Brad Tolinski: Interview with Guitar World’s Top Gear Head
Posted by s woods on October 13, 2011
By Steven Ward
Brad Tolinski, the Editor in Chief of Guitar World and Editorial Director of Revolver, still believes in the power of print magazines. Called an “unsung hero in music journalism” by many of the people who work for him and others in the industry, Tolinski has been quietly publishing some of the best American music writing about rock for 25 years.
DeCurtis: “The times I’ve written for Brad at Guitar World and Revolver, he was a pleasure to work with. I’m not a musician myself, so I always feel a bit self-conscious writing for places like GW that might be interested in technical matters I’m neither equipped nor particularly inclined to handle. Brad made me feel perfectly at home, part of the team, which is rare at a place where you’re not writing regularly. He encouraged me to concentrate on what I do best — write about the ideas and emotions that drive musicians to create, and that inform their music. He gave me some lovely opportunities, was empathetic with what I wanted to do, and was enthusiastic in his responses. As far as I was concerned, it was a satisfying professional relationship in every way.”
Considine: “Brad is probably the only editor I’ve ever worked with who exhibits true vision. What he did at Guitar World, which before his arrival was little more than a fanzine, is nothing short of amazing, and the other ideas he had at Harris [Publications] — particularly the original Revolver — showed more imagination and range than any of the other music magazine editor I can think of.
“True, they didn’t always work, but that was through no failing of Brad’s. Part of the problem was timing, since Brad’s biggest burst of creativity came just before the big implosion of the magazine market, but it didn’t help that he has pretty much always had to work on a shoestring, whereas other publications had more generous publishers and a more aggressive marketing budget. It should tell you something about the resources Brad had at his disposal that Revolver, in its pre-metal incarnation, had a dedicated editorial staff of three, whereas Blender, its most direct competition, not only had twice as many editors, but also had researchers, copy editors, and its own dedicated photo and art staff. Who knows what Revolver might have become had it had such resources?
“(It also says something that Blender eventually grew to 700,000 circulation, it’s now long gone, whereas Revolver soldiers on.)
“Guitar World, though, is where his strengths are most evident. Brad has always been smart about listening to his readers, and has an uncanny ability to give them what they want without seeming to pander. For one thing, he’s a well-trained musician — a violinist, no less — and is able to hear merit in certain types of music that more style-obsessed writers and editors miss. For another, he avoids the anti-metal prejudices much of the rock press carries, and treats the musicians (and their audience) with respect. And he does all that while mostly avoiding the chops-worshiping, gear-obsessive fanboy perspective that makes many musical instrument titles unbearable to read. In fact, some of the best interview stuff you’ll read in Guitar World is often not about guitar playing at all, even though there’s also a lot of how-they-did-that in the stories.
“If Brad has a failing, it’s that he’s very loyal to his long-term staff, which makes the Guitar World universe seem a bit closed-off to outsiders. On the one hand, I admire the sort of loyalty that lets people keep working with him for a decade or more (where else in the music magazine world is that possible?), but given its size and readership, it’s kind of a shame that Guitar World and its offspring haven’t launched as many careers as Rolling Stone or Spin or Musician have. Finally, I’d like to say that Brad has always struck me as a fundamentally decent guy. I wish there were more like him in the biz.”
During the following email interview, Tolinski sounds off on why his magazine doesn’t get the respect it deserves, Revolver‘s competition over at Decibel, his new book about Jimmy Page, and what the future holds for readers of Guitar World.
Steven Ward: How did you first get involved in music journalism? What rock magazines did you read growing up and where was your first piece of music journalism published?
Brad Tolinski: It was a bit of a long and winding road. I was always interested in both music and writing. I taught myself to play guitar back in Detroit in the seventies. Additionally, I studied and played classical and jazz violin right through college and beyond. I even spent a couple years working at a folk and bluegrass music store, and taught fiddle and mandolin. I’ve always been interested in wide varieties of music and I still listen to everything from Bach to Miles to Motown to the most extreme forms of metal. It’s an important part of my story.
In the mid-Eighties I left Detroit and worked at one of the first recording studios in New York that used Apple computers to sample, sequence and record. While I was at the studio, I started writing for an independent music magazine called Music, Computers and Software to supplement my income. Some of my first pieces were very technical in nature, but I also had the opportunity to interview computer savvy musicians like Roger Waters, Stewart Copeland and Joe Jackson. I discovered I was good at it and started editing the magazine full time. From there I was recruited by Harris Publications to work on a short-lived electronic music publication called Modern Keyboard that folded after just a few issues.
