The Rise of the British Guitar Magazine

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday 14 September 2022

Planet Botch Cult Guitar Magazine Cover

Are you ready for Planet Botch - the cult guitar mag?... No, neither am I, so this is only a mock-up cover, made with apologies to all who are now sick of seeing my '87 Rickenbacker 330. But wouldn't it be nice to return to the days when guitar content was served up by enthusiasts rather than bank managers?

If you've read a lot of this blog, you may know that the content not only attributes to personal experience, but also to printed archives from the past forty-plus years. In this piece, I'm looking at the story behind those archives. Let's fire up the time machine and revisit an era when the monthly publication date of a guitar magazine would bring a wild buzz of excited anticipation.

Infamously, Eddy Grant even refused to name the brand of his guitar of choice BECAUSE the manufacturers wouldn't give him an endorsement deal.

This is the story of the UK guitar press in the twentieth century...


Even as late as the early 1980s, the most relevant written content that UK guitar enthusiasts could access came in one-off reference books.

Setting those books aside, the picture was bleak. In the inaugural Thatcher year, Brit guitarists could stay up to date only through imported (routinely American) guitar magazines, and the limited treasures that would appear in generalised music scene periodicals such as International Musician and Recording World - a single mag with two sections and a rather cumbersome title.

With mixing desks, mics, keyboards and drums fighting for communal page space, the generalised magazines couldn't hope to provide a comprehensive overview of our national guitar scene.

Delft's Guitarcheck - a regular International Musician feature by luthier Stephen Delft - brought late 'seventies audiences high-quality and in-depth examinations of our six or twelve-string friends. But if you were waiting for a particular model to be assessed, good luck. One month the guitar reviewer would crit a Shergold Masquerader 12, the next he'd crit a Hurdy-Gurdy. I'm not kidding. And the guitar amps would be assessed by the studio tech guy. You'd get a table of decibel gobbledygook per review, and see Marshalls being marked DOWN because they produced distortion. Once again, no kidding.

The American guitar magazines couldn't fill all of the gaps. The UK guitar market was significantly different from the US market...

Firstly, we had our own guitar builders, like Chris Eccleshall, the Manson brothers, Gordon Smith and Ashley Pangborn. Other British builders such as Tony Zemaitis, John Diggins and John Birch had built relationships with famous Brit guitarists and were thus known internationally to an extent. But some of our builders didn't have the same connections and they stood little chance of gaining recognition in the US mags. We were seeing Pangborn Warriors and Gordon Smith GSs in the local environs, and we didn't have a clue what they were or where they came from.

Even the Brit builders with an awesome userbase were not really commercial thinkers and were too self-effacing to chutzpah their way into the global market.

Zemaitis, for example, recalled getting a visit from Ronnie Wood and Ronnie Laine in the early years of his journey, and said he thought he was being set up for Candid Camera. The two jocular larkabouts had flippantly pointed at a number of guitars and said: "I'll have that... And that...", etc. Zemaitis told Guitarist in a later retrospective:

"I really thought they were winding me up - then the dollars hit the table and I realised they meant it!"

Bizarrely, Zemaitis's severely limited production volume eventually resulted in a forgery market in which the forgeries sold for more than double what Zemaitis himself was charging. We needed a British guitar press to bring us news of this type, but we didn't have one at the dawn of the 'eighties.

Secondly, we had access to a different import market. In the early 1980s, we received large import stocks of the Japanese Squier Vintage Reissue Series - one of the most remarkable guitar deals of the decade. But because the market conditions were very different in the States, America never saw these insanely cheap Fender replicas, and their magazines didn't review them. Indeed, the whole culture surrounding the classic replica market was freer and more aggressive in the UK than in the USA. More than ever, we needed a home-grown guitar monthly, but no one was stepping forward.


By 1984, we appeared to have lost all hope of gaining our own, independent, dedicated guitar press. Yamaha's DX synthesizers were taking over the world. Local live guitar venues were shutting down as the resurgent, electronica-filled discos snatched away their trade. Session guitarists were going out of business as keyboardists covered their bases. And even the guitar manufacturers were now trying to invent synths with necks. Fender USA was on the rocks with its life in the balance, Gibson was an irrelevant dinosaur... Surely, no one... NO ONE would be daft enough to launch a guitar magazine amid this?... Would they?...

