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Star Guitars: 101 Guitars That Rocked the World

Dave Hunter

(Voyageur; US: Oct 2010)

Is there anything more iconic of rock ‘n’ roll than a guitar?  No. Hendrix with his Strat, Page with his Les Paul, Angus with his SG, Slash with his—okay, he played a Les Paul too, but you get the idea. Albert King and Lonnie Mack with their Flying Vs. What could be cooler?


Hey, I don’t sound like a geek, do I? Can’t help it. I like guitars.


Dave Hunter likes guitars too, and he’s written a whole book about them. A big thick hardcover coffee-table slab of a book, black like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a die-cut cover (the cutout shaped like Clapton’s “Fool” Gibson SG, if that means anything to you). It’s a great book, a hefty chunky monument to the ax. According to Amazon.com, it weighs a pound, but it feels more like five. Guitars rule!


Okay, I’ll stop. But really, this is a great book. It’s also something that will never appear on your Kindle. How could it? The thing is a monster: 11” x 10” and packed with photos, mostly color but some archival black-and-whites too. You need the full size (and weight) to feel the impact of all this stuff: guitar masters from the ‘30s to the present, both famous (Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Buddy Guy, BB King) and less so (Lonnie Mack, T-Bone Walker, Roy Buchanan, Steve Cropper). Each musician gets a minimum two-page spread, and many get more. The guitars are pictured, of course, along with an array of memorabilia: concert pictures, posters, record covers, even guitar picks and ticket stubs.


So far the only oversights I can come up with are Joe Satriani and Adrian Belew (of “The Momur” fame. Okay so fame isn’t the right word. But do yourself a favor, go listen). Besides that, the list is a pretty thorough chronicle of pop/rock/blues icons. Sure, plenty of metal wizards have been left off (the guys from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest et al) and a number of bluesmen like Albert Collins. But heck, they couldn’t include everybody.


The arrangement is alphabetical, beginning with Chet Atkins and his Gretsch 6120, and ending with Neil Young and “Old Black”, his 1953 Gibson Les Paul. In between you’ve got 99 more rockers and their six-strings heard ‘round the world: Bo Diddley and his rectangular Gretsch, John Lennon’s Epiphone Casino—the yellow guitar he played in the famous rooftop performance of “Get Back”—Willie Nelson’s beat-up Martin N-20 classical acoustic, nicknamed “Trigger,” Jack White’s wonky 1964 Airline Res-O-Glas, originally sold by department stores like Montgomery Ward, and dozens more.


There are of course some dubious choices. Do we really need Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats? (They had, like, one hit song.) Was Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green really a guitar god? (No.) Wasn’t Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson actually kind of lame? (Yes.) And why oh why oh why does Eric blankety-blank Clapton get eight pages—more than anyone else in the book? Hendrix gets six, for God’s sake. Keith Richards and Johnny Winter each get two. (For the record: Clapton = most overrated guitarist of all time. Scientists have proven this.)


This is probably not a book you will sit down and read cover to cover, unless you are an even bigger geek than I am and therefore find joy in sentences like: “In addition to its upgraded electronics with added six-position Varitone switch and stereo outputs to split the signals from its two humbuckers, it also featured cosmetic refinements, such as an ebony fingerboard with pearl block markers, multi-ply body and fingerboard binding, and gold-plated hardware.” All right, I’m all over that gold-plated hardware, but most of the other stuff just slides off my eyeballs.


This volume manages to simultaneously appeal to the twin faces of the true rocker: the fan and the geek. The fan sits and leafs through the pages, admiring (or scorning) Jimmy Page’s twin-necked Gibson EDS-1275 (the one he used for concert renditions of “Stairway to Heaven”) and drooling over the classic lines of Rory Gallagher’s much-worn 1961 Fender Strat.


The geek on the other hand can make him/herself cozy with insider details: Jimi Hendrix’s “preference for later-‘60s CBS-spec Strat over early to mid-‘60s Strats with pre-CBS (i.e., pre-1965) specs remains a hotly-debated issue.” Well sure it does! Other technical aspects are easier for the casual fan to absorb. Commenting on the left-handed Hendix’s tendency to use right-handed guitars strung in reverse, even though left-handed models were available, Hunter points out that “restringing the right-handed guitar with the low E [string] back on top, and thus wound around the tuner post that was now furthest from the nut, created a change in the vibrational characteristics of that string.”


The beauty of this book is that it appeals to both the impulse to gawk at the cool rawk stars and to understand the mechanics that went into their sound. Or if you will, it appeals to both sides of the brain. This is a big, fat, beautiful book full of big, fat, beautiful guitars, as well as enough trivia and gossip to satisfy any rocker. It’s too bad that Christmas just rolled by, because this would have been perfect under the tree for the six-string fiend in your life. But hey, fiends have birthdays, too.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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