[6 July 2011]
You young’uns out there reading this on your smartphones probably don’t remember that foggy time back before the Internet made information ubiquitous, when every detail and moment of every celebrity’s life wasn’t hung out for public scrutiny. Fans of a particular musician—or author, actress or politician—had to work a little to dig up the details, good or bad, of their hero’s latest record, book, film or piece of legislation. TV channels were few, and documentaries rare, so to fill the void, one turned to books and, especially, magazines.
Guitar Player was a magazine dedicated to—you guessed it—guitar players. Along with equipment reviews and concert reportage, the magazine featured a series of interviews with musicians, ranging from arena rock giants (Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton) to jazz-aficianado favorites (Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin) and many more besides. Guitar Player served up the goods on a steady stream of six-string wizards; focusing not only on backstage anecdotes and personal influences, the magazine also delved into the technical side of the music, revealing aspects of Leslie West’s amplification or Roy Buchanan’s harmonics that were unavailable—or at least much harder to find—elsewhere.
Guitar Heroes of the ’70s reproduces a hefty selection of the magazine’s interviews from that era. Forty musicians are spotlighted, among them heavy metal pioneers such as Ritchie Blackmore and Tommy Iommi, mellower players like Jerry Garcia, blues maestros like Buchanan and jazz virtuosos such as Pat Martino.
Despite the variety, the emphasis is squarely on rock ‘n’ roll, and male rock ‘n’ roll, at that. There are a handful of women included, notably Bonnie Raitt, but this is very much a boys’ club. The chapter on June Millington, co-founder of rock band Fanny (yeah, me neither) begins: “For a sex that peoples a little more than half the world, it’s quite surprising how few women have become rock musicians.” True enough, but that’s about as far as the analysis goes.
Despite these constraints, the selection does feel fairly comprehensive, though inevitably there are glaring omissions (what, no Angus Young? Wait—no Neil Young?)
The interviews generally check in at four to five pages, most of them in a simple question-and-answer format, although a few are written up as articles and at least one musician—Eddie Van Halen!—appears to have penned the article himself. Given their brevity and their wide-ranging scope, the interviews never go very deep, and they follw a set pattern: a few questions about growing up and early influences, a few questions about a well-known record or song (often focusing on the recording or playing technique involved), and a few technical questions about equipment. These last might be of interest to a guitar player such as myself, but it’s tough to see the casual fan being too interested in such nuggets as “[David] Gilmour [of Pink Floyd] switches from three to four springs in the vibrato tailpiece depending on the situation.”
The interviews get most interesting, of course, when they deviate from the script. At times these rock legends—or are they dinosaurs nowadays?—were unafraid to take shots at each other. So you have Ritchie Blackmore (of Deep Purple and Rainbow) characterizing The Who’s Pete Townshend as “not being that good a guitarist” and “overrated”. Of Jeff Beck, Blackmore is kinder, but then he adds, “Sometimes, he’s absolutely useless, and you wonder why he has a name.” Meanwhile, Michael Bloomfield says of Bob Dylan, “I had heard his first album, and I thought it was shit.”
Sometimes the humor is gentler or self-deprecating or both, as when Mountain guitarist Leslie West admits, “To tell you the truth, man, I don’t know the names of the chords I play.” Or this exchange with the dry-as-a-bone blues legend Roy Buchanan: Q. “How often do you change [your strings]?” A. “When they break.” Q. “Don’t they lose their sound before that?” A. “Probably.” Bonnie Raitt, explaining how she learned to play slide guitar with such dexterity, explains that “I flipped the bird a lot when I was a kid in California, so I knew how to isolate my middle finger, and I just naturally put that to use.”
There’s a full-page black-and-white photo of each musician interviewed, plus a brief selection of “Dy-No-Mite Discs” for each. These features sometimes feel out of date (is Caravanserai really one of Santana’s best-ever records?), but they serve to shine a spotlight on any number of great albums—Ziggy Stardust (arguably Mick Ronson’s masterpiece as a guitar player), Master of Reality (ditto for Black Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi), Tales From Topographic Oceans (Yes’s Steve Howe) and so forth.
Ultimately, there’s not a great deal of surprise here—these are, after all, reprinted interviews with people whose heyday was 20 or 30 years ago. As trivia goes, it’s interesting enough to learn that Eric Clapton played a Les Paul through a Marshall stack, or that Queen’s Brian May used sixpence pieces—“something like an American nickel”—as picks. For a fan of the era, it may serve to bring one’s heroes a bit closer. It’s biggest value, though, is probably for six-string fans who are hoping to discover an unknown artist or rediscover a forgotten one.