Guitar Magazines – Then and Now

The other day I found myself cutting two pages out of a popular guitar magazine, and, after glancing momentarily at the rest of the issue, I tossed the remainder in the trash. I bought the thing so I could scan a piece on Vernon Reid but surely, I thought, there’d be something else in there worth reading. Well I was wrong – for once in my life. This got me thinking about guitar periodicals of the past – especially Guitar Player during the late 80s and early 90s. While GP was far from perfect it was nonetheless a whole standard deviation above its competition with its sustained program of exposing guitarists to the genuinely exotic and unusual. Those were the days of Soundpages, when Hans Reichel and other oddballs were profiled, articles on West African guitar and kora masters, Japanese noiseicians, Mick Goodrick lessons, etc. They even ran a whole series of Buckethead lessons way before he was even remotely considered cool.

GP seemed to delight in shaking things up within the limits of a publication aimed at a general readership. As Ken Rubenstein recounts, “As pointed out by my friend Dan Stearns, there was a time, not too long ago, when Guitar Player magazine really when out of its way to hunt down fringe guitarists. Dan and I both were pretty well received by the likes of Joe Gore and Jas Obrecht. They showed us much kindness, receptiveness and support. No kidding. They really went out on a limb to recognize the efforts of some pretty bent players. In retrospect, I am very appreciative of their efforts. Those days are long gone.”

A magazine may seem like a trivial thing, especially in the cyberspace era, but, for a lot of people growing up in the Midwest or in out-of-the-way corners of the nation, a magazine back in the 80s made the difference between stultifying normalcy and the impulse to explore. As Chris Shaffer says, “I grew up in a somewhat isolated small city so the direct influence of musicians, including teachers and friends, was somewhat limited. Coupled with sensibilities I didn't really know how to articulate, I had difficulty finding my place when I was younger. My Dad gave me a subscription to Guitar Player as a show of interest, and I just kept renewing it for maybe ten years. I never really thought about it much and it wasn't ever central to my thinking, but I think it was a healthy long-term influence that was published with lots of care. Whether I needed inspiration and encouragement or study, from the early 80s through the mid 90s I could depend on GP as a steady source of colorful, intelligent diversity that helped me appreciate a wide range of people and their ideas. It gave me insight into music I was interested in, exposed me to new things, and prepared me for ideas I wasn't yet ready for. Its presence also affirmed guitar playing as a viable and legitimate form of expression. I suppose it was inevitable that even a niche interest would eventually be consumed by the media conglomeration and wholly cater to it, but for those first twenty or twenty-five years Guitar Player seemed relatively pure in its service.”

I typically credit Gore and Obrecht as the primary forces behind GP’s efforts to promote the guitar far side. But one of our forum members reminded us that it was a broader effort: “I also remember Andy Widders Ellis (now Andy Ellis) and his well constructed "lessons in the styles of...." and his analysis of great players' signature parts and techniques. Andy was sort of like Wolf Marshall except he investigated the "other" players. Andy was also a fairly experimental guitarist himself, being one of the first musicians to take delivery of a Chapman Stick back in the early 70's. The other thing about GP back then was that everyone (the editors, the columnists, and artists) all seemed really generous with their time, experience and knowledge. It was a printed community of sharing - nobody's licks, tunings or gear choices were ‘secret’, and there was this ‘let's help everybody’, sharing attitude. The important word is "community". The coverage then was less about the ‘flavor of the day’ musical pin-up group, and there was less gear fetishism and fewer empty promises (‘Be a Blues God!’). In those days, each issue was chock full of brilliant music pedagogy (delivered by qualified teachers and/or highly experienced pros) and each issue never failed to introduce us to a new player, musical style or approach to the instrument.”

Guitar Player eventually shuffled slack-jawed back in step with the rest of the guitar-publishing world. I guess they’d had their fill of hate mail, canceled subscriptions, and advertiser coercion. The Internet revolution didn’t take long to unfold and, of all the technologies ever created, I expected an explosion of virtual magazines devoted to the weird guitar topics that GP introduced us to back in the day. Well, for the second time in my life, I was wrong.

It’s been pointed out to me that guitarists are, for the most part, a fairly pathetic sub-category of pseudo musicians – mostly just a bunch of conforming adolescents, limited in intelligence, desperate for acceptance and attention, and suckers that can be manipulated into buying anything if you put some tits on it. That’s an empirical question. However, if we were to judge by the cover of the guitar magazines on the news stands today, it seems pretty obvious that the publishers actually do think their readers are a bunch of idiots. That’s too bad because we have proof, even if limited and anecdotal, that a semi-intelligent approach can actually make a big difference in the aesthetic and mental horizons of young players – but, like so many worthwhile things in life, it just isn’t profitable.