A smart, well-researched and gripping account of the most iconic instrument of the twentieth century and the people who had the imagination and talent to bring it about.
At a time when it is becoming increasingly rare to hear electric guitars on the radio, at least not ones whose sound hasn’t been processed and compressed to hell, we need books like Play It Loud, an engaging history of the instrument that is accessible even to those of us who are listeners and lovers of the electric guitar without knowing every model and make.
Written by longtime editor of Guitar World Brad Tolinski and prolific music writer Alan Di Perna, the story of Play It Loud begins with George Beauchamp, the inventor of the first functioning guitar pickup and the designer of the first commercially-produced electric guitar (Beauchamp would patent the electric guitar in 1937). The authors do an especially nice job of reconstructing the life and work of this pivotal figure.
From there, they cover Charlie Christian’s pioneering playing during the swing era, the myriad revolutions of Les Paul, the “wizard from Waukesha,” and of course Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby.
Tolinski and Di Perna’s descriptions of the evolution of the early prototypes is remarkably vivid, even for the not-so-technically-inclined. They are also quite capable of bringing a whole period to life, such as in Chapter 5, “When Blues (and Country) Had a Baby.” This chapter starts off by effectively describing the birth of electric blues, focusing on the legendary figure of Muddy Waters. The chapter also features, along the way, a brief history of the Gretsch company and its early Chet Atkins models. But its real focus is the birth of rock’n’roll itself and the rise of the electric guitar as its synecdochal emblem, crystallized in the figure of Chuck Berry.
From there, the list of heroes continues with Clapton, in particular his groundbreaking work with John Mayall on the Blues Breakers album, which occasions a discussion of Les Paul models and Gibson’s president Ted McCarty. The message of the book would seem to be that behind every guitar hero, there is a great guitar—this seems simple enough, but not when you enter into the details of how those guitars get made. The history of rock is unimaginable otherwise. George Harrison and Roger McGuinn without a Rickenbacker, Keith Richards without a Gibson Les Paul, Hendrix without a Fender Strat (the list goes on), not to mention Bob Dylan without his utterly pivotal encounter with the Paul Butterfield band and guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
There is much more in the book than can be recounted here. For instance, the discussion of amplifiers is a small grace note, but one which is especially interesting with respect to the way in which they further enhanced the exploratory, experimental potentialities of the electric guitar. Latter chapters explore figures including Eddie Van Halen, who took the electric guitar beyond anything Les Paul, let alone George Beauchamp, could have imagined, ushering in the era of rampant customization and so-called “stunt guitar.”
The authors also highlight the internationalization of the instrument through a detailed canvassing of the emergence of the Japanese market. The book concludes with a welcome consideration of the neo-garage movement and its oppositional stance toward the baby-boomer ideology promoting the necessity of high-end equipment. Indeed, the last chapter, “Plastic Fantastic,” includes the germ of another idea—the way the electric guitar has been deconstructed by post-punk, experimental and avant-garde music. But that’ll have to wait for another book.
In the meantime, we have a smart, well-researched and gripping account of the most iconic instrument of the twentieth century and the people who had the imagination and talent to bring it about. This is bound to be a stocking-stuffer for young and old.