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Interview: Michael Molenda, Editor of Guitar Player Presents Guitar Heroes of the ‘70s

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As a teen growing up in the 1980s, one way I broadened my musical horizons was reading interviews with musicians. So when I recently learned that Guitar Player editor-in-chief Michael Molenda had dug through the magazines archives to collect Guitar Heroes of the ‘70s, I was eager to interview him. This 262-page collection (published by Backbeat Books, a Hal Leonard imprint) documents a variety of guitar greats that helped form the iconic music of the 1970s. The roots of classic rock were built in this era, and this book documents the evolution of the music from the ground floor view of its creators. In editing the book, Molenda aimed to cover a great deal of ground and includes such guitarists as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Jimmy Page, Bonnie Raitt and Pete Townshend (along with a variety of other famous and respected talents).

How did you go about deciding what interviews to include in this collection? Were there some musicians that had been interviewed multiples times in the 1970s, so you had to choose which of the many would be the best to run?

There were the obvious choices, of course — the players who defined classic ’70s rock, such as Beck, Clapton, Page, Santana, Frampton, Townshend, Iommi, and so on. Those were the easy selections for inclusion in the collection. The challenges were determining who to spotlight out of the many players who, as a community, really helped forge one of the glory eras of the guitar, but who are not as much on today’s cultural radar. Jose Feliciano, June Millington, Lenny Breau, Roy Buchanan, and Steve Hackett are perhaps good examples here. However, I sincerely feel that every guitarist in the book absolutely affected the ’70s guitar culture in an extremely positive way, and, to varying degrees, inspired other generations of players.

As for choosing the best ’70s interview to run if multiple interviews were available, I always looked for the most inspirational and educational articles. Back then, not every interview focused explicitly on gear or technique or musical influences. But I felt that, for today’s audience, a discussion about how a player got his or her sound, or how they approached writing riffs or constructing solos was the hippest option over more cultural discourses. I mean, I love reading about what promoters were like in the ’70s, or how record companies treated their artists, and so on, but Guitar Player‘s main mission is to help its readers sound better and play better. So that mantra was echoing in my brain every time I evaluated the content for the book.

In digging through the 1970s Guitar Player archives did some of the interviews prove harder to track down than others? How much fun did you have delving into the archives?

We have a pretty comprehensive index of past issues, so tracking down articles was almost ridiculously easy. The trick, as I mentioned earlier, was deciding who to feature. The difficult phase was compiling a master list of killer ’70s guitarists, and then editing that list down to a manageable number. A few tears were shed at personal favorites who didn’t make the cut — and, yes, I’m keeping those names secret! But once Hal Leonard approved the final list, it was a breeze acquiring the necessary articles.

It’s always a blast to dive into the unbelievable wealth of information and vibe and history that pulses through the Guitar Player archives. Anyone who loves the guitar and guitarists could lose months of their lives drifting in and out of its clutches. It’s dangerous in there!

While the book’s cover sports rock icons like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend (among others), the book delves into many genres of music, including Leo Kottke (folk) and Larry Coryell (jazz fusion). How important was it to you to cover a range of genres when editing this book?

From its inception in 1967, Guitar Player has always been a stylistically diverse magazine, so it was incredibly important that the book mirror the publication’s expansive breath of coverage. We love ALL players. Carlos Santana once told me that GP has remained his favorite guitar magazine precisely for that reason. He likes that we cover “blues legends and kids with blue hair and piercings.”

I was struck when reading the interview with Leslie West, just how much of a time capsule these interviews were. At one point, West mentions some of his musical peers. It was a mixture of names folks would recognize and others that it seemed faded into obscurity. Did you ever find yourself, when editing these pieces, running across a name that you wanted to find out more about their music?

Well, I’m lucky, in that as editor of Guitar Player, I’ve been exposed to a lot of guitarists from myriad eras. I wouldn’t say I was surprised by any of the influences mentioned in the interviews, but, yes, if I came across a player whose music I hadn’t heard in a long while, I would be motivated to find and play some of their tracks while I was editing the book.

