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My Longstanding Love Affair with Guitar Magazines (by William Tonks)

My Long Standing Love Affair with Guitar Magazines
By William Tonks

I have been enamored with the guitar since I was about 8 or 9. Pivotal moment #1) We were living in Montclair, NJ, where I was born, and the memory, or the memory of the memory of the memory of the memory, is that I was sitting in an upstairs room that had a TV, with one of my brothers, probably Cutter, as Rick was off at college by this time, watching “Help,” the Beatles movie. Although if I was watching a Beatles movie, it could have been when Rick was home from school for a break, as he was one of the prime motivators in my Beatles fascination. But, I digress, as I do and will often.

There is a scene in “Help” where John leads the rest of the fabs in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” strumming an acoustic sitting in his sunken bed, in the long, connected the flat the Beatles all live in. (don’t all rock bands live this way? More on my expectations of REM’s habitation when we get to my third decade on the planet). So, John is strumming and singing, George and Paul strum along, and Ringo taps a tambourine. And the lightning bolt hits Willie. I want to play guitar. Sometime after, in December ’71 I would imagine, as that is birthday/Christmas month for me, I received a toy guitar I wrote my first song on. Wish I still had it, as it was a plastic f-hole guitar, really cool looking. (somewhere in the family photo collection is a slide shot of my holding it. (aside: first song I wrote was something like “She’s going to sea, going to sea, going with me,” to the tune of “Norwegian Wood,” strummed on said plastic guitar with no idea of chords, tuning, strumming, and I think I realized that it was a pretty lame attempt at songwriting. Probably set me back 20 years. But my mother, covertly listening through the door after I announced I’d play it only to an empty room (thanks, Mom, you were encouraging), said it was wonderful Moms are like that. Which leads us to pivotal moment #2, the receiving of my first real guitar.

My sister Gretchen had made some roads towards the world of music in the mid sixties, as the folk boom was in full stride, and, as Harry Shearer put it, “G, C and D really, or almost caught on.” So she had a stuck in the closet acoustic, and brought it home to little brother. I still have this guitar, a Harmony archtop, largely unplayable, but a guitar. I remember, and again, a memory of a memory of a memory of a memory, her arriving some evening while Mom was reading to me, and the case being brought into my room, and being told we could check it out the next day. But after some large degree of distraction on my part, it was agreed taking a quick peek wouldn’t upset the bedtime routine too much. It was beautiful. Still is, bite marks and all. (more on that later).

So, after the family moves to downtown Savannah, Ga, I am sent for some guitar lessons, with the old Harmony. This goes as expected, not very well. The teacher, Mr. Schroeder from Schroeder’s Music Store, just down Whitaker St from our house, is a nice older man, whose idea of instruction is rudimentary stuff, and I remember learning the melody to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” or “The Old Grey Goose is Dead.” A) not really my first, or even last, choice of music, and B) didn’t sound like the strummy sound of “You’ve Got to Hide your Love Away,” “Two of Us,” “Here Comes the Sun,” or any other cool song ever written. So that play went by the wayside pretty quick. But, in another attempt at another store, Rody’s Music, my folks said they would again pay for lessons, but it would have to be classical guitar. Sounds fine to me.

After a few lessons, it was recommended that I move to a classical guitar, perhaps one where I could actually press the strings to the fretboard and maneuver the tuning keys without the use of pliers. The Harmony had some issues. Oh, brother, did it. I would try to practice, and it probably did me a world of good to struggle such, because it at least showed I was determined, as that guitar was a challenge. Still is, though it sounds pretty cool for slide guitar, now. But I remember sitting in a green chair in the living room, trying to make chords on that thing, and getting so frustrated that I bit the guitar. More that once. And the proof is still there, on the upper bout of the guitar, scratch marks that perfectly match my uneven lower teeth-I would lay into that sucker. So, my teacher, in a fit of common sense, recommends to my parents that I be allowed to purchase a new guitar. Now, new guitars were a lot cheaper and of pretty great quality back then, as the rainforests were still being chopped down at a merry rate and even cheap guitars had decent wood. So, one trip to my savings account and $100 dollars later, I am the proud owner of a Yamaha classical guitar. Now we’re cooking with gas.

