The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll

The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll

by Ian S. Port


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“A hot-rod joy ride through mid-20th-century American history” (The New York Times Book Review), this one-of-a-kind narrative masterfully recreates the rivalry between the two men who innovated the electric guitar’s amplified sound—Leo Fender and Les Paul—and their intense competition to convince rock stars like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton to play the instruments they built.

In the years after World War II, music was evolving from big-band jazz into rock ’n’ roll—and these louder styles demanded revolutionary instruments. When Leo Fender’s tiny firm marketed the first solid-body electric guitar, the Esquire, musicians immediately saw its appeal. Not to be out-maneuvered, Gibson, the largest guitar manufacturer, raced to build a competitive product. The company designed an “axe” that would make Fender’s Esquire look cheap and convinced Les Paul—whose endorsement Leo Fender had sought—to put his name on it. Thus was born the guitar world’s most heated rivalry: Gibson versus Fender, Les versus Leo.

While Fender was a quiet, half-blind, self-taught radio repairman, Paul was a brilliant but headstrong pop star and guitarist who spent years toying with new musical technologies. Their contest turned into an arms race as the most inventive musicians of the 1950s and 1960s—including bluesman Muddy Waters, rocker Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton—adopted one maker’s guitar or another. By 1969 it was clear that these new electric instruments had launched music into a radical new age, empowering artists with a vibrancy and volume never before attainable.

In “an excellent dual portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), Ian S. Port tells the full story in The Birth of Loud, offering “spot-on human characterizations, and erotic paeans to the bodies of guitars” (The Atlantic). “The story of these instruments is the story of America in the postwar era: loud, cocky, brash, aggressively new” (The Washington Post).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501141737
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 11/19/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 57,308
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ian S. Port is an award-winning writer and music critic whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Village Voice, The Threepenny Review, and The Believer, among others. He is also the former music editor of the San Francisco Weekly. A lifelong guitar player and California native, he and his wife now live in New York City. The Birth of Loud is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Birth of Loud


The screams came in waves, hysterical and elated, punctuated by applause. Then the camera found them: five men in matching striped shirts, teetering with nerves, grinning like children. The Beach Boys. A clap on the snare drum sent the song rumbling to life, and the players at the stage’s front tapped their feet to stay in time. Punches from the drum kit underpinned a sheen of male voices in harmony. But fighting for prominence was another noise—a throaty, splattering sonic current.

Curious instruments hung over the striped shoulders of the men in front. Two of the instruments were painted white, with thin bodies and voluptuous curves that suggested spaceships, or amoebae, or the human torso. Behind their players sat cream-colored cabinets the size of refrigerators, massive speakers barely visible inside, components in a new system of noisemaking. These sleek guitars transformed single notes and chords into flows of electrons, while the amplifiers converted those electrons into wild new tones—tones that came out piercingly human despite their electric hue.

There was no piano, no saxophone or trumpet, no bandleader, no orchestra. Besides their drums and voices, the Beach Boys wielded just these bloblike guitars, each dependent on electricity, each able to produce ear-piercing quantities of sound, and nearly all bearing the name Fender. Their amplified blare seemed to encourage the shrieks of fans buffeting the stage, their bodies swaying to the thrumming joys of “Surfin’ USA.”

When this scene played in American movie theaters just after Christmas 1964, it was a vision of the future. It was part of a filmed rock ’n’ roll concert—the very first—that also showed the Rolling Stones seething and strutting, and James Brown pulling off terpsichorean heroics unlike anything most of the American public had yet seen. The Teenage Awards Music International Show looked like one more entry in a procession of frivolous teen movies, but it arrived with the shock of the new. It was a multiracial assemblage of the day’s most famous pop stars, captured on film alongside bikini-clad go-go dancers and howling youths. Movie critics mostly sniffed. “Adults, unaware of the differences between these numerous young groups, view the combined efforts as fairly monotonous,” went a typical assessment. But a new order was establishing itself.

One of its precepts was racial equality, or at least the sincere pursuit of such. It was a celebration that both targeted and was beholden to the American teenager. And it prized music played on electric instruments that gave individual musicians a vast new sonic palette—and volume level—with which to express themselves.

