Leo Fender had another far-reaching idea, introduced in 1952: an electric bass guitar that was far more portable, louder and crisper than a classic bass fiddle. And as rock ’n’ roll took over popular music, he met the demand for bigger, louder amps — including one that deafened him in one ear while he was repairing it for the surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale — and for effects, like reverb, that separated the electric guitar even further from its acoustic ancestors.
Musicians took it from there. Electric guitars increasingly defined rock ’n’ roll, driving out pianos and horn sections. Guitarists cranked up and dirtied up the clean, warm sounds that Fender and Paul had tried to engineer; Jimi Hendrix embraced feedback with a vengeance. (His 1969 Woodstock Festival rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” gets its own, climactic chapter of Port’s book.) The synergy of guitars, amplifiers and effects spawned new idioms, while manufacturers’ profits rose and fell with hit makers’ equipment choices.
The latter part of “The Birth of Loud” juxtaposes breakthroughs by musicians — Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, the electric bass players Carol Kaye and James Jamerson — with the up-and-down individual and corporate fortunes of Fender and Paul. Fender sold his company in the mid-1960s, but kept tinkering with other companies. Paul saw his pop style eclipsed by rock ’n’ roll and his namesake Gibson model discontinued, only to have his guitar resuscitated by British blues-rockers and his playing eventually cherished by jazz fans.
In the digital era, guitars no longer rule popular music. Port recognizes that Paul left another, perhaps larger legacy: He was “the first player to claim the studio as an instrument, a move so common today that we often forget to remark on it. Les aimed to control not only the music that went onto the canvas of recorded sound, but everything about the canvas itself: the framing, the immaculateness of the background, the depth and layering of the sounds, and where it hung on the viewer’s wall.”
But “The Birth of Loud” rightfully celebrates an earlier time, when wood, steel, copper wire, microphones and loudspeakers could redefine reality. Tracing material choices that echoed through generations, the book captures the quirks of human inventiveness and the power of sound.