Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 12. PLASTIC FANTASTIC
Billed as “Music’s Biggest Night,” the annual Grammy Awards ceremony is a time-honored pop music ritual—and it is indeed big in every way. Because the show features multiple live performances by many of the music industry’s top-grossing acts, it is the largest physical production of any awards ceremony. Many millions of dollars are spent on sound, lighting, and broadcast equipment, special effects, fog machines, wardrobe, limousines, lavish record company after-parties, and every other pop-star extravagance imaginable.
The 2004 Grammy Awards ceremony was no exception—an evening of over-the-top production numbers teaming many of the highest-earning stars of popular music. In a Dolce & Gabbana evening gown, Beyoncé Knowles set the tone for the night, singing her hit ballad “Dangerously in Love” amid a tableau vivant consisting of a dozen or more dancers and models garbed in early-twentieth-century attire, enclosed by a massive gilt frame, like something out of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. She returned later on to duet with Prince on a medley from Purple Rain, midway down a grand staircase on a stage set that wouldn’t have been out of place in Fritz Lang’s cinematic sci-fi epic Metropolis. They were accompanied by a full band, a black-clad string section, and a troupe of backup dancers. This time Knowles was resplendent in a skimpy pink Roberto Cavalli frock. Prince sported one of his trademark purple “Love Symbol” guitars, designed by German luthier Jerry Auerswald—a consummately flashy axe if ever there was one.
Among the evening’s other attractions, it was a pretty good night for great guitarists and high-end guitars. Dave Matthews strummed a beautiful Martin acoustic, and Vince Gill played lead on a nice Epiphone thinline as they joined Sting and Pharrell Williams in a tribute to the Beatles. Dave Grohl played one of his vintage Gibson Trini Lopez models as his band, the Foo Fighters, was somewhat incongruously paired with jazz piano great Chick Corea. And gospel steel guitar ace Robert Randolph wowed the crowd in a tribute to funk music also featuring George Clinton, OutKast, and members of Earth, Wind & Fire. Album of the Year winners that year, hip-hop favorite OutKast was making a grand display of its musical roots.
But amid all this carefully choreographed mainstream entertainment, the ’04 Grammy audience was also shocked out of its comfortable seating by a raw and raucous garage band from Detroit called the White Stripes. There were only two of them onstage, and they certainly weren’t wearing Dolce & Gabbana.
The White Stripes had been nominated for a slew of awards that year and would walk away with Best Rock Song honors for their single “Seven Nation Army.” It was something of a left-field choice for the Grammys. More typical were the honors doled out that year to pop idols—and former Disney Mickey Mouse Club stars—Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. But then, the Grammys’ rock categories have often skewed somewhat rough-and-ready.
For the big show, the Stripes played “Seven Nation Army,” then segued into a frenzied, amped-up rendition of “Death Letter,” an old blues song by the singer and slide guitarist Son House, based on a mortality-charged motif that dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier. Their performance was everything the evening’s other musical turns weren’t—wild, noisy, disruptive, barely controlled. A megawatt lighting backdrop was the only concession to Grammy production values. Otherwise the White Stripes did exactly what they’d been doing in tiny, grimy alt-rock clubs for years.
Pounding her candy-striped red-and-white drum kit, dark hair flying, Meg White exuded a tough yet vulnerable sense of cool. Looking every bit the tortured outsider in a black T-shirt and skinny red jeans, Jack White coaxed an ungodly deluge of squeals, squawks, belches, and primordial blues riffs from a battered, budget-line 1950s Kay hollow-body electric guitar with a cheap sunburst finish. It was plugged into two Sears-brand Silvertone amps from the 1960s.
To put these instruments in context, the thrift-shop guitar rig that White chose to play at the Grammys was one that might have embarrassed a kid in a mid-sixties garage band performing at a high school talent show. Like the White Stripes’ music itself, it was defiantly out of step with the Grammy aesthetic of conspicuous consumption. This was simply and honestly the equipment White liked to play in this period. But it’s hard not to regard it as a gesture as well—a righteous blow struck not only against soulless commercial pop music but also against the baby boomer hegemony of high-end, ultra-dialed-in musical equipment.
The White Stripes were at the vanguard of what was hailed as the neo-garage-rock movement, a stylistic phenomenon that also included groups such as the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, and, slightly later, the Black Keys. It was hardly the first revival of mid-sixties garage rock. But it was arguably the first to garner Grammy recognition and other mainstream accolades.
The neo-garage bands were seen as the antithesis of the nu-metal/rap-metal sounds that had dominated the rock market through the late nineties and early 2000s. The Neanderthal aggression of nu-metal acts such as Korn and Limp Bizkit had been critically regarded as a new nadir for rock music. A back-to-basics movement is generally what’s required to blast any musical idiom out of stagnant waters, and garage rock provided just that—exactly as punk rock had done at the tail end of the seventies. The parallel is hardly surprising, as neo-garage stands firmly rooted in the post-punk tradition.
Neo-garage was one of the first great musical statements by the generation known as millennials. Like all things millennial, it was largely Internet-enabled. By the early years of the twenty-first century, music fans had instant access not only to just about any piece of music ever recorded but also to unlimited information on obscure guitars and amps of yesteryear, via a host of guitar-geek blogs. While abundant, as we all know, Internet information is completely unfiltered by any kind of critical or historical perspective. Music recorded in 2012 is heard right alongside songs recorded in 1942, with little or no sense of which came first, or how the two things might be related.
