Learning Guitar 101
BOOMER publisher Lori Ross writes about a unique Richmond exhibit. While editor Ray McAllister talks with Harvey Newquist about Les Paul's role in the story of the electric guitar.
Why it matters to boomers, what it means … and why it may even be endangered
Welcome, class, to Art 101. Today’s class is about the Guitar exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia. In each issue, BOOMER will find the right professor to teach, in essence, Art Appreciation regarding a local cultural experience.
This issue’s Professor-In-Residence is HP Newquist, who oversees the development of The National Guitar Museum and traveling exhibits. “Professor” Newquist is the former editor of Guitar Magazine and has worked with hundreds of guitarists. He also is an award-winning author, documentary director and broadcast producer.
BOOMER recently had a private class, and here are some of our class notes.
NOTES FROM PROFESSOR NEWQUIST
RE: Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World, Oct. 13-Jan. 4, Science Museum of Virginia
I. WHY GUITARS ARE RELEVANT TO BOOMERS
A.) The first mass-produced electric guitar was made in 1949 and was becoming popular in 1951. The first boomers were just hitting their teens when the electric guitar started showing up on TV and in local clubs.
B.) The electric guitar became part of the cultural and social fabric of their lives, similar to new sports cars of the era – the Corvette and the Thunderbird, which were introduced in the mid-’50s. These cars and electric guitars were what boomers loved in their coming-of-age. More people talk about The Beatles first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show than almost any other touch-stone event of the ’60s, short of political activism.
II. THE EVOLUTION OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR AND ITS SONIC PROGRESSION
A.) You wouldn’t have rock and roll without the electric guitar.
B.) From a musical perspective, the desire for the development of the electric guitar was born of efforts by its makers to make the guitar louder. Horns and drums easily drowned out guitars.
C.) The first electric guitars were used by country-western bands. Remember that Elvis first started out as a country-western, rockabilly guy.
D.) Guitar players found the electric guitar made sounds they’d never heard before because it distorted when played through amplifiers, which were also very new in the ’50s and ’60s. So you had this kind of raunchy, raucous sound that changed how people viewed the guitar. It sounded like it could lead the band rather than just accompany it, and it had an interesting, aggressive sound. That in and of itself led right into the whole rebelliousness of the ’60s.
i.) The sound of Keith Richards playing “(I Can’t Get No) satisfaction” was the first time anybody ever heard this type of buzzing, distorted guitar. People thought, “That’s really an entirely different form of music – and we like it. It’s aggressive and it’s not like the music of our parents.” Now the boomers had an instrument they could call their own. This defines our generation’s music: The Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix, et al.
ii.) What Hendrix did was take the instrument sonically to a place it had never been, combining the guitar with the amplifier to make sounds nobody had heard: the kind of “dive-bomb,” “guitar whammy” solos. He personally pioneered sonic experimentation. He appreciated the combination and what sounds could be possible.
E.) After that, all bets were off. Every boomer can name his or her favorite rock band – and a lot of them were loud rock bands with loud guitarists. People including Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – all early Yardbirds favorites – those three were certainly the kind of guitarists that inspired millions to pick up the guitar and create music of their own.
F.) It’s interesting that all those are generally boomer-generation players, and there have been very few players younger than boomers who’ve been able to inspire that same way. The very youngest of those types is Eddie Van Halen – who’s now 57. We don’t have any 20- and 30-year-olds now who are like those guys were then, who are changing the world of music the way these guys did.
II. DEVELOPING THE NATIONAL GUITAR MUSEUM AND EXHIBITS
A.) In the ’90s, in my role as Guitar Magazine’s editor-in- chief, I got to know Steve Howe (from the bands Yes and Asia, and a solo artist), Johnny Winter (legendary bluesman) and Ritchie Blackmore (from Deep Purple, and creator of the famed “Smoke On The Water” riff) through interviewing them. Through years of journalism in the music press, when it came time to put together the idea for the guitar museum – because it’s an obvious subject, and there’s not one – it was a no-brainer. They all signed on right away to preserve the legacy and culture of the instrument – how it was and how it’s evolved.
B.) The guitar is still the most-selling musical instrument, with three million sold each year in the U.S. – more than all other instruments combined. Still, there’s no longer the type of “guitar reinforcement” that there used to be – album sleeves and covers and posters and MTV’s music videos and lyrics for people to read on the albums.