Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:
An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 4: Jas Obrecht
Since 1999, Jas Obrecht has lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He teaches creative writing, writes for music magazines, and owns a record label, Avabella Productions. Obrecht recently produced Buckethead’s Acoustic Shards CD and Young Buckethead DVDs, with more works on the way. His book with James ‘Al’ Hendrix, My Son Jimi, came out in 1999, followed by Rollin’ & Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists in 2001. He currently writes the Jas Obrecht Music Blog. Life is good.
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“Even music journalists were mystified by Eddie’s fingertaps technique…”
“On Ascension Thursday, 1978, I literally ascended from Detroit’s rundown West Side to glorious San Jose, California. A few weeks earlier, I’d foolishly followed my father’s advice and wore a three-piece suit to an interview at Creem magazine, where the lady editors viewed me as some kind of a narc. For Guitar Player, I went casual. Good thing, because editor Don Menn showed up barefoot and uncombed, in jean cutoffs and a tattered King Tut T-shirt. I liked him instantly. Hanging behind his head was a numbered Les Paul guitar that had been smashed on stage by Pete Townshend. Within a couple of hours, I’d also met Jim Crockett, Tom Wheeler, and Tom Mulhern, and I’d been hired as Guitar Player’s new Assistant Editor.
“My timing was unassailable. Guitar-intensive music was a huge attraction during the summer of 1978, and I got lucky on my first gig. Don sent me to Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concert to interview a second-tier rock guitarist named Pat Travers. I dutifully showed up, my little tape recorder and carefully prepared questions in hand, and knocked on Traver’s trailer. Surrounded by scantily-clad hangers-on, Travers looked up just long enough to slur, ‘Not today, man,’ and dismiss me with a petulant wave.
“I did not want to come back to Cupertino empty-handed. To steady my anger, I started shooting hoop at a little court Bill Graham had set up backstage for the performers and workers. A lean, wiry kid about my age came over and said, ‘Hey, man, can I shoot with you?’ I said sure, and we played some spirited one-on-one. He was fast and had a decent hook shot. Afterward, we sat at the side of the court to cool off.
“What band are you in?” he asked.
“I’m not in a band. I’m an editor for Guitar Player magazine”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came here to interview Pat Travers, but he blew me off.”
“Pat Travers blew you off? I can’t fuckin’ believe it. Why don’t you interview me? Nobody ever wants to interview me.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Edward Van Halen.”
“Praise God Almighty! Two weeks earlier, when the first Van Halen album came in, Don Menn had called us into his office. Tom Darter, editor of Keyboard, was standing there. Don lowered the phonograph needle onto the track called ‘Eruption’ and asked, ‘What is that–a guitar or keyboard?’ None of us were dead certain. It was Eddie doing fingertaps, but at that moment the technique was so revolutionary that even music journalists were mystified. And now the man himself was asking me to interview him. I switched on the tape recorder and copped Eddie’s first-ever interview. The story ran in the November 1978 issue and today is pirated all over the Internet. Eddie liked it so much he offered me his first cover story interview, another assignment I happily accepted.
“After that, the interviews and articles came fast and furious: cover stories on Bad Company, Jeff Beck, Jeff Baxter, Billy Gibbons, Steve Morse, Duane Allman, Charlie Christian, Andy Summers, Randy Rhoads, Brian May, Muddy Waters, and the list goes on and on. At the same time, my monthly ‘Pro’s Reply’ column brought the opportunity to interview virtually anyone I wanted–from rockabilly greats Ricky Nelson and Paul Burlison to psychedelic pioneers James Gurley and Country Joe McDonald to Charo, George Gobel, and the guys in Devo. What a blast.
“Endless opportunities for excesses…”
“For me, Guitar Player’s glory years were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. GPI still owned the company, Jim Crockett was publisher, and we had a small, intensely creative crew. Don Menn planned the issues, giving each of us our monthly assignments on little tan squares of paper, which I still cherish. Tom Wheeler, Tom Mulhern, and I wrote and/or processed the copy, while Bill Yaryan and later Carla Carlberg designed the issues. Our office managers Clara Erickson and Judie Eremo kept us in line, and Jon Sievert, our staff photographer, opened a lot of doors into big time rock and roll. Grand and good-hearted, Jon became like a brother to me. In fact, GPI often seemed like a big family.