So old hierarchies were broken down. Who’s to say Jack White’s beat-up Kay was a lesser guitar than a ’59 Les Paul? While the Kay was a favorite of White’s in this period, the guitar he was most closely associated with during the White Stripes’ rise to fame was equally modest: a Montgomery Ward Airline guitar made in 1964. The instrument’s angular body was fashioned from bright red plastic, not unlike a mid-twentieth-century children’s toy. The Airline originally retailed for under $100 (not much money for an electric guitar, even back then) and was sold through the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog and department store chain. Playing this guitar was a defiant statement on White’s part.
“The idea behind using the Ward’s Airline in the White Stripes,” he told Guitar Player magazine, “was to prove that you don’t need a brand new guitar to have character, to have tone and to be able to play what you want to play.”
While certainly a declaration of independence, White’s selection of the guitar was also in keeping with garage rock tradition. He’d purchased the instrument in 1999 from Jack Yarber (aka Jack Oblivian), the guitarist in nineties garage bands the Compulsive Gamblers and the Oblivians, who had been influential for the White Stripes. Yarber himself had bought the guitar secondhand for $200 five years earlier. Along with its raunchy tone, the guitar’s red color must have been a major selling point for White. In this period, everything about the White Stripes—including stage clothing and musical instruments—adhered to a strict red and white, candy-swirl color scheme. A gifted guitarist, White was certainly aware of the instrument’s limitations. But these too seemed to suit the White Stripes’ minimalist garage aesthetic.
“It’s obviously harder for me to work with a 1964 plastic guitar, compared to a brand new one right off the factory line, perfectly intonated and all that stuff,” he admitted. “Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘God, does anyone even realize how much harder this is? Why do I even bother?’ But I’m not doing it to prove something to ‘them.’ I’m doing it to prove something to myself. And if someone says ‘good show’ or ‘good album’ I know I can be proud of it because of the conditions it was made under.”
The sound of White’s struggle with the guitar is one of the things that made the White Stripes’ music so compelling. Electric guitars and guitar playing had become a little too slick by the end of the twentieth century. Gone were the squealing, random tonal accidents; the sense of danger and desperate urgency that had informed the work of early pioneers like Elmore James or Link Wray. Even distortion and feedback had been reduced to a science by the century’s end. Young players could find YouTube tutorials explaining the precise order in which harmonic intervals manifest themselves as a guitar starts to feed back, and why they do so. Where’s the fun in that?
The Airline guitar was manufactured for Montgomery Ward by Valco, a company launched in 1942 by Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera—the first initials of their given names spelling out the V-A-L in Valco. All three men had been part of the National and/or Rickenbacker companies back in the 1930s when these firms brought the first commercially produced electric guitars to the market.
So the wheel had come full circle. One of the hippest guitars of the early-twenty-first century was designed by men who had played a role in first bringing the electric guitar into the world some seven decades earlier.
Valco had risen from the ashes of the National Dobro Corporation in the aftermath of World War II. Louis Dopyera had bought out his brothers’ interest in National and had tried to forge ahead in the new paradigm of postwar electric guitar making. And for a few decades, at least, he and his colleagues had succeeded. The Valco company went under in 1968, but some of its guitars lived on to define a new era of retro-chic.
While it is generally described as plastic, the Airline guitar’s body is actually fashioned from Res-O-Glas, a form of fiberglass—a plastic reinforced with glass fibers. Fiberglass was one of the miracle materials of the mid-twentieth-century modernist design movement. Two of the most iconic examples of modernist automotive design—the Chevrolet Corvette and the Studebaker Avanti—were made with molded fiberglass bodies, a design innovation that was considered quite futuristic at the time.
So Res-O-Glas was more than just inexpensive. It was also state-of-the-art. In essence, the Montgomery Ward Airline comes out of the same design aesthetic that gave rise to the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Flying V. Valco just took it a step further by employing a nontraditional material as well as a nontraditional body shape. This, moreover, was entirely in keeping with Dopyera, Frost, and Smith’s National/Rickenbacker legacy. Back in the thirties, Rickenbacker had revolutionized electric guitar design by using another modernist plastic—Bakelite—to fashion electric guitar bodies.
Nor was the budget-priced Airline guitar the only instrument that Valco manufactured from Res-O-Glas. They employed the same material for some of their higher-priced models, marketed under the Supro and National brand names.
Valco’s top-of-the-line Res-O-Glas instrument was the National Glenwood. At the time it was introduced, in 1962, it was priced comparably with the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson SG, all selling for just under $300 retail. For this kind of money, a customer could get a Glenwood equipped with high-quality appointments such as a Bigsby tailpiece and the same Grover “Rotomatic” tuning machines Gibson used on some of their Les Pauls. On top of that, the body was shaped like a somewhat abstracted map of the United States.
Malleability was another of Res-O-Glas’s cardinal virtues. The guitar bodies were fabricated by pouring the molten polymer into a mold, and the mold could be virtually any shape. You could do more with it than you could with a hunk of wood and a band saw. The instrument’s color could be mixed into the molten substance as well, eliminating the need for a separate manufacturing process either to paint the guitar or to apply a fine wood finish. An added benefit of this method is that, unlike conventional guitar finishes, Res-O-Glas colors never fade. The vintage Res-O-Glas Airline or National you buy today—probably for anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000—has exactly the same vibrant mid-century color it did when it first left the factory. So Res-O-Glas offered Valco the dual advantages of a cool new look and a more streamlined manufacturing process.
“We found that, with the electrics, you didn’t need all that resonance,” Al Frost recalled. “So we tried making the bodies out of polyester resin and fiberglass. We would take a mold, spray the finish in, then the fiberglass, pull it out of there, and the finish would already be on it. Oh, it was beautiful. We made Res-O-Glas guitars in reds and blues and whites and all sorts of colors. They were really something.”