My teacher, Tim, is a rock guy making a living playing in cover bands and teaching guitar lessons at Rody’s Music, off Skidaway Drive in Savannah. I think he’s totally cool, funny, with a rock look about him. Could have been the mustache. I still have a 8x10 picture of him playing a black Les Paul Custom, and his friend looked at it, asked if he was playing “Free Ride,” and got it right. How he could tell Tim was playing “Free Ride” was beyond me, like some magic formula. Believe me, I figured out “Free Ride” in the following decade. Tricky song, riff-wise. But Tim would teach the obligatory classical exercise, and at the end, we’d play hooky and he’d teach me rock stuff. I learned “Blackbird” and “Eighteen,” among others. I also remember seeing my first dobro at Rody’s, a metal bodied one that puzzled me, as I couldn’t imagine how you fret the darn thing. And here’s a long shot coincidence, when I was at Cathedral Day School, in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, in the morning assembly line, we found a dobro slide in the street, and some girl standing near me tapped it against her ring and declared that it was made of solid silver. This was in downtown Savannah, so you never know, maybe there were slide guitarists a-plenty. Hadn’t thought about that vignette in years. Weird.

So sometime in that time frame, I learned about guitar magazines. Probably at one of the many bookstores I frequented. A Marvel comic book junky, I would cruise downtown looking for new issues, and also must have seen Guitar Player. Or maybe I got it at a Music Store. At any rate, the first issue I came to possess had a huge affect on me. There in his denim outfit, with a Telecaster leaning against him, sat Roy Buchanan. A certain advantage I had over the rest of the world, I came to learn, were my two older brothers (for a lot of reasons, really). But my brother Cutter, who still lived at home (he’s 4 ½ years older-Rick is 12 ½ years older), had Roy’s first two albums, the eponymous one and Roy’s Second Album, and I was familiar with the oft played first album, especially. So there was a sonic reference immediately available, and Cutter must have allowed me to borrow it, as we both had record players. (his was much higher-fi) And this was when Guitar Player would do loongg interviews with willing subjects, and Roy had many tales to tell.

His history, his gear, his techniques, all of it. It also was the beginning of my obsession with Telecasters. Roy calls it the perfect guitar, not necessarily the easiest guitar, but the best. I thought about this a lot, leading to my first good electric, a natural finish Tele purchased in the high school years from my buddy Frank Andrews at Schroeder’s Music store, a Montgomery Crossroads outpost of the store I’d learned “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” from. And it was my third electric guitar. My first, purchased from Schroeders downtown, was a Lyle, an SG copy in black. Extra switches. This was a pretty cool find. I don’t recall it sounding so good, or bad, really, as I had no comparison. I know my mother thought it was a ridiculous idea-after all, I already had a guitar. I explained that there were great differences. I got it and an amp, I don’t remember what kind, except that it stopped working a couple of times. One of the loaners they gave me was a Fender Champ, I remember clearly, as it had a cool, glowing red lamp. Now that rocks. I read that issue a ton of times. I remember Ronnie Montrose was another featured player. My brother had really good taste. Rick, too. Rick was really into the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Grateful Dead, all around 70-71, in his college years. (he was classmate with Al Franken, but that’s another story). But the Guitar Player issue, man, it had ads, articles, columns, all dealing with my holiest of grails, the guitar. Heaven. I still have that issue, and still read it.

Another pivotal issue from about that time had Keith Richards on the cover, in his ’75 tour finest. Telecaster Custom slung low, a really long profile, witty, colorful. I had been listening to “Sticky Fingers” and “Hot Rocks” a lot-Cutter had both of those. I was still way more into the Beatles than Stones, but certainly saw the charm, and the more I learned about Keith, the more I loved the Stones. He talked a good deal about his Zemaitis five string guitars, and open tunings used, especially the open G for five string. Nashville Tuning was another secret revealed. I went out and bought Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed soon thereafter, and in high school I jumped on Exile on Main Street, and it really hit home. Also in that issue was a really fun profile of Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead bassist. He warned of the perils of instrument switching, talking of his tendonitis suffered from playing acoustic guitar too much after years of bass playing. A mystery to my young mind, but as I aged past thirty I began to see the loss of resiliency one can suffer. Stretch, young man.

So then, we jump way ahead to me in my late 20’s, riding down I-20 to Augusta with Gravity Creeps, ready to rock the house at perhaps The Red Lion Pub. Had a new issue of Guitar Player, untouched, and ready for a smoke and a ride (drummer Bob always drove-it was his van, after all), feeling all rock and roll myself (more on moments of self delusion/grandeur as they’re appropriate). Jeff Healey was on the cover, and he was the latest “it,” this being before his screen time in “Roadhouse,” with Patrick Swayze. Anyway, a cool enough story, and the real attraction, according to the cover, was the story of the Allman Brothers, Duane era, I think this was when Ludlow’s Garage was being released. (August ’89 issue, according the internet) So I’m idly flipping pages, and there it is, the Joey Spampinato profile. Unheralded on the cover, it was a nice, long real interview. Paradise. And even better as it was unexpected. My love of NRBQ goes real deep, and this was at an early peak. Heck, Barbara Cue started as a NRBQ cover project, after all. But that feeling of riding down the highway, with a musical purpose, and the manna-from-heaven moment of Joey jumping into my life, made a perfect moment.

