Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience / Edition 1

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Overview

Around 1930, a group of guitar designers in Southern California fitted instruments with an electromagnetic device called a pickup--and forever changed the face of popular music. Taken up by musicians as diverse as Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and the MC5, the electric guitar would become not just a conduit of electrifying new sounds but also a symbol of energy, innovation, and desire in the music of the day. Instruments of Desire is the first full account of the historical and cultural significance of the electric guitar, a wide-ranging exploration of how and why the instrument has had such broad musical and cultural impact.

Instruments of Desire ranges across the history of the electric guitar by focusing on key performers who have shaped the use and meaning of the instrument: Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, the MC5, and Led Zeppelin. The book traces two competing ideals for the sound of the instrument: one, focusing on tonal purity, has been favored by musicians seeking to integrate the electric guitar into the existing conventions of pop music; the other, centering on timbral distortion, has been used to challenge popular notions of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" noise. Instruments of Desire reveals how these different approaches to sound also entail different ideas about the place of the body in musical performance, the ways in which music articulates racialized and gendered identities, and the position of popular music in American social and political life.

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Editorial Reviews

Business Week

Instruments' natural-language passages are knowledgeable and sympathetic. Waksman's profiles of musicians Charlie Christian and Les Paul—each chapter centers on one guitar icon—provide useful overviews of their careers and an aficionado's suggestions for listening.
— Jim Taibi

National and Financial Post

Until recently, the history of the electric guitar, the most influential of the 20th century, had never been fully chronicled. Now, Instruments of Desire traces it through its 70 years of development, examining its pan-genre musical influence, its role in race and gender politics, and the unprecedented power that rewarded those who mastered it.
— Patchen Barss

Berkeley Express

As a survey of the development of the electric guitar and its impact on society, the book is invaluable—and frequently fascinating. Instrument designers such as Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby are given their due, but the focus is on the musicians themselves. Among those discussed in detail—and with a keen musical ear—are Charlie Christian, Chet Aktins, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Wayne Kramer (of the proto-punk MC5), and Jimmy Page.
— Lee Hildebrand

Booklist

Waksman's critical look at the electronically enhanced plectral lute and meticulous tracing of its influence is a darn fine book...Although it tells blues and rock musicians' stories, this isn't a book about musicians or, really, music. It is an exploration of the 'racialized nature of rock's favorite mode of Phallocentric display... the electric guitar.' Waksman makes much of the sexuality conveyed by the instrument and keeps the issue of race close to the surface of the discussion. Far more theoretical and involved than most other books about guitars, Waksman's is a delineation of the implications of one of our era's endemic icons, the boy with his guitar. Persuasive, responsible, and wide-ranging, this is the thinking headbanger's guide to the evolution of the mighty axe.
— Mike Tribby

The Wire

Instruments of Desire is an extremely useful addition to the dog-eared debate on the theme: 'guitar as pinnacle of ecstatic sonic excess versus guitar as phallic appendage for big-haired white boy dorks'. Due largely to Waksman's ongoing engagement with rock's under-the-counter culture (he's more likely to quote Bangs than Benjamin), this is a highly readable account of the rise and subsequent fetishisation of six electric strings.
— David Keenan

Mojo

If you're fascinated by how the electric guitar became what it is, and by what it's told us at each stage in its development, then Waksman is as cool, erudite, provocative and non-geeky a guide as you could possibly desire.
— Charles Shaar Murray

The Journal of American History

Few of the histories of American popular music address the manner in which technology embodies a range of concepts and propositions. Steve Waksman's Instruments of Desire corrects this lapse…He employs a wide range of theoretical formulations in his work and is particularly successful in his attention to a variety of public media in which musicians were featured… Instruments of Desire is one of the most groundbreaking studies of popular music in recent memory and will be of interest to all readers, whether they are prone to playing power chords or merely addicted to the more common practice of air guitar.
— David Sanjek

Technology and Culture

An American studies scholar, Waksman offers intriguing information and ideas…Instruments of Desire provides a cultural context for the electric guitar in a thought-provoking manner.
— Rebecca McSwain

Notes

Steve Waksman's book is a selective history of the electric guitar since the thirties, focusing on eight key performers or groups who especially illustrate the instrument's cultural significance…Waksman's narrow but brilliant study will inspire more investigation of the impact of the richly stimulating "axe" that still carves paths through planet Earth's musical forest.
— Burton W. Peretti

