There are a million questions to ask Mike Molenda about his twenty-one years serving as Editor-in-Chief of the authoritative digital/print guitar bible, Guitar Player. As formative as those two decades-plus were, speaking with Mike makes clear his time at Guitar Player is just one facet of a lifelong career in music and journalism that started long before, and will finish long after. Mike can currently be found rocking out with The Trouble With Monkeys performing punkified renditions of classic Monkees tunes, and steering his Guardians of Guitar site. Read on, and get inspired.
I would love to hear about how your writing and music career started.
When I was young, I was pretty obsessed with comic books and movies, so starting from a really young age I was just seduced by storytelling. Movies just appeared out of nowhere, comic books appeared out of nowhere – I had no idea how it was done! But I did start writing stories. I would staple binder papers together as a kid and try to illustrate my own comic books and things like that. I was lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer, so I joined my high school and college newspapers and studied journalism in college. I made my own newsletters for music gear when I was in college, which were distributed to some music stores in San Francisco. I ultimately took a break for a while to be a “rock-star guy,” then came back to journalism again in 1990 when I got a job at Electronic Musician.
I’ve been listening to a couple of podcasts you were interviewed for. In the Guitar Business Radio episode, you detail being an early adopter of contemporary home recording tech.
Well, early on I was experiencing The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper and all that, trying to figure out how these records were made. That was a mystery, too; it was like magic. So I studied that stuff, and then became a musician myself. At that time, when a band walked into a studio, you weren’t really allowed to touch or say anything. It was a dictatorship run between the engineers and producers who worked on the project. I’m one of those guys who likes to get in a mess and touch things, however, so I found that environment incredibly frustrating: if you tried to figure out what was going on, you’d either get the evil eye, a hand slap, or banished to the lounge.
I knew about Buddy Holly’s experiments with two tracks, so I got two cassette decks and started bouncing tracks back and forth between those. That led to me buying a reel-to-reel multitrack; as I experimented with those, I ended up building myself a home studio. Ultimately, I opened a professional studio of my own, which I ran from the ‘80s until a couple of years ago.
I was one of the few people to actually learn how Link Wray fucked up his amplifier speakers with a pencil to get that fuzz on “Rumble,” from the primary source. It wasn’t that I was any more of a super inquisitive interviewer than anyone else; it was just, at that time that I was there, he’d decided to talk about it.
I was lucky in that, through building affordable home recording gear, I veered along with the disruptions that would revolutionize the industry. All of that led to my interest in Electronic Musician. When I initially got there, it was a computer based, DIY, build-your-own type of magazine. I wanted the power to go to the musicians. I was an early advocate evangelist for home recording. Home recording allowed us musicians to not have people tell us what we can and can’t do – what we can and can’t touch. Developments there blew the magazine up: all of a sudden, all of these people were thinking the same as me – “Hey, I’d rather record in my house.” It was an auspicious synergy of my own interests, where the music gear industry was going, and where music journalism was going.
What was the scene of home recording like then? How was it changing the ways musicians were creating music?
It kind of went a good way and a bad way. In the ‘80s, we were still dealing with tape – which meant that if you had a creative idea, you had to align a tape deck and run tones through it to make sure the meters were aligned before you could get that idea recorded for posterity. It was a real pain in the ass. It took a half hour or more before you could even start laying things down. So, obviously, when digital recording started coming in during the ‘90s, all that tape and prep stuff went away. You could just turn the machine on and start recording immediately. Of course, the downside was that there were a lot of audio quality issues unique to recording on tape that went out the window. There are some amazing sounds recorded the “wrong way”; I had always been an advocate of doing things the wrong way, anyway. But there’s a community of people that feel audio quality is diminished because of home recording. Once again, it’s both good and bad.
How did you decide to intersect your writing and music interests? Was it a natural combination of passions?
