Les Paul was once asked if anybody taught him his incredible knowledge of electronics at it relates to music. And he instantly replied, “Just the library. I’m a real book man. If it’s in a book, I can get it.” And over the years, I’ve found that to be great advice. Over the past twenty years, I’ve read dozens and dozens of music books, and a few of these have permanently remained on my shelf.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, budding guitarists such as Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton had little to go on but their ears and trial and error–rock and roll was a new form of music, with little or no written instruction. Today however, it’s a different ballgame. For guidance, there’s a host of magazines, instructional tapes, CDs, DVDs, and books available.
10. Rock Hardware: In 1981, I purchased this book about a year before actually playing guitar. It was written by Tony Bacon, who’s still writing music books today (his recent 50 Years Of The Gibson Les Paul and Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster are fun reads). Rock Hardware as its title implies, serves as a great overview of the equipment used in both live music and recording, and is a large, colorful, and heavily illustrated book. (How can you knock a book whose first photo shows Elliot Easton of the seminal new wave group The Cars literally up to his neck in electric guitars?)
The only strike against the original edition of the book is that at 25 years old, the technology illustrated is a bit dated. Traditional instruments (guitar, bass, drums, sax, woodwinds) haven’t changed too radically, but the 1980s saw an explosion in synthesizer and recording technology whose pace has only accelerated, as Moore’s Law is the law in the recording industry–as it is in all other industries. Fortunately, it was updated in 1996 by Bacon.
9. The Guitar Handbook: Ralph Denyer’s Guitar Handbook was my personal entry into the world of music in late 1982, when I innocently bought it one day when sagging off from school and driving to the Moorestown Mall to kill an otherwise ordinary afternoon. Sitting alone in McDonalds after purchasing it, I couldn’t believe my good fortune: laid out in his book was a clear and thorough introduction to both the basics of what makes a guitar function, who its great innovators in popular music where, what its most important models have been, and how amplifiers and other electronic devices work.
Perhaps most importantly, the book had a well laid out center section thoroughly covering musical theory as it applied to the guitarist. It began with how to tune the instrument, how finger simple first position open string chords, how to convert those chords into barre chords that could be played in any position on the neck, and how to adopt those chords to altered, extended, suspended and diminished chords. Sections on harmonic and modal theory, lead playing and improvising, and a brief section on open tuning followed.
Of course, as good as a book like The Guitar Handbook is (and it’s been brought up to date in the past few years, as Denyer has updated some of his gallery of greats, and brought some of the technology mentioned in the book into the 1990s), it can only give an overview of each aspect of guitar. It’s a wonderful introduction, not a panacea.
8. The Guitar Player Book: The quote at the start of this article by Les Paul came from The Guitar Player Book, a 1983 collection of interviews from (you guessed it!) Guitar Player magazine. They’re a treasure trove of advice from many talented musicians, a few of which are absolute masters of their instrument. And the appendix contains terrific information for anyone shopping for his first electric or acoustic guitar, or bass, as well as how to maintain it. (More on that, in a moment.)
7. Making Music: Back in the mid-1980s, when I was first learning how to write and record my own songs, this was one of the most helpful books, edited by George Martin, with contributions primarily from a host of British musicians. Also published in 1983; its content was wider than it was deep, it had three to six pages on a huge variety of topics: seemingly every instrument used in popular music, songwriting, arranging, and producing–both from Abbey Road Studios, and in the budding teenage musician’s bedroom. (It came in handy when visiting a friend of mine a couple of years ago, who had just bought a mandolin, but didn’t know how it was tuned. I pointed to his bookshelf and said, “Just open up Making Music; it lists the tuning.” And sure enough, it did.)
Like Rock Hardware, the one area where Making Music now seems hopelessly out of date is in the technology, but there are still a wealth of solid tips and ideas here, particularly for the beginner.
6. The Beatles Recording Sessions: Speaking of rule breaking, The Beatles and George Martin broke ’em all in the 1960s, turning EMI’s staid Abbey Road Studio into a musical laboratory of the first order. Using Abbey Road’s session archives, Marc Lewisohn’s book, originally published in 1988, chronologically documents every trip the Beatles made to the recording studio (and not just Abbey Road, although that was their primary HQ, of course), from their first singles, to the last overdubs on Let It Be. Along the way, you’ll witness the creative talents of the Beatles, Martin, and his engineers blossom, as a basic four-piece rock and roll combo becomes the most talented group of musicians in rock. You’ll also see how the very basic recording technology of the 1960s was taken to its absolute zenith, as the Beatles and Martin constantly went in search of new sounds.
