Saturday, December 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, September 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 Years Ago Index

GP Index
GP Index
GP Index

GP Ind

January February March

April May June

July August September

October November December


January February March

April May June

July August September

October November December







October November December