Steve Waksman – Instruments of Desire

Steve Waksman

This is a work of scholarly intent in which the author presents a treatise on the history and development of the electric guitar and how its subsequent use shaped the course of popular music. Beginning with the first electrified instruments of the 1930s, the book traces two competing ideals for the sound of the instrument: one with a focus on tonal purity that has been favored by artists such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Wes Montgomery; the other centering in a more distorted sound used by Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and others, to challenge popular notions of acceptable and unacceptable “noise.”

In comparing these divergent sound ideals, the author notes that approaches to these ideals also entail different ideas about the place of the body in musical performance, ways in which music articulates racial and gender identities, and the position of popular music in American social and political life.

Well-written and with extensive footnotes, the book’s only apparent drawback is that it ends with music produced up to the mid ’70s. In that sense, it is less than complete, and perhaps a second volume will bring the work up to date. Still, an excellent analysis on the growth and impact of the electric guitar on popular music and culture. Not required reading, but of interest to those who see the instrument as iconic for its broad musical and cultural impact.

Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of the Musical Experience
Steve Waksman
Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2000, Hardbound 320 pages, ISBN 0-674-00065-X, $27.95

This review originally appeared in VG‘s April ’00 issue.