O little axe of Bethlehem

baby-jesus-guitarIn the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and eighty-three, a youth humbly approached his special destination — a little music shop in the heart of his city’s downtown.

Inside, he took $188 in crumpled tens and twenties from his pocket.  Then the kindly shop owner reached above his head and took down a cherry-red imitation Les Paul electric guitar — a Japanese knockoff — from a long row of guitars hanging from the ceiling.

When the transaction was ended and the lad emerged from the shop with his guitar (in a very cheap black case), he whispered under his breath:

O Lord, though I’m pimply, though the lenses of my glasses are very thick, though my hair is oily, though I am girl-less … O Lord, please … let me rock.

This is my story.  Well, OK, it didn’t quite happen like that.

But at this time of year, a season that’s full of old stories and myths, there’s just no other way to talk about the magic of the electric guitar — it is a thing of myth … there’s no instrument, I think, that has had more hopes and dreams foisted on it than the electric guitar.  I’m not talking just about the big myths — Robert Johnson laying down his guitar at a crossroads and making a deal with the Devil — but also adolescent ones like mine.

I can only wonder what would’ve happened to the dreams of so many poor young teens like me  if guitars had never been electrified, if a young Texan named George Beauchamp hadn’t come up with an idea for adding amplification.  Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna tell the story of Beauchamp’s many experiments — for instance, taking apart a phonograph and mounting its little pickup on a 2 x4 with a single string … something Jack White would do — in the opening pages of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar, which Doubleday published earlier this fall.

Near the book’s beginning, there’s a wonderful image of a patent filed by Beauchamp for an “electrical stringed instrument”:

guitar-patent

So basic, so primitive — one of the early electric guitars was given the clumsy nickname “the frying pan.”

But that crudity would vanish in the decades ahead, as the authors tell us, as Clapton, Beck, Page, Santana, and other greats turned the frying pan into an electrified channel for lost romance and eff-you power … a gadget-heavy rocket ship for hairband metal players … and, in a nice arcing narrative, back to something more primal and reminiscent of Beauchamp in the hands of Jack White.

Play It Loud is an entertaining, easy tour of the players who have had the biggest impact on popularizing the electric guitar and some of the companies that have dominated the industry.

In the end, Tolinski and Di Perna make me feel sorry…. Wait.  Sorry?  Sorry for what?

For all those kids who have spent their time (wasted their time) playing Guitar Hero and other video games that are supposed to give you the feeling of the guitar experience.

As this book may remind some readers, like this reviewer who once spent every last dime to get a knockoff Les Paul, there’s nothing like crunching out power chords with a little overdrive and reverb … or the crisp ringing of six strings in tune … or pulling on the B string up past the twelfth fret until it sounds like it’s crying, until your meager talent blends for just a second or two with all those mythic heroes of the past ….

You can play Guitar Hero until your fingers fall off, and you’ll just never get it.

4 responses

  1. I absolutely loved this piece. It made me remember my first, and only, acoustic guitar and learning to play Suzanne. Nothing like the ping and verb of an electric guitar, however. I’m also remembering the one and only time I saw Hendrix, re-verbing his soul out, a couple of months before he died. I love your memories as I love mine. J.

  2. What a great review of a book that’s right up my alley. I messed around with acoustic guitar, but I love electric, and all the greats who’ve turned it into something wonderful. In fact, your review, and the story it’s built around, is so good that I’ve already ordered the book.

    In appreciation, may I offer a few licks — these, compliments of the great Albert Lee. There’s just nothing like good music, unless it might be a good book — or a good book about good music!

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