Guitar: An American Life

Several years ago, while browsing in a large, well-known chain bookstore near Union Square in Manhattan I happened across a book with the intriguing title Guitar: An American Life.   I bought it and read it at least twice, maybe three times over the next two years before lending it to a musician friend. Author Tim Brooke describes discovering that his guitar had been broken in baggage handling.  He replaces the broken instrument with a custom built guitar made by luthier Rick Davis.  Alternate chapters of the book describe the process of meeting with and contracting Davis to build the new guitar, making decisions on the shape and size and materials and his thoughts and reactions as the instrument takes shape.  The other chapters present both a history of the guitar, particularly in America, and a treatise on the allure of the instrument and the remarkable role it has played in the lives of individuals as well as in the evolution of society.

As players we may acknowledge the importance the guitar plays and has played in our lives but we sometimes take its presence for granted.  How many of our friendships and other relationships have grown from or been forged by the experience of playing guitar?  How many of the experiences we remember well and recount to others have their roots in the fact that we play music?

It may seem a crass generalization, but one of the points that Brooke makes in the book is that a guy shops for guitars differently than for anything else. He refers to it as shopping like a woman. I find this an instructive point. When else do we go to the store knowing that we’re probably not buying but we just want to try a bunch of things on, just to see if they fit?  What other stores to we go into not to get out of as soon as we can, but to stay as long as we can?  Where else do you get into conversations with other customers that you have never met before?  You know you have something in common, even if the other person wants to plug that Gold Top into that Double Rectifier and shred while you want to hear how your Travis picking sounds on that sunburst 000-18.  Those six strings create a surprisingly strong connection even if you have never considered playing with your shirt off and the other person has never performed without bass and drums.

Anyway, the book is a great read and will enhance your appreciation for the instrument. It will also make you yearn to have a guitar built just for you.  I would lend you my copy, but I never got it back from the last person.  Maybe he lent it to someone else – as long as the message continues to spread.  I guess I‘ll have to get another copy, it’s worth another read.

Author: Ron

I started playing guitar in high school bands playing songs by the Ventures, early Beatles and other British Invasion bands. With excursions into many types of musical styles and genres in the intervening years I have developed an appreciation for the unique skills of the guitar accompanist. The accompanist serves the song and serves the singer, enhancing rather than competing with the song and the performance. This blog highlights those skills and the practitioners who exemplify this important bit of artistry.

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