Consider the Fender Stratocaster. Asked to picture an electric guitar, most people will immediately bring to mind inventor Leo Fender’s most famous creation. Upon its introduction in 1954, the Stratocaster not only redefined the sound of American music but immediately became, with its sweeping curves and jewel-like colors, a stunning piece of midcentury design on par with a Bel Geddes radio or an Eames chair.
Yet the Strat’s iconic shape was not a bold foray into space-age aesthetics as much as it was an on-the-fly modification. Many musicians found the Stratocaster’s predecessor, the Telecaster, cumbersome, so Fender simply streamlined the instrument with beveled contours that echoed a player’s body — and a classic was created. “A radical design had been born through Leo’s obsession with practicality,” author Ian S. Port writes; for Fender, form followed function as naturally as morning followed night.
This and many other fascinating accounts are the bounty of “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll.” Port’s book is a lively and vivid account of the careers of Fender and his main competition, Les Paul, the star guitarist whose name adorns the Gibson six-string that rivals Fender’s instruments in popularity and influence.
“The Birth of Loud” traces the dual arc of the men’s rise with consummate skill and authority. Although they were close for a few years in the late 1940s (Port writes that, tantalizingly, Paul turned down a position with Fender in 1951), and would be forever linked in their fame, they were in many respects opposites. Fender was a taciturn man who could be found tinkering in his laboratory until late at night, whereas Paul was a showman, a musical and technical whiz who, with his wife, Mary Ford, was one of the biggest stars of the postwar, pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop era.
What they shared was that ineffably American knack for experimenting and stirring the pot, for trying out harebrained ideas and pushing homemade contraptions to their limits. They were “untrained men who could build or fix almost anything because, back then, anythings were simple,” Port observes.
They also shared a keen itch for the main chance. Fender, Port relates, frequented the gritty honky-tonk joints in the crude postwar boomtowns springing up around Fullerton, Calif., talking shop with rawboned country musicians; what they needed, he quickly sussed out, was an electrified guitar that could be cranked up for maximum volume, and that was cheap, sturdy and easy to repair.
Out in New York City, Paul was experimenting along similar lines; in 1940, he had created a Frankenstein’s monster-like object called “the Log,” an ur-electric guitar fashioned out of a plank of pine and a crude pickup that “looked like a lumberyard mutant, a stick bound with steel cables.” Paul was already a seasoned professional musician with a distinctive style, but the reaction he got one night from a stunned crowd in a bar in Sunnyside, Queens, of all places, told him everything he needed to know about the future of the instrument. The guitar arms race was on.
The next two decades were probably the most transformative in the history of American music, and Port does an outstanding job of tracking the ways each new musician, from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, vaulted over the next, engaging the new instruments with ever-surprising results. Port tells the story elegantly and economically, but two turning points are identified with exceptional insight.
In 1960, now-forgotten surf icon Dick Dale pushed Fender’s amplifiers to the limit and beyond during his thunderous concerts at roadhouse in Orange County, Calif., called the Rendezvous Ballroom, thus inventing a style of music that was specifically built on excessive volume. And the 1966 recording of John Mayall’s album “Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton,” in Port’s estimation, was a ground-zero moment when the signature sound of an overdriven Les Paul — “a molten, billowing wail” — was first recorded.
These passages highlight one of Port’s true strengths: his ability to marry an agreeably anecdotal writing style to a musician’s ear. Describing sound is extraordinarily difficult; Port can do it without channeling one of those weird, adjective-heavy descriptions of wine or perfume. I myself have owned and played both a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul for many years now, and Port’s descriptions of their respective sonic capabilities is the most articulate and accurate I have ever read. The way a Telecaster snaps and sizzles, the way a Les Paul purrs with liquid, violin-like tones; he just gets it.
Port’s descriptive elan is particularly in force in his account of Hendrix’s famous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, which pushed rock guitar playing to a height it may never again reach. Port wisely ends his narrative here, and it’s an apt capstone. The story of these instruments is the story of America in the postwar era: loud, cocky, brash, aggressively new.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
Correction: A previous version of this review misstated the year in which Jimi Hendrix performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It was 1969, not 1968.
By Ian S. Port
Scribner. 352 pp. $28.