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Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brookes. Grove Atlantic Press; May 2005; 339 pages; $24. Audio book version Blackstone Audio.


"Shortly before his 50th birthday, baggage handlers destroyed Tim Brookes's guitar, his traveling companion of 22 years. His wife promised on the spot to replace it with the guitar of his dreams, but Tim discovered that a dream guitar is built, not bought.

"He set out to find someone to make him the perfect guitar -- a quest that ended up a dirt road on the Green Mountains of Vermont, where an amiable curmudgeon master-guitar-maker, Rick Davis, took a rare piece of cherry wood and went to work with saws, rasps, and files.

"When Tim wasn't breathing over Rick's shoulder, he was trying to unravel the symbolic associations a guitar holds for so many of us, musicians and nonmusicians alike. What was it about a small, humble folk instrument that allowed it to become an American icon? How did the guitar come to represent freedom, the open road, protest and rebellion, the blues, youth, lost love, and sexuality? Why is it that the guitar outsells all other instruments combined? His quest took him across the country, talking to historians, curators, guitar makers, and guitarists.

"Arriving with conquistadors and colonists, the guitar has been in an extraordinary variety of hands: those of miners and society ladies, lumberjacks and presidents' wives, Hawaiians, African-Americans, Cajuns, spiritualists, communists, and singing cowboys of the silver screen. Inventors and crackpots tinkered with it, introduced electricity, and the humble folk instrument became the basis of a musical revolution. In time it became America's instrument, the voice of its soundtrack."


Kirkus Reviews: (starred review) With a storyteller's -- and a guitarist's -- sense of pitch and timing, NPR commentator/essayist Brookes delivers both a cultural history of the guitar and a chronicle of the intricate process that went into the construction of his own dream instrument.

It all started when airline baggage handlers destroyed Brookes's guitar. His 50th birthday was approaching; his generous wife suggested a nice new one. Expanding on that idea, he decided to get a custom guitar "that would curl up on my lap like a cat," built by one of the many fine-instrument makers in his home state of Vermont. The luthier he chose lived nearby, so Brookes was able to observe the process. He shares his observations with readers, who also benefit from his extensive knowledge of the guitar's past. Interweaving these two stories, warm and droll by turns, Brookes gracefully blends the personal with the factual, never letting one get the upper hand. The guitar-making, a beautiful thing to witness, is still largely a mystery: it seems the physics of guitars is too complex for human understanding, thus the endless tinkering and innovation. The guitar's history is equally fascinating and just as mysterious, at least in its early years. It was always the object of the swells' suspicion: a thing of the gypsies, the blacks, the poor whites; an outlaw object that became even more dangerous to the keepers of moral order when it fell into the hands of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Brookes covers a wide swath: the dash of flamenco and the surf rock of Dick Dale, the handiwork of Ernest Tubb and Angres Segovia, early blues, late blues, parlor music, Hawaiian steel, black slide, the British Invasion, the mainstreaming of the instrument, and its domestication.

An intelligent work with the quality of a sonorous voice drifting from a radio.


Tim Brookes: Born of poor but honest parents in London, England. Mother played piano, grandmother sang strange and oddly cruel music-hall songs, father seemed to have little musical interest but nevertheless owned the best Django Reinhardt LP. Had the usual boring, humiliating piano lessons as a child. Took up the guitar at 17 in the usual gesture of protest. Wanted to be a writer but played guitar in pubs and wine bars when all else failed. Emigrated to America in 1980. Now plays flute and guitar duets with his wife Barbara at the usual New Age Vermont weddings and teaches in the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. Guitar: An American Life is his fifth book.


Yes, yes. It's true, that's how it all started, with the horror of seeing my guitar with its neck cracked so badly that only a thin strip of veneer was holding the head on. And the fact that this ghastly experience turned into a book was entirely due to two things my wife said. The first, when she found me making pathetic whimpering noises over my ruined guitar, was "I'll buy you a new guitar for your 50th birthday" -- more a gesture of moral support than anything else, as neither of us had any money, but it helped. The second, when I told her what difficulty I was having making a choice because in the previous decade or two the entire world of guitars had burst into this fascinating, kaleidoscopic new array of makes, models, and color, was to reply, "You should write about this."

Now the book is done -- though, what fascinates me more, looking back over the last two and a half years, is not what started it all off but what kept me going. A nonfiction writer is kept going by discoveries, either in the material world or in himself or herself, and those unexpected discoveries were what kept the subject unfolding like an infinite series of fractals, each as interesting as the last.

The first was in the field of pure research. I found that the New York Times was now available online in searchable form and started reading in a way that would never have been humanly possible before, tracking every single use of the word "guitar" from the mid-19th Century onward. (The American Memory pages of the Library of Congress site are also searchable and later gave me a similar series of serendipitous glimpses.)

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