“Beautiful” is an adjective quite appropriate to the Airline guitar and its Res-O-Glas Valco counterparts. The angular Airline body is both innovative and handsomely proportioned. So why do guitar journalists and historians invariably use dismissive language to describe these instruments? Typical of the phenomenon is a 2013 article on the Airline in Guitar Player magazine that bears the headline “Whack Job.” In it the writer Terry Carlton uses terms such as “weirdo” and “rinky-dink” to describe the guitar, grudgingly admitting that while the Airline “looks almost ridiculous,” it “plays quite well” and has “a very unique sound.”
Part of the derision stems from the fact that, unlike Stratocasters and Flying Vs, Res-O-Glas guitars pretty much fell out of use after the sixties. The Airline, Glenwood, and other Res-O-Glas shapes didn’t stick around long enough to become “iconic,” and thus are disassociated in people’s minds with any particular time period.
Also, a great deal of electric guitar history has been written by baby boomers, who tend to see in these instruments the cheap, crummy guitars they played as adolescents, before moving up to Fenders, Gibsons, and other more prestigious brands. For them, guitars of the Valco breed are embarrassing memories of awkward youth.
But to millennial eyes, guitars like the Airline look quite different. Millennial fascination with these instruments is very much of a piece with the recent hipster preference for vinyl records, manual typewriters, and other artifacts of a time before the advent of personal computers. To them, it all seems quite romantic.
Of course the Airline doesn’t sound anything like a 335, a Les Paul, or Stratocaster, particularly when overdriven to distortion. Nor does it sound anything like an Ibanez JEM or PRS guitar. That’s the real point here. The Airline possesses less sustain than any of the aforementioned guitars, but more lower midrange “honk.” Which places it outside the normative definition of what a great guitar should sound like. But this is also the very thing that makes it interesting and appealing to ears thirsting for a new sound and a new aesthetic.
Up through the nineties, you were more likely to encounter an Airline guitar at a modernist antique show than at a vintage guitar show or shop. That began to change with the mainstream breakthrough of the White Stripes, and again with the Black Keys. One of the common nicknames for the Montgomery Ward Airline is the “Jetsons” guitar, a reference to the early-sixties animated sitcom that depicted a stylish, sci-fi future where life was made easy by an endless array of streamlined, mechanized devices. The first program to be broadcast in color on ABC-TV, The Jetsons originally ran from 1962 to ’63, just when the guitars under discussion were coming onto the market. If Judy Jetson—the series’ quintessential teenage girl of the future—were to play an electric guitar, it would look something like an Airline.
But if the twenty-first-century revival of interest in guitars like the Airline represents a revolution in taste, a movement away from baby boomer aesthetics, it also has a very practical side. Prices for vintage Fenders, Gibsons, Gretsches, and other more well-known guitar brands skyrocketed in the nineties, to the point where the most desirable Les Pauls and Stratocasters from the fifties were commanding six-figure prices, making them inaccessible to most rank-and-file guitarists or young musicians just starting out. High-visibility auctions of vintage guitars by celebrity collectors sparked widespread public interest in these instruments, touching off a veritable feeding frenzy. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads guitar auctions in 1998, 2004, and 2011 netted $5.1 million, $7.4 million, and $2.2 million respectively. Actor and guitar collector Richard Gere’s auction in 2011 fetched nearly a million. Proceeds from all these sales went to charity. As the head of the Fine Musical Instruments department at Christie’s auction house in New York, an Antiques Roadshow appraiser, and a vintage guitar expert, Kerry Keane was right at the center of much of the action.
“The foundation of the vintage guitar market is certainly Americans buying the guitars of their youth,” Keane said.
The demographic is postwar baby boomers who want to buy the guitars they couldn’t afford when they were sixteen years old. And on top of that, buying the guitars that were their heroes’ guitars. It’s that desire to purchase those iconic objects from their youth. The most likely vintage guitar buyer is a banker, attorney, orthodontist, or someone who owns a string of car dealerships—someone who has the money and happens to be a guitar player, maybe playing with a band every Thursday night for relaxation. And the Clapton sale of 2004 certainly revved up that market to a degree where you suddenly had people buying guitars for investment purposes.
The stock market crash and Great Recession of 2008 brought the high-end vintage guitar market down a few notches. But the instruments still remained largely out of the reach of those who made less than, say, half a million dollars a year. So if you were an aspiring young Jack White and you wanted a vintage guitar, something like an Airline made an attractive option. Even at a premium price of $3,000, it was still a lot more accessible than a guitar priced at $30,000 or more. Besides, what young player covets the same kind of guitar owned by orthodontists and stockbrokers? Who among them wants a “dad” guitar?
Valco’s Airline, Supro, and National Res-O-Glas guitars represented just the tip of a veritable iceberg of affordable electric guitars that were available in the early to mid-sixties. The Harmony and Kay companies produced an abundance of budget electrics under their own brand names and also manufactured guitars and amps that were marketed by Sears, Roebuck & Company bearing the Silvertone brand name. Valco, Danelectro, and Teisco also supplied Sears with Silvertone instruments.
Much like Valco, both Harmony and Kay were American companies with roots in the very earliest days of the electric guitar. While both certainly sought to attract professional players, the bulk of their marketing and manufacturing efforts were aimed at the vast number of guitarists at the semipro and amateur levels—the garage band players, working-class parents looking to buy their kid a Christmas present, and really just about any guitar player without a whole lot of money to spend. In this regard, companies such as these were even more populist than Fender. But, somehow, they haven’t been mythologized in quite the same way.
