Glossy Or Not: The Fretboard Journal

Glossy Or Not is a column about worthy magazines and booklets and zines, as opposed to the authors, books, and events I usually cover in my Scribes Sounding Off column, or the reviews/interviews about Continuum’s 33 1/3 series in its own Odyssey. The basic premise comes from the idea that there are only a handful remaining of really good periodicals, and that many KEXP listeners would probably like to know which ones are worth purchasing, and which match the station’s intelligently eclectic aesthetic with coverage of same.

This time around, I interview Jason Verlinde, who in 2005 with Michael Simmons co-founded The Fretboard Journal, a gorgeous, thick, and mesmerizing magazine. Published out of Seattle, TFJ was foreshadowed by the pair’s previous publication, Ukulele Occasional, but they’ve expanded their focus on their new musicians’ book-zine to include everything from polished twelve string works of guitar art to art-attack bang-banjos. Not only is it a fretboard fetishist’s dream, but the creative editorial content (famous players interviewing their long-time heroes, and excellent field histories) makes it wholly unique in the world of music publications.

Jason Verlinde and I raved for awhile about his beautiful “baby,” and if you haven’t purchased an issue for yourself, please feel free to check out our conversation below for encouragement to do so, or for further background if you are already on board.

In the Summer 2010 editorial The Fretboard Journal was described as an “ongoing romance novel” -- I was intrigued by this. A lot of musician’s magazines seem like mere “gear porn,” but yours is more bookshelf-designed than hype-glossy, and the content goes from the real-fantasia of Wilco’s loft, the den of gear love in Chicago (with bunk beds and six string basses, and acres of keyboards and axes -- all covered and shot in the Fall 2009 issue) to King Sunny Ade playing his guitar at midnight in spite of warnings he may arouse ghosts. Is it all about the love at TFJ?

I suppose that’s an accurate statement. Many guitar magazines, are essentially throwaway buying guides with some tablature for songs you may never play. I personally am burnt out on all that stuff. We focus on interviewing our favorite musicians and guitar makers and taking these amazing photographs from behind-the-scenes, at their studios, homes and workshops. Getting the real story and vibe of a place. Someone once called us the National Geographic of guitar magazines, which I’ll gladly take as a compliment. We want this magazine to be something folks could flip through 20 years from now and still be intrigued by. It’s like a quarterly scrapbook of great guitars and players.

I can honestly say that we’ve never run an artist or even a guitar maker in the magazine that I didn’t like. I suppose in a lot of ways we’re like DJs at KEXP; no one is going to play music they hate on the air since no one is forcing them to.

Has TFJ always been based in Seattle? Have you been here awhile? Your original co-founder Michael Simmons was into instrument retail, and you were a journalist right? What were your markets usually?

I started out as a music journalist in California, doing record reviews and interviews for magazines like Pulse!, Option, Raygun and various weeklies. I moved to Seattle twelve years ago to work for Amazon.com’s music store before it launched.

Michael Simmons has always been a friend and, with all of his music retail experience, is one of the biggest guitar nerds I know. The idea for the Fretboard Journal was to create a keepsake guitar magazine for guys like us who liked a lot of different kinds of music. We started plotting it around six years ago. It launched in the Winter of 2005.

We’re extremely low overhead so we began with two virtual offices out of our homes, one in Seattle and one in the Bay Area. Now that we’re bigger, most of our operations take place out of a real office in Ballard.

Some of our readers just love bluegrass music; others just love punk rock. We cover every genre, acoustics and electrics. Our readership spans ages, red states and blue states, you name it. Seattle is actually a really large market for our readers, though we do well wherever folks cherish nice guitars -- whether it’s Seattle, Brooklyn, Nashville, or deep in the hills of Virginia.

Did you get much regional attention here before that loving profile in the July 2009 issue of Seattle Magazine?

We have a ton of subscribers in the area due to the nature of Seattle being a music-loving town, but media attention-wise we sort of fly under the radar here. I guess that’s because we’re a national magazine and Seattle is just one of the many scenes we cover. Before that Seattle Magazine piece was published, Seattle Sound wrote something nice about us (back when they were around).

We want to do more on a local level, though. We had a few reader meetups last year where we just invited our local subscribers to all converge upon a chosen bar on a given night. Essentially a flash mob of Seattle guitar enthusiasts. Around 40 or 50 folks showed up each time and we had a great time playing guitar show and tell and drinking beers. You can’t make money hosting events like that, but everyone had a great time and so in my book it was a success.

We also held our fifth anniversary celebration here in Seattle last November. Bill Frisell played two great, sold out sets for us at the Triple Door, then we had a party at the Rendezvous’ JewelBox Theater the next night and then, on the last night, we had a great acoustic guitarist named Wayne Henderson perform for our readers at the Frye Art Museum’s theater. Folks came from as far as New York to attend. I think we must have easily had a million dollars worth of guitars in the Rendezvous on that Thursday night … it was amazing what our readers brought out of their closets to show off!

