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 endured 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!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (August 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 installment is a little late because my wife and I recently moved, for the 10th time in 24 years. That means that I've schlepped my Guitar Player issues with me all over the country for decades. This month's issue, in fact, has actually been with me in a dozen places--it was originally sent to the home I grew up in, then I asked my parents to send it to me in college a few years later, and I've had it ever since. Pretty cool to think how important these old magazines are to me!

Nationally, August of 1987 was a slow news month. One noteworthy event was the tragic crash of Northwest Flight 255 in Detroit which killed 156 people--I flew into Detroit a couple of weeks later to go see a Tigers game for my 17th birthday and I remember that the airport was a very somber place even then. Bon Jovi released their huge album 'Slippery When Wet' that month, but it would be years before the band's guitarist Richie Sambora would get more than just an advertisement in Guitar Player, so we'll let them slide for now. In movies, "Dirty Dancing" premiered, on it's way to millions at the box office and endless airings on TV.  On a personal level, in August, 1987 I turned 17, continued my job at Jules Pilch Menswear in Hatboro, PA, and intensified my guitar lessons while watching lots of MTV. Around this time I was starting to get a lot more cognizant of different types of guitars, and while I was still super happy to be picking my Peavey T-15 I definitely began getting aware of other kinds of axes. By this time I was also a big jazz fan and spent a lot of time listening to WRTI radio out of Temple University and becoming very familiar with jazz musicians of all kinds, including (natch) guitar players. 

While I couldn't have known it when it arrived, the August, 1987 issue of Guitar Player went on to become highly significant to me in several ways. In the coming years, I bought two electric guitars (you'll be able to read all about them when the time comes): a 1987 Epiphone Sheraton II (which I sold in 1990) and a 1989 Fender Stratocaster that I still have (funded, in part, by the sale of the Epiphone). This issue of GP contains a nice article about the history of the Sheraton, and the cover article and other features made for 20 pages of information about Strats that I read and re-read in 1990 before buying mine.

Looking back at the issue today, it is full of other interesting features, including really great articles on Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers, bebop phenom and Merle Haggard sideman Clint Strong, and tributes to late guitar giants Freddie Green and Andres Segovia.  There's also nice articles with Robert Cray's bassist Richard Cousins and David Bowie's sideman Carlos Alomar discussing his new synth-based solo album.

The magazine started off with a very nice feature about "Tonight Show" guitarist Bob Bain in the opening pages. Bain was a giant of the LA session scene in the '50's, '60's and '70s playing on countless record and movie dates (he was Henry Mancini's go-to guitar man). Fender honored the 91-year old earlier this year with a limited release Custom Shop version of the guitar in the picture at left. The axe is called the "Son of a Gunn", because the original played the memorable guitar line in the theme from "Peter Gunn". The article is cool, and is in keeping with others I've seen from 1987 where the emphasis is on being a professional. Interviewer Jas Obrecht asked Bain "What are the essential skills for a guitarist in your line of work?" The answer is solid gold, and honestly should apply to all guitarists in any band situation:

"You have to know how to play rhythm on an electric guitar without getting in the way or getting a soggy sound. In other words, you don't sit there playing in 4/4 on a loud electric guitar. You have to find the spots for some fills and occasional solos."

Yep--that's it! Bain also described his "old Telecaster, which has a Bigsby bridge with a twanger. That's the original guitar I used for all the "Peter Gunn" shows". Finally, he gave a very interesting explanation for the (seemingly) unlikely presence of a wah-wah on his pedalboard:

"I still keep a wah-wah pedal too, because I always play it at the end of the opening theme. We get residuals on these shows, so all I have to do is listen to the first part of the theme and I know if I did the show or not [laughs]. 

Continuing in the jazz bag, the feature on Freddie Green ("Mr. Rhythm Remembered") was very well done. Editor Jim Ferguson's article taught this young jazz fan quite a bit. While my weekly lessons were taught by a master jazz-rock fusion soloist, Freddy Green's virtuosity came from a different corner of jazz--he was the ultimate accompanist and during his career (which spanned the years 1937-1987) spent with Count Basie was the glue which kept the famous big band together. As Basie once said "he's the tie-up man of the band". 

Ferguson notes that "Green was an essential cog in what is generally considered to be the best rhythm section in the history of big band jazz...with Basie, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones."  He notes that Green always used archtop acoustic guitars, "apparently feeling secure with Basie and under no pressure to change. In the hands of a lesser player an archtop would have seemed like an anachronism after the late '40's...however Green played with such finesse, commitment and class that his music had a vital, timeless quality....Green chose to remain behind in a supportive capacity. Whatever his reasons for choosing such a self-effacing role, he came to be universally recognized as the premier backup guitarist....There is only one Mr. Rhythm."