I would say it was a natural combination of two passions. It was tough, back in my day, being in an Italian middle-class family with two parents who went through the Depression and World War II. You start saying you’re going to be a musician, and that’s not taken very well… Seeing bands like the Beatles in 1964, the Who, and The Kinks – while surreptitiously watching stuff on television late at night, like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and the Midnight Special – pushed me in that direction. I just had to be careful about it – like “Hey, dad, this is just a hobby, like going bowling or fishing. It just happens to involve guitars!” – so I didn’t really play in bands until college. As long as I was going to school, my parents were okay. I had one of those families which was very achievement oriented: even though my dad and my mom never went to college, our family had that little Italian “got to get better than us” thing going on, so that was my opening to doing music. As long as I was getting an “A” in all my classes, they were pretty okay with me doing anything else I wanted to do.
What were those beginning bands like?
They were horrible cover bands, playing for high school proms and dances. Occasionally, we would get a bar gig, or sometimes do a DIY thing where we rented a hall – which was always dangerous, because seven out of ten times, we’d got raided by the police and be told to stop. I loved every second of it, obviously; I even loved having the police come! It was all a part of the rock and roll lifestyle that I was aspiring to: “Oh, look – we got so many people that the police shut us down! How awesome is that?”
How being at Electronic Musician lead to your career at Guitar Player?
Any musical success I had was focused in Germany—I couldn’t really get arrested in the States—but I wanted to do something in my hometown of San Francisco. So I opened up a professional recording studio in the city, and was kind of bummed out by it. I was coping with starting a business after my rock star career was kind of ending. I wasn’t that jazzed about working with bands that weren’t that good, but I had to get them through the door to make money. So my wife at the time said, “Hey, man – if you’re so bummed out, I just saw this article in the want ads about this magazine Electronic Musician that needs an editor. Why don’t you just use your journalism degree, and quit moping around the house?”
I’m interested in all these awesome female guitarists that are having a lot of power and getting audiences. I’m finding that I don’t really listen to whatever’s in rotation on pop radio or big on the Top 40 charts. I’m out there looking for guitar-oriented crazy people like myself – not just shredders, but anyone who can write a good song and play some interesting guitar on it.
So I went there and talked to them, and kind of pulled the arrogant rock-star crap that I’m not very proud of – I just didn’t really care if I got the job or not. Pretty soon, I realized I was acting like a jerk. Not long afterwards, one of the editors showed up at my studio and said to me, “You know, we really want you. We think you would be good for the magazine. If you quit acting like a dick and just give us a chance, I think this would be good for everybody.”
Getting that gig, as you know, proved really beneficial for me. We had a great staff, and the magazine just exploded in circulation, critical importance, and revenue. Around 1996, Guitar Player was seeing some reversals in circulation. Some of the manufacturers were not happy with the magazine. The publishers over there reached out to me, thinking this guy made Electronic Musician into a big deal, so maybe he could help Guitar Player; obviously, it wasn’t just me – it was a whole crew of people, but I got the credit for it as editor. My wife decided she wanted to get divorced the day before the interview, so that was a bummer. I thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this.” Then they came back to me maybe two years later and said, “Hey, we’re still interested.” It was great to get a second chance, and that time I said, “Yeah, I’m going to do this.” I’ve always loved that magazine, and it’s always been important to me. What a dream it was to actually work for that magazine as the editor. I really appreciate and thank them. Those guys really wanted me there, and they were willing to wait. Their grace in that regard, their belief in me, really changed my life. I have nothing but thanks for those people.
What do you walk away with from those experiences?
That’s a tough one. I think building communities is important, especially now in the social network era, but even back then, it was paramount. Part of the reason I was brought in was because the brand’s reputation was eroding. To get that back, you have to reach out to the communities of players and manufacturers and get them to believe in what you’re doing and want to be a part of it. So that process of rebuilding something was an interesting one. That stayed with me, whether it’s rebuilding a relationship with a friend that went bad, or rebuilding a relationship in your relationship… There are a lot of ups and downs; it’s not always paradise. I think that experience of rebuilding and bringing people together is going to inform my next moves, for sure.