They would, and they did. If any print-publishers still sit on the tip of your tongue in this here 2020s cybertech wipeout, I very much doubt that Glidecastle Publishing is among them. But it was Glidecastle that crazily opted to launch Guitarist magazine, going to press with an inaugural June 1984 issue, Volume 1, Number 1, 64 pages, George Benson and Ted Nugent headlining the content, cover price a heady 80 pence.

That might sound cheap, but this was a staple-back publication whose print repro would seem primitive by early 1990s standards, let alone today's. And the reviews were broadly generated by 'guitarists with typewriters' as opposed to 'writers with guitars'. As it happened, though, this formula captured exactly what the target audience were looking for, and despite launching in the thick of Sophistipop and a keyboard-plink hellscape, sales roared into overdrive.

Attesting to its raging success, the mag's cover price rose every year, increasing to £1 in 1985, £1.20 in 1986, £1.40 in 1987 and £1.50 in 1988. By 1989, just over five years since launch, the cover price had doubled. So had the page count, but there was still a lot of monochrome repro, along with a now fast-dating stapleback format. And the content?... The writing was becoming more professional, stylish and less personal, but sometimes it wasn't just a matter of writing skills - or style. Sometimes there were unseen battles to be fought...

1980s editions of Guitarist magazine

Guitarist magazine in the 1980s. Stevie Ray Vaughan gave a never-to-be-repeated interview in 1988. Other faces turned up numerous times over the years.


Magazines of this type would always want a celebrity on the cover. But how d'you draw in a celebrity when said individual wouldn't get out of bed and piss for the meagre financial offering you're able to make?

Answer: you have to wait until they want some publicity, and you have to talk about what they want to publicise. Cue a long catalogue of interviews with one sentence about the guitar gear EVERYONE wants to know about, and the entire remainder focused on some dizzyingly-overpriced tuition course, or the oblique creative landscape behind "the new record". Namedrops, endorsement obligations, more namedrops, cast a few aspersions on one or two serious rivals, and "This is by far the best album I've ever made" to fade. You could just visualise the agent submitting an interview contract with approved questions, and a raft of "don't even go there"s.

There were TWO Volume 1, Issue 1s of The Guitar Magazine. And two of every other edition up to Volume 1, Issue 5. The content was completely different. Only the issue numbers were duplicated.

Infamously, Eddy Grant even refused to name the brand of his guitar of choice BECAUSE the manufacturers wouldn't give him an endorsement deal! I doubt he was the only one. Probably just the only one with the honesty and balls to admit it.

But the fact that readers got people like Grant was cool. People like Chris Foreman from Madness. Andy Summers. Nik Kershaw. Wilko Johnson. Blockhead bassman Norman Watt Roy. Charlie Burchill from Simple Minds. Edwyn Collins, Herbie Flowers, Dave Hill from Slade, Tony Hicks of The Hollies (and his story of not only bagging a '59 Les Paul for $80, but also getting the record company to pay for it)... 1960s experimentalist Eddie Phillips, of The Creation - first person to play a guitar with a violin bow.

And it wasn't just Brit guitarists who proved highly readable. Stray Cats' Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker provided an interesting take. And the super-professional Jennifer Batten came across very well, bundling in an account of the Michael Jackson audition process. Imagine auditioning for Jacko and getting the gig.

Particularly through the mid 'eighties, Guitarist offered a well-balanced variety of guitar and bass players. This was before bass was hived off to a separate magazine, which I thought was a bad move.

But as the decade wore on, the focus seemed to pander increasingly to the hard rock fan. There were still interviews with non-headbangers like Roddy Frame and Brinsley Forde, but these more diverse guitarists were not getting the cover features. The covers were more frequently going to faces like Malmsteen, Satriani, Spitz, MacAlpine, Vai, Gary Moore (still a metal guitarist at that point) and Kee Marcello. And some of the technique-focused guitarist interviews could get quite catty. Malmsteen criticised Steve Vai and said he was sickened by Vinnie Moore. Dan Spitz rubbished Malmsteen, prompting letters of complaint. More of a soap opera than a guitar magazine at times.

