St. Vincent performs onstage at Coachella on April 20, 2018. Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella
St. Vincent performs onstage at Coachella on April 20, 2018. (Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

Where Are the New Guitar Heroes?

Where Are the New Guitar Heroes?

Patti Smith had just finished singing Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" at the Fillmore last week when she turned the mic over to her guitarist, Lenny Kaye.

"You know, for an old hippie like myself, playing the Fillmore is just about the greatest experience," Kaye beamed. "We're standing where John Cipollina used to stand!"

I laughed. John Cipollina isn't a household name like Carlos Santana or Jerry Garcia, both far more obvious choices to shout-out at the Fillmore. Cipollina was a guitarist's guitarist, you might say, who etched himself into history with the band Quicksilver Messenger Service, and eventually joined the ranks of the Bay Area guitar hall of fame along with Jorma Kaukonen, East Bay Ray, Billie Joe Armstrong, Kirk Hammett and dozens of others.

But then I also wondered: could I name a Bay Area guitar hero from the last 10 years? Sure, I'd seen plenty more-then-competent guitarists in the past decade. But who among them attracted hysteria, or a devoted, hungry following? Was the electric guitar even an agent for such a thing anymore on a large scale?

Onstage, Lenny Kaye counted off the Avengers song "The Amerikan in Me," dedicating it to the band's James Wilsey, the Bay Area guitarist who died last year. It was a sweet tribute. It was also from 1979. Forty years ago. The question remained.

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Where are the Bay Area's new guitar heroes?

Ian S. Port knows a thing or two about guitar heroes. The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll (Scribner; $28) is his 352-page foray into the genesis and evolution of an instrument he's been in love with since age 10, when he brought home a Peavy Predator, his first electric guitar.

The heroes Port writes about, though, are the two men who developed the solid-body electric guitar and helped turn it into a totem of cool: Leo Fender and Les Paul. Reading their story of the origins of the electric guitar is like learning how the fountain pen was invented, or the telephone: an item of communication impossible to separate from its global reverberations.

'The Birth of Loud.'
'The Birth of Loud.'

And my, how those reverberations spread. In Port's lyrical, evocative prose, The Birth of Loud includes vivid scenes of Muddy Waters inventing Chicago blues, the Rolling Stones' sex-drenched appearance on The T.A.M.I. Show, Buddy Holly's TV debut with Ed Sullivan, Bob Dylan going electric at Newport and more. Along the way, Fender and Paul hone their inventions to perfection, vie for endorsements from the hottest players, and engage in that age-old driver of American innovation: cutthroat competition.

When I talk to Port, though, and ask what was the biggest surprise he encountered in his research, his answer is telling. "Probably how far back the development of the instrument began, before rock 'n' roll," he says. "How much it came out of the old world. Les and Leo didn't even like rock 'n' roll."

It's true. Les Paul played a jazzy brand of instrumental pop and backed Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Fender liked country music, and hated distortion—his whole purpose for building an electric guitar was to get a cleaner tone. “So to have these longhairs come," says Port, "and turn his precious amps up super loud to distort on purpose was completely foreign, and difficult for him."

In other words, they wrestled with the generation gap. And now, in 2019, there's a different generation gap, manifest in a sort of nervousness among older guitar enthusiasts.

Shortly after Port started working on The Birth of Loud, the Washington Post bluntly declared "The Death of the Electric Guitar," adding to a parade of equally ominous articles. Some of the case evidence does seem dire: Sales are down, Gibson Guitars went through bankruptcy last year, and rock recently lost its decades-long dominance on the sales charts to rap.

Ian Port.
Ian Port. (Scribner)

Meanwhile, Port notices guitars virtually everywhere in chart-topping acts like Travis Scott, Beyoncé, Maroon 5, and Post Malone. Not to mention that guitars are making especially big waves in the hands of women or people of color, brilliant players like like St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett, and Dev Hynes. They're just not as elevated as, say, Joe Satriani.

"I see a particular conservatism in the classic-rock world, and especially the electric guitar world, an unwillingness to recognize the instrument when it appears in a context that's different from how it had appeared," he says. "There's this mentality that if the guitar isn't being used the way Slash used it, that it doesn't count. And that's totally ridiculous."

No doubt, the icon of the shirtless dude reeling off a blazing guitar solo to a gaggle of worshipping fans is a relic in 2019. ("And hopefully, so is the sexism and misogyny that went behind all of that too," Port says.) But maybe electric guitar innovation—in technical aspects as well as playing—likewise reached its apex long ago, too.

Take The Birth of Loud's final chapter, which ends with Jimi Hendrix's searing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, where "a simple technology, radio equipment screwed into a wood-shop project, had become a tool for the most personal and most public yearnings. Nothing could be at once louder, more vivid, more chaotic, more human," Port writes.

The book's epilogue then fast-forwards through the next four decades in 20 pages. It's hard to top Hendrix.

As the former music editor of SF Weekly, Port knows how acute the electric-guitar crisis is in San Francisco. Practice spaces for loud rock bands are disappearing, and garages with patient neighbors are rarer than ever. No one doubts gentrification's effect on San Francisco's music scene—Port himself has written extensively about it—but lesser acknowledged is its effect on the music itself.

Even as far as eight years ago, Port was already seeing so-called bedroom music take hold in San Francisco, "more softer-based or computer-based styles of musicmaking," he explains. "Things that did not require the volume of a drum set and a loud guitar amplifier or three. You really need those post-industrial spaces for loud music to come together, and there really is no way for rock to be quiet; it's antithetical to the whole idea."

The switch to this does not necessarily preclude the growth of the electric guitar, Port maintains, since plugging a guitar directly into a computer or soundboard are increasingly common in the age of home recording software. But when I posit to him my original question, of the Bay Area and who its new guitar heroes are from the past 10 years, he, too, comes up short.

Later that night, though, I run into a neighbor of mine, who has a 7-year-old kid. Out of nowhere, he starts air-guitaring, and making the hopeful "Bunhhhhh-Buhhhh-Bunhhhhh" sounds so familiar to aspiring children bursting at the seams with a surplus of energy who've witnessed the power of rock 'n' roll.

Man, I think to myself. When that kid gets his first Peavy Predator, watch out, world.

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Ian S. Port reads from and discusses 'The Birth of Loud' on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at Booksmith in San Francisco. 7:30pm. Details here. Listen to his interview on KQED's Forum on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 9:30am, or archived online here.

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