Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:
An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 3: Steven Rosen
By Steven Ward
Steven Rosen is a professional music journalist with a career spanning thirty years. During this period he has published well over 700 articles appearing in major periodicals originating from around the globe, everywhere from the United States and Canada to Japan, Germany, France, England, Australia, and even Katmandu. Amongst the publications Rosen’s work has appeared in are Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Musician, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Musician, US, Creem, Circus, Player, Total Guitar, Classic Rock, Mojo, Drum!, and a myriad of others.
Rosen was the West Coast correspondent for Guitar World magazine for four years during the mid-eighties when he wrote seven cover stories (three lead features on Edward Van Halen are now recognized as pivotal pieces on that artist). As a contributor to Guitar Player, he wrote a prolific sixteen covers in a six-year span (one out of every four was his). The 1977 Frank Zappa front-cover contribution represented the periodical’s biggest selling issue to that date. Additionally, GP, in two special reprint issues, utilized his stories on Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as cover material (Rock Guitarists published by Guitar Player Productions and Rock Guitarists Vol. II distributed by Guitar Player Books).
He served as West Coast Editor for Fachblatt, one of Germany’s most respected and highest circulated magazines (typically, more than half of the cover features were Rosen-based compositions). He currently lends his hand to Player, a Japanese periodical employing his services for over twenty years. Recently, he became a contributing editor to the Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas. Also, he has recently shared his skills with a number of prestigious English periodicals including Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar, Mojo, and Record Collector.
A recognized authority on the eclectic world of rock, Rosen has been tapped five times to write books on some high-profile individuals: There was The Beck Book, on guitarist Jeff Beck that required a second printing due to the crazed demand (originally published in 1978, in Japan only, the author is currently rewriting the bio for publication/release in America); The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, part of the Rock Lives series orchestrated by Castle Communications and distributed by The Penguin Group (ultimately folding under the Sanctuary Publishing wing); Bruce Springsteen, an eponymous-titled bio also printed by Castle); The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels Of Confusion (now in its third printing); and his most recent tome, a quasi-dual endeavor covering both Free and Bad Company titled Free At Last: The Story of Free and Bad Company.
In recent months, Rosen’s work has been utilized as liner copy for both audio CDs and DVDs. For the English company Chrome Dreams, he wrote all the liner copy for oral liner copy diaries on Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Kiss as well as licensed his own extensive audio library of recorded interviews to be shaped and edited for the CD material itself. Passport Video embraced this remarkable archive in order to extract valuable audio for their DVDs on Van Halen (The Van Halen Story: The Early Years), Queen, and Led Zeppelin. In 2005, he licensed a large number of interviews to another highly-regarded audio content company and additionally, provided cover text and extensive liner copy for projects including The Beach Boys and Jethro Tull.
Recently, his main focus has been on organizing his incredibly extensive and rare collection of audio interviews dating back to 1972. The entire library represents well over 1,000 hours of content with hundreds and hundreds of classic rocks most engaging, enraging, and entrancing characters.
(See an earlier rockcritics.com interview with Rosen.)
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“She asked if I wanted to interview Jeff Beck… I almost swallowed my tongue…”
“I was a freelancer from about 1973-1979. I truly measure my career as a music writer as having its real beginning with my first Guitar Player story. So, I remember this moment pretty clearly.
“It was 1972 and I was in a library somewhere (Im a big fan of libraries) and I saw someone reading a copy of the October 1972 issue of GP. Dickie Betts was on the cover. I think the copy belonged to the library because when this other fellow was done reading it, I picked it up and looked through it. I perused the Betts story and in my young naiveté and foolishness, thought, I can do this. I know about guitar players. I can write about them.
“I found the magazines address and sent them a story; I wasn’t even doing interviews then, I had no connections, so I probably sent some inane album review or some write-up of a concerted I’d attended.
