November 9, 2007 by sw00ds
Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:
An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 8: Michael Molenda
An original punk who’s listed in Who’s Who in California Rock, Michael Molenda launched San Francisco’s first rock and roll multimedia show (Streetbeat), published the Bay Area’s first gear newsletter, opened two seminal “S.F. scene” recording studios, and has his name imprinted on a plaque hanging at Alcatraz (for his musical score to We Hold the Rock, about the Indian occupation of the island). Currently, Molenda is Editor in Chief of Guitar Player, co-owns Tiki Town Studios in Mill Valley, California (with producer Scott Mathews), and performs in The Trouble With Monkeys and the Eva Jay Fortune Band.
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“Teaching readers how to sound better and play better…”
“Ed Sengstack and Ross Garnick–the magazine’s publisher and associate publisher, respectively–were concerned about GP‘s industry reputation and circulation around 1996, and they contacted me about taking the Editor in Chief role. At the time, there hadn’t been anyone in that position for a while. Joe Gore was Senior Editor, Dominic Milano was Editorial Director, and the hierarchy of command, so to speak, wasn’t as clean or as explicit as Ed and Ross wanted it. Also, Joe was leaving–or reducing his responsibilities–to pursue his career as a guitarist. I was the Editor of Electronic Musician back then, and, thanks to the exploding home-studio market, I had a somewhat undeserved reputation as someone who could overhaul a magazine’s content to secure more readers and advertisers. I had always loved GP, so I was extremely flattered they were interested in me. And, yeah, I wanted the job! Sadly, the day of my big interview with the GP staff was the same day my then-wife informed me she wanted a divorce. I was devastated, of course, and I felt that two life-changing events at once might be a bit much. I turned down the offer, and Richard Johnston was ultimately moved into the top spot at GP. Fast-forward about two years, and Ed and Ross still weren’t satisfied with GP‘s reputation and circulation. In a deja-vu-like situation, they contacted me again, and, this time, I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my getting the best job I would ever be offered. Richard was moved over to the Editor in Chief position at Bass Player (which made sense, as he was/is a brilliant bassist), and I left Electronic Musician to become the Editor in Chief of Guitar Player. Thanks to a fabulous staff, we redesigned the entire magazine in one month, and, within a year, had expanded the subscriber base from under 80,000 to more than 100,000, and had also increased newsstand sell-through. Almost ten years later, I’m still in the Editor in Chief position, and loving every day!
“When I came aboard in 1998, the staff included Jas Obrecht, James Rotondi, Andy Ellis, Jesse Gress, and Art Thompson, with Matt Resnicoff as NY editor and Rusty Russell as Nashville editor. Lonni Gause was Managing Editor, and Rich Leeds was Art Director. Joe Gore was a contributing editor. I’m a bit of a socialist, so I was a bit disturbed that there was a ‘writing hierarchy’ where editors were kind of put into niches. For the most part, certain editors did cover stories, certain editors did artist interviews, certain editors did music lessons, certain editors did gear reviews, and so on. I didn’t dig that arrangement at all, so I immediately established that anyone could write anything. This mandate made Art and Andy happy, as they had been more or less relegated to gear-and music-writing duties, but I don’t think it was a popular move across the entire staff. I also didn’t believe in favoritism, special treatment, or tenure. I more or less operated on the assumption that everyone was as valuable to the cause as everyone else. In addition, I felt that GP articles should focus on teaching readers how to sound better and play better–to inspire players directly by sharing the tonal and technical application of the world’s guitar greats–and some of the editors and freelancers were a bit too ‘me journalism’ or music-fan oriented for my taste. This is not to say that any editor was anything less than a brilliant writer–GP has been blessed with absolutely monster editors throughout its lifespan–it was simply that I felt we needed to produce more explicit ‘be a better player now’ content in order to reinvent ourselves and pump up reader (and advertiser) support. I believe this new attitude created an undercurrent of dissatisfaction amongst some of the editors, even though no one beefed to my face. However, it wasn’t long before Jas and James opted to pursue opportunities outside of GP, and some freelancers either faded away, decided not to work for GP anymore, or were simply not assigned articles. This process was painful for me, because I really dug the writing and experience of Jas and James, and Jas was as close to a GP legend as you could get. However, the reinvention was necessary, and, thanks to the sweat and genius of the staffers who remained (as well as a re-energized sales team), the magazine enjoyed a resurgence in credibility, circulation, and revenue. As for the crazy stories–Jas has ‘em all (and I hope he’s sharing)!
“GP exists to teach obsessed guitar players of all ages and styles how to sound better and play better. That sounds a bit like ‘corporate speak,’ but it nails the objective, and I repeat that sentence to myself over and over to ensure I don’t screw the pooch, cheat the readers, or soil the magazine’s legacy.