Nor was America the only country in this game. The mid-sixties also witnessed an explosion of affordable guitars from Italy—instruments manufactured by Eko, Crucianelli, Avanti, Wandre, Goya, Polverini, Meazzi, Gemelli, and many others. The home of Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Fabricatore, and Cavelli, Italy has a long and proud tradition of both violin and guitar luthiery. And in the mid-sixties, Italy was very much one of the world’s style capitals. Italian sports cars and couture were very much in demand. The slender outlines, narrow lapels, and iridescent fabrics of Continental men’s tailoring were very much an Italian inspiration.
Not surprisingly, Italian electric guitars from this period are big on mid-sixties bling. Many of the makers were accordion manufacturers eager to cash in on the rock-and-roll craze. So they began incorporating the brightly colored, textured, sparkly plastics of accordion making into their guitar designs. Futuristic body contours bedizened with pickups, knobs, and switches were the rule rather than the exception. But there’s more to these guitars than just novelty value or retro garage rock appeal. The celebrated alt-country guitarist Buddy Miller, for example, is a longtime devotee of Wandre guitars. His association with the brand has helped raise its status substantially, with some vintage Wandres selling for as much as $40,000.
Mid-sixties Italian electrics, in turn, are just part of an overall European boom in electric guitar making in this period. Guitars such as Hagstroms from Sweden and Musimas from East Germany made their way into the U.S. and U.K. at the time. Eventually, though, nearly all these guitars were eclipsed by affordable electrics coming out of Japan, and perhaps best symbolized by that ultimate garage band guitar, the Teisco Del Rey.
It all amounts to a literal world of sixties guitars that few guitarists had ever heard of—up until recently. This opened up the classic sixties period in electric guitar music to a new generation in a whole new way. Much like the recent garage rock movement itself, it has been a multicultural phenomenon. Just as garage rock CD compilations spotlight obscure bands from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and other geographic regions hitherto neglected by Western rock fans, a more internationalist perspective has crept into the appreciation of electric guitars as well.
THERE’S A SECOND nickname for the Montgomery Ward Airline guitar that illuminates another key factor in the plastic guitar resurgence. It is also known as the “J. B. Hutto” model in honor of bluesman Joseph Benjamin Hutto, who was active from the fifties through the eighties and played the Airline model prominently. While Jack White and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach have often been rivals, and have certainly spoken unkindly of one another, one thing they are united in is a deeply felt love of the blues. But not necessarily the same blues venerated by the baby boomer generation. Not the blues of virtuosic guitar soloing or shared stages with Eric Clapton at his Crossroads festival. The millennial take on the blues is something else again—a primordial sound generated largely by lone performers wrenching wildly distorted tones from cheap electric guitars.
“I like raw, really stripped-down blues,” Auerbach said in 2014. “So much so that I didn’t even really listen to Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf much. Not the Chicago recordings, because it was almost too big of a band. I like that Memphis stuff—Joe Hill Lewis, Pat Hare, and Willie Johnson. And I really loved T-Model Ford’s album Pee-Wee Get My Gun when that came out when I was seventeen [in 1997]. And that’s when I started playing with Pat [Carney, the Black Keys drummer]. We started recording and I was listening to T-Model and R. L. Burnside, having grown up playing blues and bluegrass.”
T-Model Ford and R. L. Burnside are two artists who recorded for the Fat Possum record label, based in Oxford, Mississippi. The label was launched in 1991, with an initial mission to seek out and record obscure Mississippi blues artists who had hitherto received little or no exposure. These included men like Ford, Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough—raw-edged performers still working the local juke joints at the time, just as legendary bluesmen of the twenties and thirties such as Robert Johnson and Charley Patton once had done.
For decades, blues guitarists from the rural, impoverished South had been obtaining their instruments from mail-order catalogs such as those circulated by Sears and Montgomery Ward. The guitars were affordable, and in more remote areas catalogs would have been the only source from which a musician of humble means could purchase a new instrument. Even the mighty Howlin’ Wolf started out on a modest Kay Thin Twin model in the fifties before moving on to larger audiences and fancier guitars. But for every Wolf, there were dozens of blues artists who didn’t get a chance to move to Chicago as Wolf and Muddy Waters had done, let alone go on to enjoy the adulation of the baby boomer generation. For them, a catalog guitar wasn’t just a starter instrument, but a viable and lifelong musical tool.
With its early-nineties launch, the Fat Possum label was able to capture the tail end of this generation of largely forgotten bluesmen—those who had stayed closer to their rural roots while still embracing the raw timbres of distorted electric guitars. As such, Fat Possum built a kind of bridge between the blues and punk rock. The original punk rockers of the seventies had rejected blues licks as a baby boomer affectation. But Fat Possum artists were something different. Their attitude was very much summed up by the title of a well-received series of Fat Possum compilation albums: Not the Same Old Blues Crap.
And this was music to the ears of aspiring garage rockers, particularly Dan Auerbach. Growing up, his guitar-playing father and uncles had turned him on to more well-known bluesmen such as T-Bone Walker and Slim Harpo. Through parental and avuncular tutelage and record collections, he’d pretty much absorbed the baby boomer perspective on folk and blues tradition by his teen years. But the Fat Possum artists seemed to him to take all this into another dimension.
