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Behind the Guitar Heroes – The New York Times

Behind the Guitar Heroes – The New York Times


Behind the Guitar Heroes
By Jon Pareles
Jimi Hendrix, with a Fender Stratocaster, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969.CreditDavid Redfern/Redferns—Getty Images

Jimi Hendrix, with a Fender Stratocaster, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969.CreditCreditDavid Redfern/Redferns—Getty Images
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By Jon Pareles

  • Jan. 16, 2019

Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll
By Ian S. Port
Illustrated. 340 pp. Scribner. $28.
Like a lot of paradigm-shifting inventions, the solid-body electric guitar seems inevitable in hindsight. Someone was bound to realize that a steel string could be hugely amplified by a magnetic pickup and an external speaker, blasting an electronic signal. Someone was bound to come up with a design that felt familiar and comfortable to a working musician. And someone would certainly figure out how to manufacture the instrument as an affordable mass-market commodity. But the actual advent of the solid-body electric guitar, sometime in the 1940s, was a tangled tale of tinkerers, craftsmen, musicians and businessmen who hardly realized what they had unleashed.
In “The Birth of Loud,” Ian S. Port, a critic and guitarist who was the music editor for The San Francisco Weekly, has sorted out the facts of the electric guitar’s much-mythologized genesis and cultural conquest. He turns them into a hot-rod joy ride through mid-20th-century American history. With appropriately flashy prose, he dismantles some misconceptions and credits some nearly forgotten but key figures. He also summons, exuberantly and perceptively, the look, sound and sometimes smell of pivotal scenes and songs.
Port frames his scrupulously sourced narrative with two thoroughly disparate characters who converged on the same idea and have archetypal guitars bearing their names: Les Paul and Leo Fender. “Their personalities and worlds were as far apart as any in music could be: One’s arena was primarily the stage, the other’s, the workbench,” Port writes.
Clarence Leo Fender was a perpetually rumpled, unassuming, self-taught radio repairman, an intuitive engineer and non-musician who decided to build guitars and amplifiers. “His enjoyment of the instrument,” Port writes, “stemmed from the precise pattern of harmonics produced by its strings. Where others heard music, Leo Fender heard physics.”
Lester Polsfuss, a.k.a. Les Paul, was a world-class guitarist and self-promoting showman who was also a technological visionary, fascinated by electronics and studio production. “Les Paul wrestled with the knowledge that even being a virtuoso on the guitar would not bring the fame he craved,” Port writes. “Les now began to see his guitar playing as one element in a larger project: a whole new sound that would combine his brilliant musicianship, the pure electric guitar tone he wanted, and radical new recording techniques he envisioned.”
Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford.CreditAssociated Press

Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford.CreditAssociated Press
The electric guitar was no single individual’s invention. Amplified guitars had appeared in the early 1930s, when companies including Gibson and Rickenbacker put pickups inside acoustic guitars to play them through amplifiers. Yet beyond a certain volume, amplified sound waves bouncing around inside a traditional guitar’s hollow body would create screaming feedback.
But that problem had been solved by a different instrument: the Hawaiian or steel guitar, distilled down to just strings, a neck and pickups heard through an amplifier. They were played horizontally, as a lap steel guitar, or built into a tabletop with pitch-shifting pedals as country music’s pedal steel guitar. Concentrating on Fender and Paul, Port mentions but doesn’t explore the groundbreaking solid-body lap steel guitar sold by Rickenbacker in the early 1930s or other short-lived, solid-body six-string guitar progenitors.
In the mid-1940s, Fender turned his radio repair shop into the Fender Electric Instrument Company, manufacturing steel guitars and amplifiers. Both he and Paul had been thinking about a solid-body electric guitar.
Les Paul built one for himself in 1940 out of a 4-by-4 plank and an existing guitar neck. He called it “the Log,” performed with it (adding the sides of a guitar body) and brought it to the Gibson company in the early 1940s as a potential product. “After Les left,” Port writes, “the managers chortled among themselves about that crazy guitar player who wanted Gibson to build a broomstick with pickups on it.”
In 1943 Fender and a collaborator put pickups on a solid oak plank and shaped it like a narrow little guitar. They built only one rough model, but for years they rented it out steadily to local musicians who loved the amplified sound. It was, Port writes, “a misfit stepchild of a guitar that extended creative expression past what any other standard model allowed.”
Neither Fender nor Paul got past his prototype until the 1950s. While Fender struggled to keep his existing factory in business, Paul was thriving as a musician, backing Bing Crosby and others. Paul had turned his Hollywood garage into a home studio: a magnet for musicians and a place to experiment with recording technique.
At Les Paul’s studio, Fender, Paul, and a designer and meticulous custom-instrument craftsman named Paul Bigsby brainstormed a solid-body guitar, consulting with musicians. One was the country music star Merle Travis, a Bigsby client. Travis dared the designer to build him a thin, solid-body electric, sketching it in detail. Bigsby built it in 1948.
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The headstock of a left-handed Gibson Les Paul Custom electric guitar.CreditWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The headstock of a left-handed Gibson Les Paul Custom electric guitar.CreditWilfredo Lee/Associated Press
Fender studied it, but knew it was too luxurious. He came up with something simpler, eliminating fine woodworking and its sculptural glued-on neck; his neck was bolted on and easily replaceable, for a guitar that could be manufactured, affordable and practical. “This was the leap from classical design to modernism; from the age of walnut to the age of celluloid; from the America of brick-and-iron cities to the America of stucco-and-glass suburbs,” Port writes.
Fender unveiled a solid-body six-string in 1950 and was backlogged with orders by 1951. That was the year Paul’s pop career skyrocketed. In a duo with his wife, the singer and guitarist Mary Ford, Paul used his multitrack studio to create giddy, futuristic, chart-topping versions of standards like “How High the Moon.”
The venerable Gibson company had quietly been developing its own solid-body guitar, with a more elegant shape, advanced pickups and smoother sound than the twangy Fender Telecaster. Although Paul didn’t design it — a myth Gibson cultivated — he tweaked it slightly and lent his mad-scientist credibility to the Les Paul Model, Gibson’s first solid-body electric guitar. Meanwhile, Fender came up with the Stratocaster, a curvy, seductive shape contoured to a player’s body. The competition was on, joined by other companies.
Leo Fender had another far-reaching idea, introduced in 1952: an electric bass guitar that was far more portable, louder and crisper than a classic bass fiddle. And as rock ’n’ roll took over popular music, he met the demand for bigger, louder amps — including one that deafened him in one ear while he was repairing it for the surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale — and for effects, like reverb, that separated the electric guitar even further from its acoustic ancestors.
Musicians took it from there. Electric guitars increasingly defined rock ’n’ roll, driving out pianos and horn sections. Guitarists cranked up and dirtied up the clean, warm sounds that Fender and Paul had tried to engineer; Jimi Hendrix embraced feedback with a vengeance. (His 1969 Woodstock Festival rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” gets its own, climactic chapter of Port’s book.) The synergy of guitars, amplifiers and effects spawned new idioms, while manufacturers’ profits rose and fell with hit makers’ equipment choices.
The latter part of “The Birth of Loud” juxtaposes breakthroughs by musicians — Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, the electric bass players Carol Kaye and James Jamerson — with the up-and-down individual and corporate fortunes of Fender and Paul. Fender sold his company in the mid-1960s, but kept tinkering with other companies. Paul saw his pop style eclipsed by rock ’n’ roll and his namesake Gibson model discontinued, only to have his guitar resuscitated by British blues-rockers and his playing eventually cherished by jazz fans.
In the digital era, guitars no longer rule popular music. Port recognizes that Paul left another, perhaps larger legacy: He was “the first player to claim the studio as an instrument, a move so common today that we often forget to remark on it. Les aimed to control not only the music that went onto the canvas of recorded sound, but everything about the canvas itself: the framing, the immaculateness of the background, the depth and layering of the sounds, and where it hung on the viewer’s wall.”
But “The Birth of Loud” rightfully celebrates an earlier time, when wood, steel, copper wire, microphones and loudspeakers could redefine reality. Tracing material choices that echoed through generations, the book captures the quirks of human inventiveness and the power of sound.
Jon Pareles is the chief pop music critic of The Times.


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