I learned a lot as a teenager from this, and honestly learned more re-reading the article this month. The article spends four pages detailing the Basie Band and Green's role and also has a two page chordal lesson from jazz titan Bucky Pizzarelli ("Blues For Green"). I really doubt that a mainstream guitar magazine would spend this kind of editorial space on what would probably seem like a niche musical genre nowadays. 

This issue was replete with jazz music! I remember reading the article about Haggard lead guitarist Clint Strong (who was only five years older than me) because around the same time I saw them on TV's "Austin City Limits". In fact, it was that show that spawned my lifelong, as yet unfulfilled, lust for a wine-red Gibson Les Paul Custom. Here's another clip of Strong playing a nice Ovation Adamas with Freddy Powers--man that cat could pick it!  I think that there was a lot about this article that went over my head at the time, but I really appreciate now, such as Strong's hepcat way of talking. I do know that I thought it was awesome that Strong was a disciple of Howard Roberts, the founder of Guitar Institute of Technology, where my teacher had studied. 

Clint Strong became a member of The Strangers, Merle Haggard's band, at age 20. He brought a distinct bebop vibe to the band, plus chops for days. As Haggard noted in the article, "Now if we can just keep him from double-timin' everything [laughs]. Grady Martin told him 'Son, if Hag was payin' you by the note he'd have to give you a raise'." The video clips in the previous paragraph give a good sense of the ferocity and precision of Strong's picking. The following are some of the highlights of the interview:

You've spent most of your life playing straight-ahead jazz. Do you ever feel confined in this band?
Never...If I want to stretch out and play something outside, Hag doesn't care. Playing with these guys has really disciplined me because it's such a big band and each cat usually gets to blow just one chorus. On jazz gigs I could blow endlessly, but with this band you have to be able to make a statement in one chorus. And sometimes it's much harder to think up something to play on a three chord tune than it is for a tune like "All The Things You Are", where you have a lot of changes and you can use all those scales and stuff to weave in and out of it. You have a lot more exits in a tune like that than you do on "I'll Always Be Glad To Take You Back"--C, F and G. If you're going to play that one, you'd better know the melody.
How do you approach working with Merle's vocals? Does he give you lots of room?
Basically my goal is to support the soloist or Merle when he's singing. I don't do too many fills in concert because you don't want to run over a guy like Merle Haggard with a lot of meaningless notes. When he starts in on an old Tubb or Lefty tune, generally what I do is just comp some chords....One thing I learned from Roy Nichols is to stay away from the low, muddy end-out of the way of the big, fat piano or steel chords. I'll stay up in the higher register 
 What role does Merle's guitar play in the band?
Merle is a hell of a guitar player. There's some nights he burns me off the stage. It's just a bitch, you know, because look at how good he sings already. Damned if he doesn't come out there and start whippin' those guitar licks on you. It's enough to scare a guy! He's the most damn drivingest rhythm player I've ever heard in my life...
How do you approach a solo?
I can't ever say how I'm going to play because I pretty much go by feel. And, of course, I try to have some concern for the melody....And I know where I'm at by means of the harmonized scale that I learned from Howard [Roberts]...that's really what I use to keep track of where I'm at. If I'm playing on a B flat blues, for instance, I might play around Fm7 on the I chord. On the IV chord I might play around a B flat m7. And then, say, for the last four bars, where it's maybe a Cm7 to an F to a B flat, I might use one of those half step things like Cm7, F7, G flat m7, B7 and B flat. I'm approaching it chromatically. You can get to anything chromatically, and that's a good thing for a young player to learn because it can sure help them out of a lot of situations. I know it did me. You're never more than one fret away from a good sounding note.

This is great stuff. My teacher tried to explain this to me when I was a teenager (I still have the notebook from our lessons, and I can see all this about chromaticism in there) but I didn't have enough of a grasp of the guitar to apply the theory. Now in my late forties, I realize that when I play with a band, focusing on the song, supporting the singer, hewing close to the melody, and trying to use chromatic runs are hallmarks of my playing. Pretty cool.

The article about Jimmy Rogers is really interesting to me. At the time, I was falling in love with the blues but my understanding of 20th century history and race relations was very limited, so I think that back then I didn't appreciate the parts of the article that resonate with me now. Jimmy Rogers was part of the Muddy Waters band that basically invented the electric Chicago blues (electric guitars, electrified harmonica, drums and bass with piano). One remarkable thing about this music that I didn't appreciate at the time I first read this article is that it was basically developed in 1947-1955 by migrants to northern cities from southern plantations. So when it got over to English players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and the like it wasn't actually "old" at all. Dan Forte's interview with Jimmy Rogers notes that "The 62-year old's first hand recollections give a rare insight into one of American music's most important turning points from one of its moving forces." The following are some lengthy quotes that, to me, place the music firmly in it's urban context while also showing how the blues was a music that developed on stage at gigs to get people to dance. 

