By: Rick Landers
Any guitarist who has walked the aisles of the nearest Barnes & Noble or roamed the guitar related entries at Amazon.com has seen the name Tony Bacon. For the past couple of decades Tony has been linked to well-researched tomes on Gibsons, Fenders, Gretsch’s and thousands of pages about cool, historic, unique and downright weird guitars.
Digging in deep to offer readers accurate and interesting information on the world’s most famous and obscure guitars is not an easy road. One must pore over old magazines, interview guitar industry experts, get some quality time with top celebrity guitarists, then check and double-check every fact, and then present the material that’s grammatically correct, aesthetically pleasing, and presentable in a form to successfully meet the market. It’s damn hard work, but at the end of the day must be very satisfying, and Tony Bacon by all accounts should be delighted.
Our office at Guitar International carries a load of Tony’s books that serve as reference books, as well as recreational retreats when we need a break from guitars to, well, our favorite pastime – guitars. So, we decided to talk to Tony about writing books, guitars, the entry of ebooks to the publishing arena, as well as his search for the world’s most valuable guitar.
Rick Landers: Getting started as a writer these days is pretty easy, in a time when nearly anyone can start a website and start writing. But, when you began your career, publishing outlets were not only limited but very competitive. Tell us about the challenges and the strategies you used in order to get your books in print and how that’s changed over the years.
Tony Bacon: My first book was Rock Hardware, published back in 1981, but my first dedicated guitar book, and one that I think many of your readers will know, was The Ultimate Guitar Book, published in 1991. Nigel Osborne and I produced the book for Dorling Kindersley, a big general-book publisher. The success of that made us consider the situation in a way that many musicians at the time were thinking about record companies.
Why should we do books for a big publisher when we could do it ourselves? So Nigel and I set up Balafon and started producing our own books, distributed in the US through Miller Freeman, who then published Guitar Player and other magazines. Our first four titles were The Fender Book (1992), The Gibson Les Paul Book (1993), The Rickenbacker Book (1994), and The Bass Book (1995). I think that with these early ones we created a new kind of guitar book.
I came to book publishing from journalism, while Nigel was already designing and creating books. I think it was that professional experience and attitude, combined with a passion for guitars, which made our books different. Today, as you say, anyone can “publish” their ideas and views on the net. That’s a wonderful development that has some positive impact on us all. But, on the other hand, a lot of what you see on the net is opinionated and not researched. Everyone’s an expert.
My favorite question to pose when someone offers some theory as fact is this: “How do you know that?” If the answer is along the lines of “Oh, I just know … ” then I know it’s safe to ignore it. Our values at Backbeat UK and Jawbone of accuracy and attention to detail still count for a lot, I think – and perhaps even more these days.
Rick: What steered you toward writing non-fiction, rather than writing novels or creative short stories?
Tony: As I say, my background was professional journalism. I worked for a number of British musical-instrument magazines in the 70s and 80s, so I knew how to write about technical subjects in an engaging and entertaining way.
I was aware of some of the “new journalism” trends at that time, where writers like Tom Wolfe and others used some of the techniques of fiction writing in their non-fiction work, and I like that approach. I used it to some extent in my 2008 book Million Dollar Les Paul, for example.
Rick: How did you begin writing something like The Ultimate Guitar Book?
Tony: The UGB was a mammoth job of organization, and every book I’ve worked on subsequently has involved the same kind of careful, painstaking approach. Our guitar books generally combine three broad areas: the main story, the pictures, and the reference section.
For the central part of the book, the main story, I start with an outline, and then add in detail as I research, interview and learn. An important thing to remember is that you must always be open to finding out new things and not have a fixed idea of how you think the story ought to be.
When I first started writing, we used these strange objects called typewriters, but of course it’s much easier today to work piecemeal on your text, adding and expanding and editing as you go. The pictures are another area where we worked hard to get things right, and I think we introduced to guitar books the idea of high-quality commissioned photography.
We’ve used some great photographers, like Miki Slingsby, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the years tracking down owners and persuading them to have their guitars featured in our books. What’s not to like about showing off your pride and joy in this way?
Anyway, the last part is the reference section – what we call the trainspotter’s guide – and that’s usually researched by Paul Day or Walter Carter. We create a scheme designed to be helpful and useable for identifying and finding out about all the models covered by each book. Again, we try to solve the questions that we think readers will want answered, rather than going off on our own tangents. Generally, we aim for our books to be well written, properly researched, and attractively designed, and to combine factual knowledge with an enjoyable vibe.
Rick: It seems pretty obvious that you must be a guitar player, right? What or who got you interested in playing music, rather than just being a listener?