But the one late 'eighties interview which would forever set Guitarist apart from subsequent market entrants, was that of Stevie Ray Vaughan. By the time Guitarist's first direct rival went to press, SRV had tragically died.


Another highlight for Guitarist was their monthly Oldies But Goodies feature. Picture-accompanied, first-hand assessments of classic vintage guitars. Begged, borrowed and... well, I'm fairly confident they never actually stole anything. But the pedigree of the instruments was high - rising right up to Clapton's original 'Blackie' and a world-first close-up look at the so-called "lost" Hendrix Strat which had been in a bank vault since the guitar legend's death.

Even down to the lowly Hofner Club 60 or Dwight Coronet, there was usually a historical background behind the oldies. With reference to its history, Guitarist memorably photographed a VERY vintage, and VERY gorgeous 1938 Epiphone Broadway up against a Supermarine Spitfire. The guitar's original owner had been a Spitfire pilot who died in World War Two.


Even in the late 1980s, after years of glowing success for Guitarist, there was no direct UK competitor. International Musician and Recording World was still riding high on the 'eighties technology wave, and whilst it continued to run its Guitarcheck feature (now entrusted to Dave Burrluck), guitars were a mere component of the generalised gear smorgasbord.

However, the end of the decade brought a seismic change in musical creative culture, as the public rapidly tired of hearing uber-glass synth pads and whoopee cushion pitch-shifts drenched in chorus and long-tail 'verb.

The pendulum was now careering towards music with a much more human and earthy character. Grunge was exploding into the mainstream, ridding rock of its widely-mocked image of spandex, poodle hairstyles, gadget-warp and widdly-widdly solos. And blues was making a fanfare comeback, reaching new, young audiences like it had not done since the 1960s. Suddenly, it was synth prices that were hitting the floor, and everyone wanted a guitar again.

In summer 1990, International Musician and Recording World officially acknowledged this monster cultural shift. Evidently now struggling to maintain a 15-year-old format whose central technological theme was in freefall collapse, the mag introduced a completely new full-scale supplement.

It was called The Guitar Magazine, and although bound into the IM&RW package it featured its own front cover. It could run to around the page count of a 1984 Guitarist mag, and was clearly a serious new venture. In fact, it added so much bulk to IM&RW, that the production had to ditch its stapleback format and shift to a bound spine for a number of months. IM&RW returned to stapleback from April 1991, as The Guitar Magazine only numbered twenty-odd pages in that issue, and the publishers were now holding back content in order to follow the obvious path... To launch TGM as a separate, standalone publication.

International Musician and Recording World, in its final throes, spawning The Guitar Magazine

The Guitar Magazine spawned not from the pit of hair-metal-worship, but from a trend-driven smorgasbord of beatboxes and oversized rope chains. This shot shows a 1990 edition of TGM tucked inside a Prince-headlined copy of International Musician and Recording World. Covers of other IM&RW issues show how the general musicians' mag tried to find a future in its final throes. The earlier LL Cool J issue comes from the height of the 'eighties tech boom when IM&RW cost £2 and had a clear identity. 1990/91 issues have crashed to as low as £1 and are desperately trying to push guitar themes to drive adoption of the TGM supplement. The Deee-Lite-headlined issue from April '91 did include TGM, but only in token form, as The Guitar Magazine was by then preparing for standalone launch. The EMF edition next door came from June '91 - the month TGM finally separated and began its rise to dominance, leaving IM&RW to perish.

Right on cue, The Guitar Magazine hit the shelves as a product in its own right with an initial June 1991 issue. Johnny Marr on the cover with a blue Strat, £1.50 in the UK, and exporting to the USA at $4.50. The £1.50 cover price was notably 50% higher than the £1 at which the entire IM&RW package had sold whilst promoting and including The Guitar Magazine in the final quarter of 1990!

Interestingly, TGM had initially carried its own separate volume and issue number within IM&RW, starting from 1, 1, and suggesting that in 1990, International Musician itself intended to compete with Guitarist in package format. However, the separate numbering system was ditched forward from the January 1991 issue, which would have been TGM Volume 1, Number 6 had the original sequence continued. This looks to indicate that IM&RW were now at least considering a separation for TGM.

