Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:
An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 5: Tom Mulhern
Tom Mulhern is a bassist with a background in electronic music. Mulhern is today a technical writer, user interface designer, and web developer.
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“I got intimately acquainted with The Elements of Style…”
“Although I started at GP in June 1977, I moved from the Chicago area to California in January ’77 to do freelance editing for their book division–to sustain myself while starting a band with my old friend Dominic Milano, the Assistant Editor at GP’s sister publication, Keyboard. The freelancing fell through, and over the next months I had a couple of crappy jobs elsewhere. In June, Don Menn called and asked if I’d want to come to work at GP. This was on a Friday; I started on the following Monday.
“I began as an assistant editor, which was probably better than I deserved, considering I was fresh out of school with a background in electronic music composition, rather than in journalism. Youth and enthusiasm, not to mention the needs to feed myself and pay the rent, motivated me to work very hard. I realized how green I was when confronted with a gibberish-like piece of text from one of our columnists, edited it, and got it back from Don with more red ink than black on it. I then got really intimately acquainted with my copy of The Elements Of Style–I didn’t want to lose this gig.
“We were in a cozy place–Don, Dan Forte (the other assistant editor), and Steve Caraway (the ad director), sharing one big room in space that GP rented upstairs from a carpeting store. Glamorous it was not. Less than two months later, Tom Wheeler came in, which, sadly for him, placed him in a storage closet–literally. The good news was that we were moving to a brand new building in about a month (it would hold GP, Keyboard, and all the GPI people until the early 1980s).
“I liked our columnists, and was largely in awe of them. Who wouldn’t be? Tommy Tedesco was about the most widely recorded studio guitarist ever, Howard Roberts was a jazz legend, as was Barney Kessel, and Larry Coryell was a pioneer of leading-edge jazz-rock. The list of titans willing to write a column for us was long. Among my favorites was Craig Anderton, who was unique in that he was not only a guitarist, but a designer of cool effects that guitarists could build. He’s still unmatched in the guitar world, and is still influential in the world of recording and many aspects of the guitar, plus he’s a big presence on the Internet.
“We nitpicked over format...”
“I was nurtured by our staff and inspired by our columnists and regular contributors–and I’m indebted to them for their patience and insight, believe me. I eventually worked up from assistant editor to senior assistant editor to managing editor. Titles were largely symbolic, since the staff really operated symbiotically. Naturally, someone had to be the head honcho, and Don was able to juggle a lot of needs from the editors, printer, publisher (Jim Crockett), and more.
“Our staff was mostly non-journalists, at least when it came to formal training. Dan Forte was a bona fide journalist, and had the task of copyediting my material at first. When Tom Wheeler came, we did a sort of ’round robin’ style of copyediting each other’s work, which I thought was a brilliant way to hone our stories. Once the story was ‘done,’ meaning that Dan, Tom, and I had all put our paws on it, whoever wrote it or was the assigned editor would tweak it and give it to Don for a final copyedit.
“A year later, when Dan left and Jas Obrecht came in, we kept this round-robin editing approach, which you almost never see anymore, anywhere. Each of us had a different perspective, a different background, and this helped strengthen the stories. Did we have some arguments? You bet. We also nitpicked over format, including such arcana as apostrophes with plural nouns, the age-old ‘who’ vs. ‘whom,’ etc. We took it very seriously.
“I’d have a hard time picking a favorite among those I worked with. We had very little staff turnover in the 13-1/2 years I was there. I still think of all these people as friends, mentors, and some of the best folks I’ve had the luck to have known.
“My favorite screw-up with a happy ending was when I interviewed Les Paul over the phone for about an hour, with a borrowed tape recorder capturing the conversation. I was still new and green, and really felt I’d had a chance to talk to the guru, the Wizard of Oz. After hanging up, I discovered the tape was blank. I didn’t know what to do, and after unknotting my stomach, I called Les back. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘Tape machines do that all the time. Let’s just do the interview all over again.’ What a guy.
“We weren’t shills for the record companies or advertisers…”
“Guitar Player was alone in its field until the early 1980s, so we didn’t have to respond to competition. This made GP a unique place, and the style was also unique. A lot of friends and friends of friends worked in the company (GPI), and while virtually everyone had a love of music, more people came in with a lot of ambition and not necessarily all the talent. However, most people grew into their jobs and the jobs grew organically. Sounds like a bunch of hippies or utopians, but it’s true. And it worked.
“At Guitar Player, we felt our primary mission was to inform guitarists about the world’s great guitarists, whether they were well-known or unknown, alive or dead. We wanted to dig out and expose interesting phenomena and techniques, and weren’t constrained by such concerns as whether ideas or personalities came from rock, jazz, classical, or any other style. It was about guitar. And above all, we wanted truth. We did our own fact checking, and were rarely comfortable taking anything or anyone’s word at face value.
“We plotted our own course, and weren’t trying to ride anyone else’s wave–we certainly weren’t shills for the record companies or advertisers. We were always open to suggestion, but never did tit-for-tat journalism the way most magazines do (‘We’ll run ads if you cover our company/artist,’ or, ‘We’ll give you exclusive access to so-and-so if you put him/her on your cover.’) Each month we’d try to come up with our own hit list of who we wanted to write about, and Don would sift through freelance stories. The point was to come up with issues that gave guitarists a balanced diet, instead of something lopsidedly tilted to one style or another. Sometimes we were faced with an embarrassment of riches, forcing us to decide between putting, say, Andres Segovia on the cover or instead have Steve Howe. Segovia was the world’s greatest classical guitarist and Steve Howe was Yes’ guitarist and a perennial winner–by far–in the annual readers’ poll.