(Now, excuse me while I flash-forward a decade or so, and concentrate on books acquired since resuming making music in the late 1990s after a long work-related hiatus.)
5. Beauty of the ‘Burst: By the late 1950s, the sales of Gibson’s Les Paul Standard electric guitar were falling. Gibson blamed it partially on the somewhat conservative gold paint scheme that Les Paul initially recommended to Gibson for his namesake instrument, especially when compared with the wild automobile industry-inspired colors that rival Fender was spraying its guitars with In 1958, Gibson replaced the somewhat staid “goldtop” Les Pauls with beautifully figured flamed maple tops painted in Gibson’s traditional sunburst style. Unbeknownst to Gibson though, the paint they initially chose faded over time when exposed to sunlight, meaning that each of the Les Pauls built from 1958 to 1960 now have a unique one-of-a-kind appearance.
Despite their efforts, the change in the Les Paul’s aesthetics didn’t boost its sales, and the original design was dropped. But then, as we noted above, Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield came along only a few years later, discovering that the Les Paul was perfectly suited to their amped-up versions of Chicago-style electric blues. Other famous guitarists, including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Duane Allman joined them in playing Les Pauls made from 1958 until 1960. Gibson revived manufacturer of the model in 1968, but it would be decades before they could produce a reissue that came close to matching the details (especially the paint) of these late 1950s versions.
Given their relatively low production numbers, and superstar pedigree, the original sunburst Les Pauls are the Holy Grail of electric guitar collectors, and typically sell in prices well north of $100,000–if you can find one.
Beauty Of The ‘Burst, written by Yasuhiko Iwanade, was originally printed in Japan in 1996, and republished in the States in 1999. Iwanade employed a group of professional photographers to photograph as many of the namesake style Les Pauls as could be found. The results are a group of stunning photos of the most handsome electric guitars ever made. As well as photos of many of the most famous musicians in rock to play the model, and an encyclopedic appendix describing, in engineering terms, why those guitars not only look like no other, but in the hands of the right musician, sound like no other as well.
4. How To Make Your Guitar Play Great: Keeping a guitar in good repair–not to mention properly tuned and intonated–is always a challenge for new guitarists. And occasionally veterans of the instrument as well. Which is where Dan Erlewine’s How To Make Your Guitar Play Great! comes into play. Erlewine has been around since the early 1960s, when he played with the likes of Mike Bloomfield, the American equivalent to Eric Clapton (Erlewine unknowingly helped launch the popularity of Gibson Les Paul when he sold Bloomfield his first Les Paul!) For years, Erlewine had a column in Guitar Player magazine, when he wasn’t running his Ohio-based, but nationally frequented repair shop.
While the encyclopedic nature of a book like The Guitar Handbook forces it to only devote a page or two to tuning and setting intonation, Erlewine has a whole chapter devoted to the subject. He also a full range of instructions, ranging from simple screwdriver adjustments, to fairly intensive procedures, in keeping a guitar up to snuff. There are a few things in Erlewine’s book that I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to try myself. But at least I feel better knowing what I’m talking about next time I take my Les Paul or Telecaster into the shop.
3. How to Write Songs on Guitar: For a book on songwriting dedicated to guitar players, look no further than Rikky Rooksby’s 2000 book, How to Write Songs on Guitar, an extremely well-researched look the history of rock, pop, and soul music, its chords and melodies, and how those notes fit on a guitar. Careful reading of Rooksby’s book would benefit any guitarist interested in making music to support a vocalist, as well as to best structure a tune. Rooksby, who’s taught at Oxford, really, really knows his stuff. I’ve interviewed him for magazine articles, and was astounded at the breadth of his knowledge of popular music.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the book is the myriad of chord progressions and chord substitutions over the past several decades of pop music that Rooksby has documented. For anybody tired of playing the same three chords, this is the book to break that habit.
