Quiet Genius, Damn Loud Guitar

Photo by Michael QuinnWhy do guitarists sell millions of records and get all the chicks? Why do idiots collect guitars? Why are there so many books about guitars? Why do some guitars sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Why all these guitar exhibits and guitar shows and restaurants with guitars on the walls? Why not trombones, goddamn it!!

Two good reasons:

1. Electric guitars represent America at its best, exemplifying our willingness to toss out convention to create a new thing of vast potential.

2. They don't have spit valves.

Upcoming Events

The title of the Fullerton Museum Center's (FMC) new exhibit, "A Shower of Brilliance," was guitar maker Leo Fender's description of the bright, penetrating sound he was searching for in his guitars. The reference was also clearly used here to bring to mind Fender's creative sparks, which illuminated popular music.

The solid-body electric guitar has been such an ingrained part of our culture for a half-century that it is easy to forget that those millions and millions of instruments in the world today owe their existence to a frumpy conservative guy with a Fullerton radio shop. Fender wasn't the first person to make such guitars, but he was the first to make a practical one and manufacture them. His first guitar to market, 1950's Telecaster, was so fully realized that it is still an industry standard five decades later. His 1952 electric bass was a wholly new instrument that has re-defined the low end in music ever since. The amplifier designs Fender made until he sold his company in 1965 remain a musician's benchmark for tone and expressiveness.

Fender's greatest triumph was his Stratocaster guitar, introduced in 1954. Where his Telecaster was a roughly guitar-shaped plank of wood, the Strat was a sexy, sculpted wonder designed with little reference to anything that had come before. And, as with the Telecaster, perfection sprang complete from Fender's brow: the Strat was an instrument of such function and potential that people are still finding new things to do with it a half-century later.

Fender was a country-music fan, but that didn't stop him from giving his instruments to any musician he thought might do something interesting with one, including Lawrence Welk guitarist Buddy Merrill, LA bluesman Pee Wee Crayton, wild black rockers Don and Dewey, and Orange County's Dick Dale. What Dale created with his Strat, a Fender reverb unit and Showman amp wasn't so much music as a representation of a physical force, of the surfer's sensation when a big wave is curling over him. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix pushed the guitar beyond musical logic into a world of direct sound and feeling, melding blues and free jazz in a turbulent sound that could evoke napalmed jungles or colliding planets. Those of us who consider Hendrix one of the most significant musicians of the last century—up there with Armstrong, Stravinsky and Parker—think it's pretty cool that he came along at a time when there was an instrument that could allow one player's improvisations to be delivered with the force of an orchestra at full throttle.

Back in the '50s, Fender's practical innovations were quickly and widely copied, and within a couple of years, even the Sears catalog—that arbiter of American normalcy—was offering solid-bodied electric guitars. They became a global sensation. By the 1960s, even African musicians who had grown up in villages without electricity were plugging in.

In America, the electric guitar came to prominence alongside the emergence of a new social class: teenagers, recognized for the first time as a distinct group and marketing target, with their own hair gels, movies (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) and popular music. Electric-guitar music was already working-class music—the instruments first caught on with country "hicks" and black bluesmen—and it now became the dominant instrument in unfettered, hot-rodded, teenage rock & roll. The chain reaction it started—rolling through the Beatles, Hendrix and others—spurred a cultural revolution that likely had far more to do with the fall of the Iron Curtain than any Western threat of military might. The Russians wanted the good stuff we had, and it wasn't Titan missiles.

Sleepy Fullerton might seem an unlikely spot for this revolution to commence, but place has everything to do with it. Had the German-descended Fender grown up on the East Coast, he might have ended up making guitars like German immigrant Christian Martin. Martin moved to the States in 1833, settled into a German-speaking community in Pennsylvania, and the company bearing his name to this day makes guitars rooted in European craftsmanship and design.

The pioneers who made it to the West Coast didn't care about tradition; they wanted to mess with stuff. Hence, this is where the aerospace industry took off, where the Beats hung out, where everything from theme parks to hot rods to skateboards to actionwear started.

When the OC-born Fender started making his innovative instruments, West Coast musicians were playing to audiences who were decidedly out for a good time. Many had moved here during World War II and had escaped the strictures of whatever communities and mores they came from. Where Eastern country music was largely sit-down stuff often derived from centuries-old English ballads, West Coast acts like Buck Owens found they had to rock it up for people on the dance floor, and there was nothing like a silver metal-flake Telecaster to get the job done.

FMC director Joe Felz and "Shower of Brilliance" curator Richard Smith (author of the finest guitar book out there, Fender: The Sound Heard 'Round the World, Garfish Publishing, 1995) aren't just into artifacts but rather delve into the sociology of Fender's works. The new exhibit, which runs until January 2003, is a distillation of their splendid 1993 exhibition "Five Decades of Fender," put on now to prime the pump for an effort to build a permanent museum extension dedicated to Fender and other California musical-instrument pioneers. (The early 20th-century metal-bodied resonator guitars, the very first electric guitars, and other innovations occurred here as well.)

The exhibition will tell you more about electric guitars than you thought you needed to know and is a fascinating window into Orange County's past, showing you a time when there was so much less here yet so much more seemed possible.

"A Shower of Brilliance: Leo Fender and His Electric Guitars" at Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Opens Sun. Through January 2003. Jim Washburn is the author with Richard Johnston ofMartin Guitars: An Illustrated Celebration of America's Premier Guitarmaker (Rodale Press).

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