Tagline: Play Better Now!
Who is this magazine for? This magazine is for me when I was 17. Which is to say, a profoundly average guitarist with more talented mates.
I bought a few issues of Total Guitar because my great and talented friend Andrew York did so. In our depressing jam sessions, he knocked out the chords to ‘Long Train Running’ and ‘Nightrain’ like one mean-ass (subs: does mean-ass have a hyphen?) son of a bitch, while I scraped out Under the Bridge intros with all the gentle sass of Chopin’s Funeral March. Eventually it became necessary to reduce the frequency of these humiliating sessions through any available excuse; illness, sore fingers, unlikely enthusiasm for watching Yorkie play Myst for up to 14 years at a single sitting. Myst, by the way, is a puzzle-based computer game designed, in my view, to highlight the comparative thrill of tax returns.
The mag, I assumed, would hold the answers to my redemption and seamlessly paper over my cracks of incompetence. Unfortunately, as Yorkie later pointed out, all Total Guitar’s pages guaranteed was the appearance of the phrase ‘warm, jazzy tones’ at least once in every edition of the magazine. My own playing failed to scale any heights beyond the bovine dexterity required of Green Day’s Basket Case. But twelve years on, I was keen to see whether that warmth and jazziness had been retained.
Just as an aside though, why are magazines so keen on the word ‘Total’? I for one would like to see a lot more ‘Utter’ on the shelves of WHSmiths. Although in this particular case, perhaps Utter Guitar sounds a little too much like a province of northwestern India.
What did you get for your £5.50? £5.50 is a lot of money for a magazine, but Total Guitar’s publishers know well enough that your typical guitarist is used to paying handsomely over the odds. This is a hobby where your plank of wood with strings on it will probably set you back at least £400, unless you plan on being gently patronised by the blokes in the music shop and actively laughed at by greasy-haired teenagers. And you’ll need an amp. And a new set of strings every few months. Effects pedals as well, to get your wah and fuzz on. Even your plectrums – tiny bits of plastic that a non-player would think were litter if they found one on the floor – are a quid a time.
Steeply priced the mag may be, it does come with a free gift – a natty CD of ‘essential rhythm techniques’. The mag itself is split into four sections; Monitor (a mixed bag), Features (longer versions of Monitor), Gear (reviews) and Techniques (more hardcore drills, and what I’m afraid I’m going to call ‘licks’). There is a pleasingly genuine emphasis on learning how to get better throughout Total Guitar; PR guff about bands this is not.
Or at least, not overwhelmingly. Dave Grohl appears on page ten, as he has in every single one of Total Guitar’s 262 issues. As much as I like his hairy face, the man’s a drummer, for pete’s sake. Get him out.
Features: The meat and drink of Total Guitar’s features fall in to three categories: stuff about bands, stuff about guitars and things required to make them sound totally awesome, and lessons. The latter is the least interesting, partly because it’s educational and therefore intrinsically a hard sell to a failure like myself. More damningly, it’s also because you tend to find phrases like ‘we’re in pure Mixolydian territory’ or ‘generating diatonic 6th intervals’, terms that sound like things a pressed obstetrician might shout during a challenging childbirth.
The articles about bands are designed to make you feel like you’ve been trapped in conversation with that guy in Sixth Form that stopped listening to Elbow and Radiohead as soon as they produced songs that tediously normal people listened to for pleasure. Radio Alcatraz anyone? Pale Seas? I’m sure they’re both excellent, but I only listen to new music when I hear it on adverts. Of the artists included in the ‘Top 20 albums of 2014’, I recognize seven, one of whom is Pink Floyd, a band with members substantially older than my dad.
It’s probably unfair to accuse the mag of band snobbery though; the problem may simply be one of pulling power. For example, I find it hard to imagine there being high fives around the editorial room at the announcement that Total Guitar had bagged a three-page exclusive interview with some bloke who used to be in Feeder.
The kit features were where I held out most hope for finding some warm and jazzy quotes. Sadly none could be found. And like much of the magazine, there was no criticism for anything here. Any gentle negatives were qualified, and nothing dipped below four stars.
They had their opportunity to dump hard too, reviewing three Squire models. Who knows, maybe these guitars really were worth every one of their four or five stars, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Argos sells Squires. I would have severe misgivings about giving any stars to the Elizabeth Duke of axes.
Adverts: As you would expect, Total Guitar goes in pretty hard on ads for beautiful pieces of wood at comedy prices. A Fender Strat from the 60s – with stains and a scuffed up finish no less – will set you back what you might expect to pay for a second-hand family car.
Elsewhere is a half page devoted to flogging the Midge Ure signature model guitar. Poor old Midge. Just getting over being named after a microscopic Scottish irritant is tough enough, but having to be the straight man to Bob Geldof for thirty years is a kick in the stones that no man should have to endure. Sadly, his guitar is one that I find pretty hard to imagine the next generation of rockers clamouring for.
Letters page: Total Guitar spoils us with no less than two letters pages. The first, ‘Feedback’, is your standard grab bag of moans that make the mag look good (‘Where’s my precious TG mag? WTF is going on at Tesco?!’) and paeans to readers’ guitar heroes. Johnny Marr gets a shout-out, accompanied by a picture of him looking like a model from Man at C&Angry.
The second, ‘Ask TG’, is a guitarist’s spin on the classic problem page. Rather than the usual fodder of erectile dysfunction and errant partners, this deals with more technical problems, such as how to avoid falling into playing the tired old Phrygian mode during metal songs. We’ve all been there.
Brilliantly though, the style is still basically still the same as a normal problem page, from the embarrassed, despairing air of the correspondent (‘I’ve been working on my alt-picked riffing for a while, and I feel like I’m getting nowhere’) to the sympathetic but forthright responses (‘we’d advise you use a firm pick – bendy picks tend to flap about’). Change no more than a few words and you’re right back in erectile dysfunction country.
Total Guitar is still doing what it did in my youth; slick, well-informed work that makes me feel lazy and inadequate.
Bring back the warm and jazzy tones and I might just pick up my Les Paul again.
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