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Reviewed by:
  • The Electric Guitar: A History of an American Icon
  • Alexander Magoun
André Millard, ed. The Electric Guitar: A History of an American Icon. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. x + 215 pp. ISBN 0-8018-7862-4, $45.00 (cloth).

In 1996 the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation sponsored a symposium, "Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players." This book distills and amplifies the scholarship in that encounter between researchers, innovators, and practitioners. The editor takes up where speakers left off and contributes the introduction, conclusion, and five of nine chapters. Millard makes a case for the electric [End Page 550] guitar as a totem of modern American culture. Intended for the general reader, or for unscholarly people like those who attended the symposium, the book offers "a three-dimensional impression of a potent and influential technological system" (p. 15). With some overlap, Millard and his contributors have done just that, integrating the history of this technology with its industry, popular culture, and other technical systems.

Millard's introduction argues for the electric guitar's cultural ubiquity. But was membership "in a successful rock band . . . one of those universal dreams of the baby boom generation" (p. 6)? His examples of classic rock songs licensed for advertisements suggest that lyrics rival the sound in importance. The celebratory emphasis strips the electric guitar of its musical context. Guitar solos aside, guitarists played in an ensemble. John Strohm's concluding chapter on women guitarists is clearest on this point as he explains why no woman has tried to join the pantheon of legendary soloists.

Charles McGovern explains the electric guitar's role in midcentury American popular music and multicultural and female contributions to its design, manufacture, and performance. One wonders, however, at his claim for the electric guitar's centrality to working people's music when he acknowledges its contribution to the decline of unionized big bands (p. 26). The instrument may have been transformative for some players, but the claim of autonomy conflicts with the reality that drummers and saxophonists can play loudly without relying on the power grid.

Millard begins his chapter on the invention of the electric guitar by reviewing claims to the title. One wants to know if the unnumbered 1890 patent for producing musical sounds by electricity applied to stringed instruments (p. 44). He seems unsure whether to define an electric guitar to settle the conflict over its invention and offers a muddled narrative from the 1920s to the late 1940s. The chapter includes an extended discussion of the many so-called lone inventors involved. Yet it appears that Gibson guitars were a collaborative project, and it bears asking if Leo Fender worked alone in his factory on his mass-produced instruments.

James Kraft's chapter on manufacturing draws on census figures and advertisements to trace the industrial life cycle of the instrument in the twentieth century, from its acoustic roots to electronic birth, expansion from 1950 to 1965, consolidation from 1965 to 1970, and decline as production moved overseas. In line with Philip Scranton's work on the importance of small businesses, Kraft argues that the small firms that were responsible for creating the industry were more innovative than the large companies that absorbed them as the industry began its decline. [End Page 551]

When Millard discusses the solid body electric guitar, he cannot decide whether the Stratocaster changed the sound of pop as well as its performance style, and he never lays out a chronology of development. In chapter 6 he states that 1960s innovations "came and went without greatly affecting the . . . sound of popular music" (p. 124), before explaining how new technologies did just that. By contrast, Susan Schmidt-Horning's history of the influence of another small business industry, the recording studio, is a model analysis of the way that changes in recording techniques, guitar technology, and performance practices shaped the pursuit of unique sounds.

In his last two chapters, Millard builds on collaborative papers with Rebecca McSwain. The first analyzes the "guitar hero" of the 1960s–1970s, his instrument, and his role in pop culture, which includes a...


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