Why Guitar Player isn’t cool

To me, the answer is Editor-in-Chief Michael Molenda.

I grew up learning to play guitar from magazines. Most of the magazines had sheet music in them–the “put your fingers on this number fret” guitar shorthand known as tablature–and most of them were rock-oriented to the point of excluding other styles like jazz and classical. But every so often I’d pick up Guitar Player, which didn’t bother itself with the war to print as many songs per issue as possible; they made a traditional enthusiast magazine with excellent interviews and generally a wider view of what guitar was all about. Unfortunately, I wanted to rock, so I never really appreciated it; GP always felt like a magazine for old people. I’d pick it up now and then if the cover story interested me or if one of my favorite players was profiled. And I always secretly felt that I was missing something by not being open to the magazine more often.

Well, I’ve grown up, and I still read the rock mags, but I do realize there’s more out there. I have been eager to check out Guitar Player again; a friend who works for the publisher brings me recent issues, and I particularly liked the new redesign and cover treatment. I also learned a few things about making magazines in the intervening years, and that’s why I’m so disappointed to see that while I was evolving, Guitar Player devolved.

A recent issue featured a story on rock and roll fantasy camp. Putting aside the inherent cheesiness, it’s still an interesting topic. Are we going to find out what motivates a popular artist to spend a few weeks with middle-aged guys living out their meager dreams? No. We got a lot of souvenir photos of Michael Molenda attending rock and roll fantasy camp, living out his own meager dreams. Smile for the camera, guys, you’re going to be in Guitar Player and make me look really cool!

That struck me as a self-indulgent editorial choice that didn’t bring much to the reader (or what my current boss Fran calls the “look at me, I am awesome” school of journalism). But the January 2007 issue of Guitar Player really showed me that I’ll be much more interested in reading this magazine when Molenda has moved elsewhere.

Page 70, a feature on GP’s sponsored Guitar Hero 2006 competition. Written by Molenda, it’s a six-page feature a lot of photos. And while the captions to the photos tell most of the story–like, who are these people and what kind of music do they play–the actual body copy is little more than a self-congratulatory list of entrants, prizes from generous sponsors, and a reminder that the readers can still vote (and increase the mag’s website traffic). Wait, who are these guys? What inspired them to play, why might we ever hear from them again? Why are we looking at photos of the marketing manager holding a bunch of gig bags with the prizes (you can feel the excitement), let alone Molenda himself giving the competitors “a pep talk”? No wonder this article is surrounded by fractional ads–it’s right at home.

The self-indulgence trickles down to page 94 and the two-page article on the Fender Custom Shop’s remaking of Eric Clapton’s most famous guitar. We get one full-body shot of the guitar and…a photo of the article’s author. Alex Thompson, playing one of the guitars. Not, like, the back of the guitar, an exploded photo of all the individual parts that had to be manufactured juuuust right, or a photo of the team who built it (not to mention a shot of them actively building one), or an annotated diagram of all the things that make this limited edition so rare or interesting–but a picture of a Guitar Player editor just standing there playing it. Again, what does that give me as a reader? Only the impression that the GP editors really like themselves.

I’ll skip the flatly-written, passive-voiced, largely list-oriented review of the Taylor GS (one of the guitars I was in the market for…four months ago) and point out page 56, a review of Police guitarist Andy Summers’ book One Train Later, where Molenda quizzically calls Frank Sinatra “a painter, a lover, and a Nazi of cool.” Um, what? Fanatic, zealot, arbiter, lord, take your pick. But that’s just not what Nazi means. There is no positive connotation to that word, at all. Misusing words is just poor writing, and this particular hot-button word’s incorrect usage is empty sensationalism at its least and outrageously poor taste at its worst. But again, I look at the author, who is also the editor, and I realize I have to consider the source.

There was a time when I thought I might like to apply to work at Guitar Player; they’re local here in the Bay Area and I always thought I could have learned some great things if I joined the team, because it was so different from my guitar experience. That time has passed.

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