Few instruments are as symbolic of revolution as the electric guitar– visually, sonically, conceptually, the electric guitar is a riot in your hands, capable of beauty and destruction, chaos and structure. But if you go looking for reading on the instrument itself rather than on its most iconic wielders, you’ll soon be buried in dry encyclopedic tomes and masturbatory gear obsession. Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna’s new book Play It Loud doesn’t completely undo that history but in its no-frills approach and simple narrative style, it’s by the far closest any writing on the subject of the electric guitar’s history has ever come to doing justice to the inherently rebellious feel of the instrument.
Tracing the instrument’s roots from 19th century luthiers experimenting with new sound technology to its Baby Boomer golden era to the current era of longstanding titans perfecting the craft and the rebellious upstarts trying to bring it back to basics, Play It Loud avoids minutiea and hopes to give readers a broader, more sociological sense of the instrument’s evolution. Tolinski and Di Perna smartly utilize forward thinking player inventors to frame the chapters, like Charlie Christian (arguably the first guitar hero), Les Paul and, yes, Eddie Van Halen, humanizing the instrument and each of its evolutionary leaps. Where most instrument histories get bogged down in technological specs and science, Play It Loud aims for populism, breezily explaining major advancements in music technology alongside the pop culture changes that sparked and enabled those advancements.
That’s not to say Tolinski and Di Perna avoid tech talk altogether, they efficiently weave in insightful analysis of the inventions of the geniuses behind Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Gibson and Fender and provide useful summaries of the subtle differences between these companies. Perhaps most fascinating is the examination Tolinski and Di Perna provide of the ’80s, an era widely regarded as the nadir of guitar making thanks to the extreme hair metal-courting designs of the guitar companies that rose up to challenge Fender and Gibson and the increasing use of gimmicky electronics. Tolinski and Di Perna draw a connection between the customizations ’80s players obsessed over and the hot rodding culture that rose up from basically the same region in California. Guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai may not stand out as icons of taste and artistry but Tolinski and Di Perna make an interesting argument for these players as pioneers of DIY culture in guitar playing, opening the door for Fender and Gibson’s first serious competition and the rise of the custom parts industry, which allowed players who lacked the finances for the classic instruments their idols played but still wanted to be competitive.
Tolinski and Di Perna also give equal weight to figures like Jack White, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, who notably played thrift shop guitars in part because of the limitations they had. Play It Loud’s concise and simple narrative helps contextualize the guitar rock revival of the early ’00s and the choice of many of its biggest figures to play on cheaper instruments, indicating that the back-to-basics approach went beyond sonics and extended to the gear these artists utilized too. That said, in its final section, Play It Loud is curiously overfocused on surface level criticism of players and avoids discussing where the technology is currently heading. There’s barely any mention of the rise of guitar pedal culture, where many of the most interesting advancements in electric guitar use are occurring, let alone experiments like Moog’s infinite sustain guitar or even a single mention of what is arguably the only real leap forward in the guitar world in the past few decades, active pick up technology. Likewise, Tolinski and Di Perna avoid discussing the dire straits former guitar giant Gibson has been in throughout this decade, with quality issues and mismanagement threatening to bring the company to ruin, to say nothing of a bizarre DOJ raid.
Still, Play It Loud is an engaging and enjoyable read, fascinating regardless of your level of familiarity with what is arguably the most notable instrument of the 20th century. More of a sociological text and than a technological guide, Play It Loud gets to heart of the electric guitar’s appeal and shines a light on some of its most interesting and important pioneers.
Play It Loud is available now from Doubleday.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.