My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (January 1988)
Welcome also to 1988! This was a landmark year for me: I graduated high school, moved to college, met my future wife, and joined my first band in 1988. I look forward to revisiting this time period with you.
January is a time of beginnings, and some of the highlights of January, 1988 include the first Royal Rumble for the (then) World Wrestling Federation, the Broadway debut of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera (which my theatre friends and I were obsessed with), and Vice-President George Bush’s Presidential career got a boost with his antagonistic interview on CBS news (I watched this live!) when he seemingly vanquished his reputation as a “wimp” by refusing to answer questions about his role in Iran-Contra. Unfortunately it was also a time for some noteworthy deaths, including Greg “Pappy” Boyington, who was portrayed by Robert Conrad on TVs Black Sheep Squadron (a favorite of my military-obsessed friends and mine), basketball star Pete Maravich, who was only 40 when he died playing a pick-up basketball game as a result of an undiscovered, congenital heart defect. Guitar wise, I was digging my new Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow and trying to progress musically with my GIT-trained teacher Jim McCarthy and my high school “Music Theory I” class.
The January, 1988 issue of Guitar Player was chock full of interesting content. The cover touted the return of Lynyrd Skynryd to touring a decade after the devastating plane crash the band experienced in 1977, as well as interviews with Carlos Santana, Richard Lloyd, Omar Dykes of Omar and the Howlers, and a review of the amp now known as the Fender “Evil Twin”. Inside the issue, the Spotlight section touted a young guitarist from Easton, PA named Greg Howe, a short interview with Steve Katz yielded a remarkably interesting trivia factoid, and there was a flexidisc recording of Carlos Santana playing “Blues for Salvador”.
I doubt that I paid much attention to the interviews of producer Steve Katz (late of the 1960’s group The Blues Project and co-founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears), and guitarist Richard Lloyd (late of 1970’s group Television) since I wasn’t interested in record production at the time, and I was totally unaware of Lloyd (who I didn’t really grok until he contributed fiery leads on 1992’s Matthew Sweet record, Girlfriend. This was a mistake, because I missed out on some good stuff. Katz described his techniques for live recording (one highlight, separate tracks for live amp and direct signal for guitarists) and related a very interesting fact about Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal (now one of my favorite live albums, totally unknown to me at the time). In Katz’ words:
“During the recording of Rock n Roll Animal, a trumpet player friend of mine came back to the remote truck and almost fell over the 2″ tape machine. Very few people know this, but we lost half the applause to that concert. The audience noise on that record is actually from a John Denver concert that RCA had in its vaults!”
How about that! The interview with Lloyd touts his live record “Real Time” (for which Katz was the producer), recorded at New York’s CBGB club. If you haven’t heard it–check it out in this month’s Spotify playlist–killer songs! Lloyd comes across as an enthusiastic devotee of the guitar, and I definitely plan on listening to more of his records having re-read this interview. Some of the best quotes are:
“A Stratocaster is a guitar you can make a fist around. A Strat asks you to play a certain way; it demands a certain grasp. It’s just the way the neck is shaped, I guess. That kind of neck is really conducive to a certain kind of string bending that you can’t get on most guitars; it’s a really narrow neck with a slightly curved fretboard. And one of the first things I was told, and that I’ve held on to, is that what makes the electric guitar a special instrument is the bent note.”
“When I was in junior high I was at this guy Zeke’s house and he said there was somebody coming over who said he knew Jimi Hendrix. Everybody laughed. I mean, we were kids; who could know Jimi Hendrix? Hendrix was, like, somebody from outer space. Well, this guy’s name was Velvert, and it turned out he was one of Jimi’s best friends; Jimi called him his ‘little brother’….Jimi was trying to teach Velvert things in a mirror, and Velvert would show me that stuff second-hand, But at the time I couldn’t really play the guitar, so there’s very little that I got from Jimi, except energy. My playing isn’t like his at all, in terms of phrasing and turnarounds. But what he did for the electric guitar, historically was just awesome.
I just listened to that “Live at the Winterland” CD recently, and it reminded me of why I’ve played guitar for 20-odd years. Here’s this cat, running hard with the guitar, and I saw it. I started chasing him and I’m still chasing him and I still haven’t caught up with where was back then. But that’s okay. There are 50 million guys who are more technically proficient than I am, but there’s something special about putting your heart and soul on the line the way Hendrix did, and I believe I’ve got some of what he had, in that sense.”
Interestingly, Lloyd recorded a record in 2009 called “The Jamie Neverts Story”, on which he cuts his own versions of several Hendrix classics. It’s also in the playlist below if you want to check it out. This contemporary article from Guitar World indicates that Lloyd has had some troubles in his life, but also sheds light on his more recent recording approach.
