How the Walkman Changed Music

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Keith Richards recalls the effect of portable cassette recording on his music, part of a new tribute to the just-discontinued Walkman by my friend and historian of popular technology Phil Patton, at designobserver.com:

Just as turntables influenced the birth of hip hop, the often overlooked cassette player helped in song writing and affected the way he played the guitar.

"I'd discovered a new sound I could get out of acoustic guitar," he writes. "That grinding dirty sound came out of these crummy little motels where the only thing you had to record with was this new invention called the cassette recorder....Suddenly you had a very mini studio. Playing acoustic, you'd overload the Philips cassette player to the point of distortion so that when it played back it was effectively an electric guitar. You were using the cassette player as pick up and amplifier at the same time. We were forcing acoustic guitars through a cassette player, and what came out the other end was electric as hell."

One precedent not mentioned: Bing Crosby's development of the crooning style made possible by the introduction of the electric microphone in 1926, which freed recording singers from the tyranny of having to shout into an old-style horn. Especially in the arts, it's nice to be reminded of positive unintended consequences.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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