Tim Brookes, Telling the Story of the Guitar Tim Brookes, who occasionally contributes essays to NPR, is also a passionate and talented guitar player. He has just published Guitar: An American Life, which he describes as part history and part love song. He talks about what he learned in working on the book.

Tim Brookes, Telling the Story of the Guitar

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

If you've listened to our program for a while, there's a good chance you're familiar with the essays from Vermont by British expatriate Tim Brookes. Over the years he's mused over cricket, swimming with sharks, king cakes and the mysteries of a snipe that flies over his country home. Well, among his many interests, he's also a passionate and talented guitar player.

Tim Brookes has just published "Guitar: An American Life," which he describes as part history and part love song. The story behind the book began a few years ago when his family returned from a vacation to a Colorado ranch. To accompany songs around the campfire, Tim brought his guitar, a handmade English instrument called a Fylde. It was one of the last relics of his early life back in England as a starving writer, hitchhiker, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and it was his traveling companion.


When we got home and I took the Fylde out of its case, the strings made an odd noise, something like this:

(Soundbite of out-of-tune strumming)

BROOKES: The airline had treated it so badly that the neck was cracked almost all the way through. I was devastated. My wife, Barbara, came in and saw what had happened. She's a musician, too, a flute player, classically trained, and she understood at once what I was feeling. `Look,' she said, your 50th birthday's coming up. I'll buy you a new guitar.' So I started looking. The first thing I found was that America is full of middle-aged guitarists who've decided they want to own one decent guitar before they die. And with them has grown up a whole cottage industry of luthiers--that is, guitar makers--who are making amazing, exquisite instruments. We're living in the golden age of guitar making. And one maker turned out to live half an hour from me.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BROOKES: We've come through the little town of Richmond, and we're heading into the even littler town of Jonesville, which doesn't even have a ZIP code. And we're looking for Rick Davis and Running Dog Guitars. And the first time I came out here, I thought: This is exactly what I wanted. I didn't want to have a guitar that was mass-produced even by one of the decent large American guitar companies. I wanted one that was made by a kind of 18th-century artisan character who lives up a dirt road somewhere. And, of course, Vermont being Vermont, the place is full of them.

(Soundbite of vehicle stopping, door opening)


Mr. RICK DAVIS (Running Dog Guitars): Rick.

BROOKES: You arrived at the ...(unintelligible) today.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BROOKES: Visiting Rick and other guitar makers opened up an extraordinary landscape of woods: zebrawood, lacewood, African blackwood, cocoa bolla(ph), Hawaiian koa with colors like a tiger's eye; rosewood, rich in browns and oranges and said to smell of rose petals when cut. Each one embodied arcane mysteries of tone.

Mr. DAVIS: So this is the mango back.

(Soundbite of resonant thumping)

Mr. DAVIS: It's got a little bit of sustain, a little bit of tone.

BROOKES: Rick would hold the top or the back of the guitar between his thumb and first finger, letting it hang by his ear like a pendulum, and tap it with the side of his thumb.

Mr. DAVIS: And by contrast, we get into a really stiff hardwood, in this case Macassar ebony...

(Soundbite of resonant thumping)

Mr. DAVIS: ...and suddenly you've got that ring and that sustain that people associate with a really good instrument.

(Soundbite of woodworking)

BROOKES: Rick prefers working in wood that's domestic rather than exotic, renewable--the wood of the great Northern forests. He likes living among the raw materials. He found an astonishing piece of cherry with a cascading ripple like ringlets of hair or a waterfall, and the mysterious building process began.

(Soundbite of saw)

BROOKES: When a luthier builds guitars, the goal is to channel the vibrations of the strings through the bridge and the braces into the top, where they spread out and gather harmonics and overtones until the guitar sounds like a choir. Every guitar maker has his or her own methods. After a while, I saw the guitar not as a work in progress but as a mystery in progress, a box of air whose product is weightless, invisible.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BROOKES: While I was writing about the building of my own guitar, I was also researching the history of the guitar in America. Where had it come from? How had it become a trophy instrument? How had it been so successful that in America it now outsold all other instruments combined?

(Soundbite of birds)

BROOKES: One of the first places these questions took me was to a small house perched on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles: the Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic & Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments.

