Spotlight: Strum Luck

Seattle-based guitar magazine Fretboard Journal delights music nerds and hardcore hobbyists nationwi

Category: Arts + Events Articles

 

On a Friday in Ballard—one of spring’s first sunny, warm days—Jason Verlinde has taken a booth just inside the dark cave of Hattie’s Hat. It’s a fitting backdrop for a discussion about his passion, the guitar-geek magazine Fretboard Journal; the debut issue (in 2005) featured a story by alt-country crooner Neko Case, who grew up in Tacoma and once worked on the kitchen staff at Hattie’s. Case, who hadn’t yet released Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the CD that propelled her past the swirling din of other indie songwriters onto the national radar, wrote the piece (on Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin) as a favor. This magazine model—articles born more out of personal interests and knowledge, rather than timely hooks—is one that has stuck, in spite of other uncertainties at the publication’s beginning.

“I think we didn’t know what we wanted [from that first issue],” says Verlinde. “It was a pretty eclectic mix, but that set a template for what we’ve become known for.” Named for the place on a guitar, mandolin, banjo or ukulele where the player fingers chords, the nationally distributed Fretboard Journal is known for being not so much a magazine about musical genres as it is about the instruments and players that make those genres matter. Published quarterly, FJ has a circulation of around 20,000 and costs $12.95 per issue. With its emphasis on big, bold photography and the wide dimensions of a coffee-table book, the glossy (which runs about 128 pages) looks like it was made to be read and reread (and read again). The features are written by musicians interviewing heroes (Seattle guitar guru Bill Frisell on jazz guitar legend Jim Hall), hobbyists obsessed with a specific fretted instrument and its luthiers (stringed-instrument makers) and music writers with a passion for niche genres (from the Kamaka ukulele factory in Hawaii to Bill Nash Guitars in Olympia, where new electric guitars are beat up to look prematurely aged).

Originally from Sacramento, Verlinde, 35, grew up “worshipping magazines” and devouring music. He cut his teeth as an editor at Tower Records’ free magazine Pulse! and became obsessed with typography and letterpress printing. In 1998, a job as editor in Amazon.com’s then-new music division proved a catalyst for pulling him into the Seattle music scene. After several years at Amazon, Verlinde—who plays mandolin, guitar, ukulele and musical saw—decided to do something about the fact that there seemed to be no good magazines for the instrumentally obsessed.

He initially threw his hat into the ring with Ukulele Occasional—a magazine he started “on a lark” with Michael John Simmons (now his business partner on FJ) in 2002, while he was still working at Amazon. “It was cute and small,” he says, “just like ukes.” Though it lasted only a year and two issues, Verlinde says it still holds a special place in his heart, and it was successful in whetting the pair’s appetite for publishing. Three years later, Verlinde left Amazon and launched FJ, seeking to reach a broader audience of instrumentalists.

He was motivated in part by the glut of poorly designed, thin-papered, ad-laden “buying guide” type of guitar magazines. “No guitar player I know has ever been into [traditional] guitar magazines,” Verlinde says.

Seattle—with its numerous music festivals, instrument builders, gifted writers and scholarly hoarders of fretted instruments—seemed like the right place to make a go of creating a beautiful guitar magazine. So, together with a small band of editors and photographers (mostly friends in the Seattle music scene), Verlinde lit into issue one of FJ.