Jason Verlinde is celebrating the seventh anniversary of Fretboard Journal, a quarterly magazine put together in a Ballard basement that is the result of years spent listening to music, the artists and the instruments that make it.
Thank God for big sisters with even bigger record collections.
I had one. So did director Cameron Crowe, who gave his “Almost Famous” protagonist William Miller a big sister who left him the Neil Young, Cream, Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Who records that served as his musical awakening.
Jason Verlinde’s big sister not only played music, and lots of it, but he also had a mother who took him to his first concert, and then sat alone in the back row while her kids took it all in. Bruce Springsteen at the Oakland Coliseum in 1984. Verlinde was 10.
“My musical trajectory was what my sister was into,” Verlinde, 38, said the other day. “INXS, The Clash. From there it was a pretty slippery slope.”
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That slope has had a softer landing than most.
This month, Verlinde is celebrating the seventh anniversary of Fretboard Journal, a quarterly magazine that is the result of years spent listening not only to music, but to the artists and the instruments that make it.
There was a party in Fremont, with guitar-themed cocktails and a stage with warmed-up amps just in case Bill Frisell decided to play.
Fretboard Journal is run out of a small basement office in Ballard. It costs $40 a year, and has a subscriber list that includes some marquee names, such as Christopher Guest and Wes Craven. There are plenty of plinkers, too, and those who can’t play a note, but love to pore over the pages just the same. It is that accessible.
As publisher, Verlinde has had to sweat the details of the business, but he has also had access to the most intimate of spaces: Jackson Browne’s house, where Verlinde recorded him performing “Something Fine.” David Crosby’s bedroom, where he covered Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.”
He has visited Wilco’s secret loft in Chicago, and been introduced to Eddie Vedder’s merry band of ukuleles.
“Ninety-nine percent of the stories are set in an artist’s home or studio,” Verlinde said. “Our demands are unique, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be an exhaustive story, a nice thing for the fans and the artist.”
The stories are all spread over pages of thick, shiny stock that is coffee-table ready — if only you could put it down. It’s no wonder that the premier issue has been spotted on eBay, listed for $200.
Also notable: Ads make up less than 20 percent of the pages. Subscribers and newsstand sales cover the rest. “It’s not great,” Verlinde said, “but it works.”
When he launched the venture, Verlinde knew more what he didn’t want, than what he wanted.
“Every guitar magazine was instruction, gear reviews and an interview with whoever had a CD to promote,” he said. “There are plenty of magazines and websites that are clinical.
“I’d rather hear about the human element,” he said. “I wanted to be a journal of the guitar world’s best stories, a timeless, evergreen keepsake.
“When you actually talk to musicians about their tools of the trade, they open up a bit, and in a different way.”
He and editor-at-large Michael John Simmons fashioned it after Surfer’s Journal, a bimonthly magazine dedicated to the history of the sport. Although Verlinde doesn’t surf, he has subscribed for years.
Fretboard Journal is also different in that sometimes Verlinde invites musicians to interview each other, resulting in pairings like Neko Case interviewing Charlie Louvin; Bill Frisell interviewing Wilco’s Nels Cline; and Ben Harper interviewing David Lindley.
“You get a lot of fun stories you wouldn’t have gotten if you were a regular music journalist,” Verlinde said.
Surprisingly, Verlinde didn’t play the guitar growing up in Sacramento. As a teenager, he picked up a five-string banjo, but just couldn’t get his head around the sound — he didn’t know anything about bluegrass music.
“It was a disaster,” he said. “I sucked. I lasted maybe six months at lessons. It’s hard to play music that you’ve never heard before.”
He now plays the ukulele, guitar and mandolin.
“I know enough to be dangerous or to make people cringe,” he said. “I’m such a music snob that I’m disappointed when I hear myself.”
Verlinde attended the University of California-Davis, and volunteered at radio station KDVS, where he submerged himself in power punk and indie rock. He got an internship at Pulse!, a music magazine put out by Tower Records.
That gig turned into a full-time job that gave Verlinde his first exposure to blues and folk music, and legendary artists like Richard Thompson and Ted Hawkins.
In 1998, he learned that a Seattle online book retailer called Amazon wanted to get into the music business, and was looking for writers and editors to build pages focused on different musical genres.
Verlinde joined a stable of former radio and record-company managers and newspaper writers who listened to music, wrote reviews and interacted with customers.
“It will never happen again in the history of humankind,” Verlinde said of his former co-workers. “We were a really eclectic bunch. You could create. You could say that this was the best record of the year and send it out to thousands of people, and they would buy it.”
In 2002, and while still at Amazon, Verlinde and Simmons launched The Ukulele Occasional, a book-like niche magazine that ran for two issues, and featured uke players like Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields and companies like Martin Ukuleles, as well as repair tips.
Fretboard Journal continues to grow, especially digitally. Verlinde took a video-production class before his son was born two years ago so he would know how to make quality videos for the Fretboard website. One video of Frisell going through his instruments got 50,000 views.
“You have one shot to do it right,” Verlinde said. “It would be foolish not to bring a video camera and curate the content as much as I can.”
The iPad application launched a few months ago. There’s a blog, and podcasts of interviews.
“Some of these guys are real characters,” he said. “And their voices accentuate the magazine very nicely.”
And there are always more musicians to talk to. His current wishlist: Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards.
“(Bob) Dylan would be the biggest,” he said, then smiled. “There’s a lot of guys out there that we’ll keep working on.”
For now, Verlinde is celebrating the “scrappy, small, ambitious team” who created a magazine worth keeping, and revisiting, like a great song or a favorite guitar.
“I felt like I needed to do it,” Verlinde said. “I am the last person to think of myself as an entrepreneur. But I feel like there was such a need for this, I wanted to make it happen.”