We hope to do more things like that this year; perhaps eventually throw a guitar-centric music festival of sorts.

TFJ seems like the magazine equivalent of a reissue box set of prized music from a boutique label. Was being a “boutique,” keeper-coffee table magazine always the goal? Was there ever any other musical-instrument based magazine that you found inspiration in? (I ask because its high quality seems so unique these days.)

Definitely. We live in a world where most magazines are pretty much obsolete in their print form—you can find everything they write about online, quicker and cheaper if you hunt around enough. Many magazines only keep printing on paper for the simple reason that their advertisers still like to see their ads in print and they can make more money that way.

We’re reader supported so advertising is really small component of our magazine -- less than 20% of each 128 page issue. We have an incredible, growing array of freelance photographers and writers we tap into. And design plays a huge role in our magazine -- we print with this world-class coffee table book printer. It’s not cheap but I’d like to think we’re sort of the 180 gram vinyl of magazines... a keepsake of sorts.

Most importantly, since we’re not indebted to any advertisers, we can feature things that you won’t find in any other guitar magazine... a photo essay of the Wilco loft, for example, or in-depth interviews with a guy who builds just 10 hand-crafted guitars a year. These are stories that no publicist is pushing down our throats, it’s stuff that we personally want to learn out more about and seek out. I think as a society we’ve read about Eddie Van Halen’s guitar collection enough times. There are so many more interesting facets to the world of music and musicians that still need to be told.

As for other magazines I like, I really love well-crafted publications like McSweeney’s because you get sucked into the total package -- design, content and the general vibe -- and end up reading things you never thought you would. The Surfers Journal, a publication out of southern California, was a huge inspiration. A great magazine covering surf culture and history. I don’t surf, but I admire what they’ve done and they lent us a ton of advice when we starting out.

Speaking of specialized label releases, you had Thurston Moore interview Michael Chapman in the Winter 2009 issue, and now Seattle-based Light In The Attic Records is re-releasing Chapman’s achingly beautiful late 60s LP Fully Qualified Survivor. Do you find that it is sometimes hard to place a publication devoted to musical instruments and their players in the context of the larger music scene; or do you think you influence more of what’s out there as recordings than people may realize?

Isn’t Fully Qualified Survivor amazing? I love that album.

All we do is look for interesting guitar tales, regardless of genre or hipness factor. That leaves a lot of great music out of the fold and, most importantly, it leaves a lot in! We just cover what we like and whatever we think will make for an interesting article or photo essay.

Having said that, there are definitely a handful of labels that I personally love -- Tompkins Square, Light In The Attic, Nonesuch, Sugar Hill, ANTI-, Arhoolie and the Numero Group, to name a few -- but I doubt we have much pull at any of them! Chapman was due for a resurgence long before Thurston Moore interviewed him for us. I’m just glad Moore was up for penning that piece.

As proof of your excellent taste in both technical aspects of playing and aesthetic choices, your first issue had an interview with mandolinist David Grisman, and an oral history with Charlie Louvin conducted by Neko Case. What stories are you personally, particularly proud of most?

Since we started out, a lot of really wonderful musicians have been subscribing to the magazine. It’s been a lot of fun to turn the tables on them and ask them to play journalist and interview their heroes, which is something we’ve become known for. Neko did that interview with Charlie Louvin in our very first issue five years ago, which sort of set the tone for subsequent pieces. Paul Burch (WPA Ballclub, former Lambchop member) interviewed electric guitar legend Duane Eddy for us in one of our earliest issues. David Grisman himself ended up interviewing the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile in our 10th issue. A few issues later, Bill Frisell interviewed his hero, guitarist Jim Hall for us. That was a great piece.

For sheer depth, our 11th issue where Ben Harper interviewed David Lindley (Jackson Browne’s lap steel player and a stellar musician) is impressive. Harper, despite being a rock star and presumably fairly busy, did such a thorough job that I was floored. I think he spent around 12 hours interviewing Lindley on every facet of his recording career and his dozens of instruments. Then, completely unsolicited, he went and interviewed David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and other former collaborators about their Lindley stories. I think the article was well over 20 pages in the magazine!

In terms of stories that I’ve written, visiting the Wilco loft space was overwhelming and a ton of fun. It’s pretty much every guitarists’ dream to have a rehearsal space like that.

I also had a great time interviewing Glen Hansard of the Swell Season/Frames here in Seattle. We did the interview near Pike Place Market and he had story after story about his beat up old Takamine guitar, busking and the characters he’s come across in his career. He’s such a charismatic guy. As we were wrapping things up, we took a few photographs of him acting like he was busking at the Market. Next thing I know, he starts to actually busk with this other guy who had no idea who he was. We actually put the video footage of that on our website and on YouTube... Glen Hansard and a random guy playing harmonica in front of Pike Place Market.