2. Behind The Glass: Howard Massey’s 2000 book is a series of interviews with the top producers in Los Angles, London and New York, just as the music industry was embracing the flexibility of hard disk recording. Massey’s interview with noted guitarist (Chic) and producer Nile Rogers explores the dramatic potential of this style of recording (and its pitfalls as well), and explains why I was so eager to explore it myself:
The old restrictions in technology forced us to do things right. It forced us to have to make decisions. It forced us to spiritually be so in tune with the other people that magic had to happen. It made you step up to the plate, whereas now, when I go to play on someone’s record I feel uncomfortably free-and I almost hate that. I can actually play on a record all day long and do ten different solos and take all these different approaches to the rhythm and all this kind of stuff. And then the producer has to look at all this work like a film-they have to go back and edit and figure out which bits they want to use. Whereas in the old days, when a person hired me to work on a record, I had to get it right, right there. You had to play great, you had to be smokin’, and there was no way that they could fix it and make it better.
When I played on Michael Jackson’s last record, I knew what they were going to do, so I said, “Hey, Michael, here’s like a billion ideas. I’m going to play all this cool s***, and you go off and do it.” So I didn’t have to write it, so to speak. I didn’t have to give them the definitive, perfect, guitar part; I gave them lots of definitive, perfect guitar parts, and they decided which ones to use. That’s weird to me. Once you’re unlimited, you’ll never play that same way–you’ll just go on and on and on and on. It’s like the ultimate jazz person’s fantasy: “You to tell me I’m going to solo for the rest of my life, and you guys will think it’s great?”
Having infinite options also means you don’t have the pressure on you…
-which means that you won’t necessarily work as hard as you would if you knew you had just two takes in 20 minutes to get it right.
You can’t help it. You see, I grew up in the days of, time is money-as Madonna would say, “time is money, and the money is mine.” And I like that, I love that.
You had a limitation of tracks, too. You were lucky if you had two tracks and you could do an alternative take.
You know what people do now when they want me to overdub on a record? They’ll send an album with a mix, and I have like 22 open tracks of guitars I can put down. So now you are going to figure out what my part is.
When I can report similar examples based on recording on a PC in my den, it’s obvious that it’s becoming increasingly easy–heck, virtually effortless, to assemble a solo or vocal part after the artist leaves, like a film editor, rather than trying to get a complete, perfect, magic take. Frank Zappa once wrote about “the Ampeg guitar solo”, where’d he’d take recordings of live solos he did on tour, and paste them into studio recordings, for a better feel than he felt he could get from a solo recorded in a studio, but hard disk recording stuff takes that concept to the nth degree.
1. Sonar 3: Mixing & Mastering: There are lots of books on home recording, and numerous titles devoted to the Sonar home recording program. But veteran music writer/keyboard player/electronic inventor Craig Anderton thoroughly documents the mastering process in this 2004 book.
Mastering is one of the more little known aspects of the process of recording music. Most people are aware of overdubbing, editing and mixing, but comparatively few understand how critical mastering can be to add the final sparkle to a mix, how it can transform a pretty good mix into something amazing, or (sometimes, with a little luck) a poor mix into something tolerable.
In the professional world, mastering is usually done using lots of very expensive outboard gear, as the final step before a master copy of a CD is sent to be duplicated into millions of consumer discs.
In the not necessarily professional world of home recording, mastering can done with the plug-in effects available for music recording programs, as Anderton explains.
He also documents that the mastering process doesn’t begin when recording ends; he views–entirely correctly–the entire recording process as leading up to this phase. Which is only as strong as its weakest element.
Finally, his book contains a quote well worth spending some time lingering over:
“For me, the paramount lesson from doing years of studio work behind songs was that everything supports the lead singer. Your licks are there only to make the lead vocal more effective”.
And for a guitarist who wants to write and record songs, that may be the most important lesson of all to learn and embrace.
One More For The Road: “The Studio As Compositional Tool“, By Brian Eno: OK, this is a cheat on my part. This isn’t a book, but a long, two-part article that ran in Down Beat magazine in July and August of 1983. It’s a transcription of a speech that Brian Eno gave in 1979 to a group of musicians in New York, on the potential of the recording studio.
I read this article shortly around the time I acquired my original cassette four-track recorder, and it was absolutely eye opening. I’d call it the Ten Commandants of recording, but it’s just the opposite: Eno demonstrates that when it comes to the studio, there are no rules that aren’t made to be broken.
And that’s my top ten (plus one article)–a few books, which for me at least, have stood the test of time, happily remaining on my shelves, and pulled out from time to time, either to answer a question, or purely for pleasure. Given how frequently I still refer to the newer books on the list, I have a feeling most of them will go the distance as well.
Update: Welcome Insta-Readers! And for those who are clicking in from somewhere elese, the Professor has some great music books to recommend himself.
Another Update: Still more book suggestions!