Tony: I got the bug when I was about 15 – a long time ago – and began playing bass in various bands. Nothing famous or well known, but a hugely enjoyable time. Soon after that I got interested in writing, and it became obvious that I was going to be a much better writer than a guitarist.
Rick: What’s the toughest phase of writing a book, the beginning where you have to first put pencil to paper or the final phase making sure everything’s “perfect” and ready for your readers?
Tony: You have to stay alert all the way through. For me, I find that it’s sometimes hardest between the early stages of ‘got the idea’ and ‘OK, go and do it’. It can seem sometimes that you’re circling the idea and forever putting off starting. It’s remarkable the number of excuses you can find to not begin writing! But once you’re in and running, there’s nothing better.
One of the bits I like best about putting together my guitar books is tracking down and interviewing people to help me tell the story. For my recent book Rickenbacker Electric 12-String: The Story Of The Guitars, The Music, And The Great Players I managed to get to more or less everyone I wanted: Peter Buck, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, Johnny Marr, Dave Gregory, Mike Pender, and many others. It makes such a difference.
Rick: What about keeping your books up to date? Do you find that it’s necessary to revise earlier versions or are they locked down as published the first time? If you revise your older work, is that a drudgery to have to revisit something you considered done and complete?
Tony: We do revise and update the books regularly, and it’s so satisfying to be able to do that. Again, a music parallel: how often do you get to remix something? How often would you like to tweak a little there, add a touch of this or that here? Nearly all my guitar books cover the current story as well as the past history, so there are always new developments to take care of, too.
Rick: You’ve written with some major focus on Gibsons and Fenders, so I’d guess that those tend to be your favorite guitars, but what others do you find particularly suited to your playing?
Tony: I have three guitars. I know: people usually expect me to have some vast collection. But I’ve seen and played some of the most amazing guitars in the world, and if I indulged myself at every opportunity I’d be destitute.
I don’t have the collecting bug. Well, correction: I do collect catalogues and pictures and info … but not guitars. I like to mess around on my beat-up old Yamaha acoustic (although I really ought to get around to fixing that dodgy bridge).
And I have a couple of 60s Euro guitars featured in the UGB, purely as “lookers:” a Hopf Saturn 63 and a Bartolini pushbutton-crazy concoction. I strongly identify with the remark that the late Don Randall, sales boss at Fender in the classic years, made once when I asked him if he played guitar. “Not so it would hurt anyone.” Exactly.
Rick: There have been some very intriguing guitar designs over the years, Gittlers, the Strawberry Alarm Clock Mosrites, and the artful guitars by Ulrich Teuffel, along with others. Have you dug into that arena or do you prefer the more traditional guitars to write about and play?
Tony: I love all kinds of guitars. I don’t care one little bit about whether I’m “supposed” to like this or that model or revere this or that period. As someone once said about music, there are only two types. What you like and what you don’t like.
Rick: Many new writers are exploring the world of eBooks in order to gain more traction in building their own profit margins, rather than rely on what I understand are relatively small percent royalties typically handed out by print publications. Are you seeing a dramatic shift from print to ebooks as a way to sell and distribute books? Your thoughts on the pros and cons of this medium?
Tony: In the book trade, ebooks are currently the big unknown. Everyone thinks they are going to be big, but no one knows yet exactly how it’s going to work, whose “reader” will dominate, how authors will benefit, which types of book will prove most suitable, and so on. Again, I’d draw a parallel with how musicians find themselves when technological developments present an apparent opportunity. Yes, it appears to be easier to get your stuff out there.
But how do you make people aware of what you do, how do you present your material in a professional-looking form, and how do you actually sell it? The printed book as we know it is a highly-developed piece of technology that’s been refined over hundreds of years. The ebook is pretty new, so it’s not surprising that its true value hasn’t been established yet. We’re trialing some of the books in our Jawbone line as ebooks and we’re monitoring how that goes.
Rick: A recent book of yours is about your search for “the million dollar Les Paul.” Do you mind giving us a run down on how that search went and, if you found that valuable guitar, has the market shifted downward to make it no longer worth a million bucks?
Tony: I really enjoyed writing Million Dollar Les Paul: In Search Of The Most Valuable Guitar In The World. The idea was to find out why the Bursts – those amazing Les Paul Standards from 1958–60 – have become some of the most expensive and hallowed guitars on the planet. I looked into the history, the construction, the famous players, the collectors, the reissues, the whole close-knit industry that has built up around these guitars.
