Category Archives: Music

Thomas Edison, Music Critic

Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:

“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”

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Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Fender is the largest musical instrument company in the world. It was founded in the 1940s by Leo Fender, who got his start repairing radios and building PA systems and amplifiers. Despite not knowing how to play or even tune a guitar, he also invented the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitars. Both are still popular today. Fender also invented the electric fretted bass.

The author, Forrest White, was Leo Fender’s right-hand man, running the business while Fender and his team designed the products. White writes a blue-collar everyman prose, admiring Fender while acknowledging some of his faults—he had his quirks and was a bit of a nutty professor type. White also shares some fun stories and little-known facts, and shares tidbit about how some well-known quirks and features in Fender instruments came about.

The Jazzmaster guitar’s two-channel electronics, for example, were inspired by a design White himself tried in a home-built lap steel guitar he made before joining Fender. White also shares in-house patent applications, advertising copy, blueprints, and wiring diagrams for several Fender instruments, which readers can use for their own repairs, modifications, or even to build their own instruments.

John Seabright – The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

John Seabright – The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

Pop music is a very different world than the DIY rock band environment I grew up in. Where I come from, bands are expected to write, record, and perform their own material, book their own shows, and sometimes even run their own record labels. Can-do idealism and youthful romance are integral to the indie scene. The pop world is downright cynical in comparison. Some of the world’s most successful hitmakers hold in active contempt the view of music as art and self-expression.

But there are also some economics lessons here, particularly in division of labor.

Some pop specialists write only beats and backing tracks. Others write only vocal melodies, or instrumental hooks. Still others only write lyrics. The performers for the most part are only performers, though that is its own specialized skill set. Other specialists focus on choreography, stage shows, publicity, and so on.

The pop music industry also provides a lesson in globalization. Many of the top pop songwriters come from Sweden, the business side is focused in LA and New York, and the performers come from around the world. Orlando, of all places, is becoming a hotspot for talent scouts, due in part to Disney’s large presence there. This book is an enjoyable read, and for this hobbyist musician, a look into an alien world.

Axl Rosenberg and Christopher Kovatin – Hellraisers: A Complete Visual History of Heavy Metal Mayhem

Axl Rosenberg and Christopher Kovatin – Hellraisers: A Complete Visual History of Heavy Metal Mayhem

A smart, opinionated, and sharply funny history of metal. It runs from metal’s roots in blues and classic rock all the way up to newer bands that are still making their names today. Rosenberg co-edits MetalSucks.net, one of the leading news sites in the metal community.

Motley Crue – The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

Motley Crue – The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

This collective autobiography unintentionally provides powerful arguments for staying in school and not doing drugs. That said, it is quite entertaining. I read the whole thing despite not being a big fan of their music.

Fun Facts about Chopin

Chopin has long been one of my favorite composers. From Alan Walker’s Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, I learned that Chopin’s father Nicolas was a fan of Voltaire, a personal favorite of mine. One of Nicolas’ students, who later became Chopin’s godfather, was Fryderyk Skarbek, an economics professor at Warsaw University.

Later in life, Chopin would live in Paris’ Hotel Lambert, where Voltaire once lived. Designed by the same architect who remodeled Versailles under Louis XIV, the building was partially destroyed by fire in 2013.

Human Achievement of the Day: Guitars

When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.

Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.

Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.

For example, guitars made by Gibson, such as the Les Paul and the SG, are often made of mahogany wood, which grows mostly in Central and South America. Tennessee-based Gibson has to arrange with people more than a thousand miles away to harvest the lumber and ship it to Nashville, most of whom speak different languages and use different currencies. The fingerboards placed on top of the guitar’s neck are usually made of rosewood, native to Africa and Asia, presenting another coordination problem.

Fret wire, usually made of either nickel or stainless steel, relies on mining and smelting technologies, and requires precise math, skill, and specialized tools to install. Other hardware, such as a guitar’s bridge and nut, pickguard, and tuning pegs, present their own challenges.

Acoustic guitars use a soundboard, chambers, and soundholes in such a way that makes the instruments both loud and tuneful. Electric guitars instead use pickups, potentiometers, wires, soldering, and standardized connections leading to an amplifier powered by electricity. If a pencil is a miracle of cooperation, guitars are even moreso.

Part of the point of Human Achievement Hour is to celebrate modernity. So on March 28, sometime between 8:30 and 9:30, instead of merely leaving on the lights, I will pick up my electric guitar, plug it into my amplifier, and take in the pure, simple joy that comes with banging out distorted power chords. After that, I will pick up my acoustic and admire all the skill, elegance, and mastery of geometry and sound that went into making it. Nobody within earshot may much enjoy my point, but they will likely be thankful for two other human achievements: walls and doors.