The scream of the electric guitar was the dominant soundtrack of the 20th century.
First developed to provide louder rhythm backup for big bands of the Swing Era, the electric guitar then killed the big bands, feasted on their corpses and looked for its next victim.
Like Brando slouching against a jukebox in “The Wild One” — a movie that came out just as the electric guitar was taking over the music world — it’s an instrument that asks “Whaddya got?” and then rebels against it.
In “Play It Loud,” a lively and fascinating history by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna, the authors combine technology, sociology and musicology to explain why this instrument assumed such a commanding position in the music world — and in American culture.
I mean, when’s the last time you saw anyone playing air cello?
The electric guitar isn’t just a louder acoustic guitar. It’s a completely different animal, and the rules that apply to acoustic instruments have little impact on why it functions as it does, musically and symbolically.
“There are few greater, more prevalent modern icons,” the authors write. “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.”
The book is a sweeping yet detailed account of the instrument’s history, working as well at an “11” volume level as it does at “1.” Famous names pop up throughout: the genius tinkerers who created the instrument and the artists who played it.
There’s Les Paul, who realized that a log — a literal hunk of wood — would actually make a better platform for electrified sound than a painstakingly crafted hollow body. There’s Leo Fender, who brought the guitar to America’s consumer-crazed postwar market with his Broadcaster and Telecaster models, the templates for virtually every electric guitar that followed.
There are other names, unknown to most yet crucial to the instrument’s development. George Delmetia Beauchamp created the first fully functional guitar pickup, the device that transforms the vibrations of the string into an electrical signal that can be amplified. Ted McCarty, a business executive, midwifed the birth of the legendary Gibson Les Paul model.
And the players: Charlie Christian, the first virtuoso of the electric guitar. Merle Travis, Muddy Waters, Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, James Burton, Jimmy Page. And Eddie Van Halen, who not only played like nobody else, but performed radical surgery on his Fender Stratocaster, creating a “Frankenstrat” that sounded like no other guitar.
The greatest electric guitar players often have been skilled technicians, as well, tinkering with their instruments for higher performance in much the way that hot-rodders modify their cars.
This isn’t an audiobook, which in some ways is a shame. So you’re going to want to keep your tablet or phone nearby as you read it, because you’ll be absolutely compelled to find and listen to the signature songs and riffs referenced throughout the volume.
The authors do a great job of introducing just enough technical information to make their points, while keeping explanations clear enough so that those of a nontechnical bent — like this reviewer — can follow them.
“The story of this extraordinary musical instrument is ultimately our story — guitarists and nonguitarists alike,” the authors write. “From rabid music fans to casual listeners, its siren song has touched us all.”
Tolinski and Di Perna have produced a book that lives up to the urgent, innovative, all-encompassing spirit of its subject.
John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter.
Play It Loud
By: Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna.
Publisher: Doubleday, 379 pages, $26.95.