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.