Cover image for Instruments of desire : the electric guitar and the shaping of musical experience
Instruments of desire : the electric guitar and the shaping of musical experience
Waksman, Steve.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 373 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Playing with sound : Charlie Christian, the electric guitar, and the Swing Era -- Pure tones and solid bodies : Les Paul's new sound -- Mister Guitar : Chet Atkins and the Nashville sound -- Racial distortions : Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and the electric guitar in Black popular music -- Black sound, Black body : Jimi Hendrix, the electric guitar, and the meanings of blackness -- Kick out the jams! : the MC5 and the politics of noise -- Heavy music : cock rock, colonialism, and Led Zeppelin.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML1015.G9 W24 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Around 1930, a group of guitar designers in southern California fitted instruments with an electromagnetic device called a pickup - and forever changed the face of popular music. taken up by musicians as diverse as Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and the MC5, the electric guitar would become not just a conduit of electrifying new sounds but also a symbol of energy, innovation, and desire in the music of the day. This volume is the first full account of the historical and cultural significance of the electric guitar, a wide-ranging exploration of how and why the instrument has had such broad musical and cultural impact.

Author Notes

Steve Waksman is visiting assistant professor of History and American Studies at Miami University in Ohio, and is assistant editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Waksman's critical look at the electronically enhanced plectral lute and meticulous tracing of its influence is a darn fine book. Its purview includes Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, the ubiquitous Pete Townshend, and Blue Cheer (Blue Cheer?), as well as, of course, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry. Respect is rightfully paid to Chet Atkins and Les Paul, too. But, although it tells blues and rock musicians' stories, this isn't a book about musicians or, really, music. It is an exploration of the "racialized nature of rock's favorite mode of Phallocentric display . . . the electric guitar." Waksman makes much of the sexuality conveyed by the instrument and keeps the issue of race close to the surface of the discussion. Far more theoretical and involved than most other books about guitars, Waksman's is a delineation of the implications of one of our era's endemic icons, the boy with his guitar. Persuasive, responsible, and wide-ranging, this is the thinking headbanger's guide to the evolution of the mighty axe. --Mike Tribby

Library Journal Review

Waksman (Harvard Univ.) presents a scholarly treatise on the history and development of the electric guitar and how its use shaped the course of popular music. Beginning with the first electrified instruments of the 1930s, he traces two competing sound ideals: one with a focus on tonal purity (favored by artists such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Wes Montgomery), and the other centering on a more distorted sound (used by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page) that challenged popular notions of acceptable and unacceptable "noise." In comparing these two divergent ideals, Waksman, editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, argues that they also draw on different concepts about the place of the body in musical performance, about the ways in which music articulates racial and gender identities, and about the position of popular music in American social and political life. Well written, and with extensive footnotes, the book's only apparent drawback is that it ends with music produced in the mid-1970s. In that sense, it is less than complete. (Perhaps a second volume will bring the work up-to-date.) Still, this is an excellent analysis of the growth and impact of the electric guitar on popular music and culture; for all libraries.--Eric C. Shoaf, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Waksman (Miami Univ. of Ohio) has written no narrow, technical history of the electric guitar. Rather, he presents a broad, complex social, cultural, and musical study, focusing on seminal individuals and groups. He begins with jazz stylist Charlie Christian and other electric pioneers, e.g., Les Paul, who, by the early 1950s, invented one version of the solid body guitar while Leo Fender simultaneously worked on another. Country star Chet Atkins took the electric guitar to a higher performance level. Waksman next looks at Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and the role of the electric guitar in blues and rock and roll, two related forms of black music. Jimi Hendrix receives extended treatment. After a brief discussion of MC5, a 1960s white, Detroit rock group that used noise to make a political statement, the author ends with an analysis of Led Zepplin and the rise of heavy metal. Particularly concerned with connecting the electric guitar with issues of technology, race, class, and gender, Waksman draws on a wide range of sources, including theoretical studies, to make his convoluted arguments. Scattered photos and the narrative "Guide to Listening" are most helpful. Though somewhat difficult going for the average undergraduate fan, highly recommended for all academic libraries. R. D. Cohen; Indiana University Northwest

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. ix
Introduction: Going Electricp. 1
1. Playing with Sound: Charlie Christian, the Electric Guitar and the Swing Erap. 14
2. Pure Tones and Solid Bodies: Les Paul's New Soundp. 36
3. Mister Guitar: Chet Atkins and the Nashville Soundp. 75
4. Racial Distortions: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and the Electric Guitar in Black Popular Musicp. 113
5. Black Sound, Black Body: Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Guitar and the Meanings of Blacknessp. 167
6. Kick Out the Jams! The MC5 and the Politics of Noisep. 207
7. Heavy Music: Cock Rock, Colonialism, and Led Zeppelinp. 237
Conclusion: Time Machinep. 277
Adventures in Sound: A Guide to Listeningp. 297
Discography: Selected Recordingsp. 320
Notesp. 324
Indexp. 368