Mr. GREGG MINER (Owner of Miner Museum): Here's one of my favorites. This is the harp-o-chord.

(Soundbite of stringed instrument)

Mr. MINER: Three groups of chords and bass strings to accompany yourself while you play the harmonica. Insert it into the opening...

(Soundbite of harmonica, strings)

BROOKES: The museum is full of bizarre inventions: the vast mandolin bass, like a gigantic musical frying pan; guitars converted to be played by banjo players, and banjos converted to be played by guitarists; the fiorbo(ph), apparently the result of an amorous encounter between a lute and a garden rake; and something that looks like a combination of a guitar and a wooden shoulder-mounted grenade launcher. It's a harp guitar, a combination of a standard guitar neck and another harplike neck with as many as 12 bass strings.

(Soundbite of harp guitar)

BROOKES: Gregg Miner's museum gives two vital clues to the history and success of the guitar. First, it was the guitar's good fortune to have been left out when the first professional orchestras were founded in the late 19th century to play the vast, booming works of the European masters. As a folk instrument, the guitar was free of the heavy hand of the concertmaster. Unlike, say, the oboe, the guitar was open to infinite tinkering. It changed in size, shape, materials, internal construction, social status. It changed as America changed. It changed with America's changing landscape and social needs. And it's still changing.

(Soundbite of stringed instruments)

BROOKES: The guitar had been with America from the very beginning. One of the first Spanish soldiers in the garrison at St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the country, owned a guitar. A student at Harvard in 1661 owned a guitar. And the French brought guitars, too. By the end of the 1700s, there were regular classical concerts on the East Coast featuring guitar solo, guitar with voice, guitar with other instruments. Touring professionals came from France, Italy and Spain. Families sang to guitars on the porch or in the parlor, and travelers, including Mark Twain, took guitars with them. And it was the golden age of Spanish California where the guitar was part of weddings, dances, funerals, feasts--part of the native language.

Toward the end of the 19th century, though, the guitar was starting to seem old-fashioned and limited. The parlor instrument of choice was now the piano, and Spanish Californian culture was all but destroyed by the Gold Rush. A guitar was just an old thing you had around the house. It was the badminton racquet of instruments.

(Soundbite of sliding chords on guitar)

BROOKES: Everything began to change in 1885 when an 11-year-old boy named Joseph Kekuku, so the story goes, was walking to school along a railway line in Hawaii, carrying his guitar. He bent down, picked up a bolt or some similar piece of industrial debris, and used it to make a noise something like this.

(Soundbite of sliding chords on guitar)

BROOKES: Kekuku went home and practiced with the guitar on his lap, using an assortment of slides: a penknife, a straight razor, a comb, a tumbler, and then working in the school metal workshop, a steel cylinder about four inches long, which was easy to hold and, being smooth, made no rasping noise as it slid up and down the strings. This was the first steel guitar, so called not because it had steel strings and not because it was made of steel, but because it was played with a steel.

Kekuku practiced for seven years, giving demonstrations and concerts in school and out in public. Friends at school picked up the technique and took it to their homes throughout the islands.

(Soundbite of steel guitars)

BROOKES: Playing with a steel transformed the guitar. It allowed the player to harmonize, playing not just one melody line but potentially as many voices as the guitar had strings, which in turn gave the guitar a fatter and fuller sound. As the player no longer used the frets except as general visual cues, he or she could now echo the sounds of the human voice or the rise and fall of waves or the movements of hula dancers. With the steel, the guitar became more supple, sexier, more expressive. It found a voice.

Hawaiian players started coming to the mainland at the end of the 19th century, first in handfuls, then in a steady trickle, with dancers who bewitched and seduced audiences. And the steel guitar took on that witchery. By 1916, Hawaiian music was the most popular music in America.

(Soundbite of steel guitars)

BROOKES: Both amateur and professional musicians took up the steel guitar. The early ragtime jazz bands, especially on the West Coast, added steel guitar players, who abandoned the slow, harmonic swoop of Hawaiian music for a faster, syncopated style, often including double or triple picking of the same note in quick succession. Pale K. Lua's "Honolulu March," 1914, for example, must have struck listeners as utterly unlike anything they had heard on the guitar--wonderfully nimble, spirited, irrepressibly cheerful.

(Soundbite of "Honolulu March")

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Take that night train to Memphis, take that night train to Memphis...

BROOKES: Cajun bands, rural Southeastern bands and cowboy bands so commonly used steel guitars that one band might call itself the Barn Dance Troubadours when wearing buckskin, and then the rest of the week put on leis and call themselves the Honolulu Troubadours. This is how the steel guitar broke into country music.

By the early '30s, the steel guitar boom showed no sign of dying. It was so popular, in fact, that the crowds flocking into dance halls and barns made too much noise for the guitar to be heard. One solution was the resonator guitar, with a vibrating metal cone, later known as the dobro. Another solution was to amplify the guitar. That's right: It was the Hawaiian guitar boom that forced the invention of the electric guitar.

(Soundbite of electric guitar)

BROOKES: The first great electric guitarist was Bob Dunn, who played steel guitar with Nelson Brown's western swing band, The Brownies. He played his guitar as if it were a trombone, or two or three trombones, like a kind of country jazz, utterly original, amazing still today.

(Soundbite of electric guitar)

BROOKES: In the '40s, steel guitarists added foot pedals and knee levers to get even more potential tones and harmonies out of their instrument, which now might have two, three or even four fingerboards, each with as many as a dozen strings. This was the creation of the pedal steel guitar, an instrument so complicated that one professional described it to me as `like trying to be a log roller while juggling full glasses of cognac and whistling "Dixie" naked.'

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #2: Well, thank you.

Unidentified Man #3: Waaaah-hooo!

(Soundbite of band with steel guitar)

BROOKES: Joseph Kekuku's legacy sounds in every guitar playing today, especially every electric guitar. Earlier this month, a club crowd in Burlington, Vermont--hardly the home of country music--heard Gordon Stone playing pedal steel with the Dead Cowboys, doing covers of Grateful Dead tunes.

(Soundbite of Dead Cowboys performing)

DEAD COWBOYS: (Singing) Ooh, please don't murder me.

(Soundbite of steel guitar)

BROOKES: It's that legacy, plus that ability to adapt, that have taken the guitar to the top of the popular musical tree. And we can see what that means just down the street from the club where Gordon Stone was playing, at Burlington Guitar & Amp.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, that's good.

BROOKES: It's nice.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BROOKES: I love guitar stores. They're the only place on Earth where a man will allow himself to shop like a woman: spending half an hour, even an hour, trying this guitar and that, with only the faintest possibility of actually buying something. Yet even here, the signs of change are on every wall: more models than ever before, more variety and more color; effects boxes, effects built into amps. And the acoustic guitars have started taking on the features of the electric: cutaways for reaching the high notes, built-in pickups, onboard equalization, becoming cyborgs--half instrument, half machine. I go only partway down that line. I hate having to plug in to play a wedding reception. What gives the guitar its warmth of tone and its mystery is that it's a performance in wood.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BROOKES: When Rick Davis called to say he'd finished my guitar and I rushed over to that dirt road in Jonesville, the cherrywood, shot through with a thousand shades of reddish gold, rippled and shimmered. Now finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, it had a depth that seemed virtually bottomless, like those patterns that, if you adjust your eyes to the right focal length, turn into 3-D designs that recede into infinity. The sides of the guitar looked like stirred honey. When I played it, the notes seemed to spread out through the whole body of the guitar, and then through the air in the box, and then rose to hover above the sound hole, as if they were now not sound but spirit, and then settled, like acoustic dust, back to nothing.

(Soundbite of guitar; birds singing)

BROOKES: This whole adventure has changed me from someone who played the guitar every so often to someone who plays the guitar. I play every day, though sometimes I just stare at it on the wall. The Vermont summer is starting now--wedding season. And in the evenings, Barbara and I work out our processional and recessional duets, just like a married couple from the 19th century or even the 18th, she on her flute, me on my birthday present, my pride: my new guitar.

(Soundbite of flute and guitar)

HANSEN: Tim Brookes' "Guitar: An American Life" is published by Grove Press. You can read an excerpt from the book and take a look at Tim's new guitar on our Web site, npr.org. Our feature was produced by Ned Wharton. The engineer was Manoli Wetherell.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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