Monday, October 8, 2018

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


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



September 1988 was the most consequential month of my life: I moved away from home to attend Hampshire College, where I met my future wife and (importantly for this blog) tons of guitar players who expanded my musical horizons and opportunities.

The September, 1988 Guitar Player had a lot of content that was focused on fusion, jazz-blues and other advanced topics. Besides good stories that introduced me to Robben Ford and Jeff Healey and an equally good one about NYC studio cat Hiram Bullock (who I had often seen on the David Letterman show) the issue had part three of Howard Morgen's advanced chord harmony lessons, an article about psychoacoustics and how we hear what we hear, and a very interesting article about tendinitis and a nascent movement to train therapists to treat musicians with repetitive-stress injuries. 


******************

I can't remember if I was already aware of Jeff Healey before reading this issue, but I'm sure that Jas Obrecht's short feature "Jeff Healey-Canada's Guitar Wizard" definitely made me a huge fan of the blind, lap-playing blues rock titan. Obrecht described his playing in vivid terms:


Watching Jeff Healey climax a concert with his searing "See The Light" is an experience few will ever forget. After sitting through most of the set with his guitar held flat on his lap, the 22-year-old leaps to his feat, cranks up the volume knob on his Marshall amp, and launches into a blistering blues-rock solo. Prowling the stage, he frets with his left hand over the fingerboard, using his thumb and index finger to create the fastest licks and most wicked vibrato this side of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He's unerringly accurate, even as he picks with his teeth or plays with his Squier Strat swung upside-down or held behind his head. The song concludes with a resplendent display of feedback as he lays his axe upon the ground and pumps the whammy with his foot. The frenzied roar of the crowd threatens to collapse the hall as Jeff reaches for his white cane and taps his way backstage.
Even though the article is only 2/3 of a page, Obrecht discusses Healey's band, his sudden rise to fame (thanks to the movie Roadhouse, the script for which called especially for Healey), his amazing collection of early jazz records ("I have about 10,000 78 RPM records") and, of course, his blindness ("I was blind at age one, and I got a guitar when I was three") It also goes into the details of his unique style:
 "I tuned the guitar to a chord and just used a slide to alter chords. This was the only logical way I could think of at that point. Someone taught me a standard tuning a few years later. I had been comfortable with holding the guitar on my lap, so I decided to work out all my chords that way. I can use all five fingers on my left hand for different types of vibrato; usually the index is best for a wide vibrato. I do a lot of bending with my thumb, and it also comes in handy when you're in a sitting position and want to hit notes above and beyond where you could normally reach. I've tried playing guitar the normal way, but I just wasn't very comfortable.
Cruelly, cancer didn't just take Healey's eyes, it killed him ten years ago. But he left a rich legacy of recordings that I never get tired of listening to


******************

I remember seeing Hiram Bullock play on the original David Letterman show (after Johnny Carson on NBC). The article about the then 33-year old Bullock, by Tad Lathrop, is another of the kind that regularly used to appear in GP, but so rarely does now: a profile of a working jazz/studio musician with a relatively low national profile.  The article is an interview that touches on Bullock's time as a student of Pat Metheny's at the University of Miami, his views on "fusion" music and his studio work. Here are some excerpts:

"I started out as a rock and roll, straight ahead, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, Steve Miller, blues-rock guitar player...When I was just a school band sax player, I listened to jazz--to John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly and Gerry Mulligan. And then I saw--as did a lot of young guitarists around this period in the early '70s--the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That's what I now consider to be true fusion...."
" So I eventually went to the University of Miami and went into a bebop submersion period where I put the Fender Stratocaster away and only played a big, fat, Gibson L-5 with a wound G string, no effects, no bent notes--the whole bit. I studied with Pat Metheny....He had a very different sound in those days. He was a guy who had a real clear idea of what he wanted to do at an early age. To me, it was almost intimidating how mature he was. At the age of 18 he was just like he is now. He played that way, he thought that way. He was just real self-assured, knew the style, and kew that he would do well, at least as far as I could tell. He was supposed to be a student, but no one could teach him, so they just gave him tuition credit and made him a teacher."
"I'm not a big one for fusion, you know, so I may not be the most qualified to talk about it. To me, fusion always implied more power rock elements, like Chick Corea's electric bands. That's the closest thing I've heard to what I think of as fusion: odd time signatures and real powerful, loud, virtuosic playing. In my semantics, what I do is 'crossover' rather than fusion. It's sort of funky pop music without vocals. It's not necessarily designed to show off any virtuosity on the part of the players. Fusion was designed to show how well the people could play. Crossover music, and that includes Bob James, George Benson and Dave Sanborn, is much easier. It's just music without vocals."
"The burgeoning yuppie population has embraced what they call jazz, which includes a lot of so-called 'new age' music, as well as people like Metheny and Sanborn. It's sort of become a status symbol, that you are somehow hipper than your average radio listener. The audience is all 20-to 35-year olds, relatively successful young people who, at their worst, have a little bit of elitism and feel sort of superior to the average listener. As for the hard core fusion people who used to watch Mahavishnu, I see a bit of that audience at my shows. They turn out to be mostly young men who are into energy, and they just want to see you power out."
"I did some stuff on the Gaucho album. I'm a fan of Steely Dan, so I was thrilled and flattered that they called me. They are as meticulous as everyone says. I think we worked a week on one song. At one point we worked nine hours on one four-bar insert. You know, you just do it. They wanted perfection, and I could understand what they were doing....With Steely Dan and Donald Fagen's solo stuff, they have these sort of crystalline compositions, like little jewels. They don't want you to imprint your personality over their music, they want you to get inside their music and use your talent to bring their stuff to life."
Good stuff! And I really like Bullock's description of playing with Steely Dan; I think it's true that the best musicians inhabited the Dan's music, rather than using it as a vehicle for individualistic expression. Know-it-all musos like me love to know who played what guitar solo, but there's a reason it's hard to tell sometimes, and I think Bullock hit the nail on the head.  Sadly Hiram Bullock also succumbed to cancer ten years ago. 



******************


I remember very clearly not appreciating the Robben Ford article, to the point where one of my new college friends, Devin, who was a year older and a hot blues guitarist kept urging me to listen to "Talk To Your Daughter" and I refused. That was obviously a mistake on my part. Looking back 30 years, that album was a launching point for the Robben Ford guitar fans now revere, but the article by Dan Forte "The Guitar Odyssey of Robben Ford" was understandably looking back at his surprisingly long and varied career up to that point, and so it was a little confusing to me. 

