Book Review: Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Scribner, 2019)

A dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as a history of the instruments that bear their names. Fender, whose full name was Clarence Leonidas Fender, got his start in radio repair. He founded his own company in 1946 and began building his own PA systems and amplifiers for local musicians. By the 1950s, he was building the first mass-produced electric guitars. He was heavily influenced by his love of Hawaiian music, an dsome of Fender’s first electric instruments were Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars with pickups that wrapped around the strings in a circle. Today’s guitar pickups are typically flat slabs underneath the string. Fender’s customers were mainly working musicians who need instruments that were loud, reliable, and easy to repair.

Before Fender, most electric guitars were hollowbodies. They were built similarly to traditional acoustic guitars, but with pickups. Fender’s solidbody designs were almost impossible to destroy. They are also easy to mass produce, since they are essentiallu flat planks of wood carved into a standardized Telecaster or Stratocaster shape. The necks were a bolt-on design, which meant they were interchangeable and easy to replace if they broke—or if the player preferred the feel of a neck from one instrument, but preferred the body of another.

A pre-Fender guitar’s glued-in neck was permanent. One stage mishap could mean the end of the instrument—and a hefty expense for a musician who might not be able to afford it. Fender’s guitars also had a thinner, brighter, treble-heavy sound that belied his Hawaiian influences. In this way, 1930s Hawaiian music had an underappreciated influence on everything from country music to Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar solos.

Fender also created the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass. As with Teles and Strats, these were designed for gigging musicians. Electric basses are far, far smaller than a traditional stand-up bass. They were also far louder, which meant they could keep up with modern rock bands—especially when played through a Fender Bassman amp. They had frets, which inspired the “Precision” name. A few years later Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, which has a slightly offset body shape and a brighter, more articulate sound. The two designs remain the standard choices for genres ranging from Motown blues to metal.

While Fender’s company had a rough going in its early days, the success of the Telecaster, introduced in 1952, and the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, and its basses, allowed Fender to sell his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars.

CBS was a negligent owner and allowed the quality of Fender’s guitars to decline, to the point where the company was at risk of going by the 1980s. Once the company regained its independence, it upped its quality control and embraced overseas manufacturing, established a custom shop, and began a renaissance that continues to this day. Fender is now the largest instrument maker in the world, and is a studious caretaker for other famous guitar brands such as Jackson and Gretsch that had also fallen on hard times.

Les Paul, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was one of the first people to make a solidbody guitar. Though he was not the first, as he liked to claim. He built his famous “log” guitar similar to Fender’s. he was the tinkering type, and after moving to New York he convinced the Epiphone guitar to give him the run of their workshop after-hours. He gave his log guitar a more conventional appearance by attaching the sides of an Epiphone hollowbody guitar to the log’s center block. Today’s semi-hollowbody designs, such as Gretsches and the Gibson ES-335, use this center-block approach to reduce feedback and give a different tone.

By 1952, the Gibson guitar company saw Fender’s success, and approached Les Paul about being the endorsee for its first entry into the solidbody market. That guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, remains in production today and has been favored by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Carcass’ Bill Steer.

Les Paul was also one of the first people to use overdubs and multi-tracking, which are now staples of modern recording. When he and his then-wife Mary Ford were at the peak of their popularity, Paul’s production techniques made their sound instantly recognizable.

Paul and Fender knew each other, though their careers were centered on opposite coasts, with Fender in California and Paul usually in New York when he wasn’t on the road. They were usually on good terms, although Fender and Gibson remain the two largest competitors in the instrument business.

Port is a gifted storyteller. While he usually treats Fender and Paul separately, he deftly points out common themes in their careers and their instruments. It helps that both men were a bit quirky. Fender was a bit of the nutty professor type, happier in his shop than working on the business side of his business. Paul was not the best husband to Ford, and he didn’t handle his decline in popularity very well. In his later years he became a gregarious elder statesman, and his talent for spinning a yarn made him particularly endearing, even when he was clearly exaggerating. While musicians will obviously get the most out of this book, it also makes a good case study in invention. As with most other ideas, including calculus and the steam engine, the modern electric guitar had multiple near-simultaneous inventors. There was trial, plenty of error, and the whole process was messy and unplanned. As befits the rock music Fender and Paul helped to make possible—even though neither of them even liked it.

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