Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:
An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 7: James Rotondi
James Rotondi was the Features Editor of Guitar Player from 1991 to 1997, and was later Senior Editor at Remix magazine, and more recently Editor-in-Chief of both Guitar World’s Bass Guitar and Future Music magazine. His writing has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, The Wire, Mojo, Pulse, and the Boston Phoenix. As a musician, Rotondi’s resumé includes tours and recordings with Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle, French electro stars Air, trip-hop pioneers the Grassy Knoll, as well as collaborations, sessions and gigs with Santana’s Michael Shrieve, horn gods Tower of Power, and pop legend Jason Falkner. An accomplished singer, guitarist and keyboardist, Roto has also played, sang and co-composed on over 200 TV commercials, from Olympus to Lexus to Quaker Oats. His new solo album will be released digitally and on CD this Fall (myspace.com/rotovybe) and he continues to work on film music with his instrumental project, Jettatura (myspace.com/jettaturatheband).
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“A serious background in metalloid shredding…”
“During the hot Boston summer of 1991, I’d been supporting my efforts as a struggling songwriter and musician by writing reviews for local free press publications like the Boston Phoenix and The Beat, and taking various temp jobs around town: filing, typing, moving boxes, making cold calls, you name it. One of the companies I got along well with was a firm called Miller-Freeman Expositions, which had a big publishing arm on the West Coast. One day while strolling past reception, I noticed that one of the mags on the little in-house news rack was none other than Guitar Player, which I’d read religiously from about age 13 to 19, but which I’d stopped reading during my college years.
“Well, as good as the old GP was, this wasn’t the old school GP I remembered; it was fresh and ferocious, with Metallica’s James and Kirk beaming from the cover and a big Richard Thompson Lesson across the banner. There could not have been a better representation of my own across-the-board tastes; a strong love of acoustic fingerstyle and pop songwriting, and a serious background in metalloid shredding. I devoured the issue, and Xeroxed the lessons to stick in my gigbag.
“I’d already made the decision at that point to move out to San Francisco with my girlfriend, so when one of the MF staffers told me that Guitar Player was actually based in San Francisco and Cupertino, well, I immediately asked if anyone could give me an introduction. I sent letters and resumés to then-publisher Pat Cameron and then-Editorial Director Dominic Milano, inquiring if there was even so much as a bottom-floor freelance copy-editing gig available, and lo and behold, I was informed that the company was actually looking–and had been looking for quite some time–for a full-time assistant editor.
“Weeks later, newly ensconced in a flat in Haigh-Ashbury, I pegged down Dominic for an interview at the main GP office in Cupertino, where he asked me questions like, ‘What would you change about Guitar Player?’ to which I responded, ‘I’d do more coverage of songwriting, perhaps even an annual special issue.’ I met Andy Ellis and Art Thompson, Lonnie Gause and Trish Pickens; Dom and I got along well, and he sent me up to the San Francisco office to meet with Joe Gore and Jas Obrecht.
“Now, I’d been reading Obrecht’s articles since I was 13–his 1978 cover story on Eddie Van Halen was a landmark in my life–and Gore was already a god to me from the several recent issues I’d been able to filch from the Boston office. As it turns out, they were even cooler in person. At a big Chinese lunch palace, we discussed everyone from Son House to Caspar Brötzmann, Thomas Mapfumo to Steve Vai, and we had loads of laughs. I played a little guitar for Joe back at the office, was given a trial assignment to write up a piece on Steve Vai for the upcoming 25th Anniversary issue, and I not-so-slyly borrowed Joe’s copy of The Basics of Copyediting, as I had never edited a piece of copy in my entire life, and didn’t know a single editing symbol (back in those days, we still used them!). A few days later, Dominic called and began the conversation, ‘How would you like a job at job at Guitar Player?’
“My dad’s response when I told him the news? ‘I think I’m going to go get drunk. My son has a job.’
“Within less than a week, I was on the phone with my hero, John McLaughlin, and was hanging out with the guys in Mudhoney. Two years later I’d visit my other hero, Eddie Van Halen, at his house in Los Angeles, on my twenty-seventh birthday. Not a half-bad gig. . .
