My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (May 1987)
Welcome back to the newest series here on the blog. I was incredibly gratified to receive so many positive comments about the first installment back in March on the guitar related blogs and message boards I frequent. To recap, I have been playing guitar since 1986, and I have a collection of Guitar Player magazines that stretches back to the fall of that year. Each month I will write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post will also have a Spotify playlist with some of the music referred to in the issue.
Well without further ado, let’s go back in time. In May, 1987 I was wrapping up 11th grade at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Guitar wise, there were no changes–I had an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt’s, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. As far as what ELSE was going on in the spring of 1987, Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart was up to some “Monkey Business” with Donna Rice, my Philadelphia Flyers hockey team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (the orange and black lost in 7 games), Playtex was the first company to show women wearing bras on tv commercials, and more seriously, 37 sailors were killed when the U.S.S. Stark was attacked by an Iraqi jet during the Iraq-Iran war (during which the Reagan administration famously attempted to play both sides against the middle).
In the pages of Guitar Player, blues musician Robert Cray (whose songs “Strong Persuader” and “Right Next Door” were radio and MTV hits) was on the cover, along with a small picture of roots rockers Georgia Satellites (whose “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” was a BIG video hit). The cover also told us that one-hit wonders David+David would be profiled, along with the highlights from the 1987 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) tradeshow. Finally, the cover touted a free record of a live recording of Cray onstage with Eric Clapton playing Cray’s song “Phone Booth”. Back in those pre-digital download days, GP included a vinyl “flexidisc” record each month. I remember how excited I was to detach them from the perforations, carefully lay them on top of an actual 12 inch LP, and put them on the turntable. Fortunately for us, someone out there has saved his copy and posted it on YouTube. Sounds pretty good!
One of the things I want to try to do in these blog posts is try to remember what I learned from these articles at the time, and also to show what can be gleaned from them today. The version of me who was around in May, 1987 spent a lot of time listening to the radio and watching MTV. I was already really into the blues–I’d bought a few LPs by mail order from Alligator Records so I was excited to see Robert Cray on the cover. That said, the only thing that jumped out at me then was that he had played with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland on a Grammy winning record, and that Collins had played his high school prom (and that Jimi Hendrix had played his high school as well). The coolest band to play in my suburbs was the Hooters, and even that was at the Catholic school, so I was probably jealous!
Reading the article now, I notice right from the get go that there was more going on–the title of the article was “The Great Blues Hope”, and the interview with Dan Forte put a lot of focus on the issue of the aging of original bluesmen and the need for new (preferably African-American) successors. Forte’s questions indulged in terms I didn’t understand as a teenager, but can’t miss now:
- “It seems you haven’t consciously compromised to cross over; you’ve always done the same stuff.“
- “When you hooked up with a major label, were there any commercial considerations when it came time to pick material?”
- “None of the tracks on ‘Strong Persuader’ are really straight ahead blues….Do you feel comfortable with the blues label?”
- “As far as your guitar playing goes…how much of what you do stems from straight-ahead blues and who are the other sources?”
and the big one:
“Since most of the young blues players coming up seem to be white, critics and writers and to some degree, fans…have been searching for a long time for some young blacks to carry on the tradition. With the kind of success you are having now, do you feel any pressure or responsibility in the fact that, whether you like it or not, you’re pretty much thrust into that role?”
For the record, Cray answered the last question with “I don’t even think about it”, even though he acknowledged hearing it a lot. My thoughts on this 30 years later are that the focus on recruiting a black “young face of the blues” (presumably to contrast with Stevie Ray Vaughn among young blues guitarists) makes me a little uncomfortable. Also, I will confess that it took me a long time (decades) to really appreciate Robert Cray’s music, and I wonder if Forte’s questions implying that he wasn’t “really” a blues traditionalist played a role?
The Georgia Satellites article was quite interesting–it was actually two separate short pieces on the group’s two guitarists, Rick Richards and Dan Baird. I really loved the “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” video and the tune was on the radio a lot back then. 17-year old me didn’t get all the references to artists who influenced the duo, but I do know that I used it as part of my research to find cool records! Back then I was quite methodical about tracking down influences; while I didn’t “get” Robert Johnson (for instance), I knew what he’d meant to Eric Clapton so I bought his records. These interviews definitely helped point me towards records like Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, the Mick Taylor era Rolling Stones, and contemporary artists like Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers and Pete Anderson of Dwight Yoakam’s band.