And I dug a little deeper into questions like why we collect, how we put values on objects, and why we like to play what our favorite players use. It was a fascinating journey, and I don’t think it would spoil things to say that I didn’t actually find a million-dollar Burst. Or at least one that anyone would admit to. It’s my favorite book of all those I’ve written. The Los Angeles Times called it “a romantic quest for a guitar whose craftsmanship borders on the mythic,” which seems about right.
Rick: Given the books you’ve written about Les Paul guitars, did you ever meet the legendary player behind the name on those headstocks?
Tony: I did meet Les Paul, several times over the years, and Les was always friendly and helpful to me, for which I’m grateful. I enjoyed the way he would always be right there in any story about musical history you cared to throw at him, and I would smile at the way his stories would develop and grow over the years I knew him – but most of all, I Ioved the way he played. He interviewed the way he played, too: humorously, engagingly, and unquestionably the center of attention. I’ll miss him.
Rick: There are hundreds of guitar builders around the world now, but Les Pauls, Stratocasters, and Telecasters still capture the imagination of both new and older guitarists. Are we all just a bunch of conservative traditionalists or is there something magical about those guitars?
Tony: It’s a bit of both. There is magic in the classic designs, for sure. That’s why we call them classics. It’s not an exaggeration to say that guitarists, as a tribe, are pretty conservative, with a small c. That’s why Gibson has so much trouble getting players to take to its various digital guitars, it’s why Fender dropped its modeling Strat after a short time on the market, and it’s why you don’t see too many other radical remakes about. Those classic designs work, and they work well. Why redesign the wheel?
Rick: With Les Paul and Leo Fender now gone, what builders are out on the market now that will be considered the milestone builders in twenty years?
Tony: I don’t know that and nor does anyone else, whatever they might tell you. We’ll find out in 2030. I hope.
Rick: With vintage values set aside or in a “blind test”, which guitars are going to outperform the others, the ‘50s vintage guitars or the one’s built today?
Tony: It would be good to think that with all the benefits of modern production, with all the leaps in understanding, that the ones built today would surely win. It would also be good to think that all the acres of print written about the special magic of a vintage guitar actually added up to something tangible. I wonder how much of all this is because we can’t ignore the backstory when we pick up something we know is XX years old (and, incidentally, worth YYYY dollars)?
There’s a psychology at work there, of course. If you pick up a 2010 Stratocaster, you should be able to play and feel and sound just as good as you do on a 1956 Strat. But never underestimate the power of your imagination. Vintage-guitar dealers certainly don’t.
Ultimately – and sorry if this seems like a cop out, and sorry to repeat a cliché – but it all depends on the way you, or I, or anyone else reacts to a given guitar. I like this one; you like that one. I think this neck is the most comfortable I’ve ever held; you prefer that one. I reckon this pickup tone is heaven; you run screaming in the other direction. Beauty will always reside in the hands and ears of the beholder.
Rick: Do you have any new writing projects underway that you’ll tell our readers about?
Tony: There’s always something new; that’s one of the things I like about doing this. I wear two hats, really: I write books, and I publish books. I co-own two publishing imprints, Backbeat UK and Jawbone. At Backbeat UK, we devise and produce books for Hal Leonard’s Backbeat imprint, and these include all the guitar books that we’re talking about here, as well as books about songwriting, playing instruments, technical guitar stuff, and so on.
At Jawbone, our own imprint, we publish what we might call ‘reading’ books about music and musicians. Personally, my latest book, for Backbeat, is The Stratocaster Guitar Book: A Complete History Of Fender Stratocaster Guitars, and I’m currently working on a new one about Flying Vs, Explorers, Firebirds, and their pointy progeny. Our latest batch of new Jawbone titles includes Becoming Elektra: The True Story Of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label by Mick Houghton. So it’s never dull around here.
Rick: Let’s finish up with one of those stupid “what if” questions – just for fun – You get a chance to meet and get a personal guitar lesson from a top Telecaster player, a Top Les Paul player and a Top Stratocaster player – Who are you going to choose for each? (The players can be dead or alive).
Tony: Let’s see – this sort of thing tends to change depending on what day you ask me and what I’ve been listening to – but right at this moment it would have to be Peter Green on Les Paul, Jeff Beck on Strat, and Albert Lee on Tele. Oh, I’ve just noticed those are all Brits. Can I cheat and have another three Americans? Just to balance the books?
OK, let’s add my today’s-faves: Neil Young on Les Paul, Bonnie Raitt on Strat, and Denny Dias on Tele. Actually, mention of the fabulous Mr. Dias has got me itching to hear Countdown To Ecstasy.