“Thrilled by all the details of string gauges, guitar picks, scales…“
“I discovered GP when I was taking guitar lessons at Gene’s Guitar Shop in San Francisco. I think the first issue I bought was in late 1973 (Jeff Beck was on the cover), and I was immediately entranced. I felt like a better, cooler, and hipper guitarist when a few issues of GP were stored in my guitar case. That magazine taught me everything about guitar craft and culture, and it inspired me to discover everything I could about every type of guitar player, and every single piece of gear. I devoured every article, but the writers I most adored were Tom Wheeler and Steven Rosen. They interviewed a lot of the players I dug, and, in my youthful obsession for all things guitar, I was thrilled by all the details of string gauges, guitar picks, scales, modes, influences, amps, guitars, and effects they revealed. I had also received Tom Wheeler’s The Guitar Book for Christmas, so I considered him the reigning expert of guitar craft. No particular articles stand out in my memory, because I think I was excited about everything I read–even if it was about those jazz and classical cats I couldn’t really understand!
“GP’s focus on teaching guitarists how to get better at what they do, rather than illuminating guitar fans about guitar personalities, has always limited its pop-culture appeal. That’s fine with me. We have a different job to do than, say, Rolling Stone or Mojo. Is the writing at GP as good or better than that of RS or other high-quality music-journalism magazines? Well, if we’re talking about the concept of ‘music journalism’ as developed by RS, where the writers strive to impart an almost literary vibe to the major stories, then I would say, ‘no.’ GP’s focus is more working class (as in ‘working musician’), and, dare I say, less egocentric. We absolutely sweat bullets to deliver good writing (however the public defines it), seductive leads, and thrilling reads, but our main job is to provide usable information to guitarists wishing to become better players, rather than patting ourselves on the backs for crafting superb phrases. Now, I’m certainly not dismissive of literary excellence–I have an English degree (I did my thesis on the poet William Blake)–and I’m not being defensive, either. We’re simply operating in a different dimension, and, in our arena, I feel that readers do consider GP one of the best written and best researched guitar magazines in the world.
“Bud Eastman started it all when he launched Guitar Player in 1967, and visionary editors (and publishers) such as Jim Crockett, Don Menn, and Tom Wheeler pretty much cemented the music-techniques-and-gear-mag genre before Musician and Guitar World really ramped up. And I see bits of GP in all the European guitar magazines, as well as Mojo, Q, Acoustic Guitar, and tons of other music publications. The magic bullet was that the GP editors were players themselves–not simply music journalists who may have been good writers, but who never stepped onstage quaking with fear at having to reveal the essence of their creativity and craft to a club full of strangers, and then had the guts and passion to do it again and again and again–and their depth of understanding what it means to play guitar is stamped into every single word printed on the magazine’s pages. This is huge. It’s also what drives other magazines to try to crack the code in their own ways, and birth a publication that affects a readership as profoundly as GP has affected the world community of guitarists. Players love this magazine, even if they cease to subscribe for a while, or become disappointed for whatever reason in a specific series of issues. So I think the influence of GP can absolutely be traced to an early format of artist interviews, star columnists, and music lessons (and, later, product coverage and reviews), but it’s enduring legacy is more than just a collection of journalistic elements–it’s the magic of the magazine’s promise (we will help you become a better and more rounded player) and the extreme, obsessive love that its editors have always felt for the magazine’s subject matter.
“Online forum members often bash us for not doing a Shawn Lane Tribute cover…“
“I mourn for the era when crazy entrepreneurial visionaries owned my favorite magazines, and these people followed their muses to serve their audiences. Today, as large corporations–often controlled by private equity companies–own most of the major music publications, the buckeroo element of publishing has waned a bit. I’m not bashing corporations, but the systemic influence of big business, and its necessary focus on revenue over edginess, has absolutely affected how many major-market magazines serve their communities. Everything is budgeted, so risks have to be carefully evaluated–everything from whether a cover artist will sell enough issues at the newsstand to the design and functionality of our Web sites. Jim Crockett, for example, could decide whether a guitarist deserved to be on the GP cover, even if that artist was operating in a genre of low reader interest, or didn’t possess enough public notoriety.
Today, we absolutely put deserving guitarists on the cover, but those deserving guitarists must also be ‘good risks’ for selling around 30 percent of the total number of issues shipped to newsstands. (This is a fairly standard ‘sell-through’ percentage for niche-market publications.) For instance, some online forum members often bash us for not doing a Shawn Lane Tribute cover. If it was 1978, we probably would. Shawn was a monster, and more guitarists should know about him. In 2007, however, Shawn is simply too underground to risk trashing newsstand sales with a cover. Now, the ’70s-era Jim Crockett would absolutely know that a Shawn Lane cover would sell less issues than an Eric Clapton cover, but his commitment to exposing a diverse menu of guitarists to the GP reader would probably overrule any financial nervousness (back then). The juggling that today’s GP staff has to do to equally serve both readers and revenue can be daunting–even as our new company, NewBay Media, and our current VP, John Pledger, have turned a whole chunk of responsibility for guiding content back to the editors of GP, Bass Player, Keyboard, and EQ. GP is in a great place right now with supportive and strategic leadership, but, former punk rocker that I am, I guess I’ll always miss the anarchy and street-cred bliss of doing a ‘respect’ issue that’s innovative, edgy, and art-crowd thrilling, while simultaneously being commercial poison [laughing here]!”