David+David (Ricketts and Baerwald) were a duo that put out a very atmospheric record called Welcome to the Boomtown, and the title track got radio and video play at the time. I liked that song, and I have come to really like the album (I listen to it several times every year, usually when I want to experience 80’s cocaine-fueled ennui and paranoia). The article is kind of interesting from a “LA Studio Guys” kind of way, but doesn’t yield any clues as to why they never made another record. Interestingly, it takes a trip to Wikipedia to learn that both men were part of the Tuesday Night Music Club that led to Sheryl Crow’s first major LP after she stopped singing backup for Michael Jackson.
The NAMM roundup is interesting in the way that it starts with what were probably rather esoteric products (signal processors and MIDI gear) and only talks about amplifiers on the third page. It’s a bit boring due to the black-and-white pictures, but making me feel VERY old indeed is the focus on Marshall’s 25/50 amplifiers, celebrating the company’s quarter century of making eardrums bleed with special silver colored amps, cabinets and combos. These might be familiar to you as a key part of Slash’s sound with Guns and Roses (maybe he ran out and got his after reading this issue?), or from the fact that the amps were reissued last year. In a fun twist, Mike Kapolka, a former student of mine, is the guitarist for upcoming band Down To Six, and he plays an original Silver Jubilee amp.
Another article that really stands out for me is the feature “Show Guitar: Playing The Pits From The Boondocks To Broadway”, by Frank Jermance, a professor of music management at University of Colorado-Denver (who apparently had a background as a pit guitarist in road companies of Cats, Eubie, Annie, The Sound of Music, and other shows). I was a pretty serious theatre guy in high school and was seriously considering a career backstage; in the month of May I was also super interested in picking the brain of the professional guitarist who played my high school’s production of The Music Man. I was the house manager, and I enjoyed talking to him–he played a headless Steinberger guitar, and told me it was because space in a pit was so limited. I remember talking to him about this article, in fact!
Jermance has lots of important advice, mostly about learning to sight read, and being able to follow a conductor’s directions. But he also gets down to the nitty-gritty, with specific tips like:
- “A competent show player should be able to manage styles from Atkins to Zappa“. This resonated with me, because my teacher at the time was Jim McCarthy who had graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology. He told me about the jazz classes, country classes, blues classes, and so on that he had to take to get a “Professional Guitarist” diploma.
- “Your basic amp should be no larger than a Fender Twin Reverb…since the guitarist is often allocated a three-foot square space“
- “You must have a good quality flat-top with a natural-sounding pickup, a nylon-string guitar with some kind of pickup, an amplifiable archtop, and a “hybrid” electric guitar that is capable of producing the clarity of a Tele and Strat as well as a “fat” Les Paul sound on demand. You’ll also need a banjo and a mandolin, both of which can be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar.” That’s quite a guitarsenal! And thus was my lifelong journey begun….
“We are directly competing with New York and L.A. sound wise and player wise. I can’t prove this, but someone at the union office told me that there are more records being made in Nashville than anywhere else. The guys doing most of the session work here can play anything that you want at anytime, in any kind of style. Part of what we’re fighting is the image that the only thing that comes out of here are Mel Tillis and George Jones records.
Country music has changed and broadened a lot. The more contemporary Christian things are some of the hipper stuff being done. Versatility comes into play here, because you may have to do an Albert Lee or Ricky Skaggs-type tune on the same session that you have to do a ZZ Top or Larry Carlton kind of thing. Players have to be able to do anything because the album budgets are typically smaller, so there are fewer spots. You don’t have one date to do just one track, like you might in L.A. In two sessions–six hours–you may have to do two to seven master quality songs….For a guitar slot to be open you’ve got to be versatile. My record collection goes from Ricky Skaggs to Bryan Adams to Hendrix to Tina Turner to Timbuk 3. I need to be aware of everything, so if the producer says ‘Make it sound like the new Pretenders album’, I’ll know what he means.“
I hope you liked this look back at Guitar Player in the spring of 1987. I’ll be back in June with another installment. Until then, bass columnist Herb Mickman reminded his readers “If it sounds good, it is good!”