Forte introduces the piece and the player by writing "Robben Ford may be the only musician to tour with ex-Beatle George Harrison and jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis. He is also probably the only guitarist to record with Barry Manilow and Kiss. He is without a doubt the only person to play with all four. Still, his appearance on the cover of Guitar Player is likely to be met with equal parts "Robben who?" and "It's about time."

Forte begins by summarizing the then 36-year old's career, beginning in a band with his father and brothers, then with Charlie Musselwhite, on to backing Jimmy Witherspoon, which led to work with L.A. Express as Joni Mitchell's touring band, which resulted in a chance to work in the studio and on the road with Harrison and then to membership in the Yellowjackets. Shortly before this article went to print, Ford had spent five months playing in Miles' band (where he had replaced Mike Stern). Wow. 

If you've watched any of his interviews or lesson videos, you know that Ford is an intelligent, expressive speaker with a lot to say. Rereading the article now shows that he has always had these capabilities. What really comes through (and is no surprise to anyone who has followed him since 1988) is that he seems to have realized that the blues is his base. I feel that way myself (though I am galaxies away from as talented as Robben Ford) so it's neat to read this and see how Ford has come to recognize where his musical heart is. Here are some excerpts from the interview:


To get to the point of doing this type of album, were you encouraged or influenced by the blues resurgence of the past few years? People such as Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds?
Not at all. I never listened to them; I never related to them. Making the record was just a matter of 'why try to please a record company at the expense of doing what you do best?'
Would you say that what you do best is play blues?
 Yes. That's taken a while to come around to, because I am such a lover of great jazz music--jazz in the traditional sense. I've never really loved or been very influenced by the modern electric jazz-fusion thing. I've never really liked it that much. The Yellowjackets, I enjoyed playing with that group, and I always enjoyed working with Russell Ferrante. I've listened to Weather Report and I have a lot of respect for those guys, but I always go back to traditional music.
You once stated that Weather Report was your favorite group, and in the Oct. '76 Pro's Reply you said that about the only group you'd consider touring with as a sideman was Steely Dan. That seems so odd in light of your return-to-roots album. [note: Typical Dan Forte. It was 12 years ago, and Ford was in his mid 20's--people change Dan!]
I'm a nut case [laughs]. Well I must say that I really did love Steely Dan for awhile, The Royal Scam record--I loved that. Weather Report was my favorite fusion band. They had Heavy Weather out, which is still their pinnacle record, I'd say. They really hit their peak there. Great songs, great melodies, great playing. Jaco was incredible and fresh and new.....I grew up loving the pop music of my day: the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals. The radio was always on. That is a big part of my makeup...
Considering what a huge idol Miles Davis was, your stint with him was extremely brief.  
 ...When I joined him they sent me tapes of two concerts and one rehearsal of the band, and Miles wasn't on the rehearsal tape. Adam Holtzman, one of his keyboard players, lives in L.A. and he came over and gave me some music. Not clear charts, but this was all that was available. So basically I had five days to learn the material. I flew out to Washington, D.C. on the red-eye flight which arrived at 5:00 in the morning-to play that night with Miles, never having met him or rehearsed with his band. I met him a half-hour before I hit the stage. No rehearsal. The charts helped me a little bit, but I learned it much better just by keeping an open ear. When I met Miles, the only thing he asked me was [imitates Miles' rasp], "Robben, what you gonna wear onstage?" I thought I was going to throw up. I met him at the gig you know! All the band piled into the van to drive over to the gig from the hotel, and I was sick to my stomach with nervousness. Then somebody came up and said "Robben, Miles wants to see you." I was dying. And he was like in some other area of the hall, so it was like This Is Spinal Tap when the guys were looking for the stage, right? I was trying to find Miles Davis. I finally found him, and he was standing there with his shades covering half his face, blowing his little red trumpet, dressed so cool. I adore the man. He would call me up on the phone and go "Robben, you gotta listen to this tape." And he'd put a little tape deck up to the phone and play a guitar solo I'd taken on some gig. "Playing your ass off". He took to me, kind of. He'd drag me out to the front of the stage. He'd yell at everyone else in the band, and then say "Robben, get them chords".
Who were your early blues guitar influences? And what had you been listening to before that?
 The guys who I would say I played their shit--not too much straight-out, but whom I got a definite influence from--are Albert Collins, Albert King, and BB King. And beyond that, there's a little bit of Clapton in there, but Mike Bloomfield is definitely the roots of my playing....Before that, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. You know, the Animals were always my favorite band. I thought they had great songs, and I dug the shit out of Eric Burdon's singing. I thought he could damn sing the blues. Not the guitar at all. The guy [Hilton Valentine] could not play guitar, although I liked it.... 
Recently there was a cable TV special on Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend said "You can't really play the blues unless you're in internal agony and frustration and desperation." Now, you grew up in a white, middle-class, suburban, almost rural environment, with a very supportive family, yet you obviously tapped into blues like very few people can. Do you see any truth at all in the old you've-got-to-suffer-to-play-the-blues attitude?
I really don't know how to answer that. I don't think that's what turned me on to it. I wasn't in pain, like I needed to play the blues. It's an interesting question--because there is definitely pain in the blues. But I don't know--maybe this will apply: I read a quote by Bob Dylan, which I think he got from Woody Guthrie, and he said, "Man, all these young kids, they think they've got to get into the blues to play the blues, you know, but it's the opposite. People play the blues to get out of the blues, to get out of their pain." So it's to have a good time; that's why you play the blues. Free yourself, express yourself. 
Lots of good stuff here, but I really like the last question and answer I included above; I sometimes wondered how a sheltered suburbanite like myself could feel the blues so heavily. I did have more than my share of "internal agony and frustration", but I also just loved everything about the blues. To this day, I can play lots of different styles, but the blues just feels like home to me. 



******************


Finally, this month's Spotlight featured three players who have made careers as musicians. You can check out Stephen Ross, Bill Berends, and Joey Goldstein (who also played with Metheny in the early '70's) to see what they've been up to for the last three decades. But way to go, guys!



That's it for this month. I'll be back to discuss the September issue, with cover artist Vernon Reid in a few weeks. Until then, keep on picking!

*****************

Saturday, September 1, 2018

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


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



August 1988 was the last month I spent at home before moving to college where my life changed forever. I still spent my time working at a Caldor store in Warminster, PA and nervously throwing up whenever I dwelled too much on the thought of moving away for the first time. Music wise I continued my lessons with Jim McCarthy, was still listening to a mix of jazz and rock on Philadelphia radio, and practicing with my Epiphone Sheraton. By then I also had an acoustic Fender Avalon (a parlor sized, cherry red guitar with a Strat style headstock) along with my Peavey T-15. That's right: even at this stage of my life I had too many guitars for someone with too little talent to justify!


