Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Born in Roaring Twenties Southern California to a band of creative outsiders—transplants from the Dust Bowl, the Midwest, and Europe—the electric guitar very quickly grew into one of the defining symbols of our time. There are few greater, more prevalent modern icons. When used in advertising (as it often is), it is shorthand for freedom, danger, and unabashed hedonism. In the hands of a musician, it signifies artistry and rebellion. Its inventors’ ambitions may have been modest, but the instrument they conceived—visually striking in appearance, utterly practical in its application—would leave an indelible imprint on our history.
Long before anyone thought to amplify it, the guitar proved a remarkably versatile musical instrument. Its six strings and wide four-octave range could be used for chordal accompaniment or melodic single-note soloing, in almost any style. Its biggest asset, however, was its remarkable portability. Unlike a piano, a guitar could be slung over your shoulder and played just about anywhere. The instrument was also democratic. Affordable models were available and relatively easy to play. (As Rolling Stones legend Keith Richards once said, half in jest, “Guitar is easy. All it takes is five fingers, six strings, and one asshole.”)
But electrified and amplified, the guitar became positively protean, infinitely malleable and amenable to each player’s creative vision. In the hands of blues guitarist B.B. King, the instrument became an expressive solo voice that could sing, cry, and moan like a man in the pit of despair, or a woman in the throes of ecstasy. For the Beatles, it became a jangling orchestra that provided color, harmony, and heft to their timeless pop songs. Funk rhythm guitarist Jimmy Nolen used his axe almost like an amplified washboard, playing a Morse code of chicken scratches to power countless James Brown hits, such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
As players and instrument developed across the decades, a staggering sonic repertoire emerged. The resources of feedback and distortion allowed an electric guitar to evoke a nuclear meltdown, a dive-bombing aircraft, the ominous thrum of heavy machinery. But it is just as capable of producing crystalline tones and shimmering textures—the soundscapes of our most vivid dreams. This unprecedented range would allow the electric guitar to play a key role in a dazzling spectrum of musical idioms, from the hot jazz and Hawaiian music that formed the soundtrack of its creation to modern-day alternative rock, hard rock, heavy metal, contemporary country, and postmodern art music.
But the electric guitar would represent much more than just musical innovation. It would directly and indirectly impact the entertainment industry, politics, art, the economy, and many other facets of our cultural life. The instrument’s burgeoning popularity played a small but nonetheless significant role in advancing the cause of racial integration. It became a symbol of the counterculture sixties, rallying opposition to the Vietnam War, as its urgent clangor pushed forward the sexual revolution and progress toward gender equality. The curvy contours and electronic appointments of the electric guitar were of a piece with the mid-century modernist movement in industrial, automotive, architectural, domestic, and fashion design, which was finding a voice just as electric guitar builders were hitting their stride. And its sound would become deeply embedded in the popular culture of the modern and postmodern eras. Its lineaments are a map of our progress through the twentieth century and into the digitized world of today.
The electric guitar’s enshrinement in our cultural pantheon was cemented in 1977, when NASA launched two spacecraft whose missions were to explore the outer limits of our solar system and beyond. Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space, and is currently about twelve billion miles from our sun, with Voyager 2 on its heels. Packed away on each vessel is a twelve-inch gold-plated phonograph record containing 115 sounds and images, carefully curated to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Each disc was encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle and instructions, in symbolic language, indicating how the record was to be played. A team led by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan chose a precious handful of musical selections, from different cultures and eras, to include along with a variety of natural sounds. There were pieces composed by Stravinsky, Bach, and Beethoven, as well as traditional songs from Peru, Zaire, and Senegal. Among this sonic panoply was “Johnny B. Goode,” the stomping American rock-and-roll anthem written and performed by Chuck Berry. It was a controversial selection, but Sagan, a child of the modern era, understood there were few sounds in our world more exciting and life-affirming than the opening electric-guitar lick to Berry’s classic song.
Before the electric guitar could be shared with the cosmos, though, it had to find its place at home. The story of how it did so is an epic tale of television stars, tinkerers, fugitive auto execs, motorcycle daredevils, cowboys, and MIT grads. It is a story of some of the world’s most famous musicians, whose innovations pushed the electric six-string further. Some are household names—artists like Les Paul, the Who’s Pete Townshend, and Edward Van Halen, each of whom played a pivotal role in the evolution of the instrument. But there were countless others—figures just as fascinating and significant, if more obscure.
The story of this extraordinary musical instrument is ultimately our story—guitarists and nonguitarists alike. From rabid music fans to casual listeners, its siren call has touched us all.
Patent drawing for the first commercially produced electric guitar, the Ro-Pat-In “Frying Pan”