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Stephen Morris
           Melodious words about the guitar

May 15, 2005

reviewing Guitar, An American Life, by Tim Brookes, Grove Press, 2005.

A guitar-playing friend wears a T-shirt declaring "When in doubt, buy another guitar." This says it all about the fanatical loyalty, bordering on addiction or obsession that exists between the male of the species and this particular musical instrument. Can you imagine, "When in doubt, buy another flute?" Or, have you ever seen anyone play "air trombone?"

Guitarist and writer Tim Brookes had a 20-plus year relationship with his Fylde guitar before it emerged from the airport baggage claim looking as if the baggage handler was Peter Townsend (of The Who). This tragedy thrusts Brookes into full-blown mid-life crisis, and with the encouragement and blessing of his understanding wife, he commissions a custom-made guitar from Vermont guitar maker (don't call me a "luthier"), Rick Davis, proprietor of Running Dog Guitars of Jonesville. "Guitar, An American Life" is the account of the Brookes's once-in-a-lifetime journey that matches him with his ideal musical companion. Along the way there are plenty of excuses for side excursions into the history, evolution and minutiae of the guitar.

This is Brookes's modus operandi. He finds an interesting event in his life, then uses the subject as a launching pad for his more broad-reaching views. Previously, Brookes has focused on his asthma "Catching My Breath," hospice "Signs of Life," and Vermont's dirt roads "The Driveway Diaries." In "Guitar" the author has adopted a more detached, journalistic vantage. While he taps deeply into a personal vein where he is comfortable, knowledgeable and curious, he keeps the focus on the guitar, not himself. The result is a restrained and eloquent piece of work where the topics are as well-chosen as the notes in a George Harrison solo and as exciting as Jimi Hendrix on his best day.

Writing about music is notoriously difficult, but the author handles it with intelligence and restraint. One test for good writing is whether the reader can become absorbed in a subject about which he has no interest. By that standard, this book is a winner. Brookes leads the reader through all things guitar, interspersing chapters on the key technological developments that impacted the instrument's popularity with enticing bits of guitar-related trivia.

Typical is his account of the appropriately named Vic Flick, an obscure British session player who in 1962 recorded one of the seminal guitar licks of all time, the introductory theme to the James Bond movie, Dr. No. Flick likely left the studio that day completely unaware of his contribution to the history of the guitar. Now, 40 years later, Bookes has immortalized him.

Brookes does an equally good job with his characters. He resists the temptation to make his story more dramatic by aggrandizing guitar-maker Davis, a craftsman whose deep-seated resistance to pretension and dry humor are key to his personality. These are boom times for the custom guitar, with some of the finest creations going to non-playing collectors who are anticipating future "Antiques Roadshows." If it's fancy inlay that attracts you, Davis is not your man. If, however, you want a guitar to play, he is.

Davis comes across as a dedicated craftsman with a humorous disdain for custom guitar makers who put decorative inlay on unseen parts of the instrument. He observes that his customers start out wanting the best guitar they can afford and wind up wanting the best guitar ever made. He also muses on his customers' eternal and infinite capacity to confuse buying a guitar with falling in love.

Brookes details the construction process meticulously, explaining the interrelation of material and acoustics that unleashes the magic of music. Reluctantly, I invoke the phrase "McPhee-like" to describe the journey on which the author takes us. While John McPhee set a literary standard with his evocative descriptions of man and materials in "Survival of the Bark Canoe," what Brookes presents is equally original in voice and tone. Brookes may tip his hat to McPhee, but I tip my hat to Brookes.

The author keeps the narrative moving by interspersing humorous short chapters such as why Wal-Mart is the worst place in the world to buy a guitar with more developed, well-researched chapters, such as the role of radio in popularizing the guitar. Along the way you will meet guitar legends ranging from Hawaiian Joseph Kekuku, the innovator of the slide steel guitar, to George Gruhn, owner of the Mecca of vintage instruments, Gruhn's Guitars of Nashville.

The writing is topnotch. Here are some examples.

  • Describing his beloved, shattered guitar, an English-made Fylde: "I bought it in 1980, when I was an unfinished person, a collection of bits and pieces, surviving by my wits until a better idea occurred to me."
  • Describing his in-process guitar: "The next time I see the sides (of the guitar), they have crossed a conceptual line. When they were still flat, albeit thin, boards, they looked like pieces of wood, once pieces of a tree. Now for the first time they embody human purpose and design."
  • Describing a piece of classical music by Albeniz as transcribed by Segovia: "The piece seems to be utterly at home in its idiom, to have grown up in the same village as the guitar, to have hung out smoking cheap cigarettes on the same street corner."
  • Upon putting strings on his guitar for the first time: "Strings mark the guitar's passage through time, especially its passage from an agricultural to an industrial world."

This is good stuff, a very disciplined jam. I can't speak for non-guitarists (although some might argue that I am one), but I think this book is entirely readable for music-lovers, cultural observers and anyone who likes a good read.


Stephen Morris is a business consultant, writer and founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com). He still plays his guitar, although his musical development ended in 1966.


published in Montpelier Times Argus on May 15, 2005


Stephen Morris

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