In 1984, Christian Roebling went from being just another guy watching TV to creating what was likely the first television program to focus on and feature guitar players and builders. Though few outside of New York City knew of its existence, in its six years on the air, “The Guitar Show” played host to some of the heaviest hitters in guitardom.
The show essentially began one night when Roebling tuned to Manhattan Cable television and saw “…a guy doing a live show and taking phone calls from viewers.” That guy happened to be Jim Chladek, owner of Metro Access and a pioneer in cable television. Roebling called in and, on the air, asked, “How can somebody do a show?”
Soon after, he visited Chladek in the studio and was offered a job. “Back then, on-the-job training was the only way to learn,” he said. “So I started pulling cables, sweeping floors, doing audio, operating the camera – I learned every job in the studio.”
Though his salary was far from a king’s ransom, Roebling was attracted to the gig because it was a wonderful opportunity to learn, and provided a creative outlet via the element that sealed the deal – two hours of studio time each week. A certifiable guitarhead, Roebling knew exactly what he wanted to do.
“The concept was simple; a weekly show dedicated to the guitar, its players, and manufacturers,” he said. “All I had to do was look in The Village Voice to see who was playing around town – there was no shortage of players on any given week.”
While his expectations may have been realistic, his thoughts for a first guest were, he admits, a bit “pie in the sky.”
“I knew my first guest had to be Les Paul,” he said. “Les played every Monday night at Fat Tuesdays in New York City, so I went to see him on August 20. I remember sitting there, amazed at watching him play and tell these wonderful stories. He was generous with his time and talked to everyone who approached after his set. And he would sign anything – guitars, pickguards, photographs – smiling the whole time.
“I waited until after his last set, so I could ask him to be on the show. I thought he’d ask ‘Who are you?’ or say ‘Get away from me, kid!’ or ‘Sure, and bring lots of money!’ – which I didn’t have! But when I told him about that show and how I thought he would be the perfect first guest, he said, ‘Sure, bring your crew next week.’
“So, on August 27, he let us film his entire set. Afterward, he spoke to everyone in the club, then sat to talk while the bartender stacked chairs. Les never rushed, and talked as long as I had questions.”
Roebling left the club that night on an undeniable (and justified) “success high.” But of course one episode – stellar though it may be – didn’t mean he had a “show.” There would have to be other guests, and he faced a daunting challenge finding a suitable follow-up, but…
“I had a friend who knew Rick Derringer,” he said. “Rick was a favorite of mine since his early hits and I remember seeing him tear the roof off of The Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1972 with Johnny Winter And. So I gave him a call. At first, he played the role of rock star – a bit standoffish, like, ‘I dunno… Who’s been on?’ When I told him Les Paul was on the first episode, he totally changed! He was like, ‘Let me know when and where!’ He was wonderful to be around, and as a guest he was fantastic.”
Lining up artists for subsequent episodes, the first question was usually like Derringer’s; “Who’s been on?” But once told who had appeared in episodes one and two, they signed on. Larry Coryell was third, and for 50 episodes, Roebling says he never had trouble filling guest slots.
“One of the highlights for me was booking Jimmy Page,” he recalled. “That episode was taped at Les Paul’s house when Led Zeppelin had reunited to play Live Aid. Jimmy brought all of his guitars for the show, including his iconic Gibson doubleneck, the Fender ‘Bender,’ and his Les Paul Standard, and he got to hang with one of his idols! I don’t know how it could have gotten any better than that.”
“The Guitar Show” didn’t discriminate when it came to genres. Legends from the jazz realm appeared, including Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Charlie Byrd, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Larry Coryell, Emily Remler, and others. Fans of the blues got to enjoy Roebling’s talks with Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, John Hammond, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Joe Louis Walker, and others, while rock fans saw Roebling sit with idols like Page, Derringer, Paul Gilbert, Jay Jay French and Eddie Ojeda of Twisted Sister, and Phil and Dave Alvin from The Blasters. Even classical guitarists were represented by Sharon Isbin, Benjamin Verdery, and Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Then there were those who trended toward uncategorizable, like Richie Havens, Cornell Dupree, Adrian Legg, John Fahey, and Danny Gatton.
Today, Roebling keeps alive the memories of the show by way of the internet (search youtube.com for Front Row Music NYC) and two pieces of memorabilia he holds very close to his heart – guitars given to the show. The first is an ’84 Les Paul that Roebling obtained by contacting Norlin Industries, Gibson’s parent company at the time. “I asked if they wanted to be on the first show, since Les Paul was going to be the guest. I suggested they appear to talk about new products and, of course, Les. In return, I asked them to leave a guitar so I could have future guests engrave their autographs into it.”
Paul did indeed engrave his signature, along with the date. “Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown signed the Les Paul along the entire fretboard!” said Roebling. “Danny Gatton signed it under the strings, and as he was doing so, he jokingly said, ‘I should be behind bars!’”
By 1988, its body surfaces started running out of space, Roebling called Gibson and then-new CEO Henry Juszkiewicz to see if he wanted to be a guest, and donate another guitar. “I told Henry we needed a larger guitar to hold a lot of signatures, so I requested a black J-200.” Juszkiewicz and Gibson obliged.
Other manufacturers who appeared included Bill Kaman, president of Ovation, as well as Steve Grom from Fender, Paul Reed Smith from PRS, Rich Lasner and Bill Cummiskey from Ibanez, Jim Funada from Yamaha, Ned Steinberger, Chris Martin, Seymour Duncan, and Dennis Berardi from Kramer.
The final episode of “The Guitar Show” aired in 1990 and when he looks back today, Roebling is well aware that beyond having Les Paul do the first show (“Without Les, none of it would have happened,” he says), the world – and TV production – were very different in the mid ’80s.
“The whole system was simpler – I had a free studio, the airtime on Manhattan Cable TV was free, the director and crew were my friends, who worked for free! I only had to pay for the tape stock and spend a bit of money to edit the show.”
Roebling went on to produce a video magazine called “GuitarVisions” (1990-’91), which featured Steve Stevens, Michael Hedges, Ralph Towner, John Fahey, “Gatemouth” Brown, Birelli Lagrene, and others, followed by “Guitar Masters,” (’92) where he interviewed Jeff Golub, Reeves Gabrels, John Petrucci, and Sonny Landreth, a video documentation of Scott Chinery’s Blue Guitar Party (’96) where Roebling interviewed Scotty Moore, Steve Howe, Bob Brozman, and others, and video for the “JVC Jazz Tribute To Johnny Smith” (’99). Since 2000, he has worked with Stefan Grossman, helping produce instructional videos by Rory Block, Martin Taylor, and Grossman himself. He also directed a series of “Guitar Artistry” videos for David Bromberg, Woody Mann, and Geoff Muldaur.
Today, Roebling is an experienced gigging guitarist/singer/songwriter who plays reguarly around NYC and recently recorded an album titled Leave Here Runnin.’ “Making ‘The Guitar Show’ was an incredible experience,” he said. “It was the only weekly television show dedicated to the guitar. I had a front-row seat to the world’s greatest guitar players.” Today, he regularly fields requests to re-start the series, and agrees its time may have come.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.