Music Books

Music Books

Guitar: An American Life

by Tim Brookes

Grove Press, 340 pp., $24

Given its hegemonic grip on American popular music, it's hard to imagine the guitar as instrumenta non grata. But as National Public Radio commentator and National Geographic writer Tim Brookes details, the six-stringer was once an outsider's tool, relegated to the back of the bandstand, if invited to the dance at all. After a mortal injury befell his 25-year-old plucker, Brookes had another built, picking the luthier's brain during the genesis of the custom-strung wood box. Brookes alternates chapters about this process with historical tales of the instrument's subterranean and multihued history. Heavy metal, antebellum parlor music, flamenco – it's all covered. The most compelling bit deals with country & western's use of pedal steel, involving the Confederate warship CSS Shenandoah, the Portuguese, and jumping fleas. Although handy with both the pick and pen, Brookes is well served by the alternating chapter format. A book solely about the instrument's building or history would have limited appeal (guitar geek in the house?). In total, the alternating halves are well matched, like the Vermont cherrywood sides of Brookes' new concert jumbo acoustic. Richly researched and lovingly written, Guitar: An American Life is a harmonious strum.

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