From April 1991, after three months with no volume or issue number, the IM&RW-packaged Guitar Magazine finally adopted the main package's sequence. When the standalone guitar mag launched in June, its issue numbering system was reset to 1, 1. There were thus TWO Volume 1, Issue 1s of TGM. And two of every other edition up to Volume 1, Issue 5. The content was completely different across the repeated IDs though. Only the issue numbers were duplicated.

Perhaps predictably, after birthing its guitar-focused legacy, the bereft International Musician and Recording World instantly withered and folded. With Sound on Sound magazine providing a more comprehensive alternative to the Recording World section, Guitars had been serving as IM&RW's life support system for the past year.

There was still plenty of mileage in hi-tech, as Future Music proved upon launch late the following year. But Future Music was a much cooler, more modern and sharper product, homing in on a more underground, analogue-rich tech scene that felt exciting. It also came with a cover disc, and was a million miles from the outdated IM&RW, which still retained much of its 1970s internal design in 1991. It was almost impossible to believe the fresh, colourful and modern Guitar Magazine had come from the same publisher as IM&RW - Northern & Shell PLC.


1990s issues of The Guitar Magazine

The Guitar Magazine after standalone launch. A quality product, evidently seeking to exploit the large gaps in Guitarist's artist diversity.

The Guitar Magazine had a different style from Guitarist, and it posed the established monthly huge commercial problems. TGM was certainly a lot more dynamic and digestible than Guitarist had been at its launch. That's a totally unfair comparison for many reasons, but readers didn't care about fairness. And TGM also offered a more diverse focus, which must surely have won it a readership that just wasn't gonna buy endless rock dinosaur, LA session cat and neo-classical wig-out themes.

If you looked at Guitarist in the months prior to TGM's appearance, you would see a trend away from the metal of the late '80s. Belew, Townshend, Beck, Stanley Clarke, Albert Lee... But there was still a distinct "fogey" element to it, and new musical trends seemed to be completely passing Guitarist by. The Guitar Magazine, in contrast, covered grunge, song-crafting, UK indie rock and pop... And it was not afraid to put Shaun Ryder on the cover. It felt like a different world. More relevant and topical. But it still delivered the Hendrix, Satriani, Sambora and blues revival stuff, and had Rory Gallagher narrating a great exploration of various vintage Strats.

TGM cost Guitarist sales, and the former UK monopoly-holder almost instantly went metaphorically white with fear. Guitarist saw the need to up its game as soon as TGM appeared as an IM&RW supplement. Guitarist noticeably increased its page count, dropped its original stapleback format and moved permanently to a bound spine.

But more dramatically, Guitarist's expected annual price increase did not materialise in 1990, and whilst general economic conditions were cited as relevant to the freeze, the greater force was the dire commercial threat posed by The Guitar Magazine. Once TGM launched standalone in 1991, immense pressure fell on Guitarist.

In 1993, when Guitarist finally aligned its cover price in keeping with its original path (causing a 45p increase that April), editor Neville Marten admitted the mag's cost had been painfully suppressed for two years, and alluded to "unprecedented competition". He never connected the two dots, but that exact month, TGM added the boast "Britain's best selling guitar magazine" to its cover. Blatantly, the early 'nineties newcomer had given Guitarist a commercial battering.

1994 brought another 45p price increase for Guitarist, meaning that in ten years of publication, its cost had increased by about 238%. In fairness, by '94 it had also changed almost out of recognition and was more like a monthly tome than a magazine. Now edited by longtime staffer Eddie Allen, it had significantly more pages than major books like Richard Smith's History of Rickenbacker Guitars. True, take away Guitarist's mass of ads (approximately half the magazine*) and the Rick History would totally destroy the remaining page count. But Guitarist was massive. It was set to power its way forth in the second half of the nineties. But the outfit behind that slick, upstart tech monthly Future Music had other ideas...

* I sample-counted 99 pages of ads in November 1990's 194, and 127 pages of ads in September 1995's 244.

Guitarist magazine issues of the 1990s

Guitarist in the 1990s. Much bigger, glossier, more polished and more professional than its stapleback 'eighties equivalent, but less quirky, and more predictable.


Of all the UK guitar mag introductions, Total Guitar's entry was the one I remember best. Perhaps because I have it diarised as part of an important day's travel. I was in Stourport-on-Severn on the afternoon of 25th November 1994, when I noticed the new magazine with a compact disc on its cover. I gleefully handed over the £3.50, bagged Future Publishing's fascinating new proposition and set off on the final stage of my journey home.

