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Electric Dreams

3 April 2000 - The Age, Melbourne

Book review: Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar & The Shaping Of Musical Experience, by Steve Waksman, Harvard University Press, $55.95

by Stephen Cummings

AS LEGEND would have it, Les Paul built his first electric guitar when he was a teenager performing in a parking lot. He taped the arm of his mother's phonograph to the top of his guitar, stuck the needle against the wood and fed the sound through the phono input. When he cranked up the volume the speaker squealed with feedback, but still pulled a crowd of onlookers. Paul's tips tripled. He experienced a revelation: ``The electric guitar spelled money.''

Instruments of Desire is a big, cogent examination of the historical and cultural significance of the electric guitar. The book is arranged sequentially, taking the reader from the first experiments in Southern California in the 1930s when craftsmen such as Les Paul, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender fitted guitars with electromagnetic devices called pick-ups, to the present. The book highlights eight artists who've shaped the use and progress of the guitar: Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, MC5, and Led Zeppelin.

Steve Waksman is a guitarist. He's also a professor of history and American studies, and consequently the book has a theoretical and multi-purpose approach. As Waksman says in the foreword, ``There was something more to this phenomenon, (of the explosion of the guitar in the early "60s) something that was not strictly economic but had to do with a different kind of investment in the guitar. That something more is what this book is about.''

Instruments of Desire investigates the efforts of musicians who viewed their equipment not simply as a way of making music, but as a way of shaping sound. Waksman delves into how technological progression affected the development of multi-track recording. ``The electric guitar played an increasingly prominent role in the creation of a second product, pop music itself; and the music, in turn, served as the best vehicle for promoting the instrument.''

Later guitarists such as Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Wayne Kramer and Fred ``Sonic'' Smith of MC5 had a preference for noise and distortion at variance with popular music of the time.

Many of the guitarists were tinkerers with a penchant for taking electronic gear apart and rebuilding it to serve their needs. Bo Diddley first amplified his guitar with parts from the family stereo, and built his first tremolo device (his favored effect) out of an old alarm clock. Throughout his career Diddley experimented with oddly shaped guitars. One looked like a Cadillac tail-fin. Waksman says Diddley liberated the shape of the guitar from the sound that it made, giving it another function as an important entertainment prop.

Predictably, the author also makes much of the sexuality conveyed by the instrument and the points of intersection between the electric guitar and the history of the human body. Of MC5, Led Zeppelin and the many heavy metal/rock groups that followed in their wake, Waksman says: ``They provide perhaps the most explicit enactment of the racialised nature of rock's favored mode of phallocentric display, with the electric guitar as a privileged signifier of white male power and potency.''

Despite the often-noted male bias of the electric guitar, it's surprising that scant consideration is given as to why.

Waksman also makes a number of complex points on race and the electric guitar. Charlie Christian wasn't the first to play the electric guitar, but he did expand the instrument's vocabulary in the 1930s with his single-note style releasing the guitar from the rhythm section. Previously the guitar lacked the volume to work with the dominant horn sections.

In 1939 Christian joined Benny Goodman's band, something of a rarity as black and white musicians seldom played together in public. But while Christian had a prominent role in Goodman's Sextet, he rarely played in the more popular Goodman orchestra. ``The parity Charlie Christian's guitar gained with respect to other solo instruments was not equalled by his own parity with respect to white musicians.''

Frederic Grunfield, author of The Art and Times of the Guitar, asserts: ``There is the guitar before Christian and the guitar after Christian, and they sound virtually like two different instruments.''

``Mister Guitar'' Chet Atkins and other prominent Nashville guitarists such as Hank Garland, Billy Byrd and Grady Martin were all drawn to Christian's ability to take the guitar and phrase it like a horn. These guitarists then broadened the usual three-chord structure of country music.

A guitarist who demanded to be heard was Hendrix. Waksman paints a picture of Hendrix as an artist forever pushing against the limits both of race and music. Newsweek described the Jimi Hendrix Experience as ``a nasty looking trio with its triptych of smirking simian faces''. Many white guitarists felt threatened musically and sexually by Hendrix. Mike Bloomfield says: ``You couldn't tell what Hendrix was doing with his body. He took exhibitionism to a new degree. His body was so integrated with his playing that you couldn't tell where one started and the other left off.''

Instruments of Desire has been published at a time when the electric guitar has diminished as a music-making tool. One of Waksman's conclusions is that the electric guitar may be exhausted as an expressive medium, at least in the context of rock music, because it has become so entrenched as a instrument of mainstream popular music. ``Today the electric guitar does not sound foreign. We take its extreme volume or its ability to cut through a full band almost as a matter of course.''

What will happen next? Waksman quotes from Simon Reynolds's book Generation Ecstasy: ``The real-time virtuosity of the electric guitarist has given way to the assemblage of sounds through an electronic virtuosity that has, in turn, opened the way for a dance-based, participatory musical culture.''

Instruments of Desire is a timely, scrupulously researched book, though its complex theoretical approach makes it tough going at times.

Stephen Cummings's most recent album is Spiritual Bum

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