Last week, a plain but sturdy white mailer showed up in my mailbox. I knew immediately that inside this protective covering was the latest issue of the Fretboard Journal. What was not readily apparent was the special nature of this particular issue.
That became obvious as soon as I saw the cover. FJ50 was in the corner, beautifully positioned so as not to obstruct the view of the tuning pegs of the headstock of a vintage K&F electric guitar.
FJ50 — the 50th edition of the Fretboard Journal — had arrived unharmed, thanks to that extra touch of the protective mailer, and was ready to be consumed. Every issue is “chock full of the wild, weird and wonderful from the world of fretted instruments.” For this high-quality quarterly — which is supported by subscriptions and music-related ads — to have reached the 50th issue milestone is something to be celebrated in a world where care and craftsmanship for one’s profession is often abandoned in the pursuit of fame, money, and power. The Fretboard Journal survives and thrives, content to bore in and focus on “the varied talents found in our little universe.”
That line was written by publisher Jason Verlinde, the guiding light of this magazine which is “owned and operated by music fanatics for fellow music fanatics.” Verlinde was introducing the still photographs of pedal maker Josh Scott, a side project of a fellow fanatic. On occasion the magazine will feature stories such as this, to flesh out the full dimensions of those in this universe.
However, the main thrust of FJ50, like the 49 issues that came before it, are acoustic and electric fretted instruments and the people who make them, play them, repair them, and love them. All 50 issues are on my bookshelf, where they’ve been since I first discovered this treasure in 2005 on a magazine rack at a now-shuttered Barnes & Noble. After one or two over-the-counter purchases, I knew I had to take out a subscription to ensure that this drug arrived immediately upon publication.
And it has worked. The arrival in the mail brings instant and lasting pleasure. I always find an old friend or two. I always meet a new musician I’ve never encountered before, which leads me to the rabbit hole of YouTube to explore new sounds and talents. I always read about luthiers and repair technicians from across the world who care about their craft. I always salivate over the beautiful pictures of vintage instruments and new, hand-crafted guitars, mandolins, and banjos. More than one person has heard me describe FJ as guitar porn.
I sat down one evening soon after its arrival and read FJ50 cover-to-cover. As one would expect from a milestone issue, this one had it all. Right up front there is a lovely first-person story of how the writer, a Canadian named Stuart MacDougall, came to acquire a used 1970s Martin D-18 guitar from a resident “way up north” in the Arctic, who clearly didn’t want to let it go but who needed the money…to buy a more expensive guitar he’d fallen in love with. Their last email exchange ended with the original owner saying, “if you ever decide to sell it again….” Thirteen years later, MacDougall remembered the email and reached out, only to find that the seller had recently died, by his own hand. Suicide and tragedy can be common in Canada’s northern and indigenous communities, and MacDougall doesn’t discuss motivations. But he did some research, found parts of the life story of another resident of our little universe, and honors his presence on earth and his making of music while he was here.
I met old friends through FJ50, most especially through a wonderful interview with banjoist Bela Fleck and the making of his My Bluegrass Heart album. And there’s an insightful piece on the young, trailblazing fingerstyle guitarist Yasmin Williams, who is from the DC region. Since this is the Fretboard Journal, we also learn about Bela’s Gold Tone Signature Model banjo, made by Wayne Rogers, and Yasmin’s innovative Skytop Grand Concert guitar, which was made by New York-based luthier Eric Weigeshoff. The Swiss cheese-looking Sitka spruce top (as seen in the Sunshowers video) was actually “created by nature. This wood was once part of a logging raft in the Pacific Northwest, where it was invaded by shipworms.”
Another real treat in this issue is the story by eTown’s Nick Forster, writing about the album, Life Lessons which features a collaboration of roots musician Tim O’Brien, jazz master Bill Frissell, and their teacher in Denver from the 1970s, jazz guitarist Dale Bruning. All the Things You Are, played as a trio on the new recording, is seen here as a solo version by Frisell. The storytelling and conversation between the three musicians in Forster’s piece shows love and respect all around.
And there’s so much more. A profile of luthier Michael Lewis includes an appreciation of the instruments and the man by mandolinist Frank Solivan. We learn about the company that was the forerunner of Fender, K&F. FJ50 tells us the story of how Southern California jazz musician Bruce Forman ended up with the iconic Gibson guitar of his hero, Barney Kessel. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo‘s acoustic side is featured in a review of In Virus Times, a set of reflective acoustic music coming out of the pandemic.
The Fretboard Journal has been a part of my life since 2005. In those 17 years I’ve come to appreciate how it opens up my musical world, four times a year, when that simple white protective mailer shows up in the mailbox.
Let’s see what the next 50 issues bring!
More to come…
P.S. – Here’s a little bonus from the My Bluegrass Heart band:
And here are some of the More to Come stories featuring the Fretboard Journal since the blog began in 2008:
- David Lindley featured in new Fretboard Journal (September 29, 2008)
- Wayne Henderson, John Monteleone, and more in Fretboard Journal (January 3, 2009)
- Clarence and Roland White featured in Spring Fretboard Journal (March 14, 2009)
- Jerry Douglas, Travis Tritt, and the Fretboard Journal cap first day of Merlefest 2009 (April 24, 2009)
- Serendipity and The Fretboard Journal (September 24, 2009)
- More strings make beautiful music (April 30, 2010)
- Bush, O’Brien, and Froggy Bottom (October 23, 2010)
- Fretboard Journal: The 20th Issue (December 11, 2010)
- In praise of Gallagher Guitars (February 11, 2012)
- The inventive guitar stylings of Molly Tuttle (November 30, 2019)
- Saturday Soundtrack: Eric Skye (May 9, 2020)
- Mark O’Connor improvising toward democracy – 15th anniversary issue (October 10, 2020)
- Weekly Reader: It really wasn’t your fault 2020, but good riddance (re: Tony Rice’s guitar) (January 6, 2021)
- Taking a viscerally emotional journey with guitarist and singer John Smith (January 23, 2021
- Charlie Rauh and the case for playing soft and slow (June 5, 2021)
- The intimate and melodic mandolin stylings of John Reischman (January 22, 2022)
Image: Fifty issues of Fretboard Journal on the DJB bookcase (credit DJB)