and the magazine was very excited to proclaim "The ex-Beatle talks guitar for the first time".  The article is a mix of discussion of the new record, his understated, but star role in a cable-tv concert honoring Carl Perkins (watch the full video here--it's a super show!), and of course the Beatles.

The biggest highlight for me at the time was the section on Harrison's guitars, featuring (cruddy) pictures captioned by the man himself. For your holiday viewing pleasure, here it is:


The December, 1987 issue was the annual gear issue. While it IS full of information about new axes, amps and accessories (38 pages, in fact), compared to the wealth of gear information we get now, what stands out is the paucity of details here. It's the personification of "In my day..." ("In my day, we were lucky to get a black and white picture of a guitar WITHOUT A CAPTION. Lucky I say..."). 

The other highlight was the results of Guitar Player's annual readers poll. I've NEVER been much of one for this kind of thing, because music isn't a competition. But it IS interesting to see who was considered top of the heap thirty years ago. As an added bonus is the list of the "Gallery of the Greats" who had won a poll category five times and were retired from further competition. I wonder how many guitarists and music fans even recognize some of the names on the list?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (October 1987)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from rereading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue.

Some of the highlights (or lowlights) of October, 1987 include: the advent of scab football when the NFL replaced striking players with poorly qualified substitutes to the derision of the football watching public; "Black Monday", when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 22%,  and former Solicitor General Judge Robert Bork was rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court (to fill the spot left by former Chief Justice Burger, who left to lead the Bicentennial of the Constitution celebrations). On a personal level, I was into my senior year of high school and over Columbus Day weekend went with my family to visit Hampshire College, where I would matriculate the following year. I continued my guitar studies with GIT grad Jim McCarthy and kept listening to a wide range of music (classic rock; whatever was on MTV; jazz).

The October, 1987 Guitar Player was full of interesting content. The cover promoted a lengthy (covering 25 pages!) dual interview with Sammy Hagar (promoting his new solo record) and Edward Van Halen (who produced it). Other noteworthy articles include interviews with Suzanne Vega, blues legend Otis Rush, a lesson from country guitar maestro Albert Lee, an article about Steve Wariner, a "legal primer" for aspiring music professionals, a feature on bassist Doug Wimbish and the usual lessons, gear reviews and album reviews. Seriously, this issue was chock-a-block with great material and could have sold for twice the price. Also, can you imagine any music magazine spending 25 pages on an interview? In fact, it was the decreasing length of interviews that eventually led me to stop reading GP around 2008. 

The articles in the front of the magazine are all well done and quite interesting. If I recall, this is where I first learned of Steve Wariner (though I used to watch Country Music Television back then and could have seen him there first). The Wariner piece by Jon Sievert begins "Five #1 singles in a year and a half ought to be enough to give any musician a feeling of satisfaction..." but notes that Steve regrets that he's known as a singer more than as a guitarist. The article works hard to convince that "the best way to appreciate Wariner's playing, however, is to see him in concert. Steve propels his crack, five-piece band with the force of his guitar, kicking off most of the intros himself, and calling audibles with his turnarounds and body language...'It's a real guitar-oriented show', says Steve. 'I play about 90% of the leads with the band, and then do maybe a 30-minute solo set--just me and my guitar.'" Some videos of a 1983 Austin City Limits show featuring the songs "Some Fools Never Learn" and "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers" I found on YouTube show how multi-talented Steve Wariner was then (he's even better now). 

The Suzanne Vega article is also quite interesting. Tied in to the approximate release of Solitude Standing ("her recent smash hit"), the article did a great job of describing Vega's musical bona fides and of showing how central the guitar is to her music. While the teenage me was more aware of her unique vocal stylings, this article by Jas Obrecht notes that the Manhattan native (who attended the Performing Arts High School shown in the movie and tv show Fame) is an adept guitarist. He quotes guitarist/producer Steve Addabbo as saying "Suzanne's playing is unbelievably simple, and yet it comes out sounding very complex. She doesn't really play normal positions. She uses a lot of open strings and rarely does she play a 3rd in a chord. She seldom uses more than two or three left hand fingers and they are generally in simple clusters. She'll use like a first position A chord with the B and E strings open and move those two fingers around against the open strings. Almost the whole song 'Solitude Standing' is based on just those two fingers."  