Like most bluesmen, Jimmy played regularly in the open-air Maxwell Street market known as "Jew Town". "Yeah, me and my friends was playing out there," he smiles; "Buddy, Ed Newman, Porkchop, Stovepipe, Satch, John Henry--all those guys, a bunch of them. Most of those guys is dead now. We'd be out there from maybe 8:00 Saturday night until maybe 3:00 or 4:00 Sunday evening. 
"We played a few clubs, but mostly for parties. When we played in a club, at that time, you wasn't paid to play. You would come in, and the guy would furnish the electricity. You'd hook up and play and make you some money passing the kitty and stuff like that. We'd play in maybe two or three joints a night that way and make pretty good money...In fact, we were making more money that way than I made when we started to call ourselves a band and be paid by the club owners. When we started playing, we were getting like $8 a night that way apiece--three or four of us--but before that two guys, maybe three would go from one place to another and you'd make maybe $75 or $80 bucks a night on weekends. That was good money. "
Jimmy also had a succession of day jobs, which is how he indirectly hooked up with Muddy Waters. "Off and on I was working days, but I was more interested in playing. The first job I worked on in Chicago was like a packing house--chicken packing in those big 60-gallon drums. Icing them and loading trucks over at South Water Market in Chicago, right off Market St. The next job I had was at Midwest Shoe Manufacturing Company on the West Side. Then I worked at some more packing houses--Liberty, Swift, Armour--and from there I went into construction. 
"I was working at a radio cabinet company with Muddy Waters' cousin Jessie. Jessie would take up with us musicians, like me and Smitty; on weekends he would come around where we'd be playing and he'd buy us whiskey and stuff. He just liked to be with us. So he got me this job at the radio cabinet place where he was working. He told me that he had a cousin that was coming to Chicago. So then I did meet him when he came in, and we got to talking, and he said he was playing down south, down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for house parties and what have you. And so we just started playing for parties. And from that, club owners hired us. "
Whereas Waters' main influences on guitar were fellow Mississippians Son House and Robert Johnson, Rogers leaned more towards Big Bill Broonzy, one of the key figures in blues' transition from rural to urban and already a big star in Chicago. "Big Bill was my favorite guitar man. Year, Bill used to call me his son; I knew him a long time. Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy and Big Maceo were really the leading hard blues artists that were in Chicago. And Memphis Minnie, but she was fading. Muddy talked about Robert Johnson, but he didn't know Robert too well. But he would talk about what he heard about Robert, see. Muddy knew Son House, and Son House was playing along this same style that Robert was playing. And so he picked up a lot of stuff from Son House, this Delta blues player. He had a lot of different stories about those guys back there. But, see, Muddy was, I'd say about 10 years older than I am. So when he got to Chicago, he was like 30 years old."
Nearly every player who worked in Muddy Waters' band during the '50s has since achieved legendary status. In town, the group was intimidating to say the least. "They called us the head-cutters," Rogers laughs. "Anytime we'd go in a club, man, the other musicians had to back down because we had the floor. If some guy was playing over here, when we'd get of work we'd go to his club--just to have a nice time. But they wouldn't let us rest until they'd get us up on the bandstand and tear the house up. Then we'd go to the next club."
Sylvio's and most of the other South and West Side Chicago clubs were rough-and-tumble joints. "Sometimes the black clubs would be pretty rough," Rogers allows, "but it never harmed any of us. The Zanzibar was the roughest one--at 13th and Ashland, on the West Side. Just about every week somebody would get messed up. But what could you do? We was pumping the blues good and had a big crowd. Somebody'd look at somebody else's girl, and there you go."
Jimmy retired from music in 1960 and didn't return to active playing until 1971. "My kids were growing up and expenses were going higher. And I was a family man. Music wasn't doing much for me at the time so I had to do other things. I bought into a cab company with another fellow. Then I left that and had a clothing store....I started back after a while after I got burned out. The store had burned down back when Martin Luther King got killed and I lost a lot. They had a riot in Chicago and they was burning up everything. So I got caught in it real bad. I had to do something. I already had an offer to go to Europe, but I'd refused it. I called back and in a month's time I was in Europe and that helped me to get myself started again."

If you can't tell, I think this article (really an oral history) is amazing stuff.  I'm so glad that Guitar Player made the effort to get these stories before they were lost forever. 

The cover story is about the Fender Stratocaster. As I mentioned above, this became a very useful set of pages to me a few years later, but what I think is so interesting looking back is the emphasis on the Strat (or "strat-style instruments") being the "guitar of the '80s" and also talking about prices on the then booming vintage market (funny thought, I've had my Stratocaster for 27 years, so it's as old as some of the "vintage" models discussed in the article!). The intro to the article sets the stage nicely:

Even "Mr. 335" plays one. Even Gibson markets one. Even Martin. It links Buddy Holly to Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix to Jimmie Vaughan, Ritchie Valens to Richie Blackmore. It's the favored design for builders of the $2,000 handmade solidbodies, yet it's also at the top of the low-end heap. And prices for vintage models have skyrocketed into the surreal, leaving veteran observers shaking their heads and wondering where it's all heading. It's widely heard in funk, rock, metal, surf and blues. It's all over television--blue jeans commercials, beer commercials, MTV. Most session pros wouldn't dream of showing up without at least one. It's everywhere, the undisputed Guitar of the '80s.