Harris was having some circulation problems with Guitar World at the time and asked me to come on board as associate editor to help straighten them out. Essentially, the magazine had moved in a more serious jazz and blues direction, which I thought was a mistake. Despite my background in jazz, I felt that the electric guitar was primarily a rock instrument and that’s where all the action was happening.
This was in the very late eighties, and I pushed hard for GW to cover thrash bands and all the super progressive hair metal guys. I also lobbied to start putting guitar transcriptions into the magazine. All of these moves proved to be positive for circulation, so when the GW Editor-in-Chief Joe Bosso left to pursue a record industry A&R job, I was installed into his position.
SW: Although Guitar Player has been publishing longer than Guitar World, there are some important differences. Can you talk a little about that and how you see Guitar World as different from Guitar Player and other musical instrument magazines for that matter?
BT: Magazines are entertainment first, and educational second. I’ve always worked like hell to make Guitar World entertaining. That means creating a compelling, ever-evolving narrative. Putting twists on the familiar. Challenging the reader even when they don’t want to be. It also means being funny, controversial, sexy and all the other things that general interest magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone, or Vanity Fair try to be. I’m not sure the other guitar magazines look at it in that way.
It’s a difficult task to entice young men and women to buy and read paper. You have to offer them a few thrills and spills along with their straight information.
I’m also a design obsessive. I’ve always tried to make GW look good and have used a number of designers who’ve gone on to spectacular careers. Among them are Bob Newman, who played an important role in the design and shape of Entertainment Weekly and Peter Yates who won numerous awards for his work at ESPN. Our current design director Alexis Cook is a huge talent.
SW: I have heard a few in the industry call you “the unsung hero of rock journalism.” When I interviewed J.D. Considine for this site back in 2000, he said Guitar World “is often the best music mag the industry ignores.” Why do you think Guitar World is ignored?
BT: Yeah, it’s true that Guitar World does fly under the radar. The word “guitar” in the title is a barrier for a lot of people, but it also has provided a safe haven. It actually allows us to write about music without have to cater slavishly to the current cultural climate. People don’t expect us to cover “American Idol” or much of the horrible “disco” music that gluts the airwaves, and that is very liberating.
We are free to write about the past, the present, and the future in equal measure, and the current iPod shuffle generation seems fine with that. They embrace it, as a matter of fact. One of our best-received pieces in the last few months has been an in-depth history of funk that was excellent but apropos of nothing. When you listen to your music on an iPod, timelines start losing their meaning. Cool is cool, whether it was made in 1957 or 2007. It all gets equal billing.
So, yes, we are unsung and ignored by the larger media, but I’m fine with that. The larger media is pretty shallow these days. The good news is that guitarists and general music consumers embrace us. Wal-Mart runs one of the largest newsstands in the country, and we have been the music and entertainment category captain for a couple of years now, outselling Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and all the others year-in and year-out. That’s a real achievement.
SW: Let’s talk about the writers of Guitar World. You have had some of the biggest names in rock journalism write for you — the late, great Robert Palmer, Anthony DeCurtis, Jim DeRogatis and the aforementioned J.D. Considine. However, there have been some core Guitar World writers over the years who have made the magazine one of the best in the business. The biggie that comes to mind right away is Guitar World Associate Editor Alan Di Perna. When I think of Guitar World classic rock cover stories, I think of Alan’s work. Can you talk some about Alan?
BT: Alan di Perna is quite gifted. I used to follow his work at Musician magazine in the Eighties and as soon as I became the editor of Guitar World I hired him. Alan is perceptive, economical, and has a great sense of humor. A lot of rock writing is filled with what I call “empty calories” — reams of vague descriptive adjectives that provide the reader little real with information. Alan’s pieces are packed with solid insight.
I also like that his message is essentially positive. He tries to help the reader understand what they are listening to regardless if it’s his cup of tea. That’s a different agenda that most writers.
But I also have to applaud some of our other writers, including the often hilarious and fastidious Chris Gill and the genial and clever Dan Epstein. Richard Bienstock, who writes for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado is also emerging as a great talent.
SW: Two other longtime Guitar World writers that come to mind are Managing Editor Jeff Kitts and Executive Editor Christopher Scapelliti. They both handle more editorial duties now but I remember Jeff Kitts doing a lot of great articles on Kiss and Scapelliti writing some important Beatles-related pieces. Can you talk about Chris and Jeff’s contributions to the magazine over the years?
