How the World Plugged into the Electric Guitar

Courtesy of Guardian News... 

Musical instruments come and go, but 70 years after it was first designed the electric guitar looks like a survivor.

So why does its combination of wires, valves and transistors strike a chord with so many people around the world? Music, like politics, is the art of the possible. Because we are human beings we tend to think of music as being a history of musicians, of the people making music, but really it is a history of machines, of musical instruments, of the technology that channels people’s imaginations. Music is also an evolutionary art, an art of survival; commit your music to an instrument that does not thrive – the baryton, the ophicleide, the trautonium – and it will never be more than a curiosity, a mute fossil in the museum of instrumental experiments.

Seventy years after the evolutionary twist that brought it into existence, the electric guitar looks like a survivor. There have been some doubtful moments, periods of change in the musical climate when electric guitars seemed outmoded, but the instrument has weathered them all so far. Cheap electric guitars are affordable, expensive ones are collectable, and, as page two of the first issue of punk fanzine Sideburns proclaimed in 1977: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. NOW FORM A BAND.”

The beginnings of the electric guitar are, like so many beginnings, tangled in claim and counter-claim. Guitars had certainly been amplified with microphones and pick-ups for many years, but in the mid-1940s the great country music star Merle Travis and instrument maker Paul Bigsby began to discuss the possibility of a solid-body electric guitar.

Travis had noticed that his amplified acoustic guitar was not as loud as the solid-body pedal steel guitar that Bigsby had made, and together they devised a guitar in which the resonant space of the instrument’s body was replaced by a piece of solid wood. Instead of the strings being amplified by that body, the volume of sound from the new instrument was entirely dependent on electronic amplification.

Bigsby was a craftsman rather than a manufacturer, as fond of building and repairing motorcycles as making musical instruments, and it was only when Les Paul and then Leo Fender started mass-producing electric guitars that the new instrument began to seize musicians’ imaginations. Yet it’s easy to forget what an odd member of the family of musical instruments it is. If you want to play louder on the saxophone you blow harder, on the cello you press the bow more firmly on the string – it’s all about the transfer of energy from the player into the instrument. Strumming the strings of an electric guitar more forcefully will make a difference, of course, but the main source of energy is external to the player. Unplug the instrument from the amplifier, or the amplifier from the electricity supply, and it is barely audible, its sound no more than a silver-grey whisper.

Before Travis, Bigsby, Paul and Fender, the only familiar instrument with such a dependence on external agency was the pipe organ – if you switch off the blowers to your local church organ while it’s being played you can listen to the sound of an instrument slowly running out of breath. With the electric guitar, however, this external agency is also the source of much of the instrument’s aural fascination.

Great players achieve their distinctive sound not just through the way they touch the instrument but through the particular way they set up a whole series of electronic sound processors, beginning with the pickups under the strings and ending at the amplifier. The seismic pulsing with which Jimi Hendrix begins “Purple Haze” is nothing more than the sound of electronic circuits being overloaded, from guitar to fuzz‑box to Marshall amps; as former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford has said: “Hendrix made noise so musical.” The Edge’s chiming guitar ostinato, the sonic signature of U2’s early music, is made not by his fingers but by digital delay devices creating an echo effect. But as he says: “I don’t use effects to colour my parts. I create guitar parts using effects. They’re a crucial element of what I do, a part of the art.”

In theory, this dissociation between the physical act of playing an instrument and the sound that eventually reaches our ears ought to be alienating. If the sound we hear is the end result of a musical production line rather than that of an individual musician and an instrument, how is it that guitarists and their sound become so inextricably linked? Perhaps this has something to do with different musical cultures. Watching concert footage of a superb violinist like David Oistrakh, you have the sense that the sound of his instrument detaches itself from him, from the very means by which it is being created. But classical music has at its heart this potential for endless remaking: today I am listening to Oistrakh playing Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto; tomorrow it could be Itzhak Perlman or Sarah Chang. It’s difficult for classical musicians to own the music they play in the way that John Squires owns “Waterfall”.

Maybe it’s this paradox – an intensely personal music making achieved with industrial components – that fires our passion for electric guitarists. If all art forms are a battleground between our Apollonian and Dionysian instincts, then the electric guitar has been pop music’s most Dionysian instrument, a priapic weapon in the hands of many of its finest exponents. The rise of DJ culture, or of synth-pop in the era of Kraftwerk and the Human League, proposed a different sort of ecstasy, but there has always been an equal swing of the pop pendulum between this and something more basic, more authentically human, even when that humanity is represented by a collage of wood and wires, valves and transistors.

This may also explain why the electric guitar, so intricately and intimately bound into the history of pop music, has been slow to cross over to classical music. In 1957 Stockhausen included an electric guitar in the second of the three orchestras needed for his Gruppen; in 1970 Michael Tippett underlined the contemporary setting of his opera The Knot Garden by adding an electric guitar to the Royal Opera House orchestra. But it was only with composers of the generation who had grown up with guitar-centred pop music that the instrument’s adoption into classical music really began.

In 1976 the classically trained flute player Rhys Chatham was taken to CBGBs, the centre of the New York punk scene, “and it was the Ramones! I had never seen anything like it, and I felt a lot in common with the music I heard that night. The next day, a friend lent me a Fender Telecaster he wasn’t using and showed me how to play bar chords and a basic blues scale … and I was on my way!” The result was his Guitar Trio, little more than a relentless strummed open tuning, the insistent rhythm allowing the overtones of the strings to ring out.

It’s a characteristic classical music strategy: strip a folk instrument of its associations with particular musicians and focus instead on acoustic first principles. No surprise then that Guitar Trio has been scaled up, with performances by multiple guitarists, or that Glenn Branca, an early colleague of Chatham, has developed similar ideas in his grandiose symphonies for electric guitar orchestras.

Music for massed electric guitarists has also been a feature of the Canadian composer and guitarist Tim Brady’s work, most recently in his piece for 100 guitars, 100 questions, 100 réponses, which combines 20 professional musicians with a further 80 amateur players in an attempt, as Brady explains, “to break down the barrier between creative music and the public. It is a very special sound – 100 guitar amps all pushing air and making that wondrous noise in real time.”

But Brady also sees his work as part of an inevitable tendency in the electric guitar’s development, a process of institutionalization that he compares to the history of jazz. “Jazz was underground music, dance-hall trash, a vulgar, lowbrow semi-art form. Now virtually every jazz musician I know makes most of their livelihood teaching at colleges and universities. I see the same forces working on the electric guitar. More and more young guitarists get bachelor’s degrees to start their own indie bands and the end-game will be much like jazz: everyone with a PhD in electric guitar.”

I am not so sure. That indie guitarists now study music at university instead of going to art school like John Lennon or Viv Albertine probably only indicates the broadening of one curriculum and the narrowing of the other. I suspect that the splintering of pop and classical mainstreams into thousands of genres and sub-genres will allow electric guitar music to proliferate, from the ideas I am developing for the four electric guitars of the Berlin-based e-werk to play in 2017, with more for Brady’s group in 2018, to uniquely personal instrumental soundworlds, coaxed out of assemblages of factory-built electronic components by the guitar heroes and heroines of the next generation. Everything is possible.

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