I'll write more about Strats in the future. While I tend to think that I wasn't very interested in them at age 17 (preferring Gibson style instruments), they must have had some attraction, because it looks like I clipped out and mailed in an entry to win the Strat giveaway that month!

I've already gone on for long enough. I'll leave you with a Spotify playlist made up of music referred to in the magazine. In addition to the artists mentioned above, there are also some highlights from records reviewed in the back of the issue, as well as some of the Portland, Oregon musicians referred to in an article about the music scene in that town (prior to it's hipster identification, I guess).  I hope you enjoy it. I'll be back next month, and until then, keep on picking!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (July 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.

Before we start, I'm sad to say that one of the musicians I featured in the June 1987 lookback, South African guitarist Ray Phiri passed away this week. You can read that blog post here on the site, and I urge you to listen to the playlist--the live cuts from Phiri's band Stimela are really awesome.

Nationally, the seventh month of 1987 saw Oliver North testify in the Iran/Contra hearings, and Federal Appeals Judge Robert Bork was nominated for the Supreme Court. Also, while I didn't notice it then, Guns and Roses released Appetite for Destruction, one of the best albums of the decade and one that would soon play a major role in my life.  On a personal level, in July, 1987 I was getting ready to start my senior year in high school. I worked that summer at Jules Pilch Menswear in nearby Hatboro, PA, and continued my guitar lessons while watching lots of MTV. Around this time I was starting to get a lot more cognizant of different types of guitars, and while I was still super happy to be picking my Peavey T-15 I definitely began getting aware of other kinds of axes. By this time I was also getting heavily into the blues and listening to a Wednesday night blues show on local radio was a highlight of my week. 

Unlike some of the other issues I've written about in this series, the July 1987 issue doesn't have quite as many noteworthy articles or reviews. Interestingly, the cover features a "summit" of four outstanding Canadian guitarists, Rik Emmett of Triumph, Alex Lifeson of Rush, classical virtuoso Liona Boyd and jazzer Ed Bickert discussing a recording of Emmett's composition "Beyond Borders" that they made combining all of their styles. I say it's interesting because at the time my best friend was Canadian; Doug's dad was stationed at the local Naval Air base near my house and it was in July of 1987 that he was transferred back to Canada and Doug moved away. I remember that Doug had a record collection made up almost entirely of Canadian artists, but I can't remember if he and I talked about this issue or not. 

Other articles of note include interviews with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, Joe Diorio on creative improvisation, bassist Andy West on the virtues of the 6-string bass, and a feature on bass giant Brian Bromberg. There was also an informative article about custom colored Fender telecasters from the 1950s and one about Rickenbacker guitars that were sold in England (and bought by groups like the Beatles).

The two things that really mean the most to me in this issue are the announcement of the release of Tribute by Ozzy Osbourne in honor of his late guitar legend Randy Rhodes, who had died in a crash of the band's plane a few years before and a preview of Fender's Eric Clapton signature guitar. I couldn't have known this then, but the Tribute album has been hugely important to me. It turns out that Ozzy Osbourne helps me conquer writer's block--seriously! Ever since college, when I REALLY need to write something I put on the Tribute album and I can write fast and well. And in 1990 I bought my Fender Stratocaster which is not a Clapton model, but it is Pewter, the most common color of the early Clapton axes (and I've also customized it with Lace Sensor Gold pickups, so it is 70% of an EC)--you'll see much more on my Stratocaster in future blog posts!

That's about all for this month. My wife and I are packing up our things for our 10th move in our 24 years together. As always I'll grumble when packing the Guitar Players into boxes but I'm so glad to have these old issues!  I look forward to next month and having everything unpacked in our new home. Until then, keep on picking!

30 Years Ago Index





Tuesday, June 13, 2017

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

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago..."  My personal collection of  Guitar Player magazines goes back to the fall of 1986, which is around the time I started playing.  Each month I write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post features a Spotify playlist with some of the music from the issue.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In June, 1987 I was finishing up 11th grade and starting my job as a stock assistant at Jules Pilch Menswear in nearby Hatboro, PA. Guitar wise, I was still picking on an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt's, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. I was getting lessons from Jim McCarthy, a recent GIT graduate who was a good teacher and a great player.  As far as what ELSE was going on in June of 1987, Ken Griffey, Jr. was the #1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft (I saw him play the next season, the first in a Hall of Fame career) and Tom Seaver retired. In geopolitics, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the next day, Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall (Germans saved him the trouble three years later). And in music/comestibles, Ben and Jerry's ice cream introduced Cherry Garcia to the world. 