This concert video from YouTube gives a good picture of Suzanne Vega's playing style. She seems to agree with Addabbo about her technique: 
"My playing style is rather unusual. It's mostly self-taught and I tend to pick a lot. It's not your usual sort of fingerpicking, but almost a classical style. I like to pluck rhythms using all of my fingers at one time, so it comes out very percussive-sounding. I'm usually plucking two or three strings at once. 'Solitude Standing' is very hard for me because I'm sort of locking in with the snare drum, and it's difficult to maintain that for five minutes. 
I like chords that are augmented or diminished and sometimes I build around a minor. 'Luka' was the one exception: it begins on a major chord and has a major chord feeling all the way through. Usually when I first start writing the words, there's a piece missing, like a bridge or part of a chorus. 'Luka' definitely began with the chords and the rhythm, and then the words fit the song...It never says that Luka is abused, but if you look at the words, he says everything that a kid would say who is being abused but won't come out and say it."

The article "A Legal Primer for the Guitarist" by Jeffery Scott, a professor at the Dickinson School of Law's (now Penn State) Entertainment Clinic was quite interesting, and not just for the hysterical, period-correct picture that accompanied it. As the article noted, "You don't have to be a lawyer, but know the pitfalls". It gave brief tips about gaining representation, signing contracts and recording agreements, as well as some basics about taxation, copyright and joining rights organizations to collect royalties. This was really super, and definitely would be helpful for an aspiring musician. Some of the guys on the Sunset Strip who look like the guitarist in the picture would have been better off taking a day off from sponging off their stripper girlfriends to read this article--if so they might still be making money to support their cocaine habits!

Otis Rush is one of the most famous blues guitarists that many people haven't heard of. I was a young blues fanatic, collecting records and listening to weekly blues programs on local radio stations in 1987 and this article by Dan Forte was really eye opening to me. Over the years, Guitar Player published lots of great interviews with blues legends, and in retrospect, this one is kind of sad. Rush seems to be aware of the ways that his career has been less successful than he would have liked, and the sense of his awareness of wasted time pervades the piece.

Rush, like his contemporary Chicago guitar slinger Buddy Guy either couldn't get his records released or the records that did come out were a far cry from what he could do on stage. "Chess didn't really need me when they signed me up," he states. "But they get you and handcuff you, you know, where you can't be making records for no one else. They weren't too interested in pushing me, they just wanted control. That's America. After three years with Chess I signed with Duke. I didn't know what I was doing--they promised me the moon and only put out one single. Now I don't sign nothing--just one LP at a time." It's ironic that he is featured in the same issue as "A Legal Primer..."; it seems like Otis Rush is a great example of someone who could have benefited from better career advice.

Forte asked Rush about his "progressive leanings" and the guitarist laughed, "that's for you to decide. I just play and I've got sounds. I hear things onstage and I go home and try to figure them out. I know I'm gonna mess up in places, but sometimes I get away with it. To me, I'm trying to learn how to play. I'm scuffling, trying to find something new, trying to make it off the ground.

The lefthanded Rush plays his guitars upside down (with the heavy strings on the bottom), which like Albert King before him, gives a different power to his string bends. Forte points out that unlike Albert, Otis Rush "commands an impressive chord vocabulary": 'That's true,' he says with uncharacteristic pride. 'I went to school a little bit, you  know, for chords--just to make me understand my thing.'"

There's a recording on YouTube of a concert (with Eric Clapton and Luther Allison) from around the time of this article and it shows that Otis Rush was a master of the blues--what's not evident is how much of what we think of as classic electric blues guitar was invented by Otis Rush. This article was definitely an eye opener to a fan of Eric Clapton (who recorded such Otis Rush tunes as "All Your Love" and "Double Trouble", Led Zeppelin ("I Can't Quit You Baby"), Peter Green ('Homework") and Stevie Ray Vaughan (who named his band Double Trouble).    

