Book Review: Instruments of Desire


Steve Waksman. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0674005473.

Waksman’s book addresses the qualities that make the electric guitar important as a transformative object, propelling the musician towards cultural icon status. Interested in issues of technology, race, masculinity, and inherent politics attached to shifting sounds, the book covers the course of the electric guitar’s history. Throughout the instruments history, there is a continual challenge to the idea of what sounds, and noises, are appropriate. 

Waksman traces the history through key figures. He starts with Charlie Christian, whose story brings the guitar through its emergence in swing to a claiming distinct voice within Be Bop. Via Les Paul electronic devices expand and transform the sound potential of the electric guitar. With Mary Ford, Paul domesticated the guitar and made the instrument a central force in pop music. Waksman assesses the importance of playing techniques to the formulation of distinct styles by describing Chet Atkins and the Nashville sound. Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix allow Waksman to review the trajectory of black musicians who incorporate the electric guitar to reform both the music and its performance. Pointing to the guitar battles waged in Chicago clubs (interesting connection to hip-hop here) Waksman establishes the ways the electric guitar aided in flashy, unorthodox routine. Chuck Berry illustrates how the shifting nature of the electric guitar in African-American music crossed over, and became a lead voice in popular music. Waksman considers Hendrix primarily as a representation of blackness – the guitar becoming an extension of the body and driving issues of black masculinity.

Through the electric manipulation of sound MC5 appropriated and reformed aspects of black music and masculinity to rebel against the constraints of the white middle class. From a sonic standpoint Led Zeppelin synthesized sounds from a variety of sources (African American, Indian, Celtic, etc.) balanced with the “technophallus” style of play. 

With these key figures (and bands), Waksman views the electric guitar as an instrument of transformative qualities. Instruments of Desire addresses the social, cultural, political, and technological connections to the sonic space inhabited by the guitar in the hands of musicians of different time, place and genre.

For our purposes, the book superbly contextualizes the guitar in broad historical scope. Understanding contemporary music requires a critical assessment of how it became what it is, and through Waksman a thread in that story is both uncovered and well connected. In his conclusion, Waksman questions the future of the guitar as a radical force in the wake of expanded electronic music production divorced from the instrument. As such, the growth, development and life of the guitar can also help to relay questions that ground our discussions of culture in general.   


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