The August, 1988 issue of Guitar Player is a typical for the time diverse mix, which I'm sure I devoured the first time, but re-reading it now I found much of it boring.  The articles in this issue touch on Eric Clapton, the process involved in making the 6-LP Crossroads set, a photo-essay of rare classical guitars, an article about Norteno guitarist Lydia Mendoza and features on bassist Stu Hamm, Nashville guitar stalwart Fred Newell, more complex details about chord progressions and a primer on "copyright for guitarists".  There was also a very interesting article about the Fender "Nocaster" that is very complete.


******************

The July issue marked the first of two straight months of heavy Eric Clapton coverage and this month's cover story was actually two articles about Slowhand (and they gave away a signed Clapton signature Strat to boot). As I noted last month, I found a Spotify playlist that includes almost all of the content of the box set if you want to check it out. 





As I wrote last month "In 1988, Eric Clapton was 43 (five years younger than I am now). To teenage me, he was a contemporary musician with lots of great stuff in his back catalog, but it's interesting to see how the writers at Guitar Player (in this, and other articles) treat him as an old man. Think of all that he had yet to accomplish/experience: sobriety, the death of his young son, huge pop stardom with his Unplugged record, 10 more studio albums including multiple excellent "all blues" albums, three "Crossroads Guitar Festivals", happy marriage and the birth of three daughters and the sale of hundreds of instruments and memorabilia to fund his Crossroads 12 Step Treatment center in Antigua."  This month's issue continues to treat Clapton as an elder statesman, but does do him the credit of asking about future plans. 

The "Clapton At The Crossroads" interview with Dan Forte (who had been rather negative about the box set in the previous month's issue) was mostly focused on the box set and the August issue's special flexidisc "soundpage", a live version of Derek and the Dominoes doing Hendrix' "Little Wing" shortly after Jimi's death. You can hear this version on the soundtrack to the Clapton documentary "Life In 12 Bars" and is in this month's playlist below. 

Clapton has always seemed to be a very reflective man who is aware of his stature in music and on the debts he owes to others. This comes through loud and clear in the interview which covers four pages of the magazine. Here are some noteworthy highlights:


With [Crossroads] doing so well on the charts and there being so much interest in it, does it create a situation where you're in essence competing with your past?
 In a way, but I always was. Ever since I got through the Layla period, I was always aware that I had a lot of ground to cover, to make up for the vitality that was there in those days. So I've always had that problem in certain degrees...
Of all Hendrix' songs, why did you choose to cover "Little Wing"?
It just had such a powerful atmosphere. There was something very magical for me on his albums. I always went for the more dreamy things--as opposed to the more bluesy or heavy R&B or rock things. I found that his lyricism when he was writing ballads, like "Wind Cries Mary" or "Little Wing" was so different, in a way, that it was powerfully attractive to me. And I realized that those songs could be done by other people too; you didn't need to be the wizard that he was in order to play the song itself. Those songs in fact were much more structured than some of his other things, and more melodic too. As you know, Sting did "Little Wing" as well. The song itself, because of the way it was written, stands up so well--so anyone could do it. In a way, the song was more important to me than who did it, actually. I think that was what it was.
After Hendrix died, was it different performing that song live? 
It's pretty hard for me to remember how I was feeling, but knowing the way my attitude was, I mean, I shut off my emotions towards Jimi, in a way, because it was such a devastation for me after he died. If I was doing the song now, I imagine I would try to detach from the memory of it, because it would simply be too over-emotional to perform with Jimi's image in my head at the time. There's times when that can just distract you beyond belief. So I was probably doing it in as objective a way as I could. But that's not to say that it wasn't an emotional experience.
On [your last] tour you went back to being the only guitarist in the group. What prompted the return to solitary guitarist? 
Well, I find that sometimes I get very uptight around other guitar players. If they're younger than me, they're either in awe, or they have an attitude before they start, you know, which I have to kind of try to break down. Sometimes it means that they're going to be flying all my old licks at me, or kind of making me too aware of my past, and we get stuck with that. The only time this hasn't happened has been when I've worked with Mark Knopfler. Although he's very appreciative of what I've done, he's kind of a forward-looking guy and we're about the same age, so there's no competitiveness or anything like that. So we work very well together, and I think he'll probably be very much involved with what I'm doing from here on in--up to a point, anyway. 
Did you decide to retire your old Stratocaster, Blackie? Was that the reason for the switch to the Eric Clapton Signature Model Strat?
Yes. I was worried that if something happened to Blackie, I'd be out on a limb, you know. I mean, it's still playable, although not comfortably so. It's got a great character--the guitar itself is really a character--and it worried me, taking it around on the road. It just seemed to be unfair; it's like taking a very old man and expecting him to do the impossible every night [laughs]. So it was Fender's Dan Smith's idea to copy Blackie as closely as we could and update it with a little bit of electronic work, to give it a fatter sound, if I wanted it. Which is what one of the knobs does: it gives you a kind of graduation in compression. They duplicated the way Blackie felt, so I would have two or three Blackies, in effect.
The guitar that came to be called Blackie was pieced together from various Strats, right?
Yeah, a very kind of mongrel thing. I bought about five Strats in Nashville, in about 1969 or 1970, and built Blackie out of all of the best components of each guitar. So Blackie in itself was a hybrid, and now these new ones are copies of that hybrid. 
Do you still feel like you're at a crossroads?  
 Well, it's definitely not behind me. It's something I can see on the horizon all the time. There's always an option for me that's very tempting to take, whether it be shall I go on touring or shall I go into films, or shall I stay married or shall I run around. There's always kind of different avenues that are very tempting to me, and I don't think I'll ever get across the crossroads; it's always standing right there in front of me, you know.
 ******************
Back in the 80's cable tv's The Nashville Network (TNN) had lots of live music, including a daily talk show which featured live performances, called Nashville Now. I watched the show every night just to get exposed to country music (which wasn't easily available in Philadelphia) and I couldn't miss the house band's guitarist, Fred Newell. 



As was often the case with Guitar Player's interviews with top session men, Newell's interview shows how important professional networking and hard work were (and still are), especially in a time before any hot player could become a YouTube celebrity. 