“Run-on sentences were doomed to castration…”
“Guitar Player had gone through a major transition just before I’d arrived, with publisher Jim Crockett selling his stake to a big corporation, Miller-Freeman. Not everyone survived the changeover–leading lights like Tom Wheeler, Tom Mulhern and Jim Ferguson were out–but thankfully, Jas Obrecht was still there to cement the connection to the magazine’s legacy and to the history of the blues, of which he is a preeminent scholar. The guy is also one of the shrewdest and funniest bastards I’ve ever met, and in everything from dealing with taxes to collecting books and comics to dealing with the opposite sex, Obrecht taught me everything I’d ever really need to know. As for the writing game, he was the guru of what he’d call muscular prose.
“Adjectives were more often than not thrown into the garbage; passive voice was to be avoided like the plague, and run-on sentences were doomed to castration. Obrecht also favored respect for your subject’s true voice, plus a little well-placed mischief. We once interviewed Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown at a Holiday inn in San Francisco. During the interview, Gate was lecturing us on the evils of drink and tobacco, proudly flashing his honorary Sheriff’s badge from his home county. Jas, noticing that Gate’s pipe did seem to be flowing rather freely with the scent of that other tobacco, asked, ‘Does that extend to marijuana?’ Gate paused only a moment before firmly saying, ‘No!’
“Obrecht was just one of a group of real characters at GP during my tenure from 1991 to 1997. Andy Ellis, rocking purple hair well into his Forties; Art Thompson, extolling the merits of vintage stompboxes before anyone else had really cottoned on, and taking the gang on runs to the local Pupusa shack; Chris Gill, dressing to the absolute nines in Armani suits, throwing timeless temper tantrums, and writing about guitars with an encyclopedic accuracy; and of course, Joe Gore, who, by walking the walk as guitarist for Tom Waits and PJ Harvey–as well as by the sheer brilliance of his articles and transcriptions (and his prodigious vocabulary)–made the whole enterprise that much more credible and inspiring. Having the old guard–guys like Don Menn, Jon Sievert, Tom Mulhern, Dan Forte and Wheeler–still orbiting the scene made it all that much cooler, although as the cocky new guy, I could be expected to call foul from time to time on old articles and old headlines!
“We weren’t so much underrated as misunderstood…”
“The mission of GP is a matter of some controversy, and yet the basics are never in question. Clearly, the magazine is intended to be instructional on the one hand, and informative and inspiring on the other. In 1991, I felt that the magazine was hitting on all cylinders, and I felt that my role was to provide that same alchemy, but from a slightly younger perspective. It was just my luck that the alternative rock revolution was really beginning to blow up at that point (Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s first big records came out within weeks of my arrival in SF), and the slew of great scrappy young bands to follow makes the current musical climate look truly bleak. And although the new punk was supposed to be in opposition to the Joe Satrianis and Steve Vais of the world, in practice, those players fit in fairly seamlessly with the rest of our coverage, and I never felt like we were sacrificing anyone or anything to be hip or current or saleable. Hendrix alongside Thurston Moore, Bill Frisell and classical giant Eliot Fisk? Why not? Lessons on Nuno Bettencourt, Jimmy Nolen, Dick Dale and Lonnie Johnson? Sure. Reviews of the priciest new boutique amps alongside Art’s terrific ‘Pawnshop Prizes’ column? Absolutely.
“Guitar Player was underrated, and without question our writing and editing were as good or better than anything else out there, and generally a whole lot deeper from a musical perspective. But we weren’t so much underrated as we were simply misunderstood, over the heads of the mainstream music press and pop reading audience. They did not generally see us as part of the fraternity of nerdy musico-cultural pundits. How’d they rationalize dismissing us? Easy–we were one of those ‘technical magazines! (The same absurd bias still exists today, perhaps slightly more justified.) What’s more, we wrote for guitar players and guitar aficionados, not record junkies, college DJs, or fanboys, and that’s the way we liked it. . . most of the time.
“There are two stories that might help illustrate. I once asked Joe Gore, ‘Do you think there will come a time when anyone, even non-players, will be able to read Guitar Player the same way they read Rolling Stone or Spin?’ Joe quickly answered, ‘God, I sure hope not.’
“Another time, after an interview with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello in Los Angeles, Tom and I were walking outside of his label office, when he turned to me and said, ‘Man, that was so much cooler than the other interviews I have to do.’ I thanked him for saying so, but asked, ‘Still, you must have lots of hip, savvy writers interviewing you all the time.’ He shrugged: ‘Sort of. But man, Guitar Player magazine. . . I mean, this is my tribe.’