So there we, Redneck GReece Deluxe, on our first road trip, heading over the mountains of North GA to a college show in Tennessee, this is the only trip where 9 of 10 members made the drive, including original members Hootie Sugarlegs (Jack Logan) and Knuckles Beanblossom (Kelly Keneipp) who dropped out of the group shortly thereafter. First time Redneck had tried to corral such a troupe, but all were traveling and happy, I think in two vehicles, the Gas Huffer (big blue van belonging to L.D. Rado (Dave Philips) and Redneck's red pickup. The paycheck was going to be a nice cash windfall for everyone, so that added to the happiness. So one of our many stops for snacks and restrooms, there in the N Ga mountains old style convenience store, amongst the usual hot rod and hunting magazines, sits the new issue of Guitar World, with Eddie Van Halen on the cover. Always aware of EVH's prowess, I had come recently to appreciate the glory of the David Lee Roth years, so I was happy to acquire this, and it proved to be a more in-depth profile than most.

Guitar World is a little cheesier than Guitar Player, more geared to the teen market, but they still unleashed some great stuff. I remember buying a pack of Andy Griffith trading cards there, I think I have a couple of those still floating around in my Stratocaster case, the silverburst one with a Telecaster pickup in the bridge. I used that guitar a lot in the early DeLux years, nice and twangy, later switching to the Music Man Sabre II I use as primary guitar these days. (digression: I bought that guitar in Savannah from Portmans’s music, in the Oglethorpe Mall outlet, from my great friend and influence Frank Andrews, who never failed to steer me in the right direction, from Lowell George to Fender Deluxe Reverbs to compression pedals-even cooler, he let me choose the body and neck I wanted, from different guitars, and then he put them together. In other words, the silver body had a maple neck, but I wanted a rosewood one, so we swapped ‘em out. He also procured and installed the Telecaster pickup, routing the pickguard, high-tech fashion, with a power drill. Worked just fine) So, Van Halen.

I always, as a youth, lumped them in with Foghat, as it seemed all the same contemporaries who listened to Foghat listened to Van Halen, so I made the quick, and erroneous, decision that they must be bands of the same ilk. I had to admire his technique and innovation, and such, but the songs didn’t catch me. Until “Panama.” That song seemed just perfect, rooted in Chuck Berry but entirely fresh, with a rapacious sense of humor. So finally, I get it, and then they bring in Sammy Hagar the Horrible. I can’t abide any of that stuff. But I started digging back, and found “And the Cradle Will Rock,” and “Jamie’s Crying,” and “Dance the Night Away,” and “Beautiful Girls,” all amazing rock songs, and pop at the same time, with that unique Eddie guitar touch. It was about the time of this issue of Guitar World that he began to expound upon his techniques and pursuits, and coined the oft-repeated “brown sound.” Nothing to do with M&M’s, it had everything to do with creating a warm, dense sound, reliant on the amps, pickups, fingers, everything. I was moved at how involved he was, very thoughtful, not the doofus I had initially (again, erroneously) suspected. Oh, the gig. Turned out to be one of the ones musicians always remember: a frat party/barbeque. They had the stage, tall, set up in front of a huge fireplace, and at knee level was the mantle, with the pig head ceremoniously placed in the center, with the trotters (pig’s front leg sections) crossed under it. During the show, which proceeded to get more and more out of hand, Redneck picked up the pig head, addressing it as Hamlet addressed Yorick’s skull, crooning to it, then holding it out to the crowd, several of whom, including some very attractive girls, came up and kissed it.

I assume Redneck kissed it first. Then he took the trotters and manipulated them as if they were handguns. Then Wayne Heartless took a dive, passing out in mid song, to our horror, just missing the edge of the stage with his jaw, woke up, rejoined the song as if nothing had happened, then got mad at us laughing at him (he was momentarily passed out as we looked on in horror that something bad had happened). Then, during breakdown/continue partying phase, the by-then-incredibly-inebriated attendees had a food fight with the remains of the food, which, being red-sauce based, looked pretty incredible once it was splattered on the walls. So we emerge from the basement, heads properly adjusted, and it looks like “The Shining,” with red-spattered walls dripping with dead pig, slaw and baked beans. It was glorious. So that was the day I bought a Guitar World issue, which I still possess, with Eddie Van Halen on the cover.

End of Part One

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