It’s been nice to do things like this, working on the Stompbox book, to keep my name out there. My Guardians of Guitar initiative is a content website about guitars and guitar evangelism. It’s an opportunity for me once again to reach out to the community and go, “Yeah, the Guitar Player you loved and supported may not be that anymore, but because this community has supported me for 21 years, it’s my responsibility to do something that would bring that level of journalism back.”
It’s also about getting out of the corporate business model, where you can see catastrophic changes in many peoples’ lives due to cost-cutting measures and a company’s business decisions. I just love a certain type of guitar journalism, which doesn’t have to go away because a company made a business decision.
Are you still playing with The Trouble With The Monkees?
Absolutely. That’s kind of my joy, to still be a musician.
It’s basically a punk-y version of the Monkees right?
Yeah, we took all those great pop songs, deleted all subtlety out of them, and turned up the guitars. It’s been a lot of fun, and great to have a third act in my music career. It’s tough when you’re a certain age, as performing original material is really a scene for the young. I do some writing for TV and documentaries and stuff like that where you don’t have to see my old-ass face! It’s been a wonderful thing to have this where I can still go out there to play and test gear and things like that. It’s been great for me, in addition to keeping me young and all that.
Who would you say are some of your influences musically? And who are you listening to these days?
Every person my age is going to say The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, the psychedelic bands in San Francisco like Jefferson Airplane, and all the wacky blues rock cats that came out of the city too, like Michael Bloomfield. Then there’s the glam rockers – Marc Bolan, the Mick Ronson era with David Bowie, weird things like the Scottish band The Sensational Alex Harvey Band with the amazing guitar player Zal Cleminson… It’s hard to put a lid on it, because you’re just absorbing everything. As far as what’s out there today, I’m really interested in these young YouTube guitar players who are definitely on a different path than I had back in the day. I’m interested in all these awesome female guitarists that are having a lot of power and getting audiences. I’m finding that I don’t really listen to whatever’s in rotation on pop radio or big on the Top 40 charts. I’m out there looking for guitar-oriented crazy people like myself – not just shredders, but anyone who can write a good song and play some interesting guitar on it.
Which female musicians are you into right now?
Gretchen Menn, Stephanie Bradley, Jennifer Batten – you know, just tons of them that are out there. I just keep going “Wow!” all the time. I love it, because it’s kind of their time right now. It’s no secret that the guitar magazine field and the guitar community has been kind of a boys club for so long, which I’ve always hated. If you play good guitar, we should all support you. I think that the surge here of female players isn’t just that they decided to say “Fuck you, we’re going to do it whether you accept us or not”; the industry has also noticed their power. So it always had to come from not just the music journalists, the players, or the player community, but also the manufacturers giving their support. When you have everything working in tandem, then all of a sudden you can start changing stuff.
Having an effect to change the sound of a guitar was a colossal experience for me, in my growth as a songwriter and as someone who loves playing guitar. I hate the fact that perhaps the crap environment in music stores might have prevented some female players from experiencing that same joy that I did.
Right now, the industry is catching wind of the surge in female guitarists. I’m actually working on a piece where I interviewed this awesome guitarist Sarah Lipstate about being a gearhead and how that pans out as a woman. At Guitar Player, how did gender diversity and inclusivity play into your role?
I was slightly frustrated by that, even though I was the “boss.” There’s a community you have to serve, there’s advertisers you have to serve, there’s your own staff that you have to serve – you have to embrace all those voices. We always honored female players. We didn’t do what Guitar World did. I’m not necessarily criticizing them, but they’d often do things like feature strippers and girls in bikinis in their gear buyer’s guides to reach male customers. At Guitar Player, we would never do that, but we could have done more for female artists as well. We could have covered more, certainly.
