November 22, 2019

Jimi Hendrix, performing live onstage, playing a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Credit: Getty Images / David Redfern

*This piece was originally published on March 29, 2019*

In 1957, Buddy Holly appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS, strumming his tunes on a Fender Stratocaster, which was casually slung across his body. The instrument had - and would - fundamentally change American culture and music. And, to a lot of people, it was a shock.

But behind the technological innovations inherent in the solid-body electric guitar is a story of two friends and rivals, people whose legacies have been inscribed on the guitars they created. Leo Fender and Les Paul, though, had little idea of the new genre of music this invention would instigate: rock ‘n’ roll.

Ian S. Port, the author of the book, “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll”, talks about the journey of the electric guitar, considers the hurdles it faced, and how it defined a generation of musicians.

Three Takeaways:

  • Both Les Paul and Leo Fender invented versions of the electric guitar at around the same time. Paul was a musician with lofty dreams of becoming a star. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Paul performed at a local barbecue stand. One day he received a note from a member of the audience informing him that his guitar was not loud enough. He took the feedback well and tinkered with his acoustic guitar to amplify the sound it produced. 
  • Fender, by contrast, was not a musician and didn’t know how to play the guitar. He tinkered with radios at a young age and would later fix them up in a small repair shop in California. From radios, Fender went on to fix amplifiers and then finally created an electric guitar through the technical knowledge he had acquired. 
  • “It wasn’t the guitars themselves, it was how they were used,” that made the invention such an affront to its own creators, according to Port. Fender created the instrument with country musicians in mind, while Paul was a jazz enthusiast. Neither could likely have imagined how their instruments would be used or the new genre of music they would eventually usher in. 
  • Even audiences had a hard time embracing electric guitars. When Bob Dylan made his electric debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he scandalized the crowds that had come to see him. His legacy as a folk musician was tainted, and when he performed the following year in the England, crowds heckled him, calling him “Judas.”

More Reading:

If you're wondering what songs we played during the interview, here's a Spotify Playlist that includes all the pieces of music that were featured: 

And if you want to go a bit more in-depth, Ian S. Port actually created a 77 song playlist of songs that were discussed in his book. Take a listen here.

Les Paul, Culture, Guitar, Ian Port, Leo Fender, music

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