I wish I could have included the picture of Carlos Santana from the article in this magazine, but I cut it out and hung it on my bedroom wall back in 1988! Carlos was joined with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and BB King on my personal wall of fame. Sadly, not only is the picture missing, but so is a full page of the interview. In retrospect I should have cut out this ad instead…oh well. This was the first of many interviews I’ve read from Carlos, and his earthy spirituality and deep sense of the power of music have never failed to inspire me.
Jas Obrecht wrote the Santana piece, so that already tells me to expect an in-depth interview that covers all aspects of the musician’s approach. The article starts with Carlos walking into the Record Plant studio (boldface is my emphasis):
“Remember when we used to go see a band in the ’60s? You’d see Wes Montgomery play at the Matador from 9:00 to 1:00, and then you’d follow him to another funky club on the other side of town, and he would play there until 4:00 in the morning. Well, that’s the kind of feeling I’m trying to get lately on certain ballads. It’s funny, because 4:00 in the morning is 4:00 in the morning. What do you do at 8:00 at night? How do you capture that after-the-party feeling? It’s challenging. Somebody from the Grateful Dead said to me ‘When music starts playing you, don’t play music anymore,’ which makes a lot of sense. Music starts playing itself through you, instead of you having to make it happen.”
You’re one of the few guitarists who is instantly recognizable. Why is that?
“It’s an accumulation of a lot of things man. My love for John Coltrane and his tone. My love for B.B. [King] and his tone, or Aretha [Franklin]. All the things that my father passed on to me. My father is a musician; he taught me everything I know on the guitar, as far as technical chords and stuff like that goes. His father before him was a musician, and my grand-grandfather was a musician. The main thing is the cry. It’s not whining. You know, sometimes you go to a funeral, and maybe the guy wasn’t such a good guy, but people still want to say something nice about him. Well, the tone in the music I’m trying to write now is for people to learn to let go gently and quietly. It’s to enhance the beauty that, let’s say, Jaco Pastorius had. I immediately erase all the National Enquirer stuff out of my mind, so all I remember is the great times I had with Jaco Pastorius when we did get to jam and spend some time together. That’s what I’m trying to do with the tone. It’s the cry of exalt the elegance in humanity.
Santana goes on to answer questions about gear, and his preference for tube amps and triangular-shaped picks (this might be where I started using those kinds of plectra) and his trick of using pencil lead to lubricate the guitar’s nut (which I also do). The discussion of tone leads Carlos to praise Eric Johnson as having “the best sound I’ve heard lately”:
“He had the most beautiful tone all the way around. It was very, very masculine, and round and warm and dark. And his playing is great, man. I’d like to record with him someday, because he is very pure. You can tell what people have in their eyes–malice, expectations, the beauty of things, this or that. With Eric it’s ‘OK, I’ve got my tone and my vision and that’s enough. The Lord will provide the rest.’ He has a beautiful soul. Even though he is from Texas, he doesn’t have the gunslinger mentality ‘I’m going to kick your butt with my gun.’ When we jam, we both complement each other, which is what musicians are supposed to do. Eric is somebody who should be playing with Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis and people like that.”
Carlos later explains his vision of something that is more than “mortal music”, beginning with a discussion of his regret at never playing with Bola Sete:
“Mortal music deals with my baby left me, I can’t pay the rent or whatever. Bola’s music tells you that inside we have roaring cosmic lions and that we’re elegant and beautiful. His music enhanced the beautiful side of humanity to a supreme extent….If I was going to a Santana concert, what would I want? I want joy and a lot of vitality. I want the spirit of when a pastor tells you something really precious at church that applies to your life–something that’s not condemning you or making you feel like you should apologize for being a human being. Whether in a cry or in a party atmosphere, the music should exalt humanity and the spirit of humanity, which is the Lord. That’s enough, because anything else will be the crust. This is the real pure water.
Later in the lengthy interview, Obrecht asks several questions about what kind of advice Santana would give to young musicians and other guitarists. The answers are, as you probably can expect by now, flowing and expansive:
“My son is four-and-a-half years old, and he’s already asking me, ‘Is Jimi Hendrix badder than Michael Jackson?’ First of all, I would just give him heavy doses of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins for two or three years. Once I feel that he’s got that combination, then I’ll say Muddy Waters is the Miles Davis of Chicago, and Little Walter is the John Coltrane. By the time my son is listening to something like ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane, he would have understood the order all the way from Django Reinhardt to Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery. I want him to understand the order, because I don’t want my son to be fooled by fool’s gold. And there is a lot of it out there for kids, a lot of flash and guys who have the right poses for the right strokes on the guitar. But that stuff doesn’t cut it when you really know how to play, and you put the note where it’s supposed to be. I want to teach my son not to fake anything, but to earn it. “
“I saw Jimi Hendrix two or three times in person. The first time I was with him was a real shocker. He was in the studio overdubbing “Roomful of Mirrors”. He said ‘Okay, let’s roll it,’ and started recording and it was incredible. But within 15 or 20 seconds into the song he just went out. All of a sudden the music that was coming out of the speakers was way beyond the song, like he was freaking out having a gigantic battle in the sky with somebody. It just didn’t make any sense with the song anymore, so the roadies looked at each other, the producer looked at him, and they said ‘Go get him’. I’m not making this up. They separated him from the amplifier and the guitar, and it was like he was having an epileptic attack. I said ‘Do I have to go through these changes just to play my guitar? I’m just a kid!’ When they separated him, his eyes were read and he was almost foaming at the mouth. He was gone.