The four page article about bassist Doug Wimbish by Chris Jisi was focused largely on his then-current work with Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger, but in retrospect what is so interesting to me is to learn that Wimbish was the bass player on some of the foundational tracks of hip-hop, such as "The Message" and "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash. The article states that Wimbish became one of New York's most in-demand session players, and the list of artists with whom he recorded, played or produced was mind-boggling:
George Clinton, Hall and Oates, Carly Simon, Thomas Dolby, Steve Winwood, Clarence Clemons, Freddie Jackson, Melba Moore, McFadden and Whitehead, Jeffery Osborne, Nona Hendryx, James Brown and Africa Bambaataa, Lou Rawls, Sing, Force-MDs, Ray-Goodman-And-Brown, Cindy Mizelle, Malcom McLaren, Squeeze, Erasure, Edgar Winter, Jan Hammer, Santana, Buddy Miles, Steve Lukather, Tom Coster, Little Steven, Arthur Baker, Peter Wolf and the Sun City Project, which included among others Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.
Whew!  To play with any two of those artists would make for an amazing career, and Wimbish did all of that before he was thirty! The article closes with some advice that is relevant to musicians of all stripes:
"When you're starting out, it's good to get formal training and to develop your ear by playing with records and the radio. Listen to all kinds of music and rather than copping licks note for note, focus on concepts for a balanced development. We're all working to reach the level of being able to play clearly and instantly play whatever is in our heads. Try to play with older musicians, where you stand to learn more. Strive to become well-rounded, and learn to utilize criticism to your advantage. In other words, talk less and listen more. Further down the road, get involved in as many projects as you can and try to stay aware of each one's potential. 
You can't lie to yourself. Know your weak points, and work on them, whether they're on the fingerboard or in your motivation.  Try to be the best player, businessman, agent and person you can be, because there are a lot of forces out there working against you. Also, one big advantage to give yourself in today's market is to become a player, someone who knows his instrument inside and out....As technology forces musicians away from their axes, the number of great instrumentalists decreases, and having that skill becomes a commodity."
The main story in the issue is Jas Obrecht's double interview with Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen. Hagar, who had achieved success as a guitarist and singer with Montrose and on his own (his song "I Can't Drive 55" is a perennial favorite of mine) had joined Van Halen after the sudden departure of David Lee Roth after the 1984 tour. While the years have seen multiple tours, breakups, reunions and recriminations from all concerned, at the time of this article the two men seemed to be close friends and collaborators, with Van Halen having produced (and played bass) on Hagar's latest solo outing. To get a glimpse of the peak of the "Van Hagar" era band, the live document "Live-Without A Net" is required viewing. The band seems to be on fire and having a heck of a time, but in the interview Van Halen dismisses the show as "average" and Hagar complains that "we were pretty damn tired that night."

The article is written in transcript form, and there are so many things that I could write about! I've limited myself to three things: gear, performance, and the men's thoughts about other musicians on the scene.  Obrecht knows that in 1987 the guitar playing world was obsessed with and influenced extraordinarily by Van Halen's finger-tapping style and he makes sure that readers learn everything there is to know, from the guitars he used (he mentions his striped Kramer "it's actually quite a piece of shit, but it sounds good"), to his legendary "modded" Marshall, to a detailed explanation of the signal path written by "equipment wizard" Bob Bradshaw himself with stops on plectra and boiled strings in between.

Performance wise, there was a lot to digest. Here are some selections:

Do you remember any solos as being especially hard to get right?
Hagar: This guy probably more than me. I never played anything that hard.
Van Halen: My solos are all just sort of winging it--different, you know.
Hagar: It's tough because, honestly, anything he plays is not just good, it's great.

 In concert, Sammy, you introduce Eddie as the world's greatest guitarist
Hagar: I think he is.
What are your observations on playing occasional lead guitar in a band with him?
Hagar: Kind of makes me put on a nice little hat, too: "Yeah, I can jam with this cat!"[laughs]. I don't even consider myself in the same league--as a technician or in terms of chops. But to express myself, I can communicate as well as Eddie or anyone else. I just can't communicate on as many different levels and for as long [laughs]. I can't get as deep with the conversation.
Van Halen: He gets the point across very well. He's a soulful player.

Any chance of Eddie playing bass on any of these songs [in concert]?
Hagar: [laughs] Say, hey, Mike, you wanna go wait in the bus?
Van Halen: Year Mike, we don't need you this tour. [laughs]. No there'd be no reason for anything like that.  (NOTE: How's THAT for some foreshadowing?)

You seem very happy during your extended solo on Live Without a Net.
Van Halen: Oh yeah. I usually am. It's kind of that way all through the show. The time onstage is also a very physical, draining thing but it's basic euphoria. It's fun.
If you feel like stretching out during a concert, can you nod at the guys and take a few more choruses?
Van Halen: Yeah. That happens whenever I feel like it. Sometimes Al will do it and then Sammy will. There's no set thing. All my solos end with a nod to Al, so I just keep going until I turn around. I have no idea what's the longest I've gone--about 20 minutes, probably. That's when I started getting ragged on by a certain person [imitates David Lee Roth]: "Your solo's gettin' too long!" I'd say, "Fuck you. Your raps are getting longer" [laughs]. It used to be nothing but talk, man. It was three-fourths talk. But as soon as I got up there to do my solo [gives a sinister laugh] he couldn't stop me anyway.

