My Bigger Half is a musician, a guitarist, so when I saw this book in Judd Books during my bookshop-crawl, I thought it may be a good idea to learn a bit more about the instrument. Especially that with me being completely a-musical our conversations about music tend to be a bit one-sided.
It was difficult for me to get into this book. It starts with the history of how radio and sound amplification had to come together for the electric guitar to be born. I was distracted back then and the technical details were scaring me away from the book. And so it went back to the shelf for a few weeks. But I don’t like unfinished business and even more unfinished books, so it was constantly catching my eye as I looked at the shelf. There was only one way to solve it – get on with it and finish.
Once I got going it was not bad, actually, the early history of how guitar pickup was invented by George Beauchamp and how it developed into the electric guitar we know now was fascinating. The history of inventions, changes and improvements introduced by Adolph Rickenbacker, Leo Fender and Les Paul is thrilling. It is a history of the stubborn pursuit of a dream, of not settling for what is available, but continuously tweaking and changing things until they do what we want.
It was also shocking to realize that an instrument we take for granted now, only had its first commercial iteration in 1932 (the cast-aluminium Frying Pan guitar) and the two most classic models came to market in 1951 (Fender Telecaster) and 1958 (Gibson Les Paul Standard). Popular as it is, it’s not an old instrument at all.
The first part of the book that focuses on the early history of the guitar, up until 1964 is fascinating. With personalities like Ted McCarthy, who managed Gibson from 1950 to 1966, the time during which the most significant innovations were made and iconic guitar models were created (Gibson Les Paul, ES-335, the Tune-o-matic bridge system, the humbucking pickup, and the Explorer, Flying V, Moderne, SG and Firebird guitars – I know it all sounds gibberish for anyone who does not play guitar, but those really were milestones). Unfortunately, then the book moves to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the role their fame played in making electric guitar popular. I knew all of this earlier, so I lost heart for the book at that stage. It seems to focus more on the guitarists than the instrument itself.
The book comes back on track when Eddie Van Halen appears. A great guitarist (though I myself am not a fan of his style) who in a way went back to the roots – he could not get the sound he wanted from the guitars available in the market, so instead of settling for the available, he built a guitar he wanted. And the Frankenstrat was born. What he did was for me similar to the early guitar ‘inventors’ Leo Fender and Les Paul who tinkered with the equipment until they got what they wanted.
Next chapter deals with Steve Vai and Ibanez entry into the US market with probably the ugliest guitar ever (photo at the bottom, watch your eyes). What I also found interesting is how creative people – musicians – are very conservative when it comes to design. Many of them still use Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul – models designed in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was an interesting topic, the execution felt a bit uneven for me. I expected a bit more. Let me finish with two quotes, first about the Frying PAn and the second about Telecaster and why both were revolutionary:
This was a completely new breed of instrument – clearly and unapologetically an industrial product rather than a finely crafted artifact. In this regard, it was a radical instrument – more so than most of the electric guitars that would come immediately after it.
It looked like something a working-class guy had put together in his basement woodshop. Which is basically what it was – and why it’s so revolutionary. The Telecaster is proudly populist, working-class instrument.
Those of you who paid attention would have noticed that the featured image is not of guitars, but of ukuleles 🙂