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Guitar: An American Life Hardcover – April 10, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When Brookes finds that his beloved guitar has been hopelessly damaged by airport baggage handlers, he sets off on a journey to find the perfect handmade instrument to replace it. Inspired by the vast array of choices, as well as by luthier Rick Davis ("a luthier is a guitar maker who charges $1,000 per guitar"), Brookes becomes enthralled with the relationship between the instrument and the people involved with it, and how that link has developed and changed over time. The author, a regular commentator on NPR's Sunday Weekend Edition, contrasts the story of a guitar being built from a few simple (yet carefully chosen) pieces of cherry wood with alternating chapters on the history of the instrument. In doing so, he reminds us that all instruments—even the iconic American guitar—are ever-changing. Instead of compiling a book filled with dates and anecdotes, Brookes wisely chooses to focus on personalities, like Rick, the economics student turned Vermont guitar builder; Joseph Kekuku, the Hawaiian inventor of the slide guitar; and Jimi Hendrix, who, by lighting his guitar on fire, provided evidence of "the electricity of the music" and "combined it with a kind of ritual sacrifice." Finally, Brookes receives his finished guitar, and readers share in his joy as well as in the feeling of continuing a long tradition of music history. Agent, Henry Dunow. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From AudioFile

The guitar is an icon of Americana, whether in the hands of cowboy singers, Hawaiian slide players, or heavy metal shredders. Tim Brookes's cultural history of the instrument is moved along by a personal narrative: a description of the six months in which a master luthier built Brookes his first custom guitar. It's a tad surprising that this very American story is told in a British accent (he's an ex-pat living in Vermont), but Brookes is the perfect reader for his own material--passionate, knowledgeable, and funny. There are some unnecessary tangents and tenuous arguments, but Brookes has a musician's ear for storytelling, a dry sense of humor, and some terrific turns of phrase. D.B. © AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (April 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802117961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802117960
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,276,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in London, England, to poor but honest parents who loved going for long walks, preferably in the rain. After discovering at college that I liked not only pickled onions but even Marmite, I knew it was time to leave while I still could. I have lived in Vermont since 1980, though to be honest I did start a cricket club.
I'm the director of the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a longtime essayist for National Public Radio and the author of all kinds of things, some of which show up elsewhere on Amazon.
The serious part of me founded Writers Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to teaching writing skills to public health workers in the developing world, and the Endangered Alphabets project, in which I draw attention to the importance of cultural preservation by carving texts in endangered languages in beautiful pieces of wood.
The ambitious part of me created the Champlain College Publishing Initiative, a project to engage undergraduates in the process of publishing in the twenty-first century.
The active part of me plays a lot of soccer and tennis. In my spare time I wonder about potential military applications for Marmite.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Kent Ponder on June 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This fabulous double account of guitar use and history is a great emotional ride any guitar lover can mentally jump aboard for an entertaining scenic journey. It took me back to the first time I heard flamenco in a music store, and ran home to get my sister so she could hear it -- and the hand-built Villafán classical I bought in Mexico City in 1958, the Conde Hermanos flamenco I bought in Madrid in 1960 and the Ramírez flamenco I ordered there in 1960, and waited for until 1962. Fifteen years ago I bought a hand-built Pimentel here in Albuquerque, for my son. We still have all these hand-made acoustic guitars; they're like members of my family.

My point is that I picked up the book as someone long experienced in guitars, already having read widely on guitars, yet found this Brookes book to add to my knowledge and become my favorite. If you're interested in the guitar, there's just no way you can go wrong buying this book. This is an author who really understands the soul of his subject.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By William Hill on May 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
You wouldn't believe a book about the guitar could be this enthralling. I got my copy last night, and couldn't put it down until I finished it this morning.

Tim Brookes weaves a story with two threads: a step-by-step account of having his own guitar custom-built by Vermont guitar-maker Rick Davis, and the step-by-step story of how the guitar became THE instrument of American music.

If you've ever played guitar, or enjoyed listening to it in any of its many musical roles - folk, classical, blues, rock or heavy-metal weapon - you will love this book.

The writing is excellent, evocative of many memories - and very, very funny. Example from the Glossary:

"Guitar, bass: Low-end instrument, in every sense, to which a guitarist is banished when the band hires someone better than him to take over lead."

From Singing Cowboys, Hawaiian slide wizards and exploited black bluesmen to the British Invasion of the 1960s, Heavy-Metal Heroes and pimply punks; Brookes evokes them all.

But this isn't yet another book about guitar heroes - this time the hero is the guitar itself.

I'm already thinking about starting it over again...
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Gregg Miner on May 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This one-of-a-kind book by Tim Brookes is the book I wish I could have written (assuming I was an actual writer, or similarly gifted). I.E: Presenting factual information (much rarely, if ever, written about) in an entertaining way, so the "laymusician" can enjoy and understand it. The simple Glossary alone is worth the admission price ("DADGAD: A wonderfully clever tuning that has the combined effect of making a guitarist seem not only dexterous but also emotionally complex. Deep, even. Its use is heavily protected by copyright"). Much like T.V.'s The Simpsons, Tim has the ability to boil down indecipherable history and complex truths into a single witty sentence that most of us can understand and relate to.
Every other chapter concerns the author's experience in ordering his first custom guitar. Those of you who play and cherish new instruments should enjoy and relate to Tim's journey.
The remaining chapters present Tim's unique view of the guitar's American cultural history, in ALL its permutations. Mr. Brookes fearlessly approaches this topic from a fresh, "outsider's" perspective. With it, he hits upon a new simple, obvious (and necessary) explanation of a guitar: "Not a single instrument but a syndrome, a collection of symptoms from a list" (then giving some examples from this list).
What all this boils down to is, in effect, two short "novels" - independent stories presented with so much new insight and humor that I was saddened when each ended.
-Gregg Miner
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Ernie Wild on March 3, 2008
Format: Paperback
A good news-bad news book to be sure. The good news is that it's a very readable history of the guitar and often quite insightful. I can't imagine any guitar player not getting something of value out of this book. On the other hand it is very uneven. The author admits the book is not for the scholar,fine, but it could have stood a good tightening up by the author or a good editor, light read or not. As pointed out by another reviewer the Holly chapter is the best example, but there are many others. Also the author has a real attitude about dreadnaught shaped guitars! This is a re-occurring theme throughout the book. This sort of snide attitude shows up too often in the book on other subjects as well. One can almost picture the author in self satisfied reverie, sitting on his porch in the pristine Vermont woods, a Starbucks nearby, stroking his beloved handmade guitar as he puts the finishing touches on his manuscript. It's not a bad read but has a definite amateur quality about it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Dave Stagner on April 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
(full disclosure: I own a guitar made by Rick Davis, the luthier in the book, and it's my favorite material possession)

This is really two books woven together. The first is a history of the guitar... how it developed in American music, and how it became the icon it is today. The second story is about how the author lost a beloved guitar to baggage handlers, and had a new instrument handmade for him - and documented that process along the way. Each story is compelling in its own right, but together, they're more effective than either one would0 be separately. The historical part is imbued with a sense of the author's personal love for guitars, and the personal story is given a sense of academic discipline and rigor.

If you love guitars, and are interested in how they are made and how they became so widespread and important, read this book!
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