With a storyteller’s—and a guitarist’s—sense of pitch and timing, NPR commentator/essayist Brookes (A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, 2000, etc.) delivers both a cultural history of the guitar and a chronicle of the intricate process that went into the construction of his own dream instrument.
It all started when airline baggage handlers destroyed Brookes’s guitar. His 50th birthday was approaching; his generous wife suggested a nice new one. Expanding on that idea, he decided to get a custom guitar “that would curl up on my lap like a cat,” built by one of the many fine-instrument makers in his home state of Vermont. The luthier he chose lived nearby, so Brookes was able to observe the process. He shares his observations with readers, who also benefit from his extensive knowledge of the guitar’s past. Interweaving these two stories, warm and droll by turns, Brookes gracefully blends the personal with the factual, never letting one get the upper hand. The guitar-making, a beautiful thing to witness, is still largely a mystery: It seems the physics of guitars is too complex for human understanding, thus the endless tinkering and innovation. The guitar’s history is equally fascinating and just as mysterious, at least in its early years. It was always the object of the swells’ suspicion: a thing of the gypsies, the blacks, the poor whites; an outlaw object that became even more dangerous to the keepers of moral order when it fell into the hands of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Brookes covers a wide swath: the dash of flamenco and the surf rock of Dick Dale, the handiwork of Ernest Tubb and Andrés Segovia, early blues, late blues, parlor music, Hawaiian steel, black slide, the British Invasion, the mainstreaming of the instrument and its domestication.
An intelligent work with the quality of a sonorous voice drifting from a radio. (NPR, in fact, will be airing six of his guitar segments to coincide with the book’s publication.)