Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe (eds)
Guitar Cultures

(Berg: Oxford 2001, 215 pp)

Review by Kimi Kärki
  The term ‘guitar culture’, as it is used here, refers to the guitar makers, guitar players and audiences who imbue guitar music and the instrument itself with a range of values and meanings through which it assumes its place as a cultural icon. (Bennett and Dawe, 1)

Rarely have I found the idea of a book as compelling as in this case. The birth of this collection of articles on guitar cultures coincided with and was affected by the IASPM Kanazava conference in 1997. The evening program can certainly boost new ideas: the later editors of the book realized during a guitar jam session that this kind of book on cultural meanings of guitar had never been written. I wonder what the current count on similar cases is.

The introduction of the book is more than just a simple run-through of the articles. Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe seek the cultural conditions in which guitar has had a predominant role. Special attention is given to the meanings people give to guitars. They find three different themes for the discussion and also partly for the placement of the articles: global context, local context, and consuming of the guitars.

Guitars are sold, made and used everywhere. Globalization processes have been observed from a multitude of perspectives, but the guitar does offer an attractive case study. This instrument is a global and mobile phenomenon, even if its cultural significance rises from specific musical contexts. The material form and sound of the guitar are standardized, argue Bennett and Dawe, but it is at the same time the object of assimilation, appropriation and change. This paradox certainly makes the guitar a somewhat unique instrument. At the same time the blending of the musical ideas in the cross-cultural sense make the guitar a global unifier of different musical styles – such as is the case with “world music” or different fusion styles.

Local cultural settings are what make the cultural interaction of guitar musics so interesting. The editors rightly suggest that guitar terms, styles and techniques all have their localized versions and even totally original ideas which every now and then spread to global music markets. Think about Flamenco, Celtic or Hawaiian guitar styles for example. Local settings are where the authenticity of a style is discussed and determined – and sometimes after global success re-determined, I might add. Tastes vary, as do fashion and generational experiences.

The theme of consuming seems to be something in common for many of the articles. The editors propose that the current and developing flow of capitalism has played a major role in facilitating guitar’s cultural mobility. At least the industry has spread throughout the world, as of course have the sales. All kinds of local playing styles offer tools for categorizing and marketing of the music for different audiences. Even the guitars themselves are collectable objects, from vintage Les Pauls to weird customized avant-garde guitars.

Blues guitar in the Deep South is the in-depth topic of David Evans here. He tries to outline the factors that affected the introduction of guitar to the local folk music tradition, discusses the characteristics of the mentioned tradition in the indigenous African-American sense, and observes the result – the blues-centred folk guitar tradition. The Deep South is seen as an area where different musical traditions meet, but focus is given to broader cultural movements as well. Evans blends different academic approaches in a refreshing way, going from historical examples to detailed observations on changes in the playing style of guitar.

Acousticity has been mythologized, claims Peter Narváez, writing on blues guitarists. His article continues quite fluently from where Evans stopped, and thus the two articles nicely complement each other. Acoustic blues has been there throughout the twentieth century, sometimes having noticeable surges of popularity. The style is guitar centred, shared by the southern U.S. traditionalists, the blues revivalists of the 1950s and 1960s, and players all around the world today. What started as a pragmatic approach to guitar playing turned into a “myth of acousticity”; playing ‘country blues’ – renamed ‘acoustic blues’ – was seen as an authentic and ideological act. Acoustic and electric guitar were and sometimes are seen as binary opposites.

Andy Bennett writes on UK ‘Indie-Guitar’ culture. The “back to basics” mentality and the idea that small scale labels and minimally produced guitar music can be alternative to more commercial mainstream music cultures are the essential points of ‘Indie-Guitar’ culture. Bennett maps the history of garage rock from 1965 onwards, describes the basic ideas of the ‘Indie’ scene – namely the usage of cheap equipment and the solo-lacking anti-guitar heroism, and discusses the gender issue from cock rockers to Riot Grrrl music. Quite interestingly he finds that girls are still having major obstacles becoming a part of the male dominant scene.

Guitar making is an old culture itself. Kevin and Moira Dawe write on Spanish guitar-making tradition. Handmade products are understandably seen as the more appreciated form of guitar, and in Spain guitar and the making of it is the centre of a complex social web. The two Dawes are trying to bring forth, should I say, ethnographical introduction to a huge subject, and I think they do the job well – just check out the references. The voices of guitar makers come through.

Is guitar an icon and artifact? John Ryan and Richard A. Peterson find it to be that especially for the babyboom generation. They see guitar as the tool for boomers’ identity forming, from the discovery during the youth to the return to the vintage guitar collecting in the middle years. One boomer was interviewed and the case summarised in the article, several others being discussed as well. Thus the idea is to go from private to public, from single case to the general guitar culture and finally to the consuming habits of a whole generation. Splendid idea, and the evidence seems to back it up.

Steve Waksman’s observations on Edward van Halen’s arena guitar heroism are entertaining yet informative. Arena guitarist is bound to certain rules which Eddie van Halen tried to break or at least stretch. He was expected to play fiery and technically perfect solos, but he sometimes wanted to play keyboards, to the apparent horror of the band mates and perhaps even the audience. Thus, argues Waksman, a guitar hero is in the middle of cultural contradictions and expectations. Van Halen’s career serves as a case study of the whole bombastic arena rock show culture.

Moving to more ethnically exotic area Denis Crowdy observes the guitar cultures of Papua New Guinea. Popular music style called ‘Stringband’ is the focus of his article, more specifically the regional, social and stylistic diversity of the local guitar cultures in the area. What begins as a fairly homogenous music culture heard in radio changes in the local settings, producing multiple ethnic styles.

Brazilian guitar culture has some specific characteristics writes Suzel Ana Reily, namely its social meaning as the status symbol. Guitar is seen as the symbol of racial or class segregation, even if, and paradoxically because, it is flexibly moving in all social classes. When an instrument is culturally shared by all classes it easily becomes the centre of the debate.

Martin Clayton examines the diverse Indian guitar styles from rock to raga. This is again a hard task because the regional variation is huge, but Clayton sees his article as a focused sketch, a possibility to tightly frame the main features of Indian guitar cultures. His article is based both on his fieldwork in India and in many years of study of the music of India. The guitar is certainly popular in India yet its status is problematic, as it is primarily seen as a modern Western instrument somewhat tightly associated with Christian values. Thus a great paradox can be seen in the fact that the local Indian guitar styles are the ones which stand a chance to spread globally. The instrument is Indianized, argues Clayton.

Most notably the articles by Waksman, Ryan & Peterson, Bennett and Clayton were of great interest for me personally, but there indeed is quality all the way through. When writing a review one is supposed to give critical views on the subject matter and the way the book has been put together. My critique is simple: the book is too short and thus remains a scratch on the surface, a tip of the iceberg. However, this is a great start, well edited and written, at least in the eyes of an ESL-reader such as me. As the studies on music are nearly always multidisciplinary, we get a fair share of academic ‘meaning industry’ in this book as well: musicology, ethnomusicology, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, folklore, cultural studies and cultural history.

Is there any other instrument that would deserve similar treatment? Just think about Piano Cultures for a minute. This sounds rather pretentious to me at least. Guitar is certainly one of the most unique instruments because it is so easily modified, has a wide popular cultural mythos around it, and, most notably, has spread so widely all around the globe. But I’d perhaps like to see another book like this on drums – a project surely to be appreciated by a wide range of academics interested in music. Drums function as the maker of rhythm, bringing together the tribe… Actually I must wonder whether there already is a book on this. If not, we need one. And a thicker volume or even a series on guitar cultures as well!
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