The cover of Guitar Player promised a typically eclectic mix of subjects, from cover artist John Scofield (who had just begun a career as a bandleader after playing with Miles Davis), a 20th anniversary look back at Monterey Pop, a feature on the "guitars of "Graceland" (the latest from Paul Simon, who had, of course, played at Monterey) and a featurette on quirky husband and wife duo "Timbuk 3".  The cover also promised something called "In Color! Vintage Beauties", which may or may not have drawn my adolescent attention (it turned out to be about old guitars).  Elsewhere in the issue are articles about steel guitarist Steve Fishell, bassist Neil Jason and classical guitarist Jorge Morel (including a soundpage I have never listened to).  There are also some interesting product reviews and even a guitar focused review of "The Joshua Tree" the latest album from Irish rockers U2 which is now being celebrated for its 30th anniversary with a world tour ("youthful fire meets the wisdom of age on U2s most fully-realized studio album. The Edge reprises the propulsive rhythms that have made him one of the most imitated guitarists of the 1980s").


I was somewhat familiar with John Scofield at the time, as I used to listen to "Fusion Fridays" on WRTI, the jazz station out of nearby Temple University. I can't remember if I ALREADY had his album "Blue Matter", or if I got the cassette after reading this article, but I know that I found him and his music quite interesting, and the article had a lot to chew on. The title was "Miles Beyond" (get it?) and the crux was that Scofield was starting his solo career with the endorsement of jazz legend Miles Davis ("the legendary trumpeter's eye for talent is unquestionable").

While I didn't notice this at the time, it is clear on revisiting these old issues that the editors of GP  were eager to engage with their interviewees on a level much deeper than just "tell us about your latest release". In the previous month, editor Dan Forte tried to push bluesman Robert Cray about race, and in this cover story, the subtext was about jazz and whether or not it is "superior" to other kinds of music.  One of the first questions asked Scofield to categorize different types of music, and his answer was very thoughtful:

"Music can't accurately be described with words, but categories do exist, because people play out of certain idioms. When you categorize music, there's a danger of placing one form over the other. For instance, you can't say that jazz is better than rock, because there's always going to be some jazz that you don't like and some rock that you don't like. 
But don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to compare the Kingsmen with John Coltrane. For decades people have gone around and put down jazz on the basis that classical music is a higher art form. Musicians speak in terms of categories as much as writers do, but I try to be open to all kinds of stuff, although just because I like one thing doesn't mean I like all of it. For instance, I like Billy Idol, but I hate a lot of other groups. I've seen Billy Idol a couple of times and when I close my eyes and listen to what he's singing, I think that his phrasing is pretty good. I also sort of like his guitar player [Steve Stevens]. On the other hand, Twisted Sister has never moved me in any kind of musical way."
When you say that the Kingsmen can't be compared to John Coltrane, aren't you implying that only the best rock is better than the worst jazz?
"I'm not even going to get into it, because beautiful, poignant music--regardless of type--is all the same things. There have been periods where I've listened to lots of Ray Charles and Ornette Coleman, but I never thought "This is good, but it's not as serious as Bach". I love Duke Ellington, and his music has infinite mysteries to me, but I cant say that it's better than Howlin' Wolf, because I love both things in different ways. When you compare music, you lose the joy of listening to it."
I've always found Scofield to be a deeply thoughtful person and his music is widely varied; it's neat to see that he's always been like this.


As I write this, it's a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop festival, the first of the famous outdoor music festivals and a highly influential one, as the film of the event introduced acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding (not to mention Hugh Masekela, Ravi Shankar and the Jefferson Airplane) to wider American audiences. In this issue, Guitar Player included a five page spread by legendary rock photographer Jim Marshall, who shared some of the images he captured at the festival, along with his memories.  I was a big fan of what was even then being called "classic rock", so I totally ate up these pictures.  The caption of the photo at the bottom right is neat:

"Brian Jones walking around the Fairgrounds with Jimi. Here's a guy in the Rolling Stones, and people did not mob him. There was no threat, just a peaceful crowd. Can you imagine Sting doing that today? It just wouldn't happen--he'd get mobbed."  It's funny that the closest comparison 20 years later that Marshall could think of was Sting. It's also sobering that both men had already been dead for nearly two decades, and neither was older than 26 when the picture was taken. I'm glad we still have Sting in 2017!

One of the most interesting articles, both at the time and now was "The South African Guitars of Graceland" which profiled guitarist Ray Phiri and bassist Bahiti Khumalo, who added such wonderful African rhythms to Paul Simon's Grammy winning album. I heard the hits on the radio (and saw the video with Simon and Chevy Chase for "You Can Call Me Al" (one is short, one is tall, and that was funny in 1987) so I was quite interested in learning more. I also was a budding liberal teenager in the mid-80's which meant I was totally opposed to apartheid, without quite knowing what it was all about.

