It was a happy thing to find this book at a going out of business sale a few weeks ago. I had heard about it on NPR and was hoping to read it someday.
Guitar: An American Life, by Tim Brookes, is really two books in one. As he goes on the great American walkabout, the baby-boomer search for the perfect guitar, he decides to have one built for him by Rick Davis, a one-man shop who builds Running Dog Guitars. About every other chapter in the book chronicles the story of his guitar's birth. It is an indeed lovely guitar made from cherry sides and back with a maple top. As if you cared. But for me, a yet-recovering aspiring luthier, these chapters were absolutely fascinating and beautifully written. From chainsawing the cherry blanks to choosing inlays for the fingerboard, to voicing the top and finally setting up the guitar - it was all very good. And it's written in such a way that those who know little or nothing about guitars could understand him perfeclty. Hmmm, maybe I should have my wife read the book, just to plant the idea of a handmade guitar...
The other half of the book is a record of the guitar's life, especially as it relates to our fair country. It's quite the dramatic story. The guitar has fallen and risen in popularity so many times, it's like the musical equivalent of bellbottoms. These chapters helped me realize how strongly my perspective on music is shaped by the times and radio songs I grew up with; I grew up in a world where eighty percent of the most popular songs heavily feature guitar, where a band without a guitar is unthinkable, and so on. But this wasn't always the case. The guitar was pushed out of popularity for a while by the banjo - simply because it wasn't as loud. Then it came back into popularity as the favorite instrument of folksingers and bluesmen. Perhaps Elvis and the Beatles could be credited with finally cementing the guitar's place in America's psyche. For better or worse. These chapters were informative and generally interesting, but didn't quite hold me as much as the passages about guitar building.
So if you're into the guitar or into music history, I recommend this fun book. As a caveat, it is fascinating how often Brookes can find ways to insert his liberal politics into a book about guitars (more than several references to blacklisting & McCarthyism); also, the author was crass in one or two spots.