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Book Review: Guitar by Tim Brookes

George Washington gave one to a grandchild. Thomas Jefferson bought one for his wife. Apparently, guitars turned up everywhere in early America, from the parlors of founding fathers to campfires out in California territory. Even down in the Confederate South, where ladies proved their skill not at the pianoforte but on the six-string.

Although that particular tradition has changed -- a woman with a guitar is still perhaps too overt a sex symbol for certain society -- guitars haven't lost their popularity. In fact, as Essex author and NPR commentator Tim Brookes explains in his fascinating travelogue-cum-paean, we buy more guitars in this country every year than all other instruments combined. These are hard times for horn makers. Being a luthier: Now there's a growth industry.

Why? Well, in part because of people like Brookes. Tumbling into his early fifties, no longer such a rolling stone, Brookes wears that fragrant cologne of nostalgia and furtive rebellion which Harley Davidson salesmen can sniff a mile away. When a careless airline baggage attendant all but snapped the head off Brookes' 20-year-old Flyde, he decided it was time to have a new guitar made by hand. Only this time he would watch.

And so we wind up with Guitar, a lovingly constructed dual narrative about one man's guitar and how that instrument, over five centuries, has become the most commonly purchased music-making tool in America. If Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig had focused more on motorcyles and less on new-age thought, it might feel like this.

Pirsig's story started in Minneapolis. Brookes' began in Vermont, where there are more guitar makers per capita than any other state of the union. There is even a school where one can learn the trade: Vermont Instruments, in Thetford. Brookes' craftsman is Rick Davis, salesman, shipper and luthier at Running Dog Guitars in Essex Junction. Davis came to the craft by way of repairing BMWs and building kayaks. He first began working on guitars after buying a do-it-yourself kit. Now, for a little more than $2000, he is going to build Brookes a really nice one.

Guitar history will likely lure lots of readers to this book, and Brookes' clear-eyed descriptions of how a guitar gets made will keep them reading. Looking over Davis' shoulder, you get to watch pieces of cherry become bouts and binding, learn what will make it tick and hum. The whole process emerges as a kind of delicate balancing act -- pitting certain forces in the wood against the tension of the string. Davis bends and twists and blows. "He clamps one end against a heated stainless steel slat ... and slowly starts to bend the wood down against the slat until they meet farther and farther along the curve. I can barely watch," writes Brookes, holding his breath. "It's impossible that so thin and brittle a piece of wood can be elastic enough to bend one way around the large lower bout, then in and out again, sharply, for the waist, and then around the small upper bout."

With fewer contortions, Brookes also traces the route by which the guitar came to America. The first one, apparently, showed up in St. Augustine (now Florida) in the late 1500s among the effects of a Spanish soldier. After that, the English brought them over to the colonies; the Mexicans ferried them up into California; and, in perhaps the oddest instance of happenstance, shipwrecked Portuguese sailors brought them to the Hawaiian islands, kick-starting a boom in so-called native Polynesian music and steel guitar, which was invented and perfected by the great Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku.

Modern rock 'n' roll has given us so many famous strummers, from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix. Happily, Guitar doesn't get overly impressed with such celebrities -- although it is cool to hear that Hendrix learned to play on a broken ukelele. Brookes' most vivid portraits play up the unsung heroes of the luthier art, the people with the skills and the raw materials to build instruments that bridge one genre of music to another.

One guitar maker, fiftysomething Ken Savage of Puget Sound, tells of having an old man walk into his shop offering good wood. The luthier agreed, not expecting much, only to discover that the man had salvaged and air-dried enough quilted maple -- which is apparently quite rare -- to fill a 30-by-60-foot warehouse.

As it turns out, two decades prior, the man had spent five years rescuing maple from a timber cut, "going into the forest with a chain saw, cutting them into two-inch-wide planks, carrying them as much as a quarter of a mile out to the nearest road and then driving them back to his shed. Then he would stack them [in the same order] as he took them off the tree. He carefully numbered them and waxed the ends. He treated the wood perfectly."

Now, one strip at a time, this precious wood is shaped and twisted into "sprites" and "chickadees" for aging baby boomers or famous rockers. If Brookes' "concert jumbo" comes from more common stock, Guitar makes vividly clear that it is no less special. After all, the guitar's journey only begins in the artisan's workshop. What happens after that, as history has shown, is up to its owner.

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