I’m a guy that knows a thing or five about guitars. You may know I’ve been a musician, guitarist, and bassist for over three decades. I also ran and owned a musical instrument shop, so I have quite a bit of what most would call useless knowledge about guitars and instruments. So with that background, Ian S. Port’s The Birth of Loud is one of the best books about guitars and music I’ve read. It particularly added to my knowledge of and details about the inside workings of Fender and Gibson guitars.
Port’s book begins with the birth of the electric solid body guitar, viewing that development through the prism of Leo Fender, the California inventor and leader of Fender Musical Instruments, and Les Paul, the astounding guitarist and inventor of multi-track recording and the inspiration for the Gibson guitar model that bears his name. It’s really a story of synergy, with the guitar makers building products that influence the music of the time, and the music of the time influencing what the guitar makers built and their businesses. This is a wise approach as this diad -- Team Fender or Team Gibson -- is the basic division is rock music. While the world is full of wonderful idiosyncratic guitar makers, this pair are really the Coke and Pepsi of rock guitars.
Indulge me in an overview, an abstract of sorts of The Birth of Loud. Port begins with Team Fender. Leo Fender was born in 1909 in the Fullerton, California area, to parents that owned an orange grove. He had no formal engineering training but was the kind of guy that could look at something and figure out ways to improve it. He came up building radio equipment and by 1946 was providing primitive sound systems for the country bands playing in the Fullerton area.
Team Gibson’s story takes a more circuitous route. Lester Polfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915 to a bit cushier life. He was always fascinated with the guitar, playing as a sideman with major acts such as The Andrews Sisters, and by the mid 1940’s Les Paul was imagining an electric guitar sound that was loud, clean, and feedback-free.
The story is a well-researched but very readable explanation of how the solid-body electric guitar was developed. There is not too much jargon or guitar-speak for those who don’t play. It shows Leo Fender as a tinkerer and improver who built instruments for what the player wanted. Paul Bigsby, another local California luthier, is given a good share of the due in the production of the Fender guitars, as it truly appears that Leo pretty much stole his design.
The first Fender electrics, the (pre-Telecaster) Esquire, Broadcaster, and ‘Nocaster’ are discussed, the local country players loving the guitars but having a lot of problems with them. First made with necks with no truss rod (a steel rod inside the neck that counteracts the pull of the strings) the initial run of guitars had major bowed neck issues; Fender would add a truss rod after the first runs. Leo’s idea, as compared to fancy Gibson hollowbody guitars, was an almost Model-T like assembly line, necks bolted onto bodies with simple finishes and appointments. Guitars that could be cheaply assembled and ultimately built to last.
Les Paul’s search for the sound in his head led to him building ‘The Log,’ basically a railroad tie with an Epiphone neck and a pickup on it. He was literally laughed out of the Gibson offices upon showing them his prototype. Les was determined to make it big and realized he needed a musical partner. This is where Mary Ford (Colleen Summers) came in. Les was playing with stars such as Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole but he came to the realization that he’d always be a sideman, so he took his new fangled multi-track recording and the voice (and strong guitar playing) of Mary Ford and produced a number of his own hits that made the duo major stars.
By the end of the 1940’s, Jimmy Bryant recorded with Speedy West on a Tennessee Ernie Ford track playing his Fender; the Telecaster had arrived in Country (and never left). Orders skyrocketed for the new instrument. Meanwhile, Les and Mary had a string of hits starting with ‘Lover’ and going to ‘How High The Moon.’ Gibson guitars, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, realized they needed a solid body electric. Plant manager Ted McCarty and his team came up with the Gibson Les Paul, more expensive than the Fender, with a glued-in neck, carved top, and fancy gold paint (known as a ‘gold top’). The guitar space race was on.
In 1950, Leo Fender came up with an idea that really changed the course of music. He invented the ‘Fender Bass,’ called the Precision Bass (because it was fretted). Instead of the bass player in the band carrying a huge acoustic ‘doghouse’ bass, the player could now bring the guitar sized Fender bass and plug it in. It was quickly adopted all over the US by all types of combos and musicians.
The story continues with the effect these instruments had on musicians. Muddy Waters, in Chicago, adopted a Telecaster and played a loud, blues style which would later be copied in Britain. Les and Mary recorded their smash ‘Vaya Con Dios’ and were featured with the Les Paul guitars all over America. The next figure discussed is Buddy Holly, who looked like a ‘regular guy’ with his space age, brand new Fender Stratocaster model. The impact of Holly’s visit to Britain was incalculable, with a band then known as The Quarrymen changing their name to The Beatles. The British influential guitar band, The Shadows, themselves were totally influenced by Holly and his Strat.
By the end of the 1950’s, Gibson faced the realization that their Les Paul guitars just weren’t selling. They stopped production in 1960 and offered a SG (a thinner and somewhat flimsier model) with the Les Paul name for a year or two. Leo continued to enjoy success with the surf music craze in California. There is a great sequence on how he developed a special Showman amplifier for Dick Dale, after he had blown up a whole string of amps. Leo figured out how to build an amp that could handle his volume.
By 1963, Fender was dominating Gibson on the solid body guitar sales. Les Paul and Mary divorced, and Les lost his guitar model. The new three-chord rock and roll was here to stay. Jimi Hendrix enters the picture, working the chitlin’ circuit and playing with all the greats, learning his craft and showmanship.There is also a great passage about the bass giant Carol Kaye (from the wrecking crew, studio musicians in Los Angeles) who picks up the Precision Bass and shortly afterward is playing Brian Wilson’s parts on ‘Good Vibrations.’
By 1964 the appearance of The Beatles causes a panic among the manufacturers. Of course they played Rickenbacker Guitars (a company just down the road from Fender in Santa Ana) and Hofner (German) basses. The Fender sales team literally tried to bribe The Beatles into using Fender gear, but this failed spectacularly. What did happen, however, due to The Beatles was a major increase in sales of guitars and amplifiers for every manufacturer.
Behind the scenes, Leo Fender was worried. His health was not good and Fender was now too big for him to run. He decided to sell his company to CBS corporation for $13 million, an astounding sum in 1964. The golden years of Fender came to a quick end. In July 1965, Bob Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with a full electric band and playing a Fender Stratocaster. This was a watershed moment for Dylan and Fender.
It took a lonely, insecure prodigy from England to change the fortunes of Gibson guitars. Playing with the Yardbirds, there was no better guitarist in Britain than Eric Clapton. He left the band and joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, playing his ‘old’ 1960 era Les Paul through an English Marshall amplifier (itself a hod-rodded version of a Fender Bassman design). He recorded with the amplifier all the way up, getting a screaming ‘rock’ tone from his Les Paul. His sound would change everything. Clapton moves on to Cream, and is involved in an onstage guitar duel with Jimi Hendrix early on in the Cream story. Hendrix destroys Clapton, who leaves the stage, but they become close friends. Jimi is, of course, playing a Fender Stratocaster.
The story continues as both Fender and Gibson, bought out by corporate overlords, fall into bad times. The Les Paul guitar is reissued and becomes one of the most important rock guitars. By the 1980’s, both companies are bought by concerns that improve their production dramatically.
The story ends with the deaths of Leo Fender and Les Paul. Fender is back on the upswing and Leo has started Music Man and then G & L Guitars. Gibson is back in ascendancy, especially with the hard rock revival. Port makes the point that both men lived through an era that saw the horse and buggy all the way through to the space shuttle.
It’s a wonderful read and I’ve only scratched the surface. I highly recommend The Birth Of Loud even to non-musicians. Turn it up!