“Guitar Player was certainly the template for the original Guitar World–though the two mags would eventually move in very different directions–and virtually every other guitar magazine as well. If Rolling Stone (like GP, founded in 1967) can be seen as the primary influence on all future US general music magazines, such as Spin, Vibe, Blender, etc., then GP is certainly the blueprint for virtually every musician-oriented magazine to follow, including Keyboard (also a GP publication) and its many imitators, as well as Musician, Performing Songwriter, Acoustic Guitar, and many, many others.
“But I think GP was an even greater influence on players. Certainly for my generation, the pages of Guitar Player were where you began to dream the dream, expand your guitar vocabulary through lessons and columns, and to fill your head with both the mythology and minutiae of guitar-speak. While some young players–notably Kurt Cobain–tried to distance themselves from guitar magazine culture in those Nineties neo-punk days, countless others, from Billy Corgan to Rich Robinson to Mike McCready, made no bones about expressing how honored and moved they felt by being on our cover, after years of dreaming that someday that very scenario would come true.
“Hard not to feel as if an age of innocence has been lost…”
“1997 was an eventful year. During January and February, I had taken my first sabbatical: two months on tour playing guitar with a wonderfully inventive new group on Verve/Antilles called The Grassy Knoll, which paired heavy hip-hop beats with spooky sample landscapes and instrumentation that paid tribute to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew era. The very able and kind Richard Johnston, formerly of Bass Player, had stepped in at that point as Editor-in-Chief, substituting for Joe Gore, whose tours with PJ Harvey meant he was spending more and more time out of office as well.
“By November, the shit was hitting the fan. Our publishers did not seemed amused, either by our extracurricular activities, or, one gathers, the direction of the magazine. We were still putting out fine issues, with the stylistic embrace that we’d perfected over the last six years, but guitar magazines in general were taking a serious hit, all the buzz in the industry was about guitar music being on its way out (remember the “Is Rock Guitar Dead” issue?) and the ascent of electronic music as the dominating force. That beautiful early-to-mid-’90s tidal wave of adventurous guitar music from every genre–alternative, roots, global fusion, experimental, classical and heavy metal–had crested.
“Our publishers broke in on one of our issue planning meetings to rather gleefully announce that Michael Molenda, formerly of the dry-as-dust Electronic Musician, was to be our new Editor-in-Chief. Now, granted, there may have been something of a power vacuum at the top of GP‘s editorial hierarchy, but we were a close-knit and very creative cabal; perhaps a bit too much of a cabal for the publishers. Molenda was brought in to clean house; after 20 years, Obrecht was edged out, though not without trading on that legendary shrewdness of his. Gore jumped ship, too, though he stayed on the masthead as Consulting Editor. As for me, I’d been chomping at the bit to get back out there on the road, and Molenda’s arrival, accompanied by what I found to be his rather unfortunate decision to confirm our critics argument that we were strictly a ‘technical’ magazine, made it time for me go, too. More importantly, my two mentors were gone, and sticking around wasn’t likely to be so much fun anymore.
“I have to confess that I only occasionally read GP these days, but there have been quite a few fine editors and writers there after my era, including Darrin Fox, Matt Blackett and others, who I thought really honored the magazine’s legacy. Mike Molenda has his own vision of the magazine, which doesn’t necessarily square with my own, but I certainly can’t fault his commitment to maintaining GP‘s prestige, newsstand presence and its overall quality. It’s a bitch out there for the musician-oriented press, and he’s holding steady, so god bless him. I’m also very pleased that they continue to champion great players regardless of genre or commercialism. If I’m nostalgic, it’s as much for that outstanding musical era of 1991 to 1997 as it is for all the creative and original things we did as a staff at GP, from ‘Is Shred Dead?’ to the seventies issue, to our wordless Hendrix cover. Everything seemed to get better in the early Nineties, from the government to the economy, comic books to novels, movies and television, technology, and, of course, guitar-based music, which I believe saw its greatest flowering of talent and output since the sixties. Things changed, and changed hard, after the Clinton years, and it’s hard not to feel as if an age of innocence has been lost. I look back at my years at GP with warmth, pride, and, it must be said, a certain wistfulness.