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 goes...how 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!"

Sunday, March 5, 2017

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

Welcome to a new series here on the blog. As you might know from previous posts, 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. I am missing a small number of issues, but in the main I have carried these magazines with me through eleven moves in five states over the last three decades. 

The 275 issues in my possession from October 1986 (which I bought in the music store where I had my first guitar lesson) through March, 2010 when I ended my subscription due to frustration with poor editing, shallow writing and unhelpful gear reviews have been my faithful companions--I've read every issue more than once, and several have been read more times than I can count. Especially in the days before the World Wide Web, Guitar Player ("The Guitar Player's Bible") was the most authoritative source of information about the instrument, its history, its players, and how to play it. Even through the 1990's, the magazine was the best way to stay current with gear, music, trends and topics related to the guitar.

I've decided to write a post each month where I will look through the Guitar Player from exactly thirty years prior. Each post will show the cover, describe the feature articles and highlight any cool ads, lessons or other content that stands out. I'll also try to discuss  what I learned from them at the time, and how they shaped my approach to music. Finally, I'll also point out what will now look like anachronisms: whether it's once expensive gear that is now obsolete, or the kind of content (such as explanations of digital music) that is now considered common knowledge.  Each post will also have a Spotify playlist with some of the music referred to in the issue.

I think that this will be a very interesting and educational look back at what was considered important, current, and popular music decades ago.  It will also frequently demonstrate that while times change, topics of discussion do not. I wrote in this space last year about the economics of guitar building, a topic which (like tropical trees) seems never to go extinct; topics such as "the future of guitar" will appear throughout the series--whether as comfortable bragging during the axe-heavy hair metal '80s or as fraught hand-wringing during the flannel-clad grunge '90s, and that is still a topic that causes people to wonder even now.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In March, 1987 I was in 11th grade at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Guitar wise, 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, the tv show "The A Team" went off the air, "Les Miserables" began its lengthy Broadway run and televangelist Jim Bakker left his show PTL after an affair with his assistant, Jessica Hahn (later the "star" of "comedian" Sam Kinison's music video for "Wild Thing"). In that year's Academy Awards, "Platoon" took Best Picture, and Paul Newman and Marlee Matlin won Best Actor and Best Actress. Interestingly, that same month, August Wilson's play "Fences" premiered in New York and thirty years later, Viola Davis won an Oscar for her role in the film version. Oh, and in actually important news, President Ronald Reagan went on television to "take full responsibility" for the criminal conspiracy known as the Iran-Contra Scandal

In the pages of Guitar Player, jazz musician Mike Stern (promoting his first solo record "Upside/Downside") and his uni-brow were on the cover, along with a small picture of bassist Bruce Thomas of Elvis Costello's band The Attractions. The cover also touted a "free record" inside from Adrian Belew. 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.

Other highlights on the cover were an interview with the guitarists and bassist of then new sensation band The Smithereens, a new instructional article from bass superstar (and 1980's #1 go to bassist) Nathan East, and the usual reviews of new gear.

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  March, 1987 was totally absorbed by music, nearly evenly splitting his listening time between MTV, Philadelphia rock stations WMMR and WYSP and jazz radio station WRTI (especially their "Fusion Friday" show). I had just begun taking guitar lessons from a man named Jim McCarthy who had recently graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood and was eager to learn music theory, though I had no training and no patience to learn how to read.

With that in mind, the article about Adrian Belew's new record, Desire Caught By The Tail went almost totally over my head, dealing as it did with advanced technology like guitar synthesizers and sequencers, and the one about Mike Stern and his new album, Upside/Downside was also pretty hard to get through, as it was written for an audience that was familiar with jazz, jazz musicians, and record production. Having said that, looking at them now, what strikes me in Belew's piece was how fluent he was at embracing then "bleeding-edge" technology and making rigorous, challenging music with it. Similarly, what stands out in the Stern article is the frankness with which it approached the drug and alcohol use that had sidetracked his career throughout the early Eighties.

The cover story was written by GP editor Jim Ferguson, and he opens up the article by saying that "...for the past 10 years, he's been one of jazz' best kept secrets, largely due to his shy modesty and drug problems, which he has put behind him."  Later in the piece, Stern says "Only recently have I started to realize that there's a hell of a lot more to life than just drinking and drugging. But there's a lot more to life than just music and the guitar, too....It's nice to read a book once in a while, too, you know?"  I still read music publications today, and it seems that now it is much rarer to see people be open about their drug use.

The article with Bruce Thomas was probably of superficial interest to me then (not knowing much of Elvis Costello's work at the time, nor caring about bassists), but is fascinating now. Thomas describes life coming up as a musician in England in the 1960s (as a blues guitarist), and becoming a bass player for Costello in the early days of punk rock. At one point, he's asked if the band felt "out of place" being tagged as a "punk" band since so many of them (except for Costello) had so much experience in groups. His answer is worth quoting:
"Not really. A lot of the time we played too fast because we were nervous. And a lot of the time for more dubious reasons [laughs] that had to do with the era. We were working so hard, we used to basically drink a lot of vodka and take a lot of cocaine--it was as simple as that. So we played too fast. We were just doing gigs and getting on the bus and doing gigs. We didn't have five days off in the first two years. We were basically fried.
....I was never a person who listened to rock music at home; I always listened to Baroque or some sort of ethnic music. Steely Dan was about the nearest I got to rock, and Elvis thought I was a bit of a wimp. He was the guy who was champing at the bit and frothing at the mouth. He had never been in a band before, never been on a bus before, never seen a groupie before. Conversely,  I was playing in bands and was saying "Aww, for God's sake, you can't keep playing this lame sort of sub-California Eagles shit." The only exciting bands around at the time were...Dr. Feelgood. Let's get some good old British R&B; let's get the beat back into it! Never mind about this "Take It Easy" and "Trucking Down The Freeway Of Life's Stoned And Moody Mind With My Little Denim Lady in LA" I quite like redblooded music..."

