The Feud That Birthed the Electric Guitar

Les Paul and Leo Fender were fierce competitors. Their rivalry led them both in the same direction—toward the creation of the solid-bodied instrument that changed the course of rock music.

Jimi Hendrix performs in Stockholm in May 1967. (AFP / Getty Images)

“More circuitry was necessary.”

How is it that in a book as rich in description, as full of imagist sound-summonings, spot-on human characterizations, and erotic paeans to the bodies of guitars as Ian S. Port’s The Birth of Loud, this rather bald little line should be my favorite? Two reasons, I think.

First, it comes at a mythic moment in the story. It’s 1966, and Jimi Hendrix, newly arrived in London, is looking for a heavier sound. The universe, in other words, is tensing up for another leap in self-awareness; dimensions of noise are about to disclose themselves. Hendrix already has some of the required equipment. He’s got his Fender Stratocaster (quite atypical—most of his fellow guitar heroes like the Gibson Les Paul); he’s got his 100-watt Marshall amplifier; and he’s got his own supple and godlike relationship with electricity. He’s got power. But he wants more; he wants, as Port puts it, “nuclear distortion.” To achieve that, somebody—some wizard/boffin/mad professor—is going to have to invent something. More circuitry is necessary.

Second, in these four words is contained, philosophically, the whole book. Les Paul, born in 1915, was an auteur, a pop star, a musical innovator, and an unstoppable tinkerer who could hear sounds just beyond the rim of the technically possible. Leo Fender, born in 1909, was a low-key workshop sorcerer who ate a can of spaghetti for lunch every day and would scramble onstage with a screwdriver, while the musicians were playing, to fiddle with the gear he had built for them. Opposites in style and temperament, both men had the Promethean itch; both men sought, in the name of music, to master the strange and volatile element of loudness. And it led them both in the same direction—toward the creation of the solid-bodied electric guitar. More circuitry was always necessary.

At the beginning they were fellow voyagers, companions in obsession. Port conjures the scene at Les Paul’s Hollywood garage in the late 1940s, where Paul, Fender, and like-minded gearheads would mingle with a seasoned crew of country-and-western sidemen, swapping tips and stories. “None could have foreseen the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that music was growing louder and more driving, challenging the limits of acoustic instruments … There was a sense among these men that the potential for electric amplification in music hadn’t yet been realized, that there was still a lot of power waiting to be harnessed, incredible new tools waiting to be built.” Later they became competitors and rivals in the legend, with different versions of the origin story.

Les Paul, high-flyer, late-night charmer, is the interesting one. His pursuit of a purely electric guitar sound is more feverish and ego-driven, has more personal velocity than that of the monastic Fender. So it’s Paul, fiddling with guitars and mics in a Queens basement in 1941, who gets the huge electric shock: the divine flick of reprimand. It tears his muscles and takes away the feeling in his hands. “Electricity,” explains Port, “the very force Les believed would give him the prominence he so desired, had thrown everything into jeopardy.”

He recovers, however, and by 1947 he and electricity are ecstatically cooperating. “It began with layers of bright electric guitar runs racing over each other,” writes Port of Paul’s sci-fi instrumental “Lover,” which became a massive hit. “Some tracks mechanically sped up, their pitch raised, so that the strings seemed to twinkle.” Then in 1948, Paul is in a car crash that leaves him with his right arm bent at a permanent 90-degree angle. (“Just point it toward my belly button,” he tells the doctors before the final operation, “so I can play.”)

But biography is not the point here. The point is the inevitability—via the spangled accelerations of Les Paul’s studio experiments, and Leo Fender’s selfless mechanical futzing-about, and Muddy Waters, and Buddy Holly, and space-age design, and amplifiers stuffed with newspapers, and a host of other currents and convergences—of the electric guitar.

Port can write lovingly, such as when he describes an early, solid-wood model that belonged to the country twanger Merle Travis. (“The accent pieces around the bridge were intricate, even florid. The headstock was a flowing, avian shape …”) And he can write with technical lyricism: “The high output of Gibson’s dual-coil, humbucking pickups pushed amplifiers into thick, aggrieved distortion, while the guitar’s heavy body and glued-in neck produced a crying, mournful sustain.” He even made me like Eric Clapton for a minute. And from the fumbled genesis of the electric guitar to its expressive climax, he draws us a beautiful, educational arc.

It starts with Junior Barnard in 1946, onstage with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, overloading his little guitar amp and wincing at the feedback. It concludes 23 years later, with Jimi Hendrix, feedback’s Stravinsky, at Woodstock. End of the rainbow: The sun’s come up and there’s Jimi, extending over a dazed crowd the shattering celestial ironies of his “Star-Spangled Banner.” Port gives the performance a whole chapter, his prose rising to the occasion. “Each phrase arrived slowly and deliberately, the original melody still amazingly legible in the din.” Three minutes and 45 seconds: a piece of 20th-century art to stand beside Guernica and “The Waste Land,” produced just once, on an electric guitar.

Were I the editor of this book, I might have instructed Port not to stop here but to direct his narrative toward industrial England—to Birmingham, where a brooding mustache called Tony Iommi was about to turn the electric guitar into a tool of quantum investigation. A cosmic probe, as it were. That’s another story, perhaps: the story of Black Sabbath, and electricity, and what happened next. But someone needs to tell it. More circuitry is necessary. More, more, more.