“Sometimes after we sent an issue to press, we’d have jam sessions–B.B. King, Jerry Garcia, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, and Pete Seeger were among those who played alongside of us in our warehouse. Mulhern, whose razor-sharp wit and unwavering dedication were essential to our operation, usually played bass at these jams while Jim Crockett manned the drums. When it came to playing guitar, Tom could easily kick all of our asses–that held until Joe Gore came on staff.
“I rapidly discovered that being an editor on a popular music magazine would bring endless opportunities for the excesses associated with big-time rock and roll, from unspeakably beautiful women bearing controlled substances to offers of illicit junkets and veritable pacts with the devil himself, crossroads included (and that, friends, covers just my first weekend on staff).
“Luckily, the copy on the page came first, and our love for writing about guitar music kept our core staff sane and on-track while many of our officemates and industry associates fell prey to the excesses. Tom Wheeler, bless his heart, handed me my first opportunity to freelance for Rolling Stone, while Jim Crockett, always a cool and generous guy, encouraged me to branch into producing one-shot magazines and books.
“While Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, and other rock-oriented magazine of the 1970s tended to veer into the gossipy parts of celebrities’ lives, at Guitar Player we were able to focus almost exclusively on the music–how famous songs were written, how unforgettable solos were recorded, how the player’s gear influenced tones and note choice, how inspiration can be enhanced, and so on. Before every interview, I’d very consciously put myself in the place of the interviewee’s most dedicated fans, and I tried to ask the questions they’d ask. I’d listen to every song on every record, find all the press clips I could, and try to explore new ground. With musicians such as Andy Summers, Keith Richards, Brian May, and especially the old blues guys, this was very effective. It also helped that we were allowed a lot of space in the magazine, so the interviews and features could go much further in-depth than a lot of today’s music journalism.
“Andy Summers and Keith Richards need no editing…”
“For decades, people have been asking me who were my best and worst interviews. The worst is easy: George Thorogood, whose ego and attitude in the early 1980s seemed to extend light-years beyond his abilities. Ugh. Choosing the best is trickier. Two musicians were remarkable for their insight and ability to speak in perfect Queen’s English: Andy Summers and Keith Richards, who need no editing. Eric Johnson stands out for his warmth and friendship, and what an exquisite player! James Honeyman-Scott from the early Pretenders had the sweetest personality. Ry Cooder was always great to talk to because of his deep knowledge and passion for early blues and roots American music. I only spent one day with Rory Gallagher, a great favorite of mine, but I just loved talking to him. My favorite interviewee of all, though, is John Lee Hooker, who epitomized my concept of what a real man is all about. (While I did at least three GP cover stories with John, our best interviews were done near the end of his life for Living Blues magazine.)
“I’ve also been asked countless times is who is the best guitarist. That’s a tough call, because the true answer changes from night to night–some nights the best might be one player, other nights another. However, if today’s living guitar stars ever had to shoot it out toe-to-toe with each other, like old-West gunfighters or American Idol finalists, I know who I’d bet on to be the last one standing: Buckethead. (Disclaimer: Buckethead is on my record label.) His hands are a case-study of perfect economy in motion, his technical abilities unsurpassed, and his note choices sublime. And his vision of where music can go–jeez!
“The other question people ask is what I liked best about my twenty years on staff at Guitar Player–the close encounters with famous musicians, the rock and roll lifestyle, the recognition, the swag, the freedom to choose what to write about each month, the ability to shape people’s thoughts about music . . . .
“None of the above. For me, as surprising as it may sound, it was sitting down one-on-one with Tom Wheeler to refine pages of copy. My friend Tom is, without doubt, the best editor I’ve encountered. He’s exceptionally lucid, a brilliant writer (just read any of his books or cover-story intros), really knows language and grammar, and adores good music. Some days, especially early on, we’d have animated discussions on the placement of a single word–or a comma, a semi-colon, or an em-dash. Tom and I united in wanting the writing to sparkle with streamlined editing and lots of active voice, and I ended up being Guitar Player’s primary copy editor for most of my years on staff. Today, those meetings with Tom over manual typewriters and well-used jars of White-Out deeply inform my approach to teaching college-level comp and creative writing.
