Like a lot of paradigm-shifting inventions, the solid-body electric guitar seems inevitable in hindsight. Someone was bound to realise 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 realised 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-mythologised genesis and cultural conquest. He turns them into a hot-rod joy ride through mid-20th-century American history.
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, aka Les Paul, was a world-class guitarist and self-promoting showman who was also a technological visionary, fascinated by electronics and studio production.
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. 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.
Neither Fender nor Paul got past his prototype until the 1950s. 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.
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.
Musicians took it from there. Electric guitars increasingly defined rock ’n’ roll, driving out pianos and horn sections.
The latter part of the book juxtaposes breakthroughs by musicians 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.
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.
© 2019 The New York Times