Do you change your extended guitar solo?
Van Halen: Yeah,  I change it now and then. I was doing Beethoven's "FΓΌr Elise" for a while, and "Eruption" is always a part of it.
Hagar: After seven months on the road, I've got to say that I really enjoyed this guy's guitar solo every night--for many reasons. There was only one night where I could say that he did a sloppy guitar solo, and I told him about it. I said, "Man, that was the worst you've ever played." I was real disappointed, because he was a little drunk. But at his worst, the guy plays better than most people. The people don't notice anything, but I do, because I've heard him be so on.

Are you aware of what others are doing with tapping techniques?
Van Halen: No. It used to bother me when people would do my thing, but it used to bother me more when they played my melodies almost. The technique is there for anybody to use, so it doesn't really bother me anymore.
Hagar: The worst part of people ripping you off is when they don't acknowledge it. Hey, if I stole licks from Eddie, it would be like stealing his car and then driving it back to his house and saying "hey man, check out my new ride!" [laughs] That's practically what some of these guys do.
Van Halen: That's the way I do look at it.
Hagar: Some of these hotshots come up to Eddie: "Hey, yeah, check this lick out I learned!" And he goes, "Oh yeah, isn't that from 'Jump'?"
Do you keep up with the hot young players?
Van Halen: I've never really been interested. I haven't bought a record in, I don't know how long.
Hagar: I'm more interested in that stuff than Eddie is.
Have you ever heard Yngwie Malmsteen, for instance?
Van Halen: I heard maybe a little piece of a song on the radio once when we were driving in Sammy's car. The dude's fast, boy, I know that.
Hagar: Yeah. Eddie's comment was "The guy's playing some stuff man!"
What about Steve Morse or Eric Johnson?
Van Halen: No. What do they sound like? I like the guy with Bryan Adams [Keith Scott]. He's real melodic. I like Steve Winwood, just as a musician. Steve Stevens is good.
Hagar: Yeah, because he's unique. He's not trying to rip somebody off. Those are the guys I always like, like Billy Gibbons, who's a real good traditional guitar player. Of course, Clapton is still playing great, which is unique in itself--to keep the fire that long. (NOTE: He's talking about Clapton at age 42; Hagar just turned 70 and he's still playing--I guess he's got the fire too.)

As I said, there is a lot to digest in here. Of course, if the article came out today the takeaway that would blow up social media would be a throwaway line by Sammy that crosses the line into John Mayer territory. Obrecht asked if the 5150 album going to #1 put any pressure on the band. Van Halen demurred, saying that he thinks it's the same as always. Sammy, on the other hand, tried to put his answer in context, but seems to me to have made a bit of a faux pas:
"Yeah. I hate to let any mystique out, but the truth of the matter is that the charts all depend on who's out at the time. For instance, I'm sure that 1984 would have been a #1 record if Michael Jackson wasn't there. We knocked Whitney Houston off--yo man, that's one of the greatest accomplishments of all time! But she came back. See, it's no fair. We don't sell to black people, and she sells to white people too. She and Michael Jackson and Prince have something over us. I got to start dancing more [laughs].
Besides the odd coincidence that all three black musicians he refers to are dead, I think that in 2017 we wouldn't see an artist so explicitly referring to the racial makeup of his audience. Of course in 2017, any audience is precious!

Well, I've already written over 3,400 words, so time to wrap it up. But there's one more cool thing! Back in the day there was a column by Mike Varney, who ran a record label called Shrapnel. Musicians could send in their tapes and he'd feature the ones he was most impressed with. One of the guys featured in this issue was "19 year old Steve Ouimette" of San Ramon, California. Varney noted that while "he may remind one of Tony MacAlpine or Yngwie Malmsteen, he possesses some qualities uniquely his own. A very talented and tasteful player, he would be an asset to any melodic metal band. Meanwhile, he's furthering his music education in college and continuing to push himself."  He sure is. I recognize him from the Telecaster forum on the internet, but young people might recognize him from the Guitar Hero video games, where he recorded the music. Pretty neat!