The article never alluded to the controversy surrounding Simon's decision to record in South Africa; I just thought it was a cool thing, and this article might have contributed to the reason why. Writer Jon Sievert says that when Simon won the Grammy for Album of the Year "he put the credit right where it belonged--in the hands of the South African musicians who helped create it." Sievert notes that "Simon drew upon some of that troubled nation's finest black musicians to create an artistic success that, uncharacteristically, also translated into commercial success." It was very interesting to learn about Khumalo and Phiri, and about the mbaqanga music they brought to Simon's attention. The article notes that Simon was well-known in South Africa for "Mother and Child Reunion" (another world music tune recorded with Jamaican musicians) and that Khumalo's trademark basslines in songs like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" were his own ("for the most part, Khumalo was given complete freedom to create his own lines"). Bahiti Khumalo was 30 at the time, and said that his hope was that "Graceland's" success would let him bring his band to the US "I think they will like our music. And back home it's not good, not good."

Guitarist Ray Phiri was 40 years old, and an established star in his home country; in fact, the article noted "at the time we spoke to Ray during Simon's US tour, 'Graceland' was the #2 album on the South African pop charts, topped only by Stimela [Phiri's band]."  Phiri's father was a musician until a work accident disabled him, and the article hints at the poverty experienced by black South Africans:
"By working after school as a gardener for white families at the equivalent of $1.50 per month, he was able to save enough money to buy a copy of Alfred's Guitar Chords. "I learned to play chords, but I had a problem because I didn't know how to tune the guitar," says Ray. "So I had to work another three months to buy the little tuner that sounds like a harmonica."
I would like to think that I had enough of a social conscience to be appalled that it took three months of hard labor to afford a pitch pipe, but who knows what 17 year old me missed in the obliviousness of youth? That said, what a difference technology makes--now if a young person has access to the World Wide Web, they can get all kinds of guitar instruction for free.

The article gave quite a bit of interesting insights into the music of "Graceland". Ray Phiri, who was a co-arranger on the album, says:
"I believe that Paul was looking for a tap that he could open and have ideas pour out. I was that kind of tap. He asked me to give him riffs and grooves, and that's what I did. From there, we started making songs....The album was done and mixed when we went to New York for the Saturday Night Live show. But when we started jamming around, out came "You Can Call Me Al" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and we went into the studio and recorded them....The album, to me, is the music we used to play in the late '60s and early '70s. "
Sievert says that "For the most part, Simon relied on the rich variety of traditional South African musical styles to build the songs on. To explain them, Phiri compares them with the 'juju' music of Nigerian King Sunny Ade, which has gained a certain amount of popularity in the United States in the past few years":
"Juju is very close to mbaqanga, but it's a little more monotonous. Once you've heard one artist playing juju, it's like you've heard them all. You'll find our music is quite different. We have mbaqanga, which is our township jazz. We also have our "jive" and Soweto soul music. It's all different. It never gets boring, because it's very much like jazz that relies very heavily on improvisation. Juju depends very much on drums and the drum patterns all end up sounding the same. I don't say that juju music isn't good, but I believe our music is much richer. It's more soul music coming from the heart. It's not easy to write mbaqanga licks. If you try to make a technique out of it, you lose the rawness. It's so syncopated, and you can play up to five guitars at the same time without getting into each other's way."
What an interesting counterpoint to the quote from Scofield in the same magazine!  Of course, that could also be due to Phiri needing to differentiate his music to try to get sales. The article noted that it was hard for them to sell their music outside of South Africa:
"Every time we get a chance to have our records distributed in the States, politics gets in the way," Ray laments. "It's very sad because I would really like my music to be heard around here. Perhaps there is a chance that Paul's album will help change that. But I'm still searching for the missing chord that will combine the Western influence and our traditional music. Maybe we can come up with a sound that will hit the world, and people will say "Wow! This is fresh."


I've already gone on long enough, but I can't let this issue go without showing the review of Journey guitarist Neal Schon's signature guitar. When I was a teenager, I thought this was unquestionably the most awesome guitar  in the world! The review is by Rick Turner (who among other things, popularized neck-through-body designs like the Schon's with his company Alembic), and it's a good review, I just wish it had been in color! Neal Schon has had LOTS of signature guitars over the years (from Aria, Gibson, Paul Reed Smith and others), but this is my favorite. Here is a webpage that gives more details about these axes--I wish I could play one someday!

As always, here is a playlist featuring music referred to in the issue. Whether in an article, or a review, or an advertisement, this was some of the sound of June 1987. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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

Welcome back to the newest series here on the blog. I was incredibly gratified to receive so many positive comments about the first installment back in March on the guitar related blogs and message boards I frequent. To recap, I have been playing guitar since 1986, and I have a collection of Guitar Player magazines that stretches back to the fall of that year. Each month I will write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post will also have a Spotify playlist with some of the music referred to in the issue.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In May, 1987 I was wrapping up 11th grade at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Guitar wise, there were no changes--I had an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt's, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. As far as what ELSE was going on in the spring of 1987, Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart was up to some "Monkey Business" with Donna Rice, my Philadelphia Flyers hockey team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers (the orange and black lost in 7 games), Playtex was the first company to show women wearing bras on tv commercials, and more seriously, 37 sailors were killed when the U.S.S. Stark was attacked by an Iraqi jet during the Iraq-Iran war (during which the Reagan administration famously attempted to play both sides against the middle).