Newell worked for Waylon Jennings playing steel licks on his Tele, which led to lengthy sideman gigs with Tompall Glaser, Lynn Anderson and Jerry Reed. Newell describes getting a big break as a studio musician with the "simple but ballsy" intro to "Heaven Is Just A Sin Away", by the Kendalls in 1977. 
"I've got to give credit where it's due. The producer, Brian Fisher, said 'I want you to do something on the low strings. I want that kind of sound.' Heck, I'd always thought that when you take a solo, you wanted to burn it up on the high end. Up until then I'd played a lot of different kinds of music, but I didn't really have a distinct style of my own, and Nashville hires stylists. He helped me develop a recognizable style."
 The description of Newell's role in the Nashville Now band is another great glimpse of life at the highest level of professionalism, and I think it's worth quoting from extensively:
Fred's official role is electric lead guitarist, doubling on harmonica when needed. The band also includes three other guitarists, John Clausi, who doubles on acoustic guitar and banjo, Larry "Wimpy" Sasser, who doubles on steel and dobro, and Hubert "Hoot" Hester, who plays acoustic rhythm guitar, mandolin and fiddle. Each member of the 13 piece band, which includes four backup singers was hired for versatility and steely nerves.
"It's a high-pressure situation," admits Fred. "Playing live really spooked me for about a month after we started the show. I'd done a lot of videotaped TV shows over the years, and that was pressure enough. But at least it could be done over if there was a real trainwreck. Finally I decided I just had to get in there, go for the throat, and let the chips fall as they may. You just try to do the best you can and stay ready to shift gears real quick. Sometimes singers will come in halfway through a turnaround and you have to go with them. We always try to make the artist sound and look good--that's what we're there for."
Nashville number charts for each tune are usually ready when the band begins rehearsal. These charts, which employ scale numbers to represent chords, are often quite detailed, and the musicians each add their own individual notes to them. "First they play a tape or record of the tune, and we make notations as we go. Parts are left up to the individual musician, but we usually try to get as close as we can to what's on the record. That's what the artist and audience is used to hearing. I've got a little tape recorder that I keep handy, and if I've got the intro to the song or have to play a real distinctive fill or lick, I hold the machine out there and tape it. Then I've got a little reminder that I can listen to right before we do the tune."
" I make my own notations on the chart to remind me of things like when and where I want to use effects, what guitar to use, or if I need a special tuning. I've learned to always mark the chart and never take for granted that I'll remember something, because you can make a pretty glaring mistake. It's happened. There's nothing worse than to come to the end of a song and play two extra beats....Having a road map laid out is probably the most important part of preparation for a live show."
"I don't think you can ever totally relax in this business. I practice every day....A lot of times I pick the guitar up at 6:30 in the morning and just start exploring. You have to be creative and figure out new things to do. I'm really open to experimenting with new techniques, and I've been trying to make it a point to learn a new song about every other day. Some days I just work on technique, like working with a thumbpick for an hour or two, just to get back to using it again.
"I enjoy playing music more now than I ever have, just because I have a chance to do so many different things. It's a shame that a person can't live long enough to experience a good career playing every musical style, because it's all so much fun. It's too bad you can't be a good jazz guitarist for 75 years and then be a good country player for the next 50 years and then play rock and roll for another 50 years. That's my idea of a good life."


***********************

Telecaster lovers like to say that "Leo got it right the first time", but this issue's "Rare Bird" article by guitar historian Richard Smith discussed the 1951 Telecaster, and how it evolved through stages from the Broadcaster to the "Nocaster". 

Many guitar aficionados know that Fender's first solidbody electric was called the "Broadcaster", but that the Gretsch company forced them to change the name because Gretsch had a line of drums called "BroadKaster" and didn't want the market to be confused. Of course, it's poetic justice that Fender now owns Gretsch!

Anyway, for a few months "while the attorney for Fender's distributor conducted a trademark search for the Telecaster name", the guitars were sold with the model name clipped off of the headstock decal, as pictured below left. Eventually the guitars became Telecasters, as we know and love them today.

Or not. Because the original Teles had an unusual wiring scheme shown above left in Leo Fender's own writing.  As Smith notes, "The tone control on the earliest two-pickup Fender was actually a blend control; in the lead position, turning the tone control down blended the rhythm pickup with the lead pickup. When the tone control was turned all the way down, both pickups were fully blended. In 1952, Leo changed the wiring, adding a "real" tone control with a capacitor while making the two pickup combination impossible without delicately placing the spring-loaded lever switch between settings, a la the Strat half-switch sound. All Telecasters employed this seldom-used tone control until the mid '60's."

"Why did Fender change the wiring on the first dual-pickup guitars? I asked Leo in 1982 and he didn't remember the original setup, much less why he changed it. But there's a better question more material to the current guitar market: why do collectors pay thousands of dollars more for the size of knobs and what a decal says, rather than for the trait that makes all Broadcasters, Nocasters and the earliest Telecasters essentially the same instrument? In other words, why pay more for a Broadcaster when all the money saved by buying a '51 Tele could go to a good therapist?"

***********************
That's all for this month. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you'll come back for next month's jam packed issue featuring a cover story about Robben Ford. Until then, keep on picking!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

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


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


UPDATE! If you've been reading the blog for awhile you know that I always refer to my super guitar teacher from the 80's, Jim McCarthy. After I last saw Jim in 1992 I lost track of him, but I finally found him this month! He's alive and well in New Jersey and still playing, which makes me so happy I can't describe it. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming... 



In July 1988 I was one month away from moving away from home for college, working at a Caldor store in Warminster, PA and nervously throwing up whenever I dwelled too much on the thought of moving away from home for college. Music wise I continued my lessons with Jim, was still listening to a mix of jazz and rock on Philadelphia radio, and practicing with my Epiphone Sheraton. By then I also had an acoustic Fender Avalon (a parlor sized, cherry red guitar with a Strat style headstock) along with my Peavey T-15. That's right: even at this stage of my life I had too many guitars for someone with too little talent to justify!

The July, 1988 issue of Guitar Player is quite a diverse mix: the subjects touch on avant-garde music, jazz bass, modern melodic metal, Eric Clapton's oeuvre, chord theory, and Jerry Garcia's music in and out of the Grateful Dead, plus much, much more. When I re-read this issue I found it to be pretty challenging: Howard Morgen's "All About Chord Progressions" article is still over my head thirty years after I first struggled with it, the weird, wacky music by the avant-garde guitarists is still a turn off, and I've never found Garcia's music to be very compelling. That said, as always, there were quite a few very interesting bits tucked away in the magazine that I look forward to sharing with you. 