“I’d enclosed a little memo that read: ‘Dear Sirs, Hope you can use article. If you do can you get in contact with me and let me know what issue it will appear. If not, please return in stamped envelope. Thank you, Steve Rosen.’
“This is precisely how it read (without commas and question marks); I still have that letter. It was returned to me with a brief handwritten note from editor Jim Crockett: ’Sorry, Steve Good piece, but not at all guitar-related. Jim Crockett.’
“I mean, the magazine was called Guitar Player, dont you think I would have sent something remotely connected to that subject? No. It was a live review of this local band called Marquis de Sade. So, I was disappointed but encouraged. This Mr. Crockett had used the word good in describing the story, so I kept the faith.
“I kept writing for other magazines; I was doing some piecemeal work for Sounds, the English publication, sending them interviews and reviews of shows and such. And then in 1973, I was introduced to the person and the people who would change my life.
“Gibson & Stromberg was the first rock and roll publicity company. This is back in 1973 and at that time they handled the Stones, Black Kangaroo, Hurricane Smith, Steely Dan, and Jeff Beck. They took me under their wing, this sort of hapless writer with all the right intentions and none of the connections. Lydia Woltag was one of the publicists there and she really provided a lot of help. She made all of her artists available to me and when she asked if I wanted to interview Jeff Beck, I almost swallowed my tongue.
“I remember I was in her office– the building was situated on Sunset Boulevard, across the street from Tower Records, and right where Holloway hits Sunset (for those of you who know Hollywood geography)–when she asked me. I said, yes, of course. Somehow Guitar Player magazine was mentioned; Lydia must have brought it up because I would have been too intimidated to even utter the magazines name. Lydia called them and I think she spoke directly to Jim Crockett. I know that Jim (or whomever she talked to) said hed like to see the interview with Jeff Beck when it was completed.
“I mean to tell you, I experienced every sort of rapture. For me, GP had been one of the reasons I started writing. I loved the magazine and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted my name on those pages. That would have truly been an honor for me.
“So, I did the interview with Jeff sometime around April or May of 1973. I met him at the Continental Hyatt House, the infamous Riot House on Sunset Boulevard, where all the traveling rock bands stayed. Jeff was gracious and open and charming and I was so nervous I could barely speak. In fact, Id forgotten to hit record during one portion of the interview and when I realized it, I muttered a silent curse and truly felt my career was over before it even started. Jeff saw the mistake, gently chided me about it, and invited me to come back the next day. I did. We revisited the material and I even brought along an all-maple 73 Fender Strat I had for Jeff to look at. He loved the instrument and I was about three seconds away from giving it to him.
“I wrote the story and mailed it in. And then I received the letter from Crockett: ’Dear Steve, The Beck interview is perfect! Heres a check. Ill send copies when it comes out. Has a good chance for a cover in Dec. or early 74. I’m certainly interested in pieces on English rock guitarists. Either feed me queries or use your own excellent judgement. Keep in touch with other pieces.’
“Holy God! Not only did he like it but also it had a chance for a cover. And in December 1973 that’s what happened. Honestly, I was astonished. I thought it was a good story, I thought I had connected with the great guitarist, but you can never be sure.
“When I finally received the copies and saw my byline, I was, well, moved to tears. Maybe other writers dont react like that but I did. It established me as a legitimate writer in the field of rock journalism and opened up a lot of other doors for me. But more than anything, it confirmed, in me, the notion that I really could be a writer and make some sort of living at it.
“I’d go on to write a total of 16 cover stories for GP in about a 6-year period. Which meant that out of a total of 72 covers, over 20% of them were mine. Additionally, I write a lot of features including a story on the Marshall factory in England and a piece about my guitar pick collection (that garnered a lot of interest from readers).
“As a freelancer, I didnt really know any of the staff writers or even the other non-staff scribes. Certainly I started seeing Jas Obrecht’s name quite a bit. In fact, that was the beginning of the end for me. I had an amazing run from about 1974 through 1979 and then I could tell the well was going dry. Many of the stories I thought I would have done–the English classic guys–were now being written by Jas and other staff people. Budgets were tightening. Why pay an outside writer to do a story when we can do it in-house for no extra money? I’m not castigating anyone or placing blame at all. I understood. It hurt, but I understood.