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In the pages of Guitar Player, blues musician Robert Cray (whose songs "Strong Persuader" and "Right Next Door" were radio and MTV hits) was on the cover, along with a small picture of roots rockers Georgia Satellites (whose "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" was a BIG video hit). The cover also told us that one-hit wonders David+David would be profiled, along with the highlights from the 1987 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) tradeshow. Finally, the cover touted a free record of a live recording of Cray onstage with Eric Clapton playing Cray's song "Phone Booth". Back in those pre-digital download days, GP included a vinyl "flexidisc" record each month. I remember how excited I was to detach them from the perforations, carefully lay them on top of an actual 12 inch LP, and put them on the turntable. Fortunately for us, someone out there has saved his copy and posted it on YouTube. Sounds pretty good!


One of the things I want to try to do in these blog posts is try to remember what I learned from these articles at the time, and also to show what can be gleaned from them today.  The version of me who was around in  May, 1987 spent a lot of time listening to the radio and watching MTV. I was already really into the blues--I'd bought a few LPs by mail order from Alligator Records so I was excited to see Robert Cray on the cover. That said, the only thing that jumped out at me then was that he had played with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland on a Grammy winning record, and that Collins had played his high school prom (and that Jimi Hendrix had played his high school as well). The coolest band to play in my suburbs was the Hooters, and even that was at the Catholic school, so I was probably jealous!

Reading the article now, I notice right from the get go that there was more going on--the title of the article was "The Great Blues Hope", and the interview with Dan Forte put a lot of focus on the issue of the aging of original bluesmen and the need for new (preferably African-American) successors. Forte's questions indulged in terms I didn't understand as a teenager, but can't miss now:

  • "It seems you haven't consciously compromised to cross over; you've always done the same stuff."
  • "When you hooked up with a major label, were there any commercial considerations when it came time to pick material?"
  • "None of the tracks on 'Strong Persuader' are really straight ahead blues....Do you feel comfortable with the blues label?"
  • "As far as your guitar playing much of what you do stems from straight-ahead blues and who are the other sources?"

and the big one:

"Since most of the young blues players coming up seem to be white, critics and writers and to some degree, fans...have been searching for a long time for some young blacks to carry on the tradition. With the kind of success you are having now, do you feel any pressure or responsibility in the fact that, whether you like it or not, you're pretty much thrust into that role?"

For the record, Cray answered the last question with "I don't even think about it", even though he acknowledged hearing it a lot. My thoughts on this 30 years later are that the focus on recruiting a black "young face of the blues" (presumably to contrast with Stevie Ray Vaughn among young blues guitarists) makes me a little uncomfortable. Also, I will confess that it took me a long time (decades) to really appreciate Robert Cray's music, and I wonder if Forte's questions implying that he wasn't "really" a blues traditionalist played a role?

The Georgia Satellites article was quite interesting--it was actually two separate short pieces on the group's two guitarists, Rick Richards and Dan Baird. I really loved the "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" video and the tune was on the radio a lot back then. 17-year old me didn't get all the references to artists who influenced the duo, but I do know that I used it as part of my research to find cool records! Back then I was quite methodical about tracking down influences; while I didn't "get" Robert Johnson (for instance), I knew what he'd meant to Eric Clapton so I bought his records. These interviews definitely helped point me towards records like Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, the Mick Taylor era Rolling Stones, and contemporary artists like Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers and Pete Anderson of Dwight Yoakam's band.

David+David (Ricketts and Baerwald) were a duo that put out a very atmospheric record called Welcome to the Boomtown, and the title track got radio and video play at the time. I liked that song, and I have come to really like the album (I listen to it several times every year, usually when I want to experience 80's cocaine-fueled ennui and paranoia). The article is kind of interesting from a "LA Studio Guys" kind of way, but doesn't yield any clues as to why they never made another record. Interestingly, it takes a trip to Wikipedia to learn that both men were part of the Tuesday Night Music Club that led to Sheryl Crow's first major LP after she stopped singing backup for Michael Jackson.

The NAMM roundup is interesting in the way that it starts with what were probably rather esoteric products (signal processors and MIDI gear) and only talks about amplifiers on the third page. It's a bit boring due to the black-and-white pictures, but making me feel VERY old indeed is the focus on Marshall's 25/50 amplifiers, celebrating the company's quarter century of making eardrums bleed with special silver colored amps, cabinets and combos. These might be familiar to you as a key part of Slash's sound with Guns and Roses (maybe he ran out and got his after reading this issue?), or from the fact that the amps were reissued last year. In a fun twist, Mike Kapolka, a former student of mine, is the guitarist for upcoming band Down To Six, and he plays an original Silver Jubilee amp.

