Friday, January 06, 2006

Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brookes

When baggage handlers cracked the neck of his guitar, a Fylde that he had bought in England in 1980, Tim Brookes re-glued the instrument and began thinking about buying a new one. Shopping for a really nice guitar for his fiftieth birthday (a common guitarist's desire), he was confronted by a much greater variety of instruments than he ever imagined, none of which were "just right." He began to read about guitars, hoping to gain some direction, and learned that there was a growing custom-built guitar industry. Deep in Vermont, he found the luthier Rick Davis of Running Dog Guitars, contracted for a guitar, and began to write Guitar: An American Life.

Brookes is a very skilled writer who delivers history with humor and insight. Some readers might recognize him as a commentator for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. I enjoyed listening to the book on compact discs read by the author, and I referred to the hardbound edition to see its small section of photos. Reading the last part before bed, I found Brookes just as entertaining in print as on CD.

Brookes alternates history with a running account of Davis building his guitar. Both narratives are fascinating. I never knew how difficult guitar making is. It is incredible that the instruments hold together much less play in tune. In fact, keeping them in tune is also somewhat difficult - I know I have heard much guitar tuning during live performances in my life. The scope of Brookes' history is wide. I am reminded of the PBS series American Roots Music, except Brookes is not bound by the continent. He goes back to ancient times and leads the reader through European string instrument history before describing several centuries of American guitar history. Every aspect of the guitar is covered - performance, musical movements, recordings, innovations in design, manufacturing, and retail sales. Ever present is a sense of social history, too.

The print version of Guitar has supplemental material not found with the audio book, including a list of recommended recordings, a list of guitar tone woods, and a glossary. As a reference librarian, I wish it also had an index. While the lengthy table of contents is helpful, an index would be better for a student with a paper or a reader who wants to re-find one of Brookes' accounts. Too bad Guitar is not available as a searchable e-book.

Guitar: An American Life should be in all public libraries. Put it on display.

To see photos of the guitar that David built for Brookes, go to NPR's Tim Brookes Telling the Story of the Guitar.

Brookes, Tim. Guitar: An American Life. New York: Grove Press, 2005. ISBN 0802117961

9 compact discs. Ashland, Oregon: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005. ISBN 0786178884


American Luthier said...

Rick -
Found your blog while searching for an ISBN for "Guitar;An American Life." I'm a non-profit publisher of books about guitar making. I'd be glad to send you one for review. Here's a list:

They have been very well received by guitar makers. I'd love to know how to bring them to the attention of libraries. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Rick--thanks for all the kind comments. I'm glad the book pleased you. A lot of people have emailed me asking for color photos of the finished guitar, as the book had only black and white photos. If you're interested I can shoot a couple your way.

Tim said...

Duuuuh. It might have helped if I'd left you my last name and email address! This is Tim Brookes; my email is