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

Oct - 22

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 “Für 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!


Hits: 251

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