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How the electric guitar was born

  The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll by Ian S. Port, Scribner, US 28.00,   Pp 352, January 2019, ISBN 978-1501141652

In the post-World War II period, music started evolving from big-band jazz into what became known as rock ‘n roll. The louder style needed new instruments that could play louder. When Leo Fender started marketing the first version of solid body electric guitar — the Esquire — it had an immediate appeal for the musicians. Gibson, the biggest guitar manufacturing company at that time, came up with a competitive guitar — the axe — to make Fender’s Esquire look cheap. Les Paul endorsed the Axe. The ensuing business rivalry — Gibson versus Fender, Les versus Leo — was an all-time heated rivalry in the music industry. In The Birth of Loud, Ian S. Port tells the story of this business rivalry between the two men who invented the electric guitar’s amplified sound and their war to win rock stars like the Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton to play their instruments. By the end of the 1960s, it had become clear that electric instruments — Fender or Gibson — had come to stay and music had entered the radical new age, empowering artists with a new, unprecedented vibrancy and volume.

In the boom years after World War II, teenagers had wrested control of the market for pop music, and many lacked their parents’ racial prejudices. Ian S. Port says that singers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and later Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, rose onto charts once ruled by whites. These cultural changes were accelerated by a complementary revolution in the technology of music-making. By the night “The T.A.M.I” show was filmed in 1964, anyone with the right equipment could achieve volumes that would reach hundreds or thousands of onlookers. The reason was that the new rulers of music could manipulate electric guitars and amps to produce a universe of evocative or alien new sounds. Ian S. Port says that one company had done more than any other to usher in 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. Ian S. Port says that 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 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 last 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.

In the years when Jimi Hendrix was elevating the Stratocaster into the most iconic silhouette in rock music, CBS seemed to be doing everything possible to ruin the company that made it. Ian S. Port says that Leo Fenders had believed in selling tools that would give a lifetime of service, knowing this meant fewer sales and less profit but more loyal customers. Under his leadership, the company strove to uphold strict standards of quality, and often (though not always) succeeded. Amps were made excessively sturdy; only the best cuts of wood were used for guitars; even the wiring for pickups was carefully selected and handled.

The Birth of Loud is rightfully an important addition to the history of electric guitar and rock ‘n roll. It is an amazing history of how the electric guitar was invented and marketed in its early days. Ian S. Port shines a light on many not-yet-explored aspects of electric guitar’s history. The Birth of Loud is veritably the history of early rock ‘n roll. He has also added excellent biographical portraits of two men who redefined music in the early part of the second half of the twentieth century. Ian S. Port gives full attention to details to make it an unrivaled history of guitar and early rock ‘n roll. Nobody ever told the history of electric guitar and rock ‘n roll in such a fascinating way. It is a must-read for music buffs.

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