******************

The July issue marked the first of two straight months of heavy Eric Clapton coverage (culminating in a cover story in August). This issue's feature was on the new 6 LP box set Crossroads released on Polydor that purported to be a look back at the Clapton's then 25-year long recording career. Clapton was unquestionably my favorite guitar player (heck-favorite musician) at that time, and after devouring this article I was so excited when my sister told me that she'd get the set for me for my upcoming 18th birthday. I got rid of my vinyl records a long time ago, but I transferred them to MP3 first, and I STILL listen to this compilation on a regular basis. I just found a person on Spotify who laboriously recreated almost the whole thing, so you can listen to it too!



In 1988, Eric Clapton was 43 (five years younger than I am now). To teenage me, he was a contemporary musician with lots of great stuff in his back catalog, but it's interesting to see how the writers at Guitar Player (in this, and other articles) treat him as an old man. Think of all that he had yet to accomplish/experience: sobriety, the death of his young son, huge pop stardom with his Unplugged record, 10 more studio albums including multiple excellent "all blues" albums, three "Crossroads Guitar Festivals", happy marriage and the birth of three daughters and the sale of hundreds of instruments and memorabilia to fund his Crossroads 12 Step Treatment center in Antigua. Obviously no one can predict the future, but the occasion of a career retrospective was particularly "backwards looking", and reviewer Dan Forte seems to fall a bit into the tone of people on guitar internet forums who claim that Clapton hit his peak in his 20s.

Forte's review "Eric Clapton 'Crossroads': 25 Years of Genius", notes that "Few if any rock guitarists' work has been analyzed to the degree that Clapton's has, and no guitarist's work could stand up to such intense scrutiny as well." That said, he does see fit to point out what he thinks is the biggest issue of the set (and by extension, of Clapton's career):

The few problems apparent on Crossroads stem from a sort of identity crisis. Just what is this hefty document? Certainly not a "Greatest Hits" collection. Even at his biggest, Clapton's audience could always have been termed a "cult", albeit a huge cult, and he crossed over to mainstream radio infrequently...In the words of Bill Levenson (Executive Producer of the progject), "I just see it as an honest 25-year portrayal. It shows the hits, the misses, the live material--it's a good 25-year documentary. And it was really meant to be an instructional tool, almost."
As someone who has played along to the tracks hundreds of times, I know I've used it for instruction for sure. That said, if you've read Clapton's autobiography (written 20 years after this) or seen the recent Life in 12 Bars documentary (another 10 years later), it's clear that Clapton himself is content to take a scattershot view to his past, emphasizing some points and minimizing others. For better or worse, it's his right to do so, but as something of a Clapton scholar, I really appreciate this collection as a "primary source" of sorts. 

Very 80's, Forte points out that the collection is organized chronologically, but "of course, CD owners can just set their players on 'random' and get a different show with every listening'."  He is also excellent at describing the sonic (and sometimes cultural) impact of the recordings. The following are some of the sharper bits:
"The Yardbirds demos that open the collection are essentially the tentative first steps of a neophyte band attempting to play their newly discovered passion, and as such are not representative of the creative force the band came to be. John Lee Hooker's 'Boom Boom' actually pales by comparison with the Animals' authoritative reading of the same (which is ironic, since Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine has doubtless never been mistaken as the deity)..."
"The primitive 'Lonely Years' and the bouncy "Bernard Jenkins', both duets with John Mayall, were recorded prior to the Blues Breakers sessions. The former shows Clapton's abilities as a seamless accompanist as few tracks in his entire catalog do. On the latter's opening solo, he attacks every note full-force. For a 20-year old Brit, he was anything but intimidated by studio microphones, his elder-statesman bandleader, or the fact that he was crossing the color line with every bend of his Les Paul."
"The next several cuts, unfortunately, illustrate all too clearly the slump that followed Clapton's triumphant return (with 461 Ocean Boulevard). "Better Make It Through Today" is at best one of the few tracks that stands out on the mediocre There's One In Every Crowd; the catatonic stance on Elmore James' cathartic "The Sky is Crying" is more indicative of this 12' dud as is the unreleased "It Hurts Me Too". During this period, Clapton's blues playing merely represented the slower portions of the program, with interchangeable songs, uninspired soloing, and cumbersome backing."
Wow. Tell us how you really feel about '70s Clapton, Dan!
"And finally, the set ends with the newly recorded version of "After Midnight"--yes, the one in the beer commercial. This seems to have been chosen out of convenience more than musical considerations. A more dramatic reprise to end Clapton's history-up-to-now would have been his dynamic reworking of "White Room" at Live Aid--not only dipping back into Cream's catalog, but reinterpreting a song Jack Bruce had originally sung and then leaning into his wah-wah for all he was worth."
"Considering the glitzy sheen of "Miss You" or "After Midnight" it's ironic to recall that this is the same Eric Clapton that forsook pop stardom with the Yardbirds in favor of following a purist's path in search of the spirit of Robert Johnson. Eric Clapton has stood at the crossroads more than once in his 25 years of music making. And so far no one has passed him by." 

I'll get to say more about Clapton in next month's blog post, but I think it is worth pointing out that when he left the Yardbirds to pursue blues purism he was 20 years old and it was only 27 years since the death of Robert Johnson. Rather than holding him up in judgement based on statements he made as a callow youth, I prefer to revel in the wide range of excellent music Eric Clapton has provided us for the last fifty-five years!

 ******************
Back in the day, one of the most educational parts of any issue of Guitar Player was the "Questions" section. Before anyone could look up anything on the internet, the editors took their role as educators very seriously. In the July 1988 issue, one question was "How many guitars were sold in the United States last year, and how many of them were built here?" In 2018, when we are frequently struck by the duality of entry level guitars that are built to ever increasing standards amidst frequent warnings of the imminent death of guitar-based music, the answer is worth looking at:
"According to recently published figures by the American Music Conference, a non-profit association that encourages amateur music participation, 1,247,265 fretted instruments (which includes such instruments as mandolins and banjos) with an estimated retail value (ERV) of $328,322,000 were sold in the United States in 1987. Of that number, only 123,400, with an estimated retail value of $89,280,000 were produced in the United States. Although the AMC is not able to break the domestic figures down by instrument, it is able to do so for imports: 517,300 acoustic guitars ($79,570,000 ERV) and 453,000 electric guitars ($150,642,000 ERV) were shipped to the US last year. These figures represent an 11% increase in imports and a 5% increase in domestic units over 1986 numbers."
Pretty neat. Besides the fact that I think that half of those 453,000 imported guitars are available for sale right now on Reverb, the dollar value of fretted instrument sales would be the equivalent of over $718 million today. I did a little looking and found a "music industry census" online that shows that in 2017, total guitar sales in America were 2,630,950 units with a retail value of $1.07 billion (average price $433). The number of instruments sold was up 6.4% from the prior year and the ERV was up 7%. So while recognizing that America's population has grown from 240+ million to over 325 million in the last thirty years, I find these data reassuring about the current and future state of our instrument.

