Guitar Aficionado

I was in a really cool guitar store in Brooklyn, Retro Fret, talking about guitars with the jazz guy there. Referring to an old Gibson he had for sale, he said, "This is beat up a bit. But it's a player."

That was the first time I'd heard that term, "player." But I didn't have to ask for a definition. It's pretty obvious: a player is mostly meant to be played, not mounted, framed, stared, at, signed, worshiped, fawned upon. How it plays is what matters, and it plays well, regardless of how it looks, or its price.

As a guitar player, I tend to think of all guitars as either players or junk, and it's possible that makes me the wrong person to review a magazine called Guitar Aficionado, a magazine for guitar collectors that debuted last year. The publisher says the magazine's readership consists "of the very upper echelon of guitar buyers; those who spend upwards of five figures for instrument, and consider it a work of art." Though from my perspective a five-figure instrument had better be a player, and the magazine features rock stars and their lairs, anyone who can drop that kind of money on a work of art is unlikely to be a serious musician. That takes too much time.

The American guitar-collector phenom tracks the baby boom, the instrument's electrification and consequent graduation from rhythm instrument in big bands to (with Charlie Christian's help among others) solo instrument, blues, rock n' roll, etc. and its explosive proliferation in style and variety. But the first instrument of today's law firm partners, plastic surgeons, bankers, account executives and yours truly was very likely an air guitar. That's Guitar Aficionado's reader base.

The publication, however, which claims a circulation of 100,000, with median household income of $218,400 and net worth of $1.3 million, is a bit disingenuous. It's not only not really about players (the instruments, not the people), it's really not about guitars that much, either. But that's OK, because its readers likely regard collectible guitars either as investments like that self-winding watch carved from a scimitar blade that happens to tell time on the moon. Or, like "Rosebud" from Citizen Kane, guitars are seen as whimsical talismans for a lawyer or oral surgeon to rub now and than so they can recapture that boyhood dream of playing "More Than a Feeling" in front of 10,000 screaming women.

The tag line for the book is "Luxury's New Niche." But as is the case with Cigar Aficionado (published by a different company), the mag uses the eponymous product to talk up the collector lifestyle: private islands, bungalows, collector cars, movie stars, rock stars, the wealthy, the successful, the Concours d'Elegance crowd. There's a story about Paul Stanley's house, with a shot of him in front of his collection of remarkably unattractive guitars. There's a piece on diving watches, another on rum, and one on rock fossil David Crosby's California wine country hangout. There's a story about Maui. There's something about a $1 million gold-topped guitar.  The spring issue had Jeff Bridges on the cover with the title, "The Dude Collects" and a story about his guitars and his sprawling house. Lenny Kravitz graces the cover of the summer ish, and the story about him details his recording studio in an Airstream trailer parked on a beach in the Carib. These could all be in Travel & Leisure, or AARP for that matter. As expected, the photos are gorgeous and the writing's solid.

The occasional guitar story notwithstanding, the magazine I have on my lap could quite easily be called Whisky Aficionado, Lobster Aficionado, or Gnarly Watch Aficionado. No one would be the wiser. It falls into the "I'm targeting your urologist" shelter-book boilerplate of beautiful-house-owned-by-gracious-celebrity photo essays and lifestyle journalism.

As for the upper echelon of guitar PLAYERS, there's an entirely different story. I've met some in my time. Steve Khan, I remembered, played a couple of workman-like thin hollow bodies, Gibsons, I think, with his name on them; Peter Bernstein, some sort of hand-made jobbie, same with Jim Hall. I lent Alex De Grassi my amp for a gig in Tallahassee a long time ago, but I don't remember what he played, or paid for that matter. But, really, it doesn't matter too terribly much. He could make a cigar box sound good.

MAG STATS: Publisher: Future US, Inc.

Frequency: Quarterly 

Web site: http://www.guitaraficionado.com

Tags: magazines
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1 comment about "Guitar Aficionado".
  1. Frank Lampe from Ground Work Research , October 21, 2010 at 3:23 p.m.

    Nice, reality-based review. But how sad. With a tagline like "Luxury's New Niche," it's clearly not about the music for these folks, but only about the demographic. And much like my other hobby, old British motorcycles, I better understand now why I increasingly can't afford any of the nice guitars--the real players (guitars, that is). Wealthy collectors are locking them away for the occasional fawning and ego gratification--and the investment. Sigh.