As we find ourselves in the last few months of 2020, we found ourselves reminiscing as we prepared to reveal our new merch line, a line that hearkens back to a simpler time, a musical time; a "12’ier" time. It’s a year that we affectionately refer to as “the year of the 12;” a year that was truly a landmark for our brand, our artists, and our legacy. It was a year that inspired the emotion behind our new line of merch. This merch line pays tribute to our time hustling [tens of thousands of] records out of our Chicago shop to passionate ears around the world with the release of Mark Tremonti’s debut solo album. These very designs are our tribute both to the fans, as well as a tribute to our record label days - the days when we showed the world what it was like to be the anti-label. Let’s begin with some history because in true FRET12 form, it all began with a guitar ...
Guitar instructional videos have been around for decades, and every player worth their salt eventually finds themselves digging into a particular video for one of their favorite famous artists (and really falling down that rabbit hole to guitar wonderland). We knew that if we wanted to do a guitar instructional ‘our way,’ we weren’t going to do it like your father’s guitar video. Yes, it’s fun to watch Paul Gilbert shred zillions of notes per second or watch John Petrucci melt frets as he goes mano-a-mano with the metronome, but most, if not all of these iconic releases missed out on the human connection and the many stories behind the artist and their sound.
We knew that telling the artist’s story in their own words had to go hand in hand with the teaching of their guitar parts. Not only would the artist teach their ‘moves,' i.e. techniques and skill-building exercises; we wanted them to teach their music, riffs, and solos that put them (and their band) on the map. These guitar instructional features would come to be known as “The Sound & The Story,” and with these productions, came the birth of a dedicated home base for all things guitar: FRET12.
Spawned out of a close family relationship with Grammy award-winning guitarist and songwriter Mark Tremonti, FRET12 would become a new home for guitarists of all walks of life. Mark’s own brother Daniel (President & Founder of FRET12) had begged him for years to do an instructional video, and after much consideration, Mark agreed to do his own instructional, in an all-new way, documenting the Alter Bridge album that many fans consider their opus: Blackbird.
Daniel Tremonti had a desire to capture an artist in their prime, when their skills, techniques, and writing were in full bloom. In his own words to his brother:
“Why doesn’t a guy like you take the time to stop and teach your techniques for writing and playing while you are at the height of your career? And while you’re at it, talk about the business, what your days look like and how you conduct yourself as a professional musician. This would be hugely relevant and informative for other aspiring musicians and fans alike. Instead of doing this after your prime, do it in the thick of it and share some of the secret sauce!”
And with that, the “The Sound & The Story” documentary series was born! This first DVD release captured the ins and outs of a professional touring musician’s life, insight into songwriting theory, musical ideation and ’idea chasing,' discussions about rigs and gear, tours of studios and private rehearsal spaces, and so much more; ALL in addition to the artist themselves teaching and telling stories about the very tunes that made them famous. It was content designed to appeal to both the hardcore musician/guitar nerd, and diehard music fan alike.
The FRET12 website and online guitar social community was officially launched in unison with the release of this debut instructional DVD back in 2008, with 2009 and 2010 bringing new DVD releases from legendary artists Leslie West and Troy Stetina. This idea of doing things differently and blazing new trails in the guitar universe became the DNA of Fret12, and soon became the M.O. of FRET12 Records.
This first trio of DVDs made their way onto music store shelves and online retail websites around the world, and by 2011, the company began its trek into musical instrument sales by becoming a Chicago music retailer and official dealer of Paul Reed Smith boutique guitars, selling many of the most well-known and sought-after guitars to passionate players around the world. All FRET12 instruments are sold with an emphasis on connecting legions of fans with artists through their gear. We asked, “If you’re going to buy a guitar, why not offer more for your money?” FRET12 again broke the mold by offering custom instrument packages, complete with autographed and artist-endorsed pieces, extra gear and swag, in-house modifications and upgrades/hotrods, and to top it all off: a free copy of our DVDs to give musicians a completely new, more immersive experience in buying their gear. Our guitars come with a full story to be heard and explored as the buyer writes their own.
In addition to video production and selling top-tier gear, we also knew that there were great artists out there who had to be heard. So, it was also during this time (2010) that FRET12 signed its very first artist, Chicago-based blues guitarist Dave Specter to our official record label. FRET12 produced his ninth studio LP: “Spectified.” This album consisted of Dave’s originals infused with 3 classic blues favorites. The LP featured special guest David Hidalgo from Los Lobos on Rumba & Tonic as well as The Bo' Weavil Brass on 4 tracks led by former Tower of Power trumpet man, Mike Cichowicz. John Kattke and Pete Benson share the keyboard chair, with the rock-solid rhythm section of Harlan Terson and Greg Wyser-Pratte laying down the grooves with Latin percussionist Victor Garcia. With this trek into albums, we began our time as a label who set out to do things differently, in a quest to go “beyond.”
Due to Dave’s immense musical skill and knowledge of the genre, he signed on as the host of FRET12’s Blues & Beyond video series – yet another expansion of FRET12 Records that shone the spotlight on the sounds and stories of both historic and contemporary blues icons in and around Chicago, a city which many still view as the epicenter of all things blues.
Back when we filmed “The Sound & The Story” guitar instructional DVD with Mark Tremonti, we recorded hours of footage of his well-known songs and solos, warm-ups, shred and lead playing, acoustic jams, as well as some quite-heavy sounding metal riffs (noticeably heavier and more aggressive than the riffs from his other well-known bands).
