Have Guitar, Will Fiddle

For a visual image denoting the guitar’s significance in American music, you could hardly do better than the huge column rising through the three stories of Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP). It is festooned with guitars, dozens of them in diverse shapes and sizes. Other instruments are included, but the overwhelming impression is that of numberless variations on those femme curves that characterize the only instrument to outgrow its functional use and become a rite of passage. Toy guitars are big business, aimed at even the smallest of children, ranging from plastic-inflatable to mini faux-Stratocaster, complete with amp.

The guitar gives the illusion of accessibility. Kids think it will be a snap, until the first calluses show. Moreover, it suggests a pretend world in which instrumental ability is kin to a cool precocity and the lineaments of sexual power. Did you ever hear of adolescents playing air-clarinet, air-piano, air-drums? Air-guitar is unique, a choreography of self-assertion that, for all I know, may be as old as Greek Terpsichore and the dude backstage miming a lyre. Yet it seems especially endemic to America. How is it that kids who are decades too young to have heard of Peter Gunn can strum his vamp on the low E string? There are more unplayed guitars in closets than ignored spinets in living rooms.

In a sense, guitar has taken over from piano—the original home entertainment center. The ability to play a salon repertory once counted as a commonplace accomplishment among the well-bred, especially women. Ragtime inspired men to take an interest, too. Music lessons for kids remain a thriving concern, but a piano is large and expensive. The difference between those tiny toy keyboards of childhood and the real thing is far greater than that between fake and real guitars.

Taken as a category of cultural charade—a shiny red phallic extension hanging from the neck, aimed like a rifle and strummed with lusty aggression—the guitar doesn’t seem to have much to do with jazz. Rock ’n’ roll made it an emblematic prop. I can dimly recall Elvis’ early TV appearances, and schoolyard postmortems during which older kids argued over whether he actually played the guitar or just slapped it around. I do not mean to imply that the music that produced Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton is short on virtuosity, just that the play-acting aspect of the guitar is impossible to imagine in any other field.

In jazz, mastery of the guitar is intertwined with a tradition that has far deeper American roots: that of the tinkerer and builder—a tradition that precedes by many centuries the amazing inventions of Les Paul. String instruments are the foundation of every musical culture. Like the Greeks, Africans used wooden pegs to secure animal guts across gourds. American slaves built a variety of sophisticated elaborations, culminating in 1830, when a showman named Joel Walker Sweeney invented or perfected (history is obscure on this point) the modern banjo, an instrument he had learned to play from slaves on his father’s Virginia plantation–one that, in his version, came to dominate minstrelsy. Seventy-five years later, Eddie Lang’s father, an Italian mandolin-maker, built his boy a first instrument, made from a cigar box and thread.

One of the many exhibits at EMP traces the evolution of the guitar as a quest to make it louder. Electric amplification was attempted as early as the ’20s, but during the next decade most ventures in enhancing volume involved changing the shape of the body and its soundholes (f-holes generally project more than roundholes). Resonators and Hawaiian steel guitars offered other approaches, as did practical techniques, like scraping a bottleneck across the strings. Charlie Christian changed all that. He wasn’t the first to use a pickup, which enabled him to float over Benny Goodman’s entire orchestra, but he was first to perfect a linear attack—a gleaming, lyrical, harmonically advanced approach to melody that put him squarely on the bounding line between swing and bop.

Christian was an innovator not because he went electric, but because he had to go electric to play what he heard in his head. Django Reinhardt had to devise a fretting style that allowed him to play with two fingers after the other two had been paralyzed in a fire; the alternative was to abandon the guitar. Legend has it that Wes Montgomery trained his thumb to work as efficiently as a pick, with no loss in speed and tremendous gains in tone, because he needed to practice quietly so as not to wake the baby. He also created a style of lightning octaves and a tripartite approach to soloing that combined single-note variations, chords and octaves, each employed with melodic originality and rhythmic force. It’s not the kind of thing that inspires air-guitar, just reveries of elation and beauty.

Originally published in July/August 2002

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