**********************
Speaking of guitar forums, when people aren't talking about new guitars, a major topic of discussion is always modifications to instruments they already own. Guitar Player's article about New York luthier/repairmen Roger Sadowsky and Jay Black made for a very interesting re-read. According to the article, Sadowsky's clients included:
Bruce Springsteen, Al Di Meola, John Scofield, Will Lee, Prince, John Abercrombie, Nile Rogers, Sting, Paul Simon, Hall and Oates, Joan Jett, Lou Reed, Billy Squier, Jack Wilkins, Jim Hall, Tommy Shaw, Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Tony Levin, Carmine Rojas, Victor Bailey, Joe Beck, Jeff Golub, Bill Frisell, Daryl Jones, T-Bone Wolk, and Neil Jason.
Wow. That's a music hall of fame right there! Sadowsky is still active, and Jay Black went on to work for Fender's Custom Shop for over a decade and has his own business today. They had some pretty interesting points to make about guitar modifications and the difference between New York and L.A. (which always seems to come up in these old magazines!). Once again, in the pre-internet days, it's clear that they viewed their job as providing expert advice to their customers:
"Much of what we do is educate our clients. Often they know what they want, but they don't know how to get there. They're seduced by ads that don't deliver, and they end up wasting money. We evaluate everything that comes on the market and simplify matters by making recommendations." Sadowsky estimates that his business is now divided equally between customizing instruments and producing and selling his own line of guitars and basses.
"Customizing", Roger explains, "means upgrading the level of a guitar's performance. It's been about a decade since guitar customizing became really popular. Companies like Charvel, Schecter, Mighty Mite and DiMarzio came out with replacement parts such as necks, bridges and pickups, which essentially brought a parts mentality to Fender-style guitars. People began looking at guitars or basses as interchangeable parts rather than as an instrument."
"One of the key insights I had was when a client brought in his Strat for extensive work--fret job, new pickups, a bridge, shielding--in all a $500 to $600 job. I remember being surprised at how the instrument wasn't significantly improved after all that work, whereas other guitars I'd done the same things to came out superior. I eventually realized that there is an inherent acoustic quality going on in the instrument, which is a function of the wood. "
Later in the piece, Black notes that "players who buy student-level guitars and hope to improve them through customization are much better off buying a high-quality guitar and making small adjustments. 

Sadowsky implies that one "do-it-all" instrument is more important to working New York musicians "who are dealing with subways and taxis...[they] usually carry one axe and whatever effects fit into the pouches of their gig bags" than to L.A. "studio musicians have cartage to haul their gear around." The article closes with an interesting point that many of us on guitar forums should consider:
"Irving Sloane, who authored several definitive books on guitar construction, once told me, 'Great instruments are not made for the listener, they are made for great musicians.' Most of us have felt, at one time or another, that if we only had different pickups or a certain tremolo system or a better bridge, we would be better players. We naturally prefer to blame our equipment rather than ourselves. Jay and I are just trying to eliminate the instrument as a source of problems, so the musician can focus on his creativity....The magic is in one's hands and soul, not the equipment."
Very thought provoking stuff!


***********************



The cover story on Jerry Garcia is par for the course of late-80's Guitar Player: 17 pages, including transcription of the "Hell in a Bucket" solo and a detailed sidebar feature on his famous guitar gear by Garcia's roadie. As I noted above, I didn't like the Dead as a teenager, and I still don't see the appeal, but there was one thing pretty interesting to me about the article: it's emphasis on a new beginning for the 45-year-old musician who had fallen into a drug-related diabetic coma two years previously. Honestly, it shocked me to see that Garcia was only two years older than Clapton, who was definitely not at his best either (booze and coke wise) because he looked so much older.  The part of the interview focusing on Jerry's recovery from the coma was very interesting:


"Well, I was in the hospital for about three weeks. I had...my Steinberger, and I started to poke around a little bit while I was still in the hospital--but just a little. Then after I got out of the hospital, Merle Saunders and John Khan came up to my house a couple of times a week and made me practice. Merle would bring music and we'd play through the changes of standards and stuff like that. Gradually, I started to pick it up again. At first it was very stiff and mechanical. I could figure things out to a point, but it took a while before I really had a sense of how music worked. I had to kind of reconstruct all that. It was about a three or four month process before I felt I was playing well enough to play in front of somebody. I knew I wasn't playing as well as I remembered that I had been able to..."
So it wasn't really a matter of not playing for three or four weeks. There was actually damage to your memory?
"Oh yeah, I had some damage. The damage part was worse than the three or four weeks...But the blessing of losing hunks of your memory is that you don't get too hung up over what you don't remember, because it's gone. It's not a question of 'what is it I don't remember here? Is it something valuable?' It's gone...Gradually everything sort of came back, but it wasn't without a certain amount of work. I had to do everything at least once to remind my muscles about how something worked. It was the thing of making the connection between mind and muscles, because I hadn't been away from playing for so long that my mind had forgotten. The neuropathways were there and the reason for doing it and why it worked -the intellectual part- was also there, but they were separated. I had to pick them up like, here's a chunk of how music works, over here is a hunk of why I like to play it, and here's a hunk of my muscles knowing this stuff. It was a matter of putting my hands on the guitar and actually playing through tunes and trying to solve the problem of how the structure of each tune works-addressing the whole thing. That's what did it, but it took a while. I'm still in the process of rediscovery. I suddenly go, 'Oh right. Here's a whole area. I remember that year that I worked on this stuff.' It tends to come back in chunks. But like I say, I don't remember what I don't remember. I'm not hung about it, and every time I discover something new, it's delightful."
What an interesting passage! It's really sobering to realize how much of our ability, personality and talents are locked up in our grey matter, and so stories like this, or like Pat Martino's are very inspirational to me.  
***********************
That's all for this month. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you'll come back for next month's cover story Eric Clapton. Until then, keep on picking!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

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



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




June 1988 is when I graduated from high school, and just as that marked a major epoch in my life, there was a lot in the June, 1988 issue of Guitar Player that reminds me very vividly of what I was doing musically at the time. As I've mentioned before, I was taking weekly guitar lessons with a recent GIT graduate whose teacher in Hollywood was this month's cover star, Frank Gambale. Most readers of the magazine might have first heard of The Thunder From Down Under in the previous September's issue on "Speed And How To Get It", but I got to listen to Frank at my weekly lessons, and also goggle at my teacher, Jim McCarthy's amazing sweep picking skills. In fact, I remember bringing this issue to our lesson and Jim greeting me at the door with his own copy and a huge smile on his face.