Like any aspiring guitarist, Auerbach paid close attention to the kinds of instruments his newfound blues heroes were playing. “I usually use off-brand guitars,” he said,
because the guys I was listening to when I started playing were playing those guitars. Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto, and all that weird Fat Possum stuff—they were using weird guitars. I just liked it. My first guitar was a Stratocaster that my mom bought me without sort of asking me what I wanted. And I immediately took it to a guitar shop in Cleveland and I traded it for a Silvertone. The guy told me that it was a great deal and I said, “OK, sure.” And I got a Silvertone. It’s like a Teisco Del Rey, really, but it’s Silvertone branded. Green sunburst body, four pickups with all the switches and stuff. I was just a kid, fifteen years old, obsessed with Hound Dog Taylor. I did not want to play a Strat.
Auerbach was still in his teen years when he began traveling down south to Memphis and Mississippi to seek out some of his Fat Possum blues heroes:
I went down to Greenville, Mississippi, on one trip and tracked down T-Model Ford. My friend and I hung out with him for a few days and I spent a night on the linoleum-tile floor of his trailer home. I was in a sleeping bag. And just playing guitar with him…People would hire him to play parties and then we played a juke joint at night. His son was playing drums and I’d play guitar and he’d play guitar. He kept me safe down there. I’m sure it was a pretty dangerous part of town we were in. But he kept me and my buddy safe.
The Black Keys would go on to release several low-budget albums on the Fat Possum imprint before landing a major label deal with Nonesuch Records in 2006. This would result in major hit records such as “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” and multiple Grammy Awards. They were hailed as a keynote group in the second wave of the neo-garage revival of the twenty-first century’s second decade.
By this point, garage rock had become an institution almost as venerable as the blues. Both are essentially outsider musical genres that have come to impact the course of popular music in different ways. While the garage influence hasn’t been as pervasive as that of the blues—the genre never produced an Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan—it has nonetheless been a prime mover in less mainstream genres.
The original sixties garage bands provided a key source of inspiration for the rise of punk rock in the mid-seventies. One major catalyst was the 1972 Nuggets compilation album, a sampling of 1960s garage rock tracks compiled by the music critic Lenny Kaye, who went on to become the guitarist for one of the seminal punk rock bands, the Patti Smith Group. Many of the most important first-wave punk bands covered or referenced the sixties’ garage band repertoire. Smith peppered her own compositions with canny quotations from the Shadows of Knight/Them classic “Gloria” and Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances,” which had been a mid-sixties hit for Cannibal and the Headhunters. Similarly, the Sex Pistols covered the Paul Revere & the Raiders/Monkees garage rock standard “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and the Ramones performed “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen and “California Sun” by the Rivieras.
Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone’s choice of a Mosrite Ventures II model was a fairly overt sixties garage reference, although the instrument’s affordable price was the main thing that appealed to the notoriously parsimonious guitarist. Prominent use of the Fender Jazzmaster by Elvis Costello and Television’s Tom Verlaine helped to bring that model out from under the shadow of Stratocasters and Telecasters, where it had languished for decades. As such, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar models served the needs of players looking for guitars that weren’t associated with the classic rock/AOR radio era.
Patti Smith’s adoption of the inexpensive Fender Duo-Sonic as her guitar of choice was also a quintessentially garage rock gesture, although legend has it that the instrument originally belonged to Jimi Hendrix. Smith mainly deployed her Duo-Sonic to generate waves of disruptive, atonal noise in concert.
“I wanted to open up and immediately make use of the sonic aspects of the electric guitar and amplifier,” she said. “So I really explored the electric guitar as deeply and committedly in my own way, I feel, as anyone else who did. I just wasn’t really interested in playing leads or chording or playing songs. I was basically interested in achieving some kind of communication with the gods through sound.”
The atonal and nontraditional aspects of Smith’s approach were of particular interest to avant-garde composer and guitarist Glenn Branca, who landed in New York in 1976, just as punk rock was getting under way.
“I was impressed with Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, the Ramones, all those people,” Branca recalled.
I put together this sort of performance-art/rock band called Theoretical Girl. To be honest, I wasn’t taking it seriously, I just wanted to do it. We started out as pretty much a straight punk band with noise breaks in the middle, but it sounded good. And in New York, it got people’s interest, which might not have happened anywhere else. There was just this tremendous audience interest. I decided I wanted to make it bigger than just a rock band. So we decided to push the music towards composers we liked, like [German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen. They were all writing music that was as extreme as heavy metal, except they weren’t using guitars. As we went off in that direction, the further we got from the center, the more successful the band became. In 1979, I took it outside the band and wrote an instrumental piece for six guitars.
Branca began writing compositions for increasingly large guitar ensembles—or “guitar armies,” as they came to be known. The culmination of this would be compositions such as Branca’s Symphony No. 13: Hallucination City, written for an orchestra comprising no less than a hundred electric guitars. Branca often used cheap, thrift-shop guitars, or even instruments he found in the street, to make up these electric guitar orchestras. Such humble instruments were useful to him because he wasn’t interested in conventional electric guitar tonalities or even tunings. He placed the guitars in alternate tunings, which allowed him to exploit the harmonic overtones generated by electric guitars en masse in ways that hadn’t been done before. Eventually he began to build guitar-like instruments of his own design. Some were as simple as a single guitar string and a pickup mounted on a piece of wood (an echo of George Beauchamp’s earliest experiments at the dawn of the electric guitar). Others were more complex, with multiple bridges. Still others were designed for the strings to be struck with drumsticks rather than played in the conventional manner.
The seventies intersection of New York’s punk rock and downtown music communities contributed much to a renewed interest in what had once been thought of as off-brand electric guitars. Another brilliant product of this hybrid is the guitarist Marc Ribot. His approach combines more traditional electric guitars, such as a 1957 Fender Telecaster and 1963 Jaguar, with more garage-level instruments, such as a 1952 Harmony Stratotone. He has often employed these in conjunction with a wide range of nontraditional playing techniques that trace back to avant-garde composer John Cage and his prepared piano compositions. In this spirit, Ribot has been known to attack his guitar strings with inflated balloons, massage vibrators, cappuccino frothers, and electric fans. In such applications, obviously, using a guitar that can create a conventional rock, blues, or jazz tone is of absolutely no importance.