I remember, I was probably the only male speaker at a rocker girl conference a long time ago. I pretty much got slaughtered up there, but I realized that when I asked the women in the audience, “Have you reached out to me and sent me an email and said, ‘I have a CD I want you to review,’” there were blank faces. On one level, I could “blame” them for not being ambitious enough to knock on Guitar Player’s door, but I also realized that the guitar journalism field in general didn’t really invite them to the party, so of course they weren’t going to knock on the door; they didn’t feel like they were wanted. At that point, it became a mission of mine, and there was definitely some resistance. The thing I would get from some of the editors was, “Would we cover this person if she was a dude?” And of course what was meant by that was, “Are they as good as a dude?,” which is a heinous way to look at something. I thought well, we’ve definitely covered all kinds of dudes from punk rockers to shredders, so once again, what criteria are we really holding to here? Why aren’t we looking at females doing something interesting? You’re right, I don’t know why women were slow to the uptake as far as tech-y stuff. Maybe it’s because walking into a Guitar Center or a music store was a horrific experience for a lot of them.
That’s exactly the anecdote everyone talks about as a negative experience.
Once again, commerce could have changed this. A few years back, if you read about a fuzz or delay pedal in Guitar Player or any other magazine, a woman had to walk into a guitar shop to buy it. Obviously with Internet shopping, if you read about a cool pedal in a magazine or hear about it from other players, you don’t even have to expose yourself to any type of bizarre, traumatizing experience at a music store. You just order it online, and it comes to your door.
That’s very true. Part of the problem were the assumptions and those experiences.
Look at Jennifer Batten, who’s around my age: she’s definitely a technocrat, definitely into multimedia and sound processing and things like that. She’s never backed away. There’s people like Yvette Young, who’s always searching for interesting and bizarre sounds, for whom a pedal board is an important part of her artistry. I’ve definitely seen less and less of a divide between male technocrats and female technocrats, which is great. I look back at the joy I had buying a Boss chorus pedal and Ibanez phaser back in the day. Having an effect to change the sound of a guitar was a colossal experience for me, in my growth as a songwriter and as someone who loves playing guitar. I hate the fact that perhaps the crap environment in music stores might have prevented some female players from experiencing that same joy that I did. I mean pedals are the most awesome thing ever: they change your perception of not only sound, but how they can kick through writer’s block. They can bring you to different places that you never thought you’d go. These things are important.
I’m curious about any specific interviews you’ve conducted over your career that really sticks out to you.
Because of my job, I’ve been lucky enough to interview pretty much any one of my heroes that I wanted that were still living over the last couple decades. Whether I’ve interviewed someone that’s new, like Greta Van Fleet, or one of my heroes – like a Peter Townsend, or Ray Davies, or Paul McCartney – I always find there’s some nugget of awesomeness that pops up. Those things happen by accident too. I was one of the few people to actually learn how Link Wray fucked up his amplifier speakers with a pencil to get that fuzz on “Rumble,” from the primary source. It wasn’t that I was any more of a super inquisitive interviewer than anyone else; it was just, at that time that I was there, he’d decided to talk about it. Having those little things that fall into your lap is great. And then there’s the other side… I loved Johnny Winter, but I never got a good interview out of him. He was either kind of nodding off due to his unfortunate drug problems, or just didn’t want to talk. I think I’ve talked to him three or four times, and none of those interviews were usable at all – just “yes” or “no” answers. During that period, he did give good interviews – he just didn’t give them to me!
A lot of times, it’s just about being there and being open to what someone happens to be saying. I don’t feel like I did anything better or worse than anybody else that sat in front of Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton. My job was always to get educational data for the people that read the magazine. I had to honor that. I was sitting down with somebody who has done some amazing things, whether it’s a young person or a guitar hero, and opening myself up to their story. They were all awesome. I learned something from everybody. There’s not a single person I interviewed that I didn’t learn something from.
Molenda’s contribution to the Stompbox book includes interviews with Andy Summers, Elliot Easton, Joe Satriani, Jennifer Batten, Reeves Gabrels, Gretchen Menn and more.
Stay tuned for book publication in summer 2020. Get on our newsletter for book updates.