Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

More guitar wars

Everybody saw the “Guitar wars” post here from last night, right? Okay then. So I launched the Amazon app on my phone today to check the book itself out and see if a Kindle version might be available, and what such a thing might go for. To my delight, along with a brief customer review by another good buddy of mine, Deke Dickerson, I found an excerpt from the book’s prologue attached, and it’s hotter than mustard, as Wodehouse would say:

SANTA MONICA, 1964

The screams came in waves, hysterical and elated, punctuated by applause. Then the camera found them: five men in matching striped shirts, teetering with nerves, grinning like children. The Beach Boys. A clap on the snare drum sent the song rumbling to life, and the players at the stage’s front tapped their feet to stay in time. Punches from the drum kit underpinned a sheen of male voices in harmony. But fighting for prominence was another noise—a throaty, splattering sonic current.

Curious instruments hung over the striped shoulders of the men in front. Two of the instruments were painted white, with thin bodies and voluptuous curves that suggested spaceships, or amoebae, or the human torso. Behind their players sat cream-colored cabinets the size of refrigerators, massive speakers barely visible inside, components in a new system of noisemaking. These sleek guitars transformed single notes and chords into flows of electrons, while the amplifiers converted those electrons into wild new tones—tones that came out piercingly human despite their electric hue.

There was no piano, no saxophone or trumpet, no bandleader, no orchestra. Besides their drums and voices, the Beach Boys wielded just these bloblike guitars, each dependent on electricity, each able to produce ear-piercing quantities of sound, and nearly all bearing the name Fender. Their amplified blare seemed to encourage the shrieks of fans buffeting the stage, their bodies swaying to the thrumming joys of “Surfin’ USA.”

When this scene played in American movie theaters just after Christmas 1964, it was a vision of the future. It was part of a filmed rock ’n’ roll concert—the very first—that also showed the Rolling Stones seething and strutting, and James Brown pulling off terpsichorean heroics unlike anything most of the American public had yet seen. The Teenage Awards Music International Show looked like one more entry in a procession of frivolous teen movies, but it arrived with the shock of the new. It was a multiracial assemblage of the day’s most famous pop stars, captured on film alongside bikini-clad go-go dancers and howling youths. Movie critics mostly sniffed. “Adults, unaware of the differences between these numerous young groups, view the combined efforts as fairly monotonous,” went a typical assessment. But a new order was establishing itself.

One company had done more than any other to usher in the technology that was changing listeners’ aural experiences. One company had made electric guitars into ubiquitous leisure accessories, by supplying cheap, sturdy instruments to amateurs and professionals alike. This firm was the first in its industry to align itself with the tastes of young people, among the first to paint guitars bright red and later metal-flake blue and purple, first to give its models sexy monikers like the Stratocaster and the Jaguar.

Competitors had long mocked the creations of the Fender Electric Instrument Company, but this Southern California upstart had an asset unlike any other—a self-taught tinkerer whose modesty was utterly at odds with the brash characters who used his tools. Clad in perpetually drab workmen’s clothes, preferring to spend most of his waking hours designing and building in his lab, Clarence Leo Fender toiled endlessly to perfect the tools that ushered in pop music’s electric revolution, yet he couldn’t play a single instrument himself. Instead, he trusted musicians, whom he loved, to tell him what they wanted. In the waning days of World War II, Leo Fender had started building guitars and amplifiers in the back of his radio repair shop. By that night in 1964, the company he’d built dominated the burgeoning market for electric instruments.

At least, for the moment.

Showing off their striped, short-sleeve shirts, the Beach Boys appeared clean-cut and respectable, apparently (if not actually) innocent young men. To close out The T.A.M.I. Show, a quintet of Brits arrived wearing modish dark suits and expressions of bemused insouciance, even outright hostility. The lead singer’s dark hair fell in curls down to his collar as he prowled the stage, thick lips pressed up against the microphone, hunting and taunting his young quarry. To his left, a craggy-faced guitarist beat on an unfamiliar instrument. That small, solid-bodied guitar responded with snarls and growls, a thick, surging sound that couldn’t have been more different from the thin rays of light that had emanated from the Beach Boys’ Fenders.

The earlier act embodied rock ’n’ roll life as a teen idyll, a carefree jaunt in which sex was mentioned only euphemistically, and hardly ever as a source of conflict. Minutes later, the Rolling Stones made rock into a carnal fantasy, a dim mélange of ego and lust, betrayal and satisfaction. Already labeled rock ’n’ roll’s bad boys, the five young Brits embraced the role in performance and offstage, viewing the Beach Boys—another band of white men using electric guitars to play music first created by black men—as entrants in a completely different competition.