“We covered famous guitarists like Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. Top, Eric Clapton, and Frank Zappa, but we also graced the cover with people who weren’t household names, like Jim Messina, Albert King, Rory Gallagher, and Larry Carlton. Non-12-tone music, roundtable discussions of the impact of Japan’s guitar industry, and overviews of wireless transmitters and the emerging guitar synthesizer were routinely mixed in with stories on long-dead classical guitarists, living bluegrassers, and ‘guitarists’ guitarists’ like Tuck Andress and Ted Greene.
“The mission of GP changed over time, mostly in subtle ways. When Guitar World came along as our first competitor, we pretty much ignored them. I think the widespread belief was that they’d disappear pretty quickly–history seemed to be on our side, as most magazines fail in their first year or two. Eventually, Guitar For The Practicing Musician came along to add to the competitive pool. Both magazines went after our advertisers, urging them to jump ship on us and to go with them. More unexpected fallout: We also found ourselves in the awkward situation of having to explain to record companies or managers that, no, we weren’t the ones who had just called and interviewed their artist.
“When GPI was sold in 1987, the agreed-upon terms were to pretty much keep everything and everyone intact. Unfortunately, the small company that bought us was leveraged to the hilt, and when the stock market plunged 22% in October, they found themselves in deep trouble, and had to unload GPI. Not long after, they sold the company to Miller Freeman, an old company that had only produced trade journals and didn’t know consumer magazines from shinola. Miller Freeman wasn’t bound by any terms such as keeping the staffs intact or maintaining the status quo, and they made it eminently clear from day one that we were their “property.” That was a turning point when the focus of the magazine was transitioned into a ‘compete or die’ mode.
“We were viewed by the people we interviewed as peers or allies…”
“GP has always been underrated, except by the hundreds of thousands of players who have read it each month for four decades. It would be difficult to compare GP to other magazines. It grew organically from a newsletter for a guitar store into a bi-monthly and eventually the most respected monthly in the music industry. We had an extremely small, tightly knit staff who weren’t driven by fame and fortune. And we were mostly viewed by the people we interviewed as either peers or allies, but never as adversaries who pried into their personal lives. We weren’t looking for exposes. We wanted to connect what they knew with what we wanted to know about what made them tick as musicians. Dan Forte, Jas Obrecht, Jon Sievert, and Jim Schwartz had the schooling and the journalistic nuts and bolts well in hand. Guys like Tom Wheeler, Don Menn, and I weren’t journalists by training, but Wheeler wrote probably the most important book about guitars ever, The Guitar Book and had incredible dedication and chops; Don had a lot of musical training a love of writing, and great empathy for the staff and readers, and I had a mix of musical training, a strong ‘like’ of writing, and a lot of adrenaline. Probably one of the most important things I learned at GP was: ‘We’re not experts. Our job is to find the experts and get the information from them.’ It’s important for journalists to keep that in mind if they truly value journalism.
“Guitar Player paved the way for other magazines such as Musician and Guitar World. The only guitar magazines before it were short-lived, and existed in the 1930s and late 1950s. GP came along as the electric guitar was on an unparalleled upswing that didn’t level off for a long, long time. It was only a matter of time before someone else would compete. It’s like in any other industry: There isn’t just one kind of car, one kind of toothpaste. And that’s good in some ways, bad in others. It’s good in that it makes the magazines all strive to serve the reader, a bonus if you read guitar magazines. It’s bad in that too much focus has to be placed on competing and not enough on charting your own direction. You often see the same people on the covers of two guitar magazines simultaneously, and you rarely see obscure but highly talented guitarists on the cover.
“And while you see GP, Guitar World, and Guitar One today, many other guitar magazines have come and gone. And spun out of Guitar Player is a true jewel, Bass Player, which has taken what was considered a minuscule slice of GP’s audience and built it into its own sustained community.
“For the first 13 years, we had no competition…”
“I left Guitar Player at the end of 1990 when I realized that our editors had to toe a corporate line or be cast out. The place had changed, the focus had changed, and the culture had been badly eroded. I’d had a run of 13-1/2 years at GP, my only real job of my adult life, and I thought, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ Leaving GP required one of the hardest decisions of my life, even though I was completely stressed out and depressed by the prospect of cutting loose. One evening I called Tom Wheeler and said, ‘It’s time for me to go.’
“Looking back at the old days of GP, we had almost unlimited access to guitarists, without interference from record companies or managers. We didn’t have to worry too much whether we made a bad ‘who’s on this month’s cover’ decision. But times change. The world is a more corporate environment, the guitar and its players are very mainstream, and the audience has many more ways to get, share, and disseminate information. For the first 13 years of its existence, GP had no competition, MTV and VH-1 and other music-centric networks didn’t exist, instructional videotapes and DVDs hadn’t come along yet, and rise of the World Wide Web was still more than a dozen years in the future. The world was different, the guitar was different, and the magazine was different. I feel fortunate to have been part of the magazine at what I consider its zenith.”