What an interesting assessment of different musical styles and the appeal they had at the time (and what kind of groupie did Elvis Costello attract?). Now, I understand Dr. Feelgood and respect them as a solid "pub-rock" "good old British R&B" group, but in 1986 I would have probably bristled at anyone saying anything bad about the Eagles.  Plus ├ža change...

Another article that really stands out for me is the feature "Tax Tips for Guitarists: What the New Laws Mean To You", by Kent Klavens a "Los Angeles-based entertainment-industry attorney". Written after the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Klavens directed his advice both "to the richest and most successful among you, while other items are directed to the 'starving artist' types." This article is one of a kind that we will see over and over in this series--in the days before the internet, Guitar Player took its reputation as the "bible" for axe slingers seriously, and they often engaged with serious issues that would have been meaningless to 16 year old me, but of great import to my 25 year old teacher Jim, who was giving lessons out of his bedroom in Warminster, PA.


Gear wise, the magazine was full of advertisements for the latest and greatest guitars, amps and effects. Nowadays, much of the advertising for guitars touches on "vintage" and "familiar" styles, but in the mid-1980's eyes were firmly fixed on the future.  Needless to say, few people (besides rock stars) could afford a $10,000 "SynthAxe" controller--that would be about $21,400 now--but while it seems fascinating that they would advertise such an instrument, many people thought that they were the future. The fact is, the 80's were a heyday of synthesizer sounds in music, and if guitarists wanted to keep up (and couldn't play keyboards) they needed to find a way to contribute. No less a guitar hero than Eric Clapton had played synthesizer guitar extensively on his 1985 album Behind The Sun, and it seemed like everyone would be doing so soon. In fact, when I went to college in 1988 the lead guitarist in my band (more on that in future posts) had a Roland guitar synth controller, so they were definitely "out there" even for amateur musicians.

My teacher could play INCREDIBLY fast, and he told me that he'd played several guitar synths, but they could never keep up with him (so much for "lightning fast picking"), but he was convinced that all guitarists would be playing synths one day. I'm sure glad that hasn't come to pass yet!

Obviously if you want to be a rock star, you have to have records for people to listen to. Fortunately the mid-1980s saw a proliferation of relatively inexpensive recording technology that utilized then-common cassette tapes to allow a person to plug in a couple of microphones and record a demo tape or live performance. Nowadays, of course my iPhone can record lots more than four tracks, with studio quality effects, and can also export the music to YouTube or some other distribution modality, for free. It might be good for people to remember that the easy to use technology in their pocket is so much more capable than the portable studio that cost $600 ($1,285 today) in 1987. And it would be even better if it would encourage them to record something!


One of the things that set Guitar Player apart from other magazines back then was the breadth and depth of its lessons and of the musicians who wrote them.  Besides Nathan East's debut article "Bass Tracks: Creating the Right Part", the issue also featured Chet Atkins, Larry Coryell (who just passed away last month), Rik Emmet of the band Triumph (who was my favorite columnist--we will be hearing a lot about him in future posts); Howard Roberts (the founder of Musician's Institute), Tommy Tedesco (the most recorded studio guitarist ever) and classical virtuoso and professor Benjamin Verdery. Most of these articles were far beyond my comprehension at the time, but over the years I've enjoyed going back over old lessons and trying to use them to broaden my mastery of the instrument. 

One of the articles that I know that I read and took seriously then was by bass legend Jeff Berlin. Titled "Why You Should Learn To Read Music", it is full of valuable information and good reasons supporting it's thesis. Berlin writes :

"If you love guitar or bass, there is no reason why you shouldn't put in an hour or two every day and learn to read. First of all, your career choices rapidly increase....Reading music gives you authenticity in your playing. It makes information instantly available, plus it puts within your reach music that you would never have thought of, or worse, never thought of practicing and playing. Reading music makes as much sense as reading English."
In retrospect, this article goes very well with the cover story on Mike Stern. Stern had attended Berklee School of Music, and had played with Miles Davis and other jazz legends, but he talks about how a big part of his practicing involves transcribing solos from other instruments (which is impossible without knowing standard notation). I was far too lazy to take Jeff Berlin's advice (which my teacher was also giving me every Sunday), just like I was too lazy to learn how to program the computer my father bought me in 1981 (which is why I didn't become a dot com zillionaire), but it is excellent advice, and you should take it seriously!

Unfortunately I am missing the April, 1987 issue of Guitar Player, but I'll be back in May. Until then, as Rik Emmett used to say, "Keep picking and grinning"!

Spotify Playlist: Guitar Player March 1987