“Tom Wheeler is also a profoundly ethical man. Under his stewardship, Guitar Player was safeguarded from the demands of angry advertisers and other outside interests. Sadly, this was not always the case after his departure. As editor, Tom always encouraged us to pursue our interests, scout new talent, and write from the heart. During his tenure, other new editors came onboard: Jimmie Schwartz, with whom I’d attended grad school at Ohio University, the expert jazz and classical guitarist Jim Ferguson, method book author David Alzophon, Jon Sievert, the returning Dan Forte, and Matt Resnicoff, whose insights occasionally bordered on pure genius. While not as well known as the editors, whose photos ran in every issue, three classy ladies rounded out our little family: Art Director Peggi Shea, effervescent office coordinator Janine ‘J9’ Cooper, and office manager Lonni Gause, later promoted to managing editor.
“Another high-water mark in Guitar Player history was set in the early-to-mid 1990s, when Joe Gore, James Rotondi, Andy Ellis, and Art Thompson were on staff. Joe is actually a much more accomplished guitarist than many of the people who’ve appeared on our cover, and he is an astonishingly good journalist. Clever, full of attitude, and musically informed in a way our writing had never been before, Joe’s words energized the magazine when it really needed it. Roto is as cheery and charming a guy as I’ve encountered. He’s always fun to hang with and looks very much like an Italian version of Johnny Depp. Soulful and witty writer too. Andy and Art broadened the magazine’s coverage of music lessons and gear, and I’ve always respected their talent and insight. Saroyan Humphrey was our Art Director during some of this second Golden Era. Saroyan is still my first-call design artist–in recent years, he’s designed my books My Son Jimi (written with Al Hendrix) and Rollin’ & Tumblin’, as well the Buckethead DVDs, CDs, and posters issued by my record label, Avabella Productions.
“Bittersweet memories float up from the names on the pages…”
“In 1997, I announced my decision to leave Guitar Player. It had never been my intention to be there twenty years, but the work was so interesting that the time just flew by. By then, I’d interviewed John Lee Hooker at least eight times, Eddie Van Halen six or seven times, Keith Richards three or four, and so on. It was time to give someone else a voice. Plus, I had two books nearly completed, a newborn daughter to raise, and a strong desire for change. I felt good knowing that Andy and Art would carry on our traditions.
“As I flip through my old hand-written address book from the Guitar Player days, bittersweet memories float up from the names on the pages, and there are stories to go with every one of them: Chet Atkins, Jeff Beck, Jason Becker, Lurrie Bell, Gatemouth Brown, Paul Burlison, Liona Boyd, James Burton, J.J. Cale, Craig Chaquico, Albert Collins, Ry Cooder, Willie Dixon, Eddie Durham, Elliot Easton, The Edge, Rik Emmett, Tal Farlow, Rory Gallagher, Jerry Garcia, Billy Gibbons, Benny Goodman, Arvella Gray, Stefan Grossman, Buddy Guy, John Hammond, Ben Harper, Michael Hedges, Al Hendrickson, Mitch Holder, James Honeyman-Scott, John Lee Hooker, Eric Johnson, Jorma Kaukonen, Doc Kauffman, Carol Kaye, Phil Keaggy, Barney Kessel, B.B. King, Donald Kinsey, Robby Krieger, Alex Lifeson, Alan Lomax, Nick Lucas, Steve Lukather, George Lynch, Yngwie Malmsteen, Curtis Mayfield, Brownie McGhee, Joe Pass, Les Paul, John Renbourn, Howard Roberts, Jimmy Rogers, Poison Ivy, Otis Rush, Vernon Reid, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Joe Satriani, George M. Smith, Pops Staples, Tommy Tedesco, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Walsh, Muddy Waters, Leslie West, Johnny Winter, Neil Young, Frank Zappa . . .
“Like my daughter Ava likes to say, ‘Ah, good times, good times.'”