BT: We crank out a lot of product. In addition to Guitar World, our staff works on the quarterly Guitar Aficionado, numerous specials, buyer’s guides, one-shots and instructional DVDs. Jeff Kitts is a fantastic managing editor that cracks the whip like nobody’s business. He is the responsible cop to my weirdo cop.
Chris is a fantastic writer, an incredibly efficient copy editor, and an excellent quality control person. Together, we get a lot done. I don’t think any of us gets to write as much as we would like, but it’s a great team. We understand our roles and we respect each other’s talents so there is very little friction.
SW: Let’s talk about Revolver now. You are the editorial director of Revolver, a heavy metal magazine. Revolver didn’t start out that way. In the spring of 2000 it was launched as a general interest rock magazine and it was your baby. It seemed like it was an American version of Mojo or trying to approximate something like that. The first five issues of Revolver turned out to be one of the best American music magazines ever produced. But you guys were forced to pull the plug by then-owner Harris Publications.
I believe it was your idea to then turn Revolver into a heavy metal magazine. Could you talk about your original intentions with Revolver, what you guys went through during the production of those first five issues, and its eventual transformation into a heavy metal magazine?
BT: It’s a sad story, but not very complicated. Essentially, Tom Beaujour, who now works on Guitar Aficionado, and I set out to create the Great American Music Magazine. And to some extent, I think we succeeded. The problem was, we simply could not get enough advertising to support the expense of making the book. The record companies were not pitching in and our initial circulation was not large enough for non-endemics like Coke or Banana Republic or whatever. The basic conceit of the magazine demanded that we got the best writers and photographers, but there was a price tag that came along with that.
My publisher said to me, “The name of magazine is so great, I really don’t want to kill it, but I don’t want to go broke either — any ideas?” That’s when I suggested going in a harder direction. My reasoning was that there would be less cost, it would be a more focused audience, and there would be more endemic advertising.. There was also a gap at the newsstand for an entertaining, well-designed, well-edited hard rock magazine. It was a “Hail Mary,” but it worked.
Listen, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed at pulling the plug on the original Revolver — Tom and I loved making those first issues — but I think Revolver Mach II turned out well, and current editor Brandon Geist is doing really good work.
SW: There are only two American heavy metal magazines left standing — Revolver and Decibel, which covers more extreme, “on the fringes” metal.
Both magazines have a more literate take on the genre than the fan magazines of the past. How do you see the differences between Revolver andDecibel, and do you see Decibel as competition?
BT: Sure, Decibel is competition, and I think they do a good job. If I were being critical, I would say it often borders on being a well-produced fanzine. Their writing and editing is a bit uneven and their art direction is pretty grim, but I can see their appeal. It drills down deep, and they have some really good ideas.
What I like about Revolver is that it really captures the fun and irreverence of metal. I think both the editorial and the art direction are quite brilliant and to use an earlier world — “unsung” — because of the subject matter.
One thing has to be said — you often hear people bitch about how young people don’t read. Well, part of the reason is that no one really wants to write for them. Both Revolver and Guitar World have a strong desire to engage this audience, despite that fact that it’s not necessarily the “coolest” pursuit. I started reading Creem and Rolling Stone when I was probably around 13 or 14, and I loved the fact that they respected my intelligence. It made me want to become a writer. We really try to do the same. I often say that I try to make Guitar World the magazine I would’ve wanted when I was learning to play.
SW: Talk some about you and Tom Beaujour’s newest venture — Guitar Aficionado. It seems like a high-end, lifestyle magazine for those who like to buy expensive guitars?
BT: Tom, our publisher Greg Di Benedetto, and I were all deeply involved in creating Guitar Aficionado. The concept may seem bizarre from the outside, but anyone who has even moderate contact with guitar culture will understand who the reader is immediately.
Playing the guitar is not a hobby that people necessarily outgrow, and many people that started playing in their teens play for the rest of their lives. Tom, Greg and I noticed that as players matured, their tastes in music and how they viewed the instrument changed. Guitar Aficionado is just a reflection of that. It’s not necessarily “high-end.” You don’t have to be a millionaire to be interested in travel, food, fashion or beautiful guitars. If that were true, magazines like Esquire or Conde Nast Traveller would be out of business. The Guitar Aficionado reader is someone who still loves his guitar, but has developed a life outside of rock and roll or playing in a band.
