Friday, April 25, 2008

Chuck Klosterman, the omnivorous pop-culture essayist, once asserted with a more or less straight face that the 1980s rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics “represents absolutely everything.”

“There is no relationship that isn’t a Celtics-Lakers relationship,” he wrote. “It emerges from nothingness to design nature. ”

Call it an overstrained metaphor — it is — but Mr. Klosterman was right about the oppositional order of things: matter and antimatter; Beatles and Stones; Coke and Pepsi; PCs and Macs; Hillary and Obama.

With his fascinating documentary “Solidbodies: The 50 Year Guitar War,” debut writer-director Guy Hornbuckle has added the competition between guitar manufacturers Gibson and Fender to the ledger of great binary rivalries.

In fact, says Mr. Hornbuckle, a Tupelo, Miss., broadcast journalist, he had in the back of his mind a U.S.-Soviet Union metaphor and nearly titled the film “Guitar Cold War.”

“It just so happens that the dates are pretty close to the other Cold War,” he says. “This one just hasn’t been resolved yet.”

“Solidbodies,” just out on DVD, recounts the history of two critically important electric guitars — the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul — that shaped the sound of early rock ‘n’ roll music and indirectly helped transform the face of American popular culture.

“We could pull adjectives out of the air for hours,” says Mr. Hornbuckle, 54.

The sound of the Fender Strat is twangy and percussive. The Les Paul is beefy and warm.

While it’s elegant in its way, the Strat — a marvel of mass-market manufacturing — was designed primarily for use-and-abuse functionality. The heavier, more ornate Les Paul commanded tender-loving respect. (Jimi Hendrix did not burn or bite a Les Paul, notes a “Solidbodies” talking head.)

In a history rich with ironies, both the Stratocaster and the Les Paul predated by several years the rock sound with which they would become synonymous.

Leo Fender (1909-91) who ran a radio repair shop and could neither play nor tune a guitar, pitched his new design (the Esquire, modified to become the Telecaster, was introduced in 1950) to Western-swing and country players.

Up to that point, the hollow-body electric guitar was used for marginal rhythmic accompaniment in jazz, big-band and dance bands: It didn’t have the juice to cut through large, loud, horn-based ensembles.

(It was no coincidence that early electric-guitar pioneers such as Charlie Christian essentially played musical lines that were tantamount to horn solos — the guitars of the 1930s never could have conveyed the chunkier power chords and expressive, sustained note-bending later associated with rock music.)

But the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, could “cut off your head,” says Texas-based blues-rock guitarist Wes Jeans, who is among the sound-and-style demonstrators who spared Mr. Hornbuckle the millions of dollars it would have cost to license hit music for “Solidbodies.”

The more established, staid Gibson, meanwhile, had been manufacturing stringed instruments for decades. The Kalamazoo, Mich.-based company wasn’t so much slow to catch on to the innovation of the Fender Tele and Strat; it considered such guitars an effrontery to tradition.

Yet by 1952, Gibson relented and introduced a solid-body electric guitar of its own with the imprint of Mr. Paul, whose accomplished chops as a jazz-pop instrumentalist would be overshadowed by his genius for design and invention. (The 92-year-old still performs on many Monday nights at a Manhattan nightclub.)

From thence the rivalry grew: In the hands and on the album covers of stars including Buddy Holly and bands such as the Ventures, Fender cannily appealed not just to players, but to the vast market of teenagers as an emblem of coolness; it sold Strats in the same bright sheen as popular automobiles.

Gibson set the grain of its curly maple Les Pauls aflame with a red-orange “sunburst” that convinced admirers that the guitar was in some tonal sense “alive.”

Nearly 60 years later, the Stratocaster and the Les Paul still dominate the electric-guitar landscape and, as a testament to their status as eternal artisanal verities, they haven’t changed all that much — for the simple reason that guitar players adamantly don’t want changes.

Mr. Hornbuckle doesn’t overstate the Fender-Gibson rivalry. (I don’t want to, either — as an amateur player, I simply threw up my hands and bought both.) Nevertheless, he does note that “most — not all — of the exemplary players we know or love tend to be very dedicated to one or the other.”

Eric Clapton, for example, started as a Gibson man, but he has been an almost exclusive devotee of the Stratocaster since his post-Cream solo career began in 1970. Conversely, in the band’s earliest television clips, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was seen with a psychedelic-colored Telecaster. He eventually settled on a 1959 Les Paul.

The late Mr. Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn were both definitively associated with the Start, while such outfits as the Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top relied primarily on Gibsons.

As it is with politics and basketball, so it is, apparently, with guitars. There is something in the human psyche that turns preference into exclusive loyalty.

“It’s our tendency,” Mr. Hornbuckle says. “We do want to be on one side or the other.

“And if we’re on the right side, then there has to be a wrong side.”

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