Another article that really stands out for me is the feature "Show Guitar: Playing The Pits From The Boondocks To Broadway", by Frank Jermance, a professor of music management at University of Colorado-Denver (who apparently had a background as a pit guitarist in road companies of Cats, Eubie, Annie, The Sound of Music, and other shows). I was a pretty serious theatre guy in high school and was seriously considering a career backstage; in the month of May I was also super interested in picking the brain of the professional guitarist who played my high school's production of The Music Man. I was the house manager, and I enjoyed talking to him--he played a headless Steinberger guitar, and told me it was because space in a pit was so limited. I remember talking to him about this article, in fact!

Jermance has lots of important advice, mostly about learning to sight read, and being able to follow a conductor's directions. But he also gets down to the nitty-gritty, with specific tips like:

  • "A competent show player should be able to manage styles from Atkins to Zappa".  This resonated with me, because my teacher at the time was Jim McCarthy who had graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology. He told me about the jazz classes, country classes, blues classes, and so on that he had to take to get a "Professional Guitarist" diploma.
  • "Your basic amp should be no larger than a Fender Twin Reverb...since the guitarist is often allocated a three-foot square space"
  • "You must have a good quality flat-top with a natural-sounding pickup, a nylon-string guitar with some kind of pickup, an amplifiable archtop, and a "hybrid" electric guitar that is capable of producing the clarity of a Tele and Strat as well as a "fat" Les Paul sound on demand. You'll also need a banjo and a mandolin, both of which can be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar."  That's quite a guitarsenal! And thus was my lifelong journey begun....


My favorite article on re-reading the magazine is the long feature on Nashville session guitarist Brent Rowan. Guitar Player was very helpful in introducing me to country music (which wasn't on Philadelphia FM radio in the '80s, but could be found on Cable TV on The Nashville Network and Austin City Limits), and esoteric treats like the Nashville number system of music notation, which has always made more sense to me than traditional music notation. Anyway, the article about Rowan was called "Brent Rowan's Nashville Notebook", and it is really fascinating. Besides giving a standard interview describing his approach to recording on Nashville sessions, and in doing so, reveals just how much pressure Nashville cats faced (emphasis mine):

"We are directly competing with New York and L.A. sound wise and player wise. I can't prove this, but someone at the union office told me that there are more records being made in Nashville than anywhere else. The guys doing most of the session work here can play anything that you want at anytime, in any kind of style. Part of what we're fighting is the image that the only thing that comes out of here are Mel Tillis and George Jones records. 
Country music has changed and broadened a lot. The more contemporary Christian things are some of the hipper stuff being done. Versatility comes into play here, because you may have to do an Albert Lee or Ricky Skaggs-type tune on the same session that you have to do a ZZ Top or Larry Carlton kind of thing. Players have to be able to do anything because the album budgets are typically smaller, so there are fewer spots. You don't have one date to do just one track, like you might in L.A. In two sessions--six hours--you may have to do two to seven master quality songs....For a guitar slot to be open you've got to be versatile. My record collection goes from Ricky Skaggs to Bryan Adams to Hendrix to Tina Turner to Timbuk 3. I need to be aware of everything, so if the producer says 'Make it sound like the new Pretenders album', I'll know what he means."
Pretty neat. Also neat to me is that Rowan's article makes several mentions to the musician's union, and Jermance also spent a lot of time talking about the importance of being in the union, and explaining union wages for pit musicians. I don't see that as much nowadays, perhaps due to the proliferation of "right to work" laws in the last few decades?

The highlight of the article was "A Week in the Life of Brent Rowan", where he detailed each of the sessions he played. Click here for a larger copy of the picture below that you can read:

One of the things that jumps out at me now is that twice in the week he did after hours rehearsals with a "writer for Tree Publishing..[who fronts] a Louisiana swamp-rock band, to help him get a record deal."  The name of that up and coming songwriter? Kix Brooks, who became part of Brooks and Dunn and has sold over 30 million records. What a great sense of being a fly on the wall this article provides!


The Spotify playlist below has some of the music referred to in the issue. I've also included jazz guitarist Larry Carlton's "Last Nite" for two reasons--first, the ad on page 138 (pictured at left), and also because my teacher was at the concert at Hollywood's Baked Potato club that made up the bulk of the record. It was really neat because he told me about what the show was really like--apparently the horn section on several songs wasn't actually there, but was overdubbed later. You can bet that I tucked that little tidbit away and have always been drawn to live albums with as little post production "sweetening" as possible. 

I hope you liked this look back at Guitar Player in the spring of 1987.  I'll be back in June with another installment. Until then, bass columnist Herb Mickman reminded his readers "If it sounds good, it is good!"