Check out the playlist below for some of the music featured in articles, reviews or ads. If you haven't checked out Joe Ely's "Lord of the Highway", you'll really dig it. I'll see you here next month (George Harrison was on the cover); until then, keep on picking!


Monday, September 25, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (September 1987)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from rereading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue.

September 1987 had a few highlights. The late Jerry Lewis' annual telethon raised $39 million to fight muscular dystrophy; erstwhile presidential candidate Gary Hart admitted to cheating on his wife; while future President Donald Trump gained some attention by complaining about what he perceived as Japan's unfair trading practices. Peter Gabriel took home Video of the Year in the MTV awards (his collaborator/guitarist David Rhodes is featured in the September 1987 Guitar Player); the United States celebrated the bicentennial of the Constitution; the NFL began a month-long players' strike (pro footballers are only now beginning to unify again 30 years later against issues such as police brutality and Donald Trump). "Start Trek: The Next Generation" premiered on syndicated tv (30 years later, this month, a new Star Trek series is premiering in an online, streaming service).  On the personal level, I began my senior year of high school that month and continued my lessons with fusion guitar player Jim McCarthy, whose hero (and teacher at G.I.T.) Frank Gambale was also featured in this month's Guitar Player.

If you remember the music of the 1980's, several things were prevalent: hard rock; synthesizers; excessive over production of drums and guitars; and, most of all, speedy guitar playing. The 1980's represented the rise of instrumental virtuosity as measured by notes per measure. Where the 1960's and 1970's guitarists would sometimes play quite fast (think Alvin Lee or Neal Shon), in most cases they were still trying to play melodies that supported the song. But in the 1980's the growing tendency to "shred" led to faster and faster arpeggiated solos that often lacked any melodic or emotional content. But it sure was attention grabbing! Of course looking back now and seeing this era displaced by the grunge of the 1990's to be replaced by the electronica of this century also lends a somewhat wistful air to the recollections of what might have been "peak rock guitar".

As you can see, the focus of this month's issue was speed. At this time it's worth pointing out that I have never been able to play fast (though I could play a lot faster in my 20's than I do now), and to a certain degree I used that as an excuse to not try. On the other hand, I've known people who focused 100% on speed and fluid playing but who have never been in a band or performed in public and I'd rather have had my experiences on stage and studio than be a bedroom guitar hero. Re-reading this issue I was caught by a quote from classical guitarist John Duarte:
"Just because you can play fast doesn't necessarily mean that you'll ever need to reach your top speed, but the higher it is the more comfortable you'll be at lower ones. A good reserve of speed means that you can play with more relaxation, knowing that you aren't being uncomfortably stressed....If you've got speed, display it, but only as one faced of your ability and as a means of getting maximum variety in your performances. It is only when speed is just about all you have to offer that it becomes empty."
I think this is quite deep, and is both a good argument for building technical proficiency and musical fluency. I also take it as a rebuke to myself for not trying to at least maintain my ability to play fast, and will have to try to rectify that in my practicing.

My memory of this issue is that it was all about speed, and that Frank Gambale was all over it. I was sort of right, as the "Thunder From Down Under" was part of the vinyl flexidisc soundpage, wrote an article about his system of "sweep picking" and was featured in an advertisement from Ibanez guitars. Sweep picking, by the way, is a system where instead of traditional alternate picking (up stroke, down stroke, upstroke, etc.) one minimizes pick movement by moving across the strings with similar strokes. A proficient sweeper (like my teacher) seems to hardly move the picking hand while the fretting hand appears to be working twice as fast. It sounds cool, and looks amazing. By the way: if you haven't seen Frank play, you're missing out. I saw him as part of Chick Corea's Electrik Band in 1990 and it was literally the best concert I've ever attended. Check out this video to see what a band of virtuosi can do when they team up--it's humbling for sure!

The other articles this month were quite interesting. There was a factory tour of St. Louis Music's Ampeg bass amp facility and a lengthy interview with eclectic musician Henry Kaiser (a member of GP's advisory board who lived near the magazine's Cupertino offices) that I doubt would ever be published today (though Premier Guitar has profiled other similarly obscure instrumentalists). But what really stands out to me is three profiles of musicians who were emblematic of what it means to be a real pro. The musicians were Billy Cox (who had played with Jimi Hendrix when they were both in the Army, and later was the bassist in Band of Gypsys), Brian Stoltz (who was then playing lead guitar for New Orleans legends the Neville Brothers, and John Jorgenson, who was playing lead guitar for The Desert Rose Band. 