“I’m bored with most things on guitar,” Ribot told Guitar Player magazine.
Eight zillion people have tried to play as fast as they can, and so what? The sounds we’re talking about are not part of the tempered scale, but are part of the established language of free improvisers and downtown New York City noisemakers. They’re not part of what most kids learn in music school. It goes back to one of the oldest understandings of why people make music at all, and that’s because music is mimetic of nature. That theory bored me too until I understood what composers like [John] Zorn, Elliott Sharp, and Arto Lindsay are doing, which is creating the mimesis of the absence or death of nature, and our connection to it. Understanding ideas like that will get you a lot further than going to Berklee.
By drafting some of this thinking into their own musical approaches, New York’s punk and post-punk bands were able to reassert rock music’s outsider status—something that had become lost with the music’s codification and enshrinement as “classic rock.” Glenn Branca’s guitar ensembles included many guitarists from New York’s underground rock community, including members of Sonic Youth and Swans. As these guitarists got their own bands going, they began incorporating some of Branca’s ideas about alternate tunings and atonality into more of a rock-oriented presentation.
“It was completely inside, atonal guitar music,” Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore said of Branca’s work. “But I wanted to tie that in with the high-energy rock of the MC5 and Stooges. Which wasn’t something that people like Glenn Branca were really that interested in at all.”
In its early career particularly, Sonic Youth employed a range of thrift-shop electric guitars in both live performances and on recordings. Some of the band’s alternate tunings originated on guitars in such poor shape that they couldn’t hold a conventional guitar tuning. So they were tuned to whatever intervals would remain relatively stable for the length of a song.
Sonic Youth, in turn, became a key influence on the Seattle grunge scene of the nineties, which brought Nirvana to the fore as one of the era’s most influential rock bands. Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain’s embrace of budget Fender models such as the Mustang was partially born of necessity. He often smashed his guitar at the end of a performance, so he frequently needed to find affordable replacements. Thrift shops held the answer (while also providing him with much of his wardrobe). His enormous popularity certainly contributed to rock guitarists’ thinking outside the box.
The nineties U.K. counterpart to grunge was the dream pop genre spearheaded by bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Lush, and the Cocteau Twins. Several of these groups also employed alternate tunings and layers of grainy distortion created by hooking together multiple fuzz pedals and other effects devices. As in all the music styles under discussion in this chapter, unconventional playing techniques were eagerly embraced. One of the most influential dream pop artists, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, achieved an otherworldly “wobbling” tonality by leaving the vibrato arm of his Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars only partially screwed in to its socket and keeping it in more or less perpetual motion as he strummed chords.
But amid all these guitar-centric alternative rock styles—part of what music historian Jon Savage has termed the post-punk diaspora—garage rock has remained a constant. The late seventies and early eighties saw a garage rock revival that included the Fuzztones, the Pandoras, and the Chesterfield Kings. Several of these groups played on sixties period instruments. The Pandoras were notable for their Vox gear (including Italian-made guitars for the Vox brand). Chesterfield Kings bassist Andy Babiuk would go on to become a leading historian of sixties guitars. By the late eighties, these bands had been joined by seminal garage rockers such as Thee Headcoats, Thee Mighty Caesars, and the Gories.
Along with being very much a multicultural phenomenon, as noted above, the garage rock genre has always been especially welcoming to female performers. This goes all the way back to the music’s mid-sixties origins, a period that spawned all-girl groups such as Goldie & the Gingerbreads, the Pleasure Seekers, the Luv’d Ones, and the Liverbirds. This tradition has been reflected in the various garage rock revivals, in which all-female groups such as the Pandoras and Thee Headcoatees—and their leader, Holly Golightly—have been just as highly regarded as their male counterparts. All-girl bands are particularly prevalent on the most recent garage scene, with groups such as the 220.127.116.11’s, Thee Tsunamis, the She’s, and Summer Twins attracting significant underground followings. Sporting a red, mid-sixties Teisco Del Rey, guitarist Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama of Japan’s 18.104.22.168’s is highly emblematic of the current garage scene.
Punk and alternative rock in general have typically been cultures that empower women musicians, and this can be seen as one more legacy derived from punk’s roots, the original mid-sixties garage rock explosion. Nor has it been only a matter of all-girl groups. Mixed gender bands have been common in all the garage/punk genres and subgenres. In this regard, the White Stripes’ gender-equal lineup is very much in keeping with garage rock values.
GARAGE ROCK HAS also always been very much a regional phenomenon. The White Stripes emerged in the late nineties from a wave of Detroit garage bands that included the Von Bondies, the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, and Bantam Rooster. But a few factors set the White Stripes apart. One was their radically minimal lineup, with just two members, Jack and Meg White, playing electric guitar and drum kit, respectively. Alternative rock had spawned several two-piece groups previously, notably the Flat Duo Jets from Athens, Georgia. But the White Stripes would become the first to break through to the mainstream.
Second, there was Jack White’s profound sense of identification with the blues. As a form of rock music, all garage rock is of course blues-based, but White made the connection more explicit, specifically through actions such as bringing a Son House song onto the Grammy stage in 2004. His retro-futurist approach to blues guitar playing brought new life to an idiom that had hitherto seemed played out. From a traditionalist standpoint, he broke the rules—for example, by combining slide guitar with relatively modern devices such as the DigiTech Whammy pedal. Digitally enabling guitarists to execute dramatic pitch transpositions of an octave or more, the Whammy allowed White to turbocharge the kind of dramatic glissandos that have long been a key element of slide playing. It’s nontraditional, certainly. But Son House or Elmore James themselves probably would have loved having a Whammy pedal of their own.