To me, it was a combination of the lifestyle–staying up all night, chicks, too much drugs, all kinds of stuff. It was a combination of all the intensities he felt, along with a lack of discipline. In the rock style of that time, there was no discipline. You took everything all the time. I know one thing man–it drained me. It made me realize that, like John McLaughlin, I needed to know about discipline. Now I know that out of discipline comes freedom. When you’ve got discipline in your pocket you’ve got punctuality, regularity, meditation. When things get too crazy with the record, the companies or the world you can flick a switch and go into your own sanctuary and play music that is stronger than the news.
“Whether you are doing it in the bar, the church, the strip joint or the Himalayas, the first duty of music is to complement and enhance life. And once you approach it like that then there is order….People come up to me, and tell me that I [changed their lives]. Someone said to me ‘Man, I was ready to check out, put the gun to my head, and I heard this song. It made me cry and it made me want to try it again. Now I feel better.’ That’s not me though, it’s a spirit through me that wants to exalt itself. It says ‘Don’t take that out. Don’t treasure frustration. Don’t treasure depression. This is an imposter–don’t make friends with him. You’re more than that. Don’t focus on the negative things in life–accentuate the positive; otherwise you become darkened. Light up a candle.’ That’s the tone; that’s the story that I want to do through my music as much as possible….What means something is to be able to tell a story and put wings in people’s hearts.”
Over the years I’ve re-read this and other interviews with Carlos Santana multiple times (his autobiography is also quite excellent). I know that many people find him to be kind of weird, but his words move me as much as his music, and I believe that both are equally genuine.
The cover story was about the re-formed, newly touring edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Titled “10 Years Later, Lynryd Skynyrd Rocks Again”, Jon Sievert’s article was a good overview of the band’s history leading to the tragic plane crash, what the musicians did afterwards, and a summary of the new tour. The article is quite interesting if only because Gary Rossington opines freely on topics like songwriting, and the role of Al Kooper (Steve Katz’ co-founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears) in the band’s success. I recently watched a documentary called “Gone With The Wind“, which was a nice band biography, but Rossington was conspicuous in his absence. The movie would have been better if he was in it, even if only to share his feelings about the crash (in which he broke both arms, both legs, both wrists, both feet and his pelvis), “Plus my heart got broke real bad. It took me a long time to even want to play again.”
According to the article, “At the beginning of the tour, the goal was clear. Lynyrd Skynyrd would play 33 concerts in 40 days; then the members and crew would return to what they were doing before it all happened. The response to Skynyrd’s return has changed all that.” It sure has. Though the band has announced that 2018 will be the end of the road as a touring entity, the hard traveling band has thrilled (and formed) millions of new fans in the last thirty years. While I’ve not been a big fan of what has sometimes seemed to be an ersatz tribute band, I have to tip my hat to the group for staying true to the music and their audience for so many decades. Well done, Lynyrd Skynryd.
During the ’80s Mike Varney, who owned Shrapnel Records, had a section of every issue of Guitar Player to give capsule descriptions of guitarists or bassists who had submitted demo tapes to him. I used to love reading these at the time, and now it’s fun to try to find the musicians on Spotify to see how their careers turned out. But sometimes, a famous name jumps out at you. For instance, this month Varney showcased Greg Howe. Only four years older than me, and living about 40 miles to the north, Howe was already on the way to fame as one of the decades’ most talented shredders. Varney notes that “Greg’s demo tape is among the most exciting I’ve received, featuring great chops and strong original instrumental compositions. His diverse yet cohesive style is hard to categorize. It successfully combines both legato and speed-picking techniques similar to Allan Holdsworth’s and Yngwie Malmsteen’s respectively, but it’s still jazzy and bluesy, at times sounding like Larry Carlton with a George Lynch feel….Well worth checking out.” You can hear the resulting Shrapnel Records album in the playlist to this post. Greg Howe’s career is still flourishing, and his signature guitar is pretty rad looking. Check him out if he comes to your town, or hit him up for an online lesson to take your playing to the next level.