These very riffs would eventually evolve into several signature tunes from his first album as a solo artist, where the man known for blistering lead guitar and songwriting chops would take center stage to perform guitar and lead vocals along with a whole new sound and style. What began as a simple idea to release unheard music, turned into a full-blown radio and commercial success at FRET12 Records.
With some riffs dating back as far as 7th grade, these new sounds captured who Mark “was” (and still is) as both a guitarist, songwriter, metalhead, and musical artist. These riffs and early song ideas would be the launchpad for Mark’s trek into a solo career, his first studio LP “All I Was,” and a bridge to 2012: the year that launched FRET12 Records into the stratosphere.
The spark to launch the Tremonti Project began in a similar fashion to our instructional content. Daniel Tremonti (one of Mark’s ‘trusted ears’ when it came to showcasing new ideas to show the world) knew that his brother had a plethora of great music that would never quite fit into Mark’s other bands. These songs needed to see the light of day, and Dan begged his brother to release these tunes, even if only instrumentally.
After much brotherly debate, Mark decided that 2012 was the time to show the world a new, heavier side of himself, along with the sound of his singing voice. Whether many fans knew it or not, Mark’s vocals were not only a huge part of both the background harmonies in Creed and Alter Bridge, but also a monumental piece of the songwriting process. As the Tremonti Project began to take shape, the resulting songs ended up being so good that major labels came calling. The decision was made however to try something new, grassroots, and 100 percent on our own terms. With that, the project became known as simply “Tremonti” and would call FRET12 Records its home.
Mark entered the studio in 2012 to cut the tracks for “All I Was” with producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette. We knew that releasing this music in a unique way would be our signature move in doing things differently, so for all 12 songs on the record; 12 custom pieces of artwork were also drawn up that would be available as both prints and clothing. Eventually a debut single was chosen and as we shopped the song to radio, we also let loose some teaser tracks to give the fans what they wanted in anticipation of the July release date and fall tour. In addition to these leaks, FRET12 began work on an entire series of events and social productions that would put the fans first. Before any of that, however, we needed some album artwork to cover the sounds of this new album.
Having worked with many bands in the past on multi-platinum album artwork and associated graphics and marketing, Mark teamed up with his brother Daniel (and his creative agency Core Twelve) again for conceptualizing the visuals that would go with the sounds of his debut solo album. The two brothers agreed on a concept that was moody, dark, gothic, and inclusive of the Tremonti’s roots as well as the many themes and ideas that Mark would explore. With Mark’s name on the 12th fret of his signature instrument, the name FRET12 (and Core Twelve), it seemed only fitting that our first single release from the 12-track album would come out in April 2012. Did we release it at 12:12:12AM? You bet we did!
As our way of giving back to some seriously passionate fans that were making their voices heard from around the world, FRET12 Records set out to immerse them in the excitement of Tremonti’s first solo album with a series of exclusive VIP events and activations. With the launch of a dedicated site (tremontiproject.com), FRET12 Records was able to connect with all fans in a central location, allowing each one of them entry in a contest to win exclusive prizes, including a grand prize that was buried like pirate’s treasure at a very-private location that would be revealed via GPS coordinates to only the winner.
The next phase was to create a VIP Listening Party, an exclusive event where we would allow a limited number of VIPs private access to a recording studio to hear the album months before it came out, as the artist intended, WITH the actual artist! Fans from not only the US but from around the world showed up to be a part of this very special night that cemented FRET12’s goal of doing things differently. We took over Groovemaster Studios in Chicago, where multi-platinum record producer Johnny K himself played this very special album at maximum volume to a room full of fans. The fans were there, FRET12 was there, the band was there, legendary industry musicians and artists even attended. This was a gathering of musical passion, because if you’re going to have your songs leaked, why not do it in the coolest way possible?
FRET12 polled and interviewed these fans to get their thoughts and feedback on the music, as their valuable input helped us choose which singles we wanted to put on the radio. Imagine getting to see and hear your album in a studio, WITH the artist themselves, months before the release.
FRET12 Records prides itself on making these experiences a reality for our fans. But we didn’t stop there. This was just a launchpad for the main event on album release day. Because after all, what could be better than hearing the full new album? Hearing the full new album LIVE. This final phase culminated in a VIP Concert and Listening Party with the band on release day. This was held in 2012 at The Social in Orlando, FL to a very select group of VIP fans.
After 2012, Fret12 didn't slow down. After the overwhelming success of Mark Tremonti’s debut solo album and ensuing tour, Mark remained on the label to release each and every one of his solo albums, eventually culminating in his most ambitious undertaking to date: the writing and release of a double-media concept album known as “A Dying Machine” - which featured a 300 page hardcover novel that paired contextually with a studio LP recording that acted as the soundtrack to the events on paper. Heralded as one of the guitarist’s most breathtaking creative undertakings, and one of the most critically-acclaimed musical undertakings in recent times, the book went on to be a #1 Best Seller on Amazon, along with the studio album topping the charts around the world.
If you’ve made it this far, we hope you’ve enjoyed this brief recap of the places we’ve been, the events we’ve built, the friends we’ve made, and the memories we’ve forged during our very special (and somewhat brief!) time as a record label. As you now know, the fans are everything to us, and due to popular demand, we have finally created some cool shirts that are all about FRET12 Records. You asked for it, and here they are! You’ll see connections to our Chicago roots, our love of music, the media that we enjoy our craft with, our devotion to connecting fans to artists, and of course, that crazy feeling of selling records from the trunk of some Detroit muscle. We have always enjoyed doing things differently. After all, the machine is nowhere to be found here at our label.