What stood out to me about these profiles was how music was absolutely everything to these men, and they had persevered through lots of difficult times and small gigs to get to where they were thanks to hard work and patience and a real understanding of music. Billy Cox, who played with Jimi Hendrix as a young musician in the early '60s and also at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight saw his career fall down several pegs after the guitarist's death in 1970:
Billy moved back to Nashville during the fall of '70 and formed the short lived Nitro Function. "We put out a record," he says, "but we didn't have any control over it. That band had personality problems, business problems and everything else." He then enrolled at Tennessee State University to study medicine. A year later, a call from his friend Charlie Daniels brought him back on the road.... 
During the next few years, Billy worked clubs with keyboardist Lee Martel under the billing of Billy and Lee. Meanwhile, a flood of his recordings with Jimi hit the stands...By the late '70s, circumstances had forced Billy to take a job with an insurance company. "I was still playing on the side with a little high-society group," he points out. "We did all the semi-formals around Nashville. I also played with Bob Holmes' Jazz Excursion and another group called the Clubmen. And I always had quite a few recording sessions. I worked with JJ Cale on several things and I did a lot of demos."

The article understandably deals a lot with Cox's recollections of Jimi Hendrix, but also asks about his bass gear and his then current record. As of this writing Cox is still alive and continues to tour with the Experience Hendrix shows.

Brian Stoltz has also continued to play and record (most recently with the Funky Meters) New Orleans soul music, but thirty decades ago the Crescent City native was six years into his tenure as the Neville Brothers' lead guitarist. Stoltz described how he came to join the band and to master New Orleans style playing:

"Art Neville had seen me playing in the Quarter with a great saxophone player named Gary Brown, who's on records by the Bee Gees and tons of stuff. After that I had to have an operation on my hand because I had carpal tunnel syndrome--couldn't play for about six months. Right when I was healing up, Art called me and asked if I wanted to work. I did two rehearsals with them, we did a gig at Tipitina's went to Texas for two nights, then we got a call to go and open for the Stones in Louisville, Kentucky." 
[To learn the Neville's funkified parade rhythms he took his cue] "not from other guitarists so much, but from other instruments--mainly percussion and drums. You know, the big thing with New Orleans music is the drums. You don't hear anyone else in the world play like New Orleans drummers. I look at everything in the Neville Brothers as being a rhythmic instrument--even the ways the voices are used--and that's the way I approach the guitar, especially the older stuff. The notes--not that they don't make a difference--but you don't have to play melodically; it's just the rhythm."

I thought it was very interesting to re-read this breakdown. For the last couple of years I've been fortunate to play (mainly for fun) with a rotating group of musicians here in Richmond, Virginia. What's been great is to learn songs and continue to rehearse them, because the more of this I do the more I can identify with what Stoltz observed about the importance of rhythm in lots of rock contexts.

The article about John Jorgenson was fantastic. Jorgenson has been a mainstay with the Desert Rose Band and the Hellecasters, and a prolific sideman has also been known as a top interpreter of Django Rhinehardt style "gypsy jazz". Reading about his early career gives the impression of a uniquely gifted musician who never stopped working, hustling and improving. Pardon the lengthy quote, but this is really quite amazing: 

What a dedicated person! I was a schoolteacher for 18 years and I knew lots of talented kids who played "in the school band, woodwind ensembles, state honor bands" and "attended summer music camps" but only a small percentage were able to become professionals. And how cool that he turned a degree in bassoon, clarinet and saxophone into a paying gig at Disneyland, which in turn gave him entree to the larger world of recordings. And the chutzpah for a reed player to fake his way into a gig as a mandolinist. Great story, and makes me want to listen to more of his playing.

Finally, as you can see, the cover promised a centerfold poster of the plectra (picks) used by famous guitarists. I can't show it to you, because it adorned my teenage bedroom wall and was thrown away decades ago. What I can show you, however, is my first ever guitar pick. I got this at my first lesson in 1986 and have kept it ever since. I don't use it anymore (I prefer a bigger Fender 346 pick) but I still have it. I've been through a LOT of guitar gear in my time, but this little guy has always been close at hand.  That's it for this month. I'll see you in October; in the meantime, keep on picking!