Guitar magazines began ranking Jack White highly in their polls of the best electric guitarists. Music critics were quick to take note too—particularly won over by White’s high-concept take on garage rock. The White Stripes’ distinctive color scheme was just one aspect of the band’s conceptual framework. Song lyrics, album art, video clips, and every other aspect of the band’s presentation were deeply imbued with White’s almost obsessive use of symbols and recurring leitmotifs. One would have to go back to the era of Bob Dylan’s ascendancy to find something comparable. White proved that high-concept and lo-fi need not be mutually exclusive.
The revival of interest in thrift-shop guitars, and attendant mainstreaming of what had hitherto been regarded as oddball, was just one small aspect of the garage rock phenomenon. But its role in bringing some fresh thinking into the arts of electric guitar playing and design has been an important one. More widespread use of these instruments, however, quickly brought some of their limitations to the fore. While they look and sound incredibly cool—particularly to postmodern eyes and ears—many of these instruments are difficult to play for one reason or another. Typically, they don’t intonate properly or are hard to keep in tune, or both. Switches, knobs, and other components can be crackly and cantankerous.
As a result, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, for example, employs a full-time guitar tech, Dan Johnson, to refurbish his collection of Silvertone, Harmony, Kay, Teisco, Supro, and other thrift-shop vintage guitars—refretting them, retrofitting them with better bridges and electronics. White has moved to more conventional Gretsches, Fenders, and other guitars in his post-White Stripes work. Auerbach, for his part, employs a combination of thrift-shop vintage guitars and more mainstream instruments.
Recent years have also seen the rise of guitar makers who create high-quality instruments with a retro-garage, mid-twentieth-century look and feel. These include Deusenberg guitars designed by German luthier Dieter Golsdörf, and Italia guitars created by the British luthier Trev Wilkinson. Both makers take mid-twentieth-century European guitar design as a jumping-off point for creating stylish, often quite ornate instruments. Not surprisingly, Deusenberg tends to draw more from German design in this period, while Italia, as its name implies, takes a major cue from blingy Italian instruments from the age of La Dolce Vita. Both brands have been very well received. Deusenbergs in particular have attracted attention in the hands of high-profile players such as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Billy Gibbons, and many others.
Eastwood Guitars, a Canadian company, was launched in 2001 with a line of guitars that copied Valco’s Airline instruments. From there the company has grown to offer a full line of retro-style guitars under both the Eastwood and Airline brand names. Many of these guitars have found favor with alternative rock and alt-country artists such as Neko Case, Calexico, the Decemberists, and Yo La Tengo.
But Eastwood, Deusenberg, and Italia are just three out of hundreds of smaller guitar brands and boutique luthiers currently in operation. Long gone are the days when the electric guitar market was dominated by a handful of companies. Today’s electric guitarist can choose from a vast and sometimes daunting field of options. That applies not only to guitars, but also to amps, effects pedals, and replacement parts such as pickups, bridges, nuts, and more. At this point in musical history, every single aspect of classic electric guitar design has been analyzed down to the millimeter. Computer technology has assisted in both the measurement and the reproduction of the most desirable qualities. And designers are always coming up with new refinements, as the Internet keeps a new generation of super-informed guitarists up to date on each new development.
In a sense, the most recent garage rock revival is a reaction against all this—a willful and well-considered embrace of primitivism. But then garage rock itself is just one out of hundreds of guitar-driven musical subgenres that owe their existence to fan bases garnered and maintained through websites and social media.
At the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum from garage rock, one might cite a guitarist like Tosin Abasi, the Nigerian American leader of the progressive metal band Animals as Leaders. He’s known for his technically advanced playing style—frenetic bursts of abstract melodic and rhythmic phrasing that he executes with dazzling precision on seven- and eight-string electric guitars. For Abasi and other guitarists in his genre, the golden age isn’t the garage rock sixties or even the Hendrix/Clapton classic rock era, but rather the shred metal eighties, when guitars were pointy and had more than six strings.
Then again, there’s guitarist Gemma Thompson with the critically acclaimed Anglo-French band Savages, who bases her approach on the post-punk sounds of bands such as the Birthday Party, Swans, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In the true matriarchal tradition of punk rock, she plays the Fender Duo-Sonic model once favored by Patti Smith. But rather than just imitate the styles of a bygone decade, Thompson takes this music as a point of departure, in much the same way that Abasi doesn’t imitate Steve Vai, but rather creates something new based on the direction that Vai and his compatriots outlined.
Another guitarist who has become a phenomenon is Annie Clark, who performs under the stage name St. Vincent. A highly accomplished player, she grew up under the tutelage of her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, and attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music. This kind of background can doom a guitarist to a life playing jazz-fusion that can only be appreciated by other guitarists. But Clark has instead focused her talents on creating arty, witty meta-pop and collaborating with highly regarded art rockers such as former Talking Head David Byrne. Clark has also brought her own take on the retro-modernist aesthetic to a signature model Ernie Ball brand guitar she designed in 2016.
“My particular guitar,” she said, “is based a lot on [’80s synthpop performance artist] Klaus Nomi’s aesthetic, the Memphis design movement—which was an [’80s] Italian design movement—and those ’60s and ’70s Japanese-designed guitars like the Teiscos. And then I went for classic car colors.”