I personally really love the photos, of say the wear and tear on the Jazzmaster Cline bought from Mike Watt in 1995, which your full color format shows the close up ritual abuse of. Or the full art for the awesome Homer and Jethro original ad artwork for Fender; or the close-ups of Zen Master mechanic and Byrds drummer Gene Parson’s modified Telecaster, with the bending mechanism installed in the back for the strings to be connected to the strap peg. (I had no idea about that! And considering how often that device is used on so many classic rock songs.) Any other shots you recommend people search out the back issues for? And are you astonished by what comes in every issue that has visual history like this? Anything to look forward to?

We love photos that tell a story. And they just keep coming and coming. The current issue has some amazing shots of the Avett Brothers’ gear and a neat pictorial on 1959 Les Pauls, which are sort of the holy grail of electric guitars. But we try to find amazing photography in each issue.

Not everything we feature belongs to a famous person, either. A guitar builder in Canada just sent me pictures of a Hawaiian guitar he found, decades old, that someone built while serving a life term in prison for murder! It’s a beautiful guitar and built unlike any other Hawaiian guitars I’ve ever seen. The reader thought we may be interested in running the story on it, which we of course are!

When you’re deciding what goes into an issue, is it planned out meticulously by your staff? Or do you have big staff meetings where people suggest, say, the sidebars by Jim Jarmusch ruminating on Teles, or the tracing of the roots of West African guitar? Or are these suggested by the people pitching and submitting the content to you from outside the office?

We brainstorm on things all of the time and get news tips all of the time. In each issue, we typically assign about half the elements in the magazine. The other half comes to us via our readers and contributors, who seem to always be thinking about some Fretboard Journal-ish spin on things they come across. Since we come out only four times a year, we just have to be really picky about what we accept but we try to cram as much as we can into each issue.

Is the magazine doing successfully in this economy? Do you have enough faithful subscribers who support it?

No one is getting rich doing a magazine like this but we’re doing well. We’ve survived the first five years, which they say is the hardest for magazines and restaurants. Marketing for a magazine like ours is basically word of mouth, and our readers are great evangelists for it.

When we started, all the big magazine experts told me to sell a lot of ads, cheapen the production costs and drop the cover price of the issue. I’m pretty sure if we followed their advice we’d be out of business by now. A lot of guitar companies and record labels no longer advertise the way they used to (if they’re still in business) and we’ve thankfully never been dependent on that revenue stream. We let our readers dictate our growth. And new readers keep finding it. Folks are buying the first, now out of print, issue of the Journal on eBay for up to $200 so I suppose we at least have the collector types’ attention.

What’s coming up in the next issue? And when will that be available?

Our Spring issue is off to press now and looks great. It will be out around the first of April and feature interviews with the National, Marty Stuart, British folk singer Nic Jones, Dobro legend Tut Taylor and some amazing guitar builders. I’m particularly proud of the Nic Jones interview. It’s not the longest piece we’ve run but I’ve been a huge fan of Jones forever. Due to a car accident, he can no longer play guitar but his records are classics if you can track them down.

Do you have any advice for young people getting into music journalism, or wanting to produce an extravagant journal possibly comparable to your own?

Sadly, publishing gets harder and harder to pull off each year and the newsstand climate is a lot like the record store climate (not great). I’m a big fan of finding your niche. Our niche is nice guitars and in-depth interviews... that’s what we focus on. There are a lot of other niches out there -- in music and elsewhere -- that probably haven’t been covered well.

As for being a journalist, the rules are constantly changing but the best advice I have is to write something, regularly. You can build an audience with a Tumblr site or a blog or even a Facebook page these days, but it’s important to be consistent, find your voice and let your audience grow. Sort of the same advice someone might give to a band.

Finally -- and you probably knew this was coming -- how many guitars do you own? And do you play any other instruments as well? (Also, “have you ever been” and are you a working musician too?)

I probably have around a dozen guitars right now, though at one point I had even more than that. I play a bunch of stringed instruments (guitar, ukulele, mandolin), though none particularly well... and I also play the musical saw. I think my only gigs as a working musician, sadly, have been on the saw! In the late ‘90s, I was on a This Busy Monster CD -- that was Josh [Rosenfeld] from Barsuk’s band before Barsuk took over his life -- and a Billy Childish 7”. Musical saw playing is sort of like niche publishing... if you keep at it, you can corner the market!

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2 Comments

  1. Larry Larson
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to give Jason his due. As a long time subscriber and guitar geek, I owe Jason and Mark many thanks for inviting me to their get togethers. Who else is writing in depth articles about Jethro Burns, John Hartford, David Lindley, etc.? I never throw away an issue, they are all fantastic and interesting. Re-reading them is like watching your favorite movie a few years later. You always find something new.

  2. Michelle
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Please tell Jason Verlinde that he is invited to perform at the annual NYC Musical Saw Festival. He can contact them through their website http://MusicalSawFestival.org
    Thanks!

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