Even though I came to Jim to learn how to play blues like Eric Clapton, he really worked to open my ears to more advanced music. The two people he talked about the most were Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton. Consequently, I remember being totally shocked to see the short blurb about Carlton being shot in the throat during a home invasion. Fortunately he made a full recovery and still makes great music three decades later. Oh, and speaking of Clapton, this issue of GP  had a full page ad for the five LP Crossroads box set, which later that summer became my 18th birthday present from my sister and is unquestionably the album I've listened to more than any other in my life. More on that in next month's post.

The issue has far too much to get into in this post, but some of the other highlights include two articles by LA gear guru Andy Brauer, a "track by track" of Ted Nugent's new album, a feature on Jethro Tull's guitar god Martin Barre, and a "Spotlight" feature that has two young men who went on to have very successful music careers. 


******************

If you haven't heard of Andy Brauer before, he was (and is) an expert on guitar gear and tone who has rented equipment to nearly everyone you can think of over the past four decades. In the June, 1988 Guitar Player we were treated to an "as told to Vic Trigger" article as well as the first of Brauer's monthly "Guitar Tech" columns. Trigger's article notes that the then 30 years old Brauer is "highly opinionated, but he has the knowledge and the background to back him up. He has carved a career for himself as L.A.'s guitar specialist." When I first read this as a teenager I'm sure that I was eager to glean whatever I could about how to get great tone (which is funny, because not only did I not really understand tone, but my Peavey Audition 10 probably couldn't help me get it even if I did!). And there were lots of really cool tips in the article. Brauer describes moving to L.A. at the age of 18 (maybe this caught my eye!) and became a repairman and tech at a music store, which led to a job touring with The Brothers Johnson and then as the guitar tech for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album. As Brauer put it:
I was in the right place at the right time. Not only was I carting gear around for guys, supplying my own special pieces at times, but I was offering a personally specialized and knowledgeable service. It started in the backseat of my car, and now I have a great staff of six guys, who all play guitar, busting their butts for our clients. I have over 50 individually selected guitars, over 100 handpicked amps, racks, speakers and so forth, all of which allow me to offer that much more of a personalized service. 
For an Eric Clapton session on "Behind The Sun", I selected a Mitchell Tweed Deluxe amp that Howard Dumble modified for me. In my opinion it was the ultimate blues amp. You play hard, and it's nasty; you soften up, and it's sweet. Sure enough, Eric fell in love with it and eventually I was convinced to sell it to him....That's what I do: I collect magic and rent it.
Later in the article Brauer dispensed some words of wisdom which would seem perfectly at home on 21st century online guitar forums, and while not necessarily applicable to a 1980's teenager, are definitely resonant with me now decades later (I've added emphasis) .
There is no single best sound. The best sound is whatever makes you the most happy, and one man's honey can be another man's poison....The trick is to get the sound coming out of your hands by the way the can manipulate the sound without an amp. 
 ...[t]he Japanese have never gotten it right for pickups. They even use American wire, bobbins and everything, yet they still can't get them to sound great....You've got to find the pickup that works well with your own playing techniques.
The Howard Dumble Overdrive 50 was my ticket to success in the studios. I would be an obnoxious nuisance and bug Steve Lukather, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton and Jay Graydon until they would plug into the Dumble. And then I had them, because they needed me to rent this amp that they loved. 
By actually seeing what is renting out of my shop, I can see what the trends are. I'd say we are about three years ahead of what is hitting the mainstream now. Just recently, I've noticed a drop in rack usage and an increase in Vox and old Marshall rentals....[p]retty soon, guys are going to be getting back to the thing of just plugging in.
If you missed that last bit, Brauer basically predicted the grunge movement!   
 ******************
It's possible (likely?) that teenagers in 2018 who know of Ted Nugent associate him for his outspoken political views, his friendship with President Trump, and his enthusiasm for firearms and bow hunting more than for his rock guitar stylings. At the time, I was used to hearing some of his classic songs like "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" and "Cat Scratch Fever" on classic rock radio. In this issue Nugent is featured in an "as told to Jas Obrecht" piece as well as a track by track run down of his new album, the salaciously titled "If You Can't Lick 'Em...Lick 'Em". You can listen to the record on the Spotify playlist below--it is very engaging 80's guitar rock. 

For anyone who might think that the Nuge was a newcomer to his interest in weapons, this article will quickly dispel that notion. Obrecht notes the decor of Nugent's home studio:
"Behind him, a stuffed bear stands frozen beneath a mantel stuck full of knives. Shelves are neatly divided: one for cassettes, one for live ammo. VCRs and amps are scattered among chainsaw, critter skulls, venison sausage and a rocket launcher. For Ted Nugent, music and hunting are serious business. 'If I weren't a rock and roller,' he asserts, 'I'd probably be a special weapons expert in the Detroit SWAT team, or a commando in an elite anti-terrorist squad.'"
While Ted Nugent was famous for rocking hard on a Gibson Byrdland, a short-scale, fully hollow guitar that few would consider for such loud music, by the time of this piece he had started using a Paul Reed Smith solidbody. Nugent was very enthusiastic about the PRS, and what he said would seem right at home on modern guitar forums.
...[t]he new Paul Rivera stereo tube amplifier and the Paul Reed Smith guitar...is just wonderful, and you have to hear it live to really appreciate it. It is the richest, thickest, creamiest guitar tone you've ever heard in your life. I'm telling you, it's unbelievable.
The appeal of the Paul Reed Smith guitar is touch. I'm a utilitarian, basically, and I'm also a seat-of-the-pants liver. I like to live by function and feel. My cars have to handle precisely, my firearms have to respond flawlessly. There's a 'player's touch' to Paul Reed Smith's approach to the instrument that I am convinced is unique in the industry. There's no other neck that you can consistently pick up like you can a Paul Reed Smith and feel at home with immediately. The body configuration and tone are just the best--that's all there is to it. 
Later in the piece, Nugent mentions that PRS "does something to the Marshall 100-watt head that gives it a full richness", which is followed by this comment from what the forums call Paul Reed Smith himself:
"New Marshalls don't sound like old Marshalls, and I modified a bunch of Ted's tops so that they sound much more like old Marshalls. I'm not going to tell people what I did, because then my business modifying Marshalls would just be gone. I charge $100 per top. Ted has three or four of our straight PRS guitars. His Pearl Black mahogany one has a Hot Vintage pickup in the treble position and our Standard bass pickup. His curly maple guitar has a prototype of the very powerful H.F.S. pickup in the treble position. These pickups were intended to make his guitars a little less shrill and more singing....His guitars use our straight tremolo system which doesn't need Allen wrenches."
Obviously this was the young, hungry always hustling Paul Reed Smith decades before his eponymous company became America's third biggest guitar manufacturer. I love seeing him trying to protect his $100 a pop line in amp tweaking!

