“You start off playing guitar to get chicks and end up talking with middle-aged men about your fingernails.”
This is just one of the dozens of truisms, cogent observations, and laugh-out-loud lines found in Tim Brookes’ 2005 Guitar: An American Life. Candice gave me the book for Christmas, and though I finished it shortly after New Year’s Day, I’ve only now found the time to say how much I enjoyed this “part history, part love song” to the guitar.
I learned of the book last summer when I met Rick Davis, the builder of my two Running Dog guitars. Rick – along with a new guitar he built for author Tim Brookes – are featured in Guitar. After baggage handlers broke his Fylde guitar, Brookes turned to Davis to build him a new one. In alternating chapters Brookes chronicles the building process while taking the reader through an idiosyncratic yet compelling history of the guitar.
Since the book has been around for a few years, it is easy to find good book reviews online. I’ll content myself with simply repeating some of the great lines from this delightful read. Let’s begin with that fingerboard.
“I’ll often feel intimidated just by looking at the fingerboard. A fingerboard is a curiously disturbing thing, and not especially inviting, a combination of inscrutable rectangular geometry, strings one way, frets perpendicular. What about those inlays on the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, twelfth, fifteenth, and eighteenth frets, refusing to conform to any regular sequence, more perplexing than a Fibonacci series? ‘This is perfectly easy,’ the fingerboard says, ‘but you will never understand it.'”
Brookes, on a day when he has to have his snow tires taken off and his summer tires put on (he lives in Vermont), takes his guitar to the shop’s reception area and plays Django Reinhardt and Scott Joplin for the receptionist.
“When the tires are done and I stop playing, the two women break into smiles. ‘Very relaxing’ is the verdict. I’m tempted to hear that as ‘very boring,’ but I think, no, live instrumental guitar music probably is relaxing in the context of work, artificial light, the smell of artificial carpet and Naugahyde, oil and gasoline drifting in faintly from the shop. They agree that it beats canned music.
‘I’ve never had someone come in and play music in all the years I’ve worked here,’ says the receptionist, and I think, ‘What good is a guitar if you leave it at home?'”
And a final excerpt, this time around the question, “How do those guys play those chords?”
“Playing guitar is as much about the hand as it is about the guitar, perhaps more. Which is one reason why it’s a conservative art: the hand wants to conform to the shapes it knows. Advanced classical and jazz guitar ask the hand to make shapes it only ever makes during electrocution or in the last contortions of strychnine poisoning, which is why those guys develop spidery fingers – long, thin, oddly spread apart. The rest of us stick with the shapes we know, shapes that feel right.”
The guitar is an amazing instrument – simple, complex, versatile, fascinating – and I’m fortunate to have three wonderful guitars made by two luthiers of the highest order. If you have a life-long love affair with this instrument, or are just getting to know it, you’ll enjoy Guitar: An American Life.
More to come…