By Kevin Wierzbicki
Photography Credits: Book cover: Courtesy of Scribner,
Ian Port photo: Tory Williams, 3 black & white photos: Richard R. Smithk
Les Paul and Leo Fender changed music history, and this new book explores their friendship and collaboration – and eventual estrangement – as they created rock n’ roll’s most influential instrument.
If you’ve ever played air guitar to “Free Bird,” scooted your boots to a twangy country song or daydreamed to the sublime jazz of George Benson, then you’ve been seduced by the electric guitar. Chances are you’ve never given much thought to how the now ubiquitous instrument came into being, but the tale of how six string met electricity is actually quite intriguing, and author Ian S. Port turns the story up to 10 in his new book “The Birth of Loud.”
Subtitled “Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the book finds Port delving into the blood (literally!), sweat and tears that Fender and Paul expensed as they struggled to create and perfect their versions of the electric guitar. Port, a guitar player himself since the age of 10, already knew quite a bit about the workings of electric guitars when he got the idea to write “The Birth of Loud,” but he was curious about “why our music sounds the way it does, and who made it that way.”
After about a year of pondering, Port decided to research the lives of Fender and Paul. “Immediately Leo’s life story got me,” Port tells DeSoto Magazine.
“How did this guy, who couldn’t play an instrument, who had only one eye – how did he create the most influential electric guitars and amplifiers in the world? That just seemed like a puzzle I wanted to solve,” he continues. “And then learning too that he knew Les, that the two were kicking around L.A. at the same time together, I realized that this was a special time and place in music history; a really fertile, influential milieu, and I wanted to chronicle that.”
Port devotes about the first half of “The Birth of Loud” to the creative process that Fender and Paul employed in their quest, picking the story up in the mid-to-late 1940s. It is Port’s attention to detail that makes the book such a fun read; his depiction of Fender as a frumpy, obsessive tinkerer is vivid and amusing while the image of Paul as an innovative guitarist and performing artist wanting more from his instrument is equally entertaining. Fender worked on his innovations first in his radio repair shop and later his makeshift factory in Fullerton, California, while Paul, who lived nearby, worked mostly out of his home.
The pair eventually became estranged, but while they were friends they often held bull-and-brainstorming sessions in Paul’s backyard, where Fender was inspired by Paul’s early prototype of a solid body electric guitar, a clunky piece affectionately known as “The Log.” Because of the quirkiness that enveloped both men, as it did the other assorted characters present at the backyard meetings, Port is able to put the reader so into the scene that the smell of spilt beer and electronics is almost palpable.
Once they finally came up with electric guitars that were marketable, now in the 1950s, Paul and Fender had to figure out details like the best positioning of tuning pegs and how to keep guitar necks from warping. Paul’s early guitars were so sensitive to heat that they would often go out of tune when exposed to stage lighting.
As to marketing, Paul had a deal with Gibson Guitars while Fender was on his own, relying on a few personally-selected salesmen. About this same time musicians across the country began featuring electric guitar in their live performances. Not all of them played Les Paul or Leo Fender creations, but the big electrified noise being made by players like Muddy Waters in Chicago, Buck Owens in Bakersfield and a kid in Lubbock named Buddy Holly began to win fans over with a new sound.
While Paul and Fender obsessed over electric guitars, they did, of course, otherwise live their lives. The author put the tragedies that befell both men into perspective as he recounts how Fender was electrocuted while tinkering and how Paul, in a moment of genius, had surgeons set his arm, nearly lost in a car wreck, permanently in position to allow for guitar playing. Paul’s hit records and career with his adoring wife Mary Ford is covered; Fender’s wife is portrayed as a dedicated woman often frustrated with the time Fender devoted to his obsession. The latter portion of “The Birth of Loud” finds Port chronicling how the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Telecaster, the Fender Stratocaster and the Fender bass became stars of rock ‘n’ roll and the ever-present instruments used in all genres of music today.
Leo Fender and Les Paul passed well before Port began writing “The Birth of Loud.”
“I would have asked Leo if he ever learned to appreciate the sound of distorted guitar,” says Port, adding, “I would’ve asked Les about simplicity versus complexity in playing the guitar.”
You also have to wonder what the pair would’ve thought of all those fans playing air guitar to “Freebird,” playing it loud without any electricity at all.
“The Birth of Loud” contains more than 20 vintage photographs of Leo and Les and famed musicians using their instruments.