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ROBERT HILBURN

Magazine Staffers Get Licks In

June 20, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

CUPERTINO, Calif. — If you happened by GPI Publications' offices on Stevens Creek Boulevard here one afternoon this week, you might have thought you had stumbled across a rehearsal of the new Bob Dylan-Grateful Dead tour.

Even if you didn't get any closer than the sidewalk in front of the two-story wooden building, you could hear Jerry Garcia singing Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" thanks to a sound system that carried the music far beyond GPI's open-air garage-storage room.

But Dylan wasn't on hand and neither were any of Garcia's cohorts in the Dead.

In fact, it's doubtful you can find the names of the eight musicians backing Garcia on any album cover--unless they happened to write the liner notes.

Garcia's musicians were editors and other employees for GPI (Guitar Player International), the parent company of Guitar Player, Keyboard and Frets magazines. Among the players: drummer Jim Crockett, who is president and publisher of GPI, and guitarist Tom Wheeler, editor of Guitar Player.

Though a few people from the neighborhood heard the music and wandered over to see Garcia in this rare informal setting, it wasn't really a public performance.

For years, Crockett and other GPI staff members have been getting together each month after putting the three magazines to bed to simply relax and play music. Garcia is one of several big-name musicians who have stopped by to join in (others include B. B. King, Chick Corea and David Grisman).

There was a definite party spirit at the jam Tuesday afternoon (a buffet of cold cuts and fruit was set up and many of the employees' families were on hand) but Crockett said the monthly sessions also serve a practical purpose.

"I am 50 years old and I have probably played for 30 of those years, and if we didn't have these jams, I wouldn't ever get much of a chance to play--and that would concern me on two levels," the bearded Crockett said during a break between the afternoon's electric and acoustic sets. "I would miss playing, and I think it is essential for all of us to remember what it is that we are doing here.

"Most of us--I'd say 70%--play instruments, but it would be easy for us to slowly just become magazine people . . . end up with a staff that could be working on a sports magazine or on an industrial trucking magazine, anything. And, that's not what I want. I want a staff that really deep down can only be working on these three music magazines. The closer we are to music the better we can serve our readers . . . the more we can think like them."

It's this attitude that has made the magazines so respected among musicians. The Guitar Player advisory board includes Garcia, Will Ackerman, Chet Atkins, James Burton, Billy Gibbons and Les Paul.

Unlike Rolling Stone or Spin, Crockett's magazines are aimed at people who play instruments--not at casual pop and rock fans. That's why you don't always see superstars on the cover (red-hot Bruce Hornsby is on the front of July's Keyboard, but July's Guitar Player features a cover shot of lesser-known Alex Lifeson, Rik Emmett, Liona Boyd and Ed Bickert).

Rather than talk about the tensions of stardom or the personalities of the performers, the articles tend to touch on technical matters that sometimes would interest only another player. Guitar Player (whose 180,000 circulation makes it the largest of the three publications by far) contains album reviews, but the heart of the magazine is columns that deal with such insider topics as "pivoting exercises for both hands" or "reading rhythms" or "repetition and stamina."

Garcia, back on the road with the Grateful Dead after an illness last summer that included three days in a diabetic coma, appeared in great spirits, looking forward to the release next month of the first Dead album in seven years and to teaming up with Dylan on a series of stadium dates.

Playing guitar on both the electric set (leading the group through a spontaneous version of the infectious New Orleans gem "Iko Iko") and the acoustic set, Garcia said he wanted to demonstrate his support for the magazines, especially Guitar Player.

"It talks about the skin and bones of playing the guitar, which is something that you don't find anywhere else," he said. "The great thing is these people all love music. They would probably be professional musicians if a space opened up for them, but not everybody can live that kind of life. Being a musician is risky stuff, especially if you have families to support. But it is important that they keep in touch with music. How could you write about something you don't know about firsthand?"

In starting Guitar Player magazine as a quarterly in 1967, Bud Eastman was following his own instincts. As a guitarist and owner of a San Jose music store, he felt the need for a magazine that dealt with matters of interest to him and his customers. Potential advertisers were wary. The didn't think there was enough of an audience or enough subject matter to make the publication work.

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