Like a few other recent electric guitar designers and manufacturers—notably entrepreneur Tish Ciravolo’s Daisy Rock Girl Guitars—Clark has tailored her signature model instrument to be a better fit for the female anatomy than conventional designs. Specifically, she crafted an instrument with a lighter weight and narrower waist.
“I can’t even play a ’60s Strat or ’70s Les Paul,” she said. “I would need to travel with a chiropractor on tour in order to play those guitars.” As for the instrument’s narrow waist, she said, “I wanted to make something that looked good not just on a woman, but any person.”
As the work of recent artists such as Abasi, Thompson, and Clark clearly indicates, the electric guitar has entered a new era of diversity, offering a wider array of talents and styles than any previous era in the instrument’s history. But there is no one predominant style, as there has been in bygone decades, nor is there likely to be. Web platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and ReverbNation have created an environment in which virtually anyone can have two hundred fans, but very few indeed can have twenty million, or even two million.
The impact of the Internet on both the art and business of music has been immense, and its end result is yet to be seen. While it has created a climate in which anyone’s music can be heard, it has also fostered an economic environment in which most artists, musical and otherwise, can no longer earn a living from their art. Piracy and online streaming have catastrophically reduced revenues that artists receive from music sales. An increasing number of highly gifted artists are finding that music making has been downgraded from a profession to a hobby.
“The inevitable result,” wrote David Byrne in a 2013 article for The Guardian, “would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”
One can only hope that Byrne’s prediction is wrong. But at the time of this writing, the only new, young musical artists whose livelihoods aren’t imperiled by the Internet are the small handful that rise to the top of highly commercial, formulaic genres, such as corporate pop and mainstream R&B. “A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business,” Byrne wrote. “That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger. Many a fan (myself included) has said that ‘music saved my life,’ so there must be some incentive to keep that lifesaver available for future generations.”
AMID THE RADICAL transformation currently taking place in the music business, and in the entire culture of music consumption and appreciation, it becomes very difficult to predict what the future of the electric guitar might be. But it’s a safe bet that the instrument isn’t about to disappear anytime soon. Ever since the seventies, analysts have agonized over the imminent demise of the electric guitar at the hands of one electronic music form or other—disco, rap, hip-hop, synthpop, techno, or EDM (electronic dance music). All these musical genres have been hugely influential, and the electric guitar indeed no longer dominates popular music the way it once did. But still, the instrument persists.
It is true that most popular music today is created on personal computers, which can be used not only to record music but also to generate sounds on their own. But computer technology has yet to create anything that can replace the tactile satisfaction of both playing and hearing an electric guitar—all the subtle and expressive tonal variations that come from human flesh pressing against metal strings. In fact, many of the most widely used music software programs are plug-ins that provide digital emulations of the classic tube guitar amps and analog effects pedals of the classic rock era. These can be used in tandem with other plug-ins that emulate vintage analog recording equipment and old-school analog synthesizers. It’s telling that, given the theoretically endless possibilities afforded by software programming, what many have chosen to do with software is evoke the past.
Which means that today’s electric guitarist has ready access to a credible simulation of all the gear that Hendrix, Townshend, Link Wray, B. B. King, Van Halen, Steve Vai, or any other legendary guitarist once commanded. While these emulations don’t sound exactly like the real thing, they’re close enough to make it easy for any producer or songwriter to incorporate a bit of that classic rock, blues, funk, or jazz guitar sound into their productions.
And musical artists are still doing this to a significant degree. The sound of the electric guitar has become a sort of instant signifier of rock-and-roll rebellion and wild, unbridled freedom. It has also become a signifier of honesty, of “realness.” Speaking with Rolling Stone magazine in early 2016 to promote his Black Market album, the rapper Rick Ross said, “I made this album a little more soulful and sophisticated by adding live guitars and shit like that.”
Those who do take up the electric guitar today are in a very different position than someone who picked up the instrument during the crucible years of the fifties and sixties. The field is less wide open. The electric guitar is now a mature instrument. It may not be as old as the violin or even the saxophone, but the electric guitar’s basic form and lineaments have been firmly established. There’s a lot of history and tradition there—not to mention a lot of rebellion against history and tradition.
For the past six decades or so, rock music has been the predominant driving force in the electric guitar’s evolution, and vice versa. That may not be the case in the future, as rock increasingly becomes a heritage genre like bluegrass, for example, or baroque—a period music played on period instruments. Similarly, while America and Great Britain have traditionally played a leading role in electric guitar design innovation, that too is rapidly changing. The electric guitar is already well on its way toward globalization. But will there ever be another mass musical phenomenon like rock and roll—itself a uniquely Anglo-American cultural phenomenon—that is as inherently amenable to the electric guitar’s tonality and playing techniques?
No one can predict the future. Not in this case, anyway. But the electric guitar’s versatility and adaptability make it a highly likely candidate for survival in the Darwinian mechanics of musical evolution. All musical instruments mutate over time. Through a series of tiny developmental steps, the harpsichord became the piano, the rebec became the violin, and the shawm became the oboe. The mutation of any instrument tends to cease—or at least become temporarily arrested for long periods of time—when people stop creating new music on that instrument. In the case of the electric guitar, that eventuality still seems quite distant.
The greatest practitioners in all art forms are often those who break the rules. But the electric guitar seems particularly welcoming to iconoclasts. It seems happiest when you try to turn it up to 11, to push any of its parameters a little further than they were designed to go. All of the instrument’s great innovators have done so—not by discarding the electric guitar’s past, but by finding new ways to contextualize it. A creative spirit can always manage that. And, if nothing else, the electric guitar has always proven a friend of creative outsiders.