“A hot-rod joy ride through mid-20th-century American history” (The New York Times Book Review), this one-of-a-kind narrative masterfully recreates the rivalry between the two men who innovated the electric guitar’s amplified sound—Leo Fender and Les Paul—and their intense competition to convince rock stars like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton to play the instruments they built.
In the years after World War II, music was evolving from big-band jazz into rock ’n’ roll—and these louder styles demanded revolutionary instruments. When Leo Fender’s tiny firm marketed the first solid-body electric guitar, the Esquire, musicians immediately saw its appeal. Not to be out-maneuvered, Gibson, the largest guitar manufacturer, raced to build a competitive product. The company designed an “axe” that would make Fender’s Esquire look cheap and convinced Les Paul—whose endorsement Leo Fender had sought—to put his name on it. Thus was born the guitar world’s most heated rivalry: Gibson versus Fender, Les versus Leo.
While Fender was a quiet, half-blind, self-taught radio repairman, Paul was a brilliant but headstrong pop star and guitarist who spent years toying with new musical technologies. Their contest turned into an arms race as the most inventive musicians of the 1950s and 1960s—including bluesman Muddy Waters, rocker Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton—adopted one maker’s guitar or another. By 1969 it was clear that these new electric instruments had launched music into a radical new age, empowering artists with a vibrancy and volume never before attainable.
In “an excellent dual portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), Ian S. Port tells the full story in The Birth of Loud, offering “spot-on human characterizations, and erotic paeans to the bodies of guitars” (The Atlantic). “The story of these instruments is the story of America in the postwar era: loud, cocky, brash, aggressively new” (The Washington Post).
A titanic rivalry is rendered in highly personal terms by this loud, racketing history of how two men's obsession for perfecting the electric guitar shaped the post-WWII music scene. Music critic Port portrays two diametrically opposed innovators: Les Paul, the suave virtuoso who recorded with Bing Crosby and whose hit singles pioneered multitrack recording and put guitars center stage for the first time, and Leo Fender, the reserved tinkerer who found his niche supplying 1940s western swing bands with innovative solid-body electric guitars. Paul's name was slapped on high-end Gibsons ("a guitar for tuxedos") while Fender's company crafted more affordable noisemakers beloved by surf rockers such as Dick Dale. Port plays up the men's rivalry, but his lushly descriptive and detailed narrative is more interesting as an evolutionary history of how rock and roll was shaped by its primary instrument, as when, in one of the book's best moments, Jimi Hendrix bested a Les Paul Gibson playing Eric Clapton onstage in 1966 with an off-the-shelf Fender Stratocaster. Port's book is less illuminating on Paul and Fender's competitiveness, but it's richly illustrative in bringing these rock giants and the tools of their trade to life in a squall of beautiful feedback.
Must read for every guitarist
The story of Leo Fender and Les Paul is almost as fun as actually playing guitar. Almost. Do yourself a favor and read this.
This is a very interesting book that tells the story of how the most widely used guitars came into being and changed music forever. A great read - even for musicians who think they know the story
Birth of Loud
By far the best book on the history and the amazing people associated with these two cultural icons!
Mr. Port has done a crazy amount of research for this book. He traces the technology of each of these guitars and relates it to the evolution of great music! It is clear how much the author respects and loves ALL kinds of music. As I read each chapter, I listened to the music of each artist covered. I taught High School for 40+ years and my rocker students were always blown away when I showed them pictures of Les Paul!
If you are a music fan, this book will be impossible to put down!