“And I have to admit, these pieces being written by the staff personnel were really well-executed. They were stylish and focused and certainly more journalistic than the pieces I was writing. By that I mean my stories were probably a bit more just let the guitarist talk and see what happens; a little more stream of consciousness. These staff-written pieces covered all the style elements that every GP story was required to contain, and they were truly remarkable stories.
“Concerned with quality and accuracy and covering a variety of players…”
“Crazy stories? I never had any crazy encounters with any other GP writers or staff. In fact, I think I only met Jim Crockett once and I may have met Don Menn somewhere along the line. I did have some crazy times doing the GP interviews though (certainly interviewing Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones for the July 1977 cover was an insane ride– but that’s another story).
“Certainly GP had its own mission statement in every issue it delivered. Obviously they were concerned with quality and accuracy and covering a variety of players. My own mission each and every time I went out there as a representative for the magazine was always the same:
a) Be prepared. Like a Boy Scout, I always made certain to have all research done; listen to all the records; read any other articles that might be out.
b) Be unique. I tried to bring to every story an element that you maybe didn’t know about. That was hard; it didnt always work. Sometimes this came out in the way you framed a question–you ask an artist about something he/she has talked about a hundred times before but there is something in your query that makes them think about it in a new way.
c) Be reader-friendly. This last element sort of ties into b) above. When I was sitting there with an artist, I’d sub-consciously ask myself, If I wasn’t sitting here with John Entwistle, what would I want to know? And that’s what I always tried to bring to the story, a sense of, I’m just like you, the reader. I’m a huge admirer of John McLaughlin, just like you are. I love him for what he does. And Im going to do everything I can to answer your questions even if you’re not here.
“Never considered to be a heavy hitter…”
“YES, GP was underrated. GP was never considered to be a heavy hitter like Rolling Stone or Creem or Circus or any of the other mags of the time. Talking about guitar strings and tone settings never seemed to carry as much weight as an artist talking about his creative visions or his inspired moments or his drug addictions. If you wrote for GP, you didnt have the panache of a writer from some non-musician oriented magazine. But you ask any guitarist (and the sporadic bassists who appeared in those early issues) whether he’d rather be in Creem or Guitar Player and hands down, it was GP every time.
“And if you were a reader of RS or Zoo World or the Los Angeles Free Press, you felt the same way–anyone who read GP was nothing more than a wanna-be rock guitar star. GP was not a serious publication. That is, unless you were a wanna-be rock guitar star who wanted to know how David Gilmour created those crystalline Pink Floyd guitar sounds. For those people, it began and ended with Guitar Player. There was nothing else like it.
“For a guitar player, you waited like a junkie for a fix for every issue. You read it cover to cover, even the ads. It was all so new and enlightening. Many of the musicians in the magazine had just landed record deals so they were growing up on the pages of GP along with the people who were reading about them. As Joe Perry discovered his style and his approach, he shared those insights with Guitar Player because there was no other mag around which wrote about that type of thing or even cared about it.
“The industry of guitar–amplifiers; effects; strings/picks, et al.–was in its youth and it was revealing itself to the world on these pages.
“For all of these reasons, Guitar Player was a terribly under-recognized title. And was the writing itself on a level with these other mags? Again, this was all so new and the true style and direction of guitar-centric journalism was still being developed. There is no doubt (at least in my mind), that Rolling Stone was the standard for rock journalism. They had superb writers and this seemingly unlimited access to every star that breathed. They were a tough act to follow.
“I can’t speak for any other writer but I don’t know if my writing was as good as the writing in RS. In truth, I’m not the one to judge that–it was up to the reader and the editors. It was just a different type of writing. You were dealing with a fixed subject–guitar–and you had to insert this into every story you wrote. With RS or Creem or Crawdaddy, you might be writing about an artists new record or being on tour.