The truth is, most magazines are in some way aspirational: Most of the people that read Guitar World probably dream of playing Madison Square Garden. The people that read Guitar Aficionado dream of owning their own ’59 Les Paul or drinking a $300 bottle of wine. It’s sort of the same thing, accept the latter is probably more obtainable.
SW: Besides your own stable of writers and magazines, are there any particular rock writers or music magazines out there today that you like to read?
BT: Neil Strauss is brilliant, but he’s gotten a little silly lately. I realize his more sensational books about picking up girls and being a survivalist probably make him more money, but I would love to see him write seriously about music again. I would like to see David Fricke write more for Rolling Stone. He’s super smart and grossly underutilized. Jaan Uhelszki is still writing really deep and insightful pieces for Uncut in the UK. Ashley Khan, who writes album liner notes for a number of jazz and classic rock re-issues, is a very well informed and sophisticated music journalist. I’d use all those guys in a heartbeat, but they’re a little pricey!
SW: Were there any particular rock writers that influenced you?
BT: Well, my Beatles and Stones of rock journalism are Lester Bangs and Robert Palmer. I should also throw Nik Cohn in there. They’re all completely different, but appealing because, just like great rock and blues, they fused profound insight with humor.
What made both these guys great is that they came from a deeper literary tradition. They didn’t learn from other rock writers — they studied great writers like William Burroughs and Hemingway. A lot of rock writing these days comes from people who have only studied rock writing, which is a little narrow.
SW: You have written some great Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin pieces for Guitar World over the years. I understand you have gotten a contract to write a Jimmy Page biography. Will it be authorized? How did the book come about?
BT: It won’t be authorized, but Jimmy is fine with it. I’ve been one of the few journalists that Page talks to on a regular basis. We’ve had a lot of great conversations over the last 20 years and I thought it was time to stitch them together.
Jimmy Page is one of the most influential musicians of the last 100 years. His playing and recording techniques have influenced several generations of musicians and his musical story is historically important. I think he’s right up there with Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, and Phil Spector. Most of the book is simply an extended, in-depth discussion about his recording career and the culture that surrounded it. Of course, what makes it fascinating is that he rarely opens up.
A number of publishing houses bid for it. The surprising thing is that they all seemed fine that it was primarily music driven. Although it has some sensational moments, no one was begging for more mud shark stories. It’s coming out well and it should be out next Fall.
SW: Do you have any particular favorite Guitar World stories or features you fondly remember — whether they were written by you or others?
BT: Some of our best pieces have been incredible group efforts. Our June 1999 issue that celebrated the landmark albums released in 1969 was terrific, as was September 1998 issue that named the 100 greatest guitar solos of all-time. The upcoming December 2011 issue of Guitar World is a landmark piece of work. We enlisted a panel of Jimi Hendrix experts to decide on his 100 best performances. That meant sifting through official recordings, bootlegs and videos to identify the very best of a historic artist. It’s a great piece of scholarship and very entertaining.
Other outstanding pieces include a marathon interview conducted by the late Timothy White with George Harrison. There’s a great story on the history of Texas blues by the great Robert Palmer. Alan di Perna has done some substantial work writing about the history of punk rock and industrial music, and his interviews with Keith Richards and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been strong.
SW: I have always loved Guitar World because of the musician interviews and historical features on certain bands and albums. I love and still buy Guitar World today because of that, yet I have never played a guitar or any musical instrument in my life. Do you get feedback like that from other readers or is the overwhelming majority of your readership guitar players and gear heads?
BT: I think the majority are guitar players, but we have our non-playing fans. I couldn’t really tell you the number.
SW: Guitar World is now 31 years old. You guys have had some recent changes at the magazine. Talk about those changes and how you see Guitar World moving forward in the world of music magazines?
BT: Well, the magazine world will definitely be moving towards electronic solutions like the iPad or the Kindle. We’re busy working on those kinds of products now. It’s sort of exciting because there’s more space to stretch out and experiment with video and longer stories.
Regarding paper, true fans of magazines will probably experience an upside. I think traditional magazines will start focusing on making better and more beautiful products—things you really want to hold in your hands. We recently increased our dimensions and started using higher quality paper to make Guitar World more enticing to the reader. I think we look and read better than we ever have. You absolutely have to up your game these days, because you will just lose readers to the internet.