Whilst UK guitar magazines had carried audio before, they'd only bundled audio cassettes as one-off commercial samplers. Total Guitar's concept was completely new in the genre. The CD was integrated into the core content, so the products under review could be heard as well as read about. In Issue 1 you could hear a Parker Fly, a Marshall DRP-1, a Status Eclipse bass, a trio of Trace Acoustic pedals, a collection of electro-acoustic instruments, a full shoot-out between sixteen fuzz pedals, and a range of vintage versus new guitar comparisons. Then there were how-to and technique guides, etc. Plus the mag. What was not to like?

In fairness, had it not been for the cover disc, Total Guitar would not have rivalled either Guitarist or TGM. It didn't have the depth of commentary and it seemed to be aimed more towards novices and shorter attention spans. It had some parallels with Making Music - the free musicians' paper which had launched in the mid 1980s. Especially the sporadic nuggets of irreverence. But even though Guitarist won hands down on journalism and photographic content, that CD integration was extremely enticing.

Total Guitar in the 1990s

Total Guitar and some of its cover CDs. Packaging the text for shorter attention-spans and shifting the core impact to audio media was a powerful strategy which saw TG becoming Europe's biggest guitar mag.


It took Guitarist over a year to strike back with their own cover CD, which I didn't think was as good as Total Guitar's. And it appeared that Guitarist went onto the back foot after their CD addendum in early 1996 - trying to pitch a balance between the mag's original identity and the quest to compete with new formats.

Later in 1996, Guitarist was absorbed into Future Publishing - making it henceforth a stablemate of Total Guitar rather than an external competitor. Music Maker Publications, which had in all but name been Guitarist's parent from the start (the original Glidecastle was run from an office within Music Maker's headquarters), had entirely sold out to Future Publishing in the UK.

After the acquisition, Guitarist's page count diminished, but its price did not. And Total Guitar was soon being billed as "Europe's Best-Selling Guitar Magazine", so it appeared the UK pioneer's crown had slipped further. That didn't, however, stop Guitarist from continuing to inflate its price. Indeed, by the dawn of the new century, Guitarist cost a just a penny less than a fiver - nearly double its price at the end of 1995. Over six times its price upon introduction sixteen years earlier.

It did come with a CD, and a lot of work was going into that CD. But if the readership were already buying Total Guitar, did they really want another mag with a CD, at the inflated price that came with it?

More fundamentally, there was now a sense that the original, individual, relaxed, enthusiast-generated attraction of Guitarist had been lost to commercial wrangling. That aura of walking into a guitar shop and being greeted by grapevine chat and a bit of jovial clownery, had been replaced by an uber-professional money-making machine. The December 2000 issue of Guitarist comprised 218 pages, of which 116 were adverts, and there was a lot of 'junk' content like quick focuses, reader demos, competitions, album crits, book roundups and the like. The sort of thing free papers had previously carried. There was some premium content, but nowhere near five quid's worth. You were mainly just paying to stand in a wind-tunnel of marketing. That was the last issue I bought.

Back in the thick of the 'eighties, Guitarist had invented and featured a comically stupid band called The Really Big Men. The lead guitarist was - you've guessed - a woman, whose amp was a Matsui hi-fi, and whose guitar was custom made by a bloke called Chris Bolox. The lead singer looked less like a really big man, and more like a really small pensioner who'd just been thrown out of a pub, wearing a backturned baseball cap and a bomber jacket with a Status Quo motif on it. Not a high standard of comedy, but if you came home from a gig with a few beers inside you it would make you laugh. As the new millennium dawned you looked back on those quirks and thought: no one would ever let that happen now.

What remained by the end of the century was a clutch of magazines chasing the same ground, looking less distinct from each other by the year, and patently now at the mercy of capitalist decision-making in a way that Guitarist simply wasn't in the 1980s. It's a sad effect. Everything starts to look alike. Something works - everyone does it ad nauseam. Something fails - no one goes near it ever again.

And looming large as a dark cloud over all print publishing, was the all-consuming shadow of the World Wide Web. You can never go back, but it's nice to remember.