Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Ever since I saw this book in a bookstore in Sebastopol, I have been wanting to read it. I decided not to buy it, as I have limited remaining room in my library, and thus have tried to limit myself to stuff our local library doesn’t have - or books I anticipate being read by more than one member of my household.
It was definitely worth the read. But for the same reasons I enjoyed it, I doubt anyone else in my family would care.
I started playing guitar in my teens for the same reason I learned drums my freshman year of high school: because it was needed. Violin is and will always be my first and greatest love. I had a passion for it as soon as I realized it was possible for me to learn to play it, and still love to feel the strings beneath my fingers.
But I also enjoy playing other instruments. Because the small church we were attending at the time didn’t have a guitarist, I bought myself a little red electric, a tiny amp, and a chorus pedal, and learned a few chords. I eventually got an acoustic, and some far better instruments and amps, but that was after I had more disposable income. So I care a bit about guitars in general, and electric guitars in particular. I’m no lead player, but I’m decent as a rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist. Plus, I can make that fiddle sing…
(For those who care, current rig: Ovation Standard Balladeer 12 String Acoustic, Yamaha Pacifica Tele style, Epiphone ES-335 Dot. Peavey Prowler tube amp, mostly just guitar-cable-amp. Yeah, I'm a bit of a non-conformist.)
The authors of this book trace the development of the electric guitar from George Beauchamp’s invention of the first functional guitar pickup - and the “frying pan” electric guitar, through the great names everyone knows, to the present-day garage revivalists playing cheap plastic crap from the 1960s. Along the way, the book discusses revolutionary players such as Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Clapton, Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Freddie King, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Chuck Berry - and so many other greats of jazz and rock.
But the real focus is on the instruments themselves. Any guitarist can immediately conjure up the iconic images. The Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, the Gibson Les Paul and SC and Flying V, the Gretsch 6120, the ES-335, the Casino, the Rickenbacker 360, the GEM, the PRS. True devotees will know many more of the historical and modern day axes in this book. In general, guitars get the spotlight, not amplifiers, although these too are crucial to the sound. The authors choose to mention the two that they felt made the most revolutionary changes to guitar performance: the VOX AC15/AC30, and the Marshall stack. It is hard to disagree with this, although I am partial to the old Fenders myself.
The book is also fairly heavy on the biographical details of the men who designed the most innovative and influential instruments. This makes sense in light of the specific focus of the books. Certain musicians - usually the ones whose biographies are less well known despite their importance to the development of guitar technique - also get longer treatments. I mean, everyone knows the Beatles and Eric Clapton - but despite Charlie Christian essentially kickstarting the use of the electric guitar in jazz and blues, fewer people know his name. In this, the authors help highlight the lives of those who suffer from undeserved obscurity.
Another decision that the authors made was to give equal importance to the African American greats who drove the development of the electric guitar and its crucial role in rock, blues, jazz, and pop. From the beginning, white America has had an uneasy relationship to the most truly American forms of music. As early as the 1890s, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak predicted that America would not find its true musical voice until it embraced the sounds of Negro spirituals and Native American music. He would prove to be correct, as Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hip Hop would become the American sounds that have swept the globe.
In the very opening of the book, the authors describe Benny Goodman’s decision to incorporate works by African American composers into his sets, essentially mainstreaming Jazz. But also, a crucial role was played by John Hammond, a talent scout for Goodman and others, who “discovered” Count Basie and Billie Holiday. It was Hammond who found Charlie Christian and convinced Goodman to incorporate the electric sound into his band.
Hammond was a true champion for racial equality during a time when the 2nd KKK was resurgent, and did much to break down color lines. While he obviously couldn’t fix Jim Crow singlehandedly, he did manage to place black musicians in front of white audiences - truly the first crack to show in the wall of segregation. As Hammond put it, “To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”
One of the tragedies of the history of American music is that white musicians would profit far more from African American music than its inventors would. But the silver lining is that music was an important bridge across the gap. For us musicians, music is a universal language, a language that shatters the walls our culture builds, and makes connections that push back against prejudice.
To some degree, this is the story of this book. The electric guitar has always been an expression of rebellion against the old rules, against the old ways of thinking, against arbitrary boxes.
If you are interested in guitars, this book will be fascinating. If you care about the history of music, it will be a pleasant read. Even if you don’t play, you might find something new and interesting in this book.
I’ll end with a quote from Keith Richards:
“Guitar is easy. All it takes is five fingers, six strings, and one asshole.”
One of the hardest parts about breaking up with Evangelicalism has been losing the opportunity to play my guitars regularly. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that this part of my life will come back. I cannot see ever attending an Evangelical church again - it’s a bridge too far morally and theologically these days. While mainline denominations aren’t all organs and hymns anymore, they still tend to skew old and traditional. Nothing wrong with that. Worship matters, not the form. But more than that, after the way I was thrown under the bus on the way out, I am going to have a really hard time trusting enough to put myself in a ministry position again. So, realistically, perhaps once the kids are grown, I may have to find some other old farts to jam with for fun.
Sorry, that’s kind of heavy. Let’s end with some Ray Stevens: