The Birth of Loud

The rock ‘n’ roll revolution, it could be argued, didn’t start in a smoke-filled nightclub or raucous juke joint where blues and country were being transformed into a new music form or at least given a new name.

Nor was the new sound created in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis or at Chess Records in Chicago or any of the other studios and independent labels that put out the first rock 'n' roll records.

Rather, its dawning could easily be traced to the Epiphone instrument factory in New York and a Southern California workshop in the early 1940s.

There Les Paul, in NYC, and Leo Fender, in So Cal, were developing their prototypes for the solid-body electric guitars that transformed popular music in the 1950s by pumping up the volume of the formerly hushed instrument and making it the lead sound of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion.

The story of that transformation is illuminatingly told by Ian S. Port in his new book, “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

It’s a tale of friendship turned competition, of “borrowing” or “ripping off” -- depending on how it is viewed, of instruments aimed at different markets and, in the end, of players that made the guitars speak.

The guitars spoke because Fender, Paul and other designers, both trained engineers and home workshop tinkerers, figured out how to make a guitar of solid wood, eliminating the open spaces in the hollow-body electrics that were modeled off of acoustic guitars.

The hollow-body electrics would create ear-splitting feedback at anything close to high volume. The solid bodies eliminated the feedback, created greater sustain and along with a new generation of amplifiers turned the guitar loose to become the dominant instrument of the last 70 years.

The players who made them talk were session masters like The Wrecking Crew’s Carol Kaye and Motown’s James Jamerson, who together made Fender’s electric bass the keystone of ‘60s pop, and guitar wizards Eric Clapton, who pioneered the renaissance of the 1959 Gibson Les Paul, and Dick Dale and Jimi Hendrix, who together transformed Fender’s Stratocaster.

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Among the book's revelations, and/or confirmations for the guitar geeks who know the outline of the story:

* That Fender and Paul were friends, regularly meeting with Paul Bigsby -- after Bigsby had moved to California -- to discuss their guitar work;

* That Fender, shall we say, borrowed liberally from the solid-body custom guitar that Bigsby made for Merle Travis in 1947-48 for the Esquire, his first guitar, aimed at mass production;

* That Paul, contrary to his claims, had little to do with the design of the Gibson guitar that carried his name, adding only a few small elements to the instrument created by the company’s engineers and designers.

“The Birth of Loud” is also a business story -- of the touch-and-go growth of Fender, which couldn’t fill orders for its guitars, of Gibson’s reluctance to enter the solid-body market and its misjudgments; of the rise of Rickenbacker after The Beatles and of the sale of Fender to CBS in the mid ‘60s and its subsequent decline in quality.

“The Birth of Loud” wraps up its narrative with a phrase-for-phrase dissection of Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock a half century ago, speeding through the last 50 years -- and the deaths of Fender and Paul -- in just a few pages.

It does touch on Gibson’s recent bankruptcy -- caused largely because it expanded beyond guitars. But it doesn’t mention the decline in guitar sales, particularly to teens and 20-somethings who, not surprisingly, are now making music on computers as much or more than playing it on instruments.

That’s the change that has pushed rock from the pop forefront and raised lots of "rock is dead" and "the guitar is dead" folderol. Rock is perfectly fine, thank you, and there are still plenty of players using the instruments pioneered by Paul and Fender, who did, for a fact, give birth to loud.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


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