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.

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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 ça 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.



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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!









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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

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