Business Week - Jim Taibi
Instruments' natural-language passages are knowledgeable and sympathetic. Waksman's profiles of musicians Charlie Christian and Les Paul--each chapter centers on one guitar icon--provide useful overviews of their careers and an aficionado's suggestions for listening.
National and Financial Post - Patchen Barss
Until recently, the history of the electric guitar, the most influential of the 20th century, had never been fully chronicled. Now, Instruments of Desire traces it through its 70 years of development, examining its pan-genre musical influence, its role in race and gender politics, and the unprecedented power that rewarded those who mastered it.
Berkeley Express - Lee Hildebrand
As a survey of the development of the electric guitar and its impact on society, the book is invaluable--and frequently fascinating. Instrument designers such as Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby are given their due, but the focus is on the musicians themselves. Among those discussed in detail--and with a keen musical ear--are Charlie Christian, Chet Aktins, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Wayne Kramer (of the proto-punk MC5), and Jimmy Page.
Booklist - Mike Tribby
Waksman's critical look at the electronically enhanced plectral lute and meticulous tracing of its influence is a darn fine book...Although it tells blues and rock musicians' stories, this isn't a book about musicians or, really, music. It is an exploration of the 'racialized nature of rock's favorite mode of Phallocentric display... the electric guitar.' Waksman makes much of the sexuality conveyed by the instrument and keeps the issue of race close to the surface of the discussion. Far more theoretical and involved than most other books about guitars, Waksman's is a delineation of the implications of one of our era's endemic icons, the boy with his guitar. Persuasive, responsible, and wide-ranging, this is the thinking headbanger's guide to the evolution of the mighty axe.
Robert Christgau
As a musician Steve Waksman can get deep enough inside the guitar to explain its workings with a precision uncommon in musicologists and unknown in social scientists. As a historian he has the taste and guts to meld sources humble and hifalutin into a coherent narrative that is neither. Thus he comes closer to revealing the secrets of the definitive 20th-century instrument than anybody else who's been foolhardy enough to try.
John Covach
Instruments of Desire is a powerful book. The way in which Waksman moves with real authority from style to style as he considers each guitarist is almost a virtuosic accomplishment in itself.
Lawrence Grossberg
This is a new kind of--polyphonic and polyrhythmic--history of popular music. It seamlessly weaves together everything from theory to biography, from economics to technology, from race and gender to aesthetics. Anyone interested in popular music will enjoy reading this book, and everyone will leave it wiser than when they came to it.
Jon Langford
These instruments of desire are the tools of our trade, the means of production and while the muddled, middle-aged prophets of year zero predict their demise, Steve Waksman lays out a history that's essential reading for all foot soldiers in the music biz wars.
The Wire - David Keenan
Instruments of Desire is an extremely useful addition to the dog-eared debate on the theme: 'guitar as pinnacle of ecstatic sonic excess versus guitar as phallic appendage for big-haired white boy dorks'. Due largely to Waksman's ongoing engagement with rock's under-the-counter culture (he's more likely to quote Bangs than Benjamin), this is a highly readable account of the rise and subsequent fetishisation of six electric strings.
Mojo - Charles Shaar Murray
If you're fascinated by how the electric guitar became what it is, and by what it's told us at each stage in its development, then Waksman is as cool, erudite, provocative and non-geeky a guide as you could possibly desire.
The Journal of American History - David Sanjek
Few of the histories of American popular music address the manner in which technology embodies a range of concepts and propositions. Steve Waksman's Instruments of Desire corrects this lapse…He employs a wide range of theoretical formulations in his work and is particularly successful in his attention to a variety of public media in which musicians were featured… Instruments of Desire is one of the most groundbreaking studies of popular music in recent memory and will be of interest to all readers, whether they are prone to playing power chords or merely addicted to the more common practice of air guitar.
Technology and Culture - Rebecca McSwain
An American studies scholar, Waksman offers intriguing information and ideas…Instruments of Desire provides a cultural context for the electric guitar in a thought-provoking manner.
Notes - Burton W. Peretti
Steve Waksman's book is a selective history of the electric guitar since the thirties, focusing on eight key performers or groups who especially illustrate the instrument's cultural significance…Waksman's narrow but brilliant study will inspire more investigation of the impact of the richly stimulating "axe" that still carves paths through planet Earth's musical forest.
KLIATT
This book reads like the prize doctoral dissertation it grew from. At times it is overly diffuse, but it may be one of the first discussions of drugs, sex, and rock and roll that students will read that puts such material in a scholarly context. Essentially a history with analytic commentary, Waksman traces the guitar's technology, sound and cultural impact from the Swing Era through Nashville and black music to heavy metal. Musicians will find the book fascinating (if they can read through the jargon), but it's probably too much for the average rock fan. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Harvard Univ. Press, 373p. illus. notes. index., $15.95. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Daniel J. Levinson; History & English Teacher, Thayer Acad., Braintree , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Library Journal
Waksman (Harvard Univ.) presents a scholarly treatise on the history and development of the electric guitar and how its use shaped the course of popular music. Beginning with the first electrified instruments of the 1930s, he traces two competing sound ideals: one with a focus on tonal purity (favored by artists such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Wes Montgomery), and the other centering on a more distorted sound (used by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page) that challenged popular notions of acceptable and unacceptable "noise." In comparing these two divergent ideals, Waksman, editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, argues that they also draw on different concepts about the place of the body in musical performance, about the ways in which music articulates racial and gender identities, and about the position of popular music in American social and political life. Well written, and with extensive footnotes, the book's only apparent drawback is that it ends with music produced in the mid-1970s. In that sense, it is less than complete. (Perhaps a second volume will bring the work up-to-date.) Still, this is an excellent analysis of the growth and impact of the electric guitar on popular music and culture; for all libraries.--Eric C. Shoaf, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674005471
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/2/2001
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,458,593
  • Product dimensions: 0.79 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Waksman is the 1998 winner of the Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize awarded by the American Studies Association. He is Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green University, and is on the editorial board of Popular Music and Society.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations

Introduction: Going Electric

Playing with Sound: Charlie Christian, the Electric Guitar and the Swing Era

Pure Tones and Solid Bodies: Les Paul's New Sound

Mister Guitar: Chet Atkins and the Nashville Sound

Racial Distortions: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and the Electric Guitar in Black Popular Music

Black Sound, Black Body: Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Guitar and the Meanings of Blackness

Kick Out the Jams! The MC5 and the Politics of Noise

Heavy Music: Cock Rock, Colonialism, and Led Zeppelin

Conclusion: Time Machine

Adventures in Sound: A Guide to Listening

Discography: Selected Recordings

Notes

Credits

Index

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