Two more quick hits from Ted. By now, having been rereading so many of these issues, it's not surprising to see another personal reminiscence of Jimi Hendrix, and Nugent's are not too different from Carlos Santana's a few months before:
Jimi and I jammed quite a bit back in the '60s and we did a couple of dressing room things....You know, thinking back about Jimi, you don't know what was his personality and what were the manifestations of the drugs that he was doing at the time. That was always the real shame; that's what really angered me. He was overtly reclusive, and he was real difficult to communicate with. That was one of the reasons I never did any drugs, because I saw this incredible power sadly abused and embarrassingly hampered by all this chemical bullshit. It really pissed me off, because man, could he play! Oh, my God!
If you had seen what he accomplished in one night in New York when I played with him it would have changed your life. It changed mine. The way he played, the notes he chose, the borders he broke down, and th eground that he created, it was absolutely earth-shattering....And Jimi was amazed that I could actually get a Byrdland in control like that, because he tried and was completely lost with it. He couldn't play it!
So, at this point the only two rock legends I can think of who never did drugs are Ted Nugent and Bruce Springsteen. At least they have something in common.

Finally, as a fan of This Is Spinal Tap, I can't ignore Ted's description of the title track to his LP:
"If You Can't Lick 'Em...Lick 'Em". What do you think of that? Is that the greatest or what? At first the record company was a little reluctant about the title--they thought it was a little too nasty. But it's not really. It's just a play on words. It's like saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em". That really is the essence of it. Also, it has to do with the specific combat mode with women. I mean, if you can't lick 'em, at least you can lick 'em. The whole song was romantically ignited. We've always got a lot of miniskirts in the studios...."
Or as Nigel Tufnel once said, "What's wrong with being sexy?

**********************
Speaking of guitar forums, recently in a thread on The Gear Page that discussed the continued decline of Guitar Player, a poster remarked "put Martin Barre on the cover and I'll subscribe". I don't know if Jethro Tull's longtime guitar slinger was ever on the cover, but 30 years ago this month he was the recipient of a full-page feature. Check it out--it's a nice feature, and if Barre is ever in your town, I hear he puts on a good show


***********************



The cover story on Frank Gambale was really interesting to re-read. When I was a teen, much of what he had to talk about went over my head, and I mainly appreciated in the context of the "teacher of my teacher".  But now, it's clear that the Australian fusion phenom had lots of valuable information to impart. 

As GP editor Jim Ferguson notes at the beginning of the article, "Of course Frank Gambale has amazing chops, but leaving it at that does him an injustice. Gambale is a top player, and a technical innovator who only uses his facility to execute ideas. In short, he is a remarkable musician."  In his 20's Frank saved his money to be able to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology, where he was the Student of the Year in 1983 and worked for three years, including 1985-86 when he taught my teacher Jim McCarthy. At the time of this article, Gambale had published two books (Sweep Picking and The Frank Gambale Technique Book) and was working on a video, which you can still find on YouTube:



Some highlights of the article for me touch on Frank's musicianship and the importance of listening to other instruments.

You seemed to get labeled as a technically oriented player....Were there any drawbacks to having that kind of reputation early in your career?
 Not really, but it irritated me a lot. I got lumped in the same old guitar category, where you get evaluated in relation to the guitar and not in terms of what other musicians are doing. It might sound strange, but I'm at the stage where I don't even want to be categorized as a guitarist; I'd rather be classified as a musician who happens to play the guitar. I'm trying to go beyond the nature of the instrument in terms of the way that I play. My whole style comes from the notes I choose, rather than the physicality of the instrument.
In other words, my technique developed as a result of wanting to play certain notes. When people hear me at a gig, their reaction is usually "How do you play that?" But when Allan Holdsworth opened for the Electrik Band during a tour last year, he said "Man, I really dig the notes you play." He's a phenomenal musician, so that was a very high compliment. He didn't care how the hell I did what he heard because he was listening to the notes. You have to have good ears to discern the difference between content and technique. I don't play for the guitarists in the audience, I play for the musicians.
You have a rock sound and look about you, but your playing draws from the jazz vocabulary. How do you like to be described?
The term jazz is used very loosely these days, and it doesn't mean a damn thing. My records include everything from funk to Brazilian stuff to swing to rock ballads. I write whatever I want and I don't worry about labels.....Music theory is very interesting, and finding new chord changes is important. There's nothing wrong with a I-IV-V progression, but I couldn't play it with conviction. Over the years I've done a lot of different kinds of music, including rock, country, disco and funk, so that's where my compositions come from.
A lot of your single-note style is sax-derived. What are the basic differences between a sax player's approach and that of a guitarist?
The guitar's fretboard is conducive to things based on positions and shapes, so you find yourself falling into ruts and playing the same ideas over and over. In other words, you see a shape, rather than invent it in your head. Now I'm not a sax player, but I assume that the nature of the instrument doesn't encourage that so much....The beautiful thing about transcribing saxophone or piano solos is that there's no pre-conceived way of playing those notes. Since they don't fall into the usual fretboard patterns, you have to find new ways to find them on the instrument.
What do you suggest for developing a vocabulary that's more horn-like?
Start listening to saxophonists, obviously. There's a number of great players; Michael Brecker is probably the kingpin. Few of his solos are very easy, so they're always a challenge. Playing any of his solos from beginning to end on the guitar is a considerable achievement. Even his slow passages are beautifully played, and the note content is always fresh and exciting. 

This really hits home now, and I can remember my teacher urging me to transcribe sax solos. Obviously my limited musical facility made that impossible, but in the past few years I've reached the point where I can learn phrases and passages from horn players, and it really does help. 

  ***********************

Finally, one of my favorite parts of re-reading the old magazines is looking at Mike Varney's Spotlight feature: I love to look online to see what these guitarists and bassists have been doing for the last thirty years. This month's issue features two pretty prominent musicians, composer Craig Garfinkle and guitar wizard, gear guy and all-around super musician Richie Kotzen (who seems to have grown up just an hour or so from me). Varney was pretty on target noting Kotzen's hope to "play in a band on a national level" and Garfinkle's "compositional skills".  Good stuff!


***********************
That's all for this month. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you'll come back for next month's cover story on Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. Until then, keep on picking!