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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 821-822

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Book Review

Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience

Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. By Steve Waksman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. x+373; illustrations, notes/references, discography, index. $27.95.

In a striking display of cultural-technological interaction, Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1965, and forever changed his position in popular culture. It was then, Steve Waksman says, that the electric guitar was defined "as an object invested with deep significance" (p. 2). The goal of his study is to explain that significance. Technology is backgrounded; foregrounded are key individuals in the history of the electric guitar: Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, MC5, Led Zeppelin. Within this framework, the significance of the guitar with relation to certain cultural issues--race, sex, and politics--is considered in Waksman's interesting and well-written narrative. Finally, he gives us a discography and a nontechnical "guide to listening" for each of his featured individuals, both useful supplements to the text. Little academic work has been done on the electric guitar, and this book is a pioneering effort. This is not a technological history, but historians of technology may well find it worth reading as the first major scholarly commentary on a prominent twentieth-century technological phenomenon.

An American studies scholar, Waksman offers intriguing information and ideas, but his methods may not always satisfy historians and social scientists. His consideration of the guitar as "technophallus" (p. 247) is a case in point. This is a central issue, having been widely analyzed in the rock-music press over the past thirty years, and Waksman brings new insight to the topic. He actually refers to the commentary of involved women (a famous groupie and journalists), and quite perceptively points out that these commentaries suggest there is no simple opposition between phallocentrism and "pure, nonhierarchical feminine desire" (p. 257). This insight seems well-supported by the evidence offered. On the other hand, I am not convinced when Jeff Beck's language in describing his obsession with a pickup is taken to signify the "eroticization of technology" (p. 246). The [End Page 821] pickup is in material fact the sine qua non of the electric guitar, and Beck's focus on it can be seen as materially rational. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

In relating the electric guitar to racial issues, Waksman suggests that the instrument enabled jazzman Charlie Christian both to advance a career in white culture and to lay the foundation for "one of the principal dynamics in the history of the electric guitar: the use of the instrument by African-American musicians to stake out a middle ground between widespread popular acceptance and local, more racially exclusive networks of musical and cultural exchange" (p. 35). Accepting this statement, we must still ask to what extent an electrified guitar was necessary in this racially charged cultural space. Blues musicians playing acoustic instruments in the rural South may have worked on the same "middle ground," using music to attract mainstream listeners (white) and to serve as a coded expression of resistance to white domination. In the interaction of Christian and his Gibson ES-150 we have an important example of creativity playing with technology; but why this particular technology?

There are similar examples throughout the book: interesting analyses that beg for deeper explanation or more empirical support. The discussion of Led Zeppelin is particularly strong, but still raises more questions than it answers. For example, the band's "recourse to tropes of exoticism" (p. 276) is well described but not, in the view of this anthropologist, adequately explained. Though a noteworthy effort, the chapter dealing with Jimi Hendrix is weak, and this archetypal guitar hero remains a mystery.

The history of any prominent, commonplace material object ought to be useful in testing theories about how culture is constructed. Conversely, analysis of cultural construction should...


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