The Rolling Stones did sound new and distinct. And part of what then fueled the difference was an instrument discovered in a secondhand music shop in London, a secret weapon for producing the nasty tones this outfit preferred. It was a guitar, made by the venerable Gibson company, that bore the name Les Paul. Thanks to Keith Richards and certain other British rockers, this Les Paul guitar would soon rise again to become Fender instruments’ prime companion and rival—just as the man it was named after had been many years earlier.

For Les Paul himself was as emphatic and as colorful as human beings come, as loud and public as Leo Fender was quiet and private: a brilliant player and a gifted technician, a charmer and a comedian, a raconteur and a tireless worker who hungered for the top of the pop charts. Out of his roots in country and jazz, Les Paul had invented a flashy style of playing that was immediately recognizable as his own, a style that would help define the instrument for generations of ambitious guitarists. But almost since the moment he began playing, Les Paul had found existing guitars inadequate. He knew what he wanted and what he thought would make him a star: a loud, sustaining, purely electric guitar sound. Nothing would give it to him.

His search for this pure tone—and through it, fame—led him to California, to a wary friendship with the self-taught tinkerer Leo Fender, who was interested in the same problem. The two men began experimenting together, pioneering the future of music. But when Les finally managed to drag the guitar out from its supporting role and deposit it at the center of American culture—and when a radical new electric guitar design finally became reality—their friendship fractured into rivalry. The greatest competitor to Leo Fender’s instruments was soon a Gibson model with Les Paul’s signature emblazoned in gold. From then on, it was Fender vs. Gibson, Leo Fender vs. Les Paul, their namesake electric guitars battling for the affections of a vast generation of players inspired by the new sound of rock ’n’ roll.

For a brief period this competition seemed to abate. But soon after Keith Richards appeared in The T.A.M.I. Show using his Gibson Les Paul, his peers in the British rock scene would find that this instrument could produce tones then out of reach of any other guitar—including a Fender. The Gibson Les Paul could become molten, searing, heavy: sounds for which it was never intended, but which were now wildly desirable. This guitar’s look and sound would go on to virtually define a new style of blues-based hard rock.

Whoa, that’s good squishy. I stuck the book in my Amazon Wish List, which is (cough-cough) linked over in the sidebar; although I absolutely prefer epubs nowadays, my thought is that maybe the book includes some illustrations and/or photos that would be kinda disappointing in the Kindle version. Either way, though, if I ever again somehow manage to accumulate two spare nickles to rub together I’m gonna snap this tome up pronto, in Kindle trim at least, and possibly even both of ’em. Sounds absolutely riveting, and from the above excerpt I’d say it’s quite well-written too*.

I kind of shined something on in last night’s post, which I’ll now take the opportunity to go into a bit. It’s this:

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. One was the country music star Merle Travis, a Bigsby client. Travis dared the designer to build him a thin, solid-body electric, sketching it in detail. Bigsby built it in 1948.

I must confess I hadn’t really known that Fender, Paul, and Bigsby had actually worked together, however briefly. Be that as it may, that paragraph inspired me to look up Bigsby—whose fine products I greatly admire and have seen fit to mount on more than one Les Paul—on Wikipedia, which yielded this nugget:

Bigsby is best known for having been the designer of the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece (also mislabeled as a tremolo arm) and proprietor of Bigsby Guitars. He built an early steel guitar for Southern California steel guitarist Earl “Joaquin” Murphy of Spade Cooley’s band, as well as Jack Rivers, then built a solid body electric guitar conceptualized by Merle Travis to have the same level of sustain as a steel guitar by anchoring the strings in the body instead of on a tailpiece. This instrument, which Bigsby completed in 1948, likely had an influence on the solid body Telecaster later produced by Leo Fender, as it had all six tuners in a row. Its headstock shape was later made famous by Fender’s solid body Stratocaster model. Bigsby also made a doubleneck model for Nashville guitarist Grady Martin and an amplified mandolin for Texas Playboy Tiny Moore. Bigsby also built a pedal steel guitar for Speedy West that West used on many of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s early recordings as well as records by Travis, Red Ingle, Jean Shepard, Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky and Merrill Moore.

Before working in music he was a motorcycle racer known as “P.A. Bigsby”, and was the foreman of Crocker Motorcycles, and designed many components. For example, the overhead-valve cylinder head for their first V-twin motorcycle.

Well, I will be dipped in shit. Pretty dang cool.

*CAVEAT: Left out of my excerpt above is a couple of seemingly inapposite paragraphs on “racial equality,” which to be fair might matter purely as a historic component of the era. But I can’t really see what the hell that might have to do with Strats and Les Pauls. Maybe Port forges a more solid link than I can see at the moment, and if so good on him.

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