How did you go about compiling the “Dy-No-Mite” Discs sidebars for each article?

Ha! Finding a cool title for the sidebars was actually harder than picking the discs. The selections are subjective in the extreme. I just picked what I thought were the hippest and/or most influential albums each artist released between 1969 and 1979. As for the title of the sidebars, I eventually decided to pay homage to the catch phrase Jimmie Walker made famous when he appeared on the ’70s sitcom, Good Times.

While the band Van Halen started out in 1972, I was struck that the Eddie Van Halen interview was actually from 1984. Had Van Halen not been interviewed in the 1970s, or did you feel the 1984 was a stronger interview to run?

We do have Jas Obrecht’s interview with Van Halen from the November 1978 issue, as well as a 1980 interview by Jas. They are epic pieces for sure. But I felt that the 1984 article, where Eddie actually delivered a sincere and insightful “personal lesson” to beginning guitarists (and, well, to any guitarist interested in what went on in Eddie’s conceptual mindspace) was a fantastic example of the educational content that Guitar Player does so well.

Unless I am mistaken, June Millington is one of two women (along with Bonnie Raitt) included in the book. In the introduction to the Millington interview, Richard Pierce laments “it’s quite surprising how few women have become rock musicians”. Was it hard to find at least two women to include in the collection (given the lack of popular female guitarists in the 1970s)?

Yes. Absolutely. I wanted Bonnie in there because she’s amazing, and she definitely kicked it so hard that no one could ever argue that she wasn’t a tough, influential, and ballsy guitarist. I felt that June was a forgotten jewel. People talk about the Runaways being one of the first “all female” rock bands, but I felt that few include June’s band Fanny in the same conversion, and Fanny predated the Runaways by five years. From there, I could certainly include some female jazz or country or classical players that GP covered in the 1970s, but I made the call that most of those players were a bit too under-the-radar to include in this collection. Trust me, one of the most frustrating aspects of my job is dealing with how female guitarists are still, for the most part, under-appreciated. It’s shameful.

If response is strong enough to this volume, would there be enough material to do a second ’70s edition? Or are you ready to tackle the ’80s in the next edition?

We still have tons of content left to mine if Hal Leonard were to want a ’70s Heroes, Volume Two. Frankly, though, I’d be more excited to dig in there and compile a ’60s or ’80s collection. Those were fabulous decades for the guitar — don’t you think? I will say that the next archival collection I’m working on is entitled 50 Unsung Heroes of the Guitar. A lot of cool surprises are in that book!

Were the photos that appear in each story the same photos that ran with the original article?

No. Not always. We wanted to try to use the best photos available that encapsulated the vibe and energy and era of the guitarists covered. Given the resources back then, I can’t say that all the photos published in the magazine during the 1970s were wonderful. Today, an art director can search hundreds of photo galleries for slick shots.

You have been editor of Guitar Player magazine since 1998. Were you able to work in the late 1990s with any of the folks who conducted some of these interviews back in the 1970s?

I worked with Jas Obrecht for a spell, before he left us to pursue other interests. He’s a GP legend, and I used to pore over his articles back in the day, so it was a real thrill to spend some time working with him. Jas is what I would call a “literary writer,” rather than a magazine journalist. His articles were like mini novels. He always did tons of research about the subject matter, and he really struggled to “find” the key questions to unlock a player’s headspace. Words mattered a lot to him. The flow of the narrative mattered a lot to him. Accuracy and historical context mattered a lot to him. Today, not every writer holds those “truths to be self-evident.” Content is defined differently these days.

It’s an interesting cultural shift. But I adore the fact that the current staff of Guitar Player honors the work of past GP icons such as Jas and Tom Wheeler and Don Menn. We may not be able to allot the same word lengths for our articles as they did in the 1970s, but we all hold the magazine’s legacy very dear, and, as a result, we continue to deliver the critical information to help our readers sound better and play better.

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