“In August 1974, I had my first story published in Rolling Stone. Ergo, if RS was this bastion for the gifted literati, and I was published there, and I was also writing for GP, then, well, by process of elimination (or inclusion), the level of journalism in GP was at least on a level with RS.
“When you talk about influence, GP was the first. They set the table for Musician (though they were not a strictly guitar/amp-driven mag) and Guitar World and a host of other titles originating all the way from the UK to Asia. I would imagine all of these mags owe a great deal to GP and I think theyd confess to that.
“Amazing time to be a journo virgin…”
“On leaving GP, times where changing. I’m guessing costs were rising to produce the magazine and the need for freelancers was downplayed. My final story was published December 1979 (Heart) so my tenure with them was virtually 6 years to the month. I felt I had truly established myself as a credible writer during this period and I’d go on to write for these other GP-influenced publications like: Guitar World; Guitarist; Guitar One; Total Guitar; and Player. These gates to the kingdom of guitar-focused magazines were opened because of the work I’d done for the original guitar bible.
“Subsequent to my days at GP, Ive written hundreds of stories about guitar players. Content-wise, a lot of what I do now is not that much different than what I did back in the day. But it’s back in the day that I miss. The intent back then was really to support one another. The magazine truly had your best interests at heart and they had your back. They wanted the best from you. If there was a problem with an interview, theyd intervene and talk with the record label or publicist.
“And it was vice versa, too. The publicist/record company knew the integrity of GP and they were anxious to have you interview their artists. Theyd send you out on the road if a local time/place could not be arranged. I was flown to Canada to interview Randy Bachman and Heart. Phoners were a last resort; Id say at least 80% of the GP interviews I conducted were face-to-face.
“Get this one: labels and managers would call you and ask about an interview with one of their musicians. I hate to use the word but there was a real community. Lydia Woltag and Gibson & Stromberg saw my success as their success. My Jeff Beck cover provided them with a terrific tear sheet for the press kit; they couldnt do enough for me. One day while doing an interview with John Cippolina (not for GP), I ran out of tapes. I ran across the street to the G&S office and told them I needed a cassette. Cippolina was one of their clients and they scrambled around and found me a tape. You were welcome at the record label. Youd walk in as a writer for GP and you were royalty someone scurried off to find you a cup of coffee with four creams and two Sweet & Lows (your request would raise an eyebrow but it was always granted), and if it was near lunchtime, they ordered in for you.
“Concert tickets were made available and countless interviews were conducted backstage after (and sometimes before, during soundcheck) the concert. Atlantic Records flew me to Oakland to do the GP interview with Foreigner’s Mick Jones. Backstage was a-twitter with noise and mayhem so we crawled inside a vacant limo and did our deed there.
“It was just a different mentality. I miss those days. Though the money was pretty minimal (and GP would subsequently run dozens of my pieces without ever offering a penny for reprints), the main thing was I was exhilarated writing those stories. It just was so much damn fun. Hang on, my prior statement is not entirely true. Recently, editor Michael Molenda has paid me for reprints. And I am grateful for that. Truth be told, I would have probably written them for free (well, maybe not all of them but…). The chance to meet Beck and Page and Greg Lake and Robin Trower was really overwhelming. I was truly lucky to have broken in at this period of time and it was real serendipity that I was introduced to Guitar Player by the people at Gibson & Stromberg.
“It was an amazing time to be a kind of journo virgin. Ive had some amazing experiences following those GP days, but nothing has stayed with me like the salad days of yore. It was an extraordinary magazine. Guitar Player has reached its fourth decade of printing and that is an accomplishment few magazines ever achieve. I may be a bit biased when I say that the years 1974-1980 was their true high watermark.
“Oh, and coincidentally, those were the six years when my byline appeared.”