Only fifteen years earlier, this scene would have been unrecognizable. Popular music had been the domain of dedicated artisans, trained pros in tuxedos who read notes on paper and sat on bandstands in disciplined regiments, led by a big name in a bow tie. Crooners like Bing Crosby acted out songs written for them by others, and sang for adults, not young people. Nearly everyone who joined them on the pop charts had white skin.

But in the boom years after World War II, teenagers had wrested control of the market for pop music, and many lacked their parents’ racial prejudice. Singers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and later Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, rose onto charts once ruled by whites. These cultural changes were accelerated by a complementary revolution in the technology of music-making. By the night The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed in 1964, anyone with the right equipment could achieve volumes that would reach hundreds or thousands of onlookers. The new rulers of music could manipulate electric guitars and amps to produce a universe of evocative or alien new sounds.

One company had done more than any other to usher in the technology that was changing listeners’ aural experiences. One company had made electric guitars into ubiquitous leisure accessories, by supplying cheap, sturdy instruments to amateurs and professionals alike. This firm was the first in its industry to align itself with the tastes of young people, among the first to paint guitars bright red and later metal-flake blue and purple, first to give its models sexy monikers like the Stratocaster and the Jaguar.

Competitors had long mocked the creations of the Fender Electric Instrument Company, but this Southern California upstart had an asset unlike any other—a self-taught tinkerer whose modesty was utterly at odds with the brash characters who used his tools. Clad in perpetually drab workmen’s clothes, preferring to spend most of his waking hours designing and building in his lab, Clarence Leo Fender toiled endlessly to perfect the tools that ushered in pop music’s electric revolution, yet he couldn’t play a single instrument himself. Instead, he trusted musicians, whom he loved, to tell him what they wanted. In the waning days of World War II, Leo Fender had started building guitars and amplifiers in the back of his radio repair shop. By that night in 1964, the company he’d built dominated the burgeoning market for electric instruments.

At least, for the moment.

Showing off their striped, short-sleeve shirts, the Beach Boys appeared clean-cut and respectable, apparently (if not actually) innocent young men. To close out The T.A.M.I. Show, a quintet of Brits arrived wearing modish dark suits and expressions of bemused insouciance, even outright hostility. The lead singer’s dark hair fell in curls down to his collar as he prowled the stage, thick lips pressed up against the microphone, hunting and taunting his young quarry. To his left, a craggy-faced guitarist beat on an unfamiliar instrument. That small, solid-bodied guitar responded with snarls and growls, a thick, surging sound that couldn’t have been more different from the thin rays of light that had emanated from the Beach Boys’ Fenders.

The earlier act embodied rock ’n’ roll life as a teen idyll, a carefree jaunt in which sex was mentioned only euphemistically, and hardly ever as a source of conflict. Minutes later, the Rolling Stones made rock into a carnal fantasy, a dim mélange of ego and lust, betrayal and satisfaction. Already labeled rock ’n’ roll’s bad boys, the five young Brits embraced the role in performance and offstage, viewing the Beach Boys—another band of white men using electric guitars to play music first created by black men—as entrants in a completely different competition.

The Rolling Stones did sound new and distinct. And part of what then fueled the difference was an instrument discovered in a secondhand music shop in London, a secret weapon for producing the nasty tones this outfit preferred. It was a guitar, made by the venerable Gibson company, that bore the name Les Paul. Thanks to Keith Richards and certain other British rockers, this Les Paul guitar would soon rise again to become Fender instruments’ prime companion and rival—just as the man it was named after had been many years earlier.

For Les Paul himself was as emphatic and as colorful as human beings come, as loud and public as Leo Fender was quiet and private: a brilliant player and a gifted technician, a charmer and a comedian, a raconteur and a tireless worker who hungered for the top of the pop charts. Out of his roots in country and jazz, Les Paul had invented a flashy style of playing that was immediately recognizable as his own, a style that would help define the instrument for generations of ambitious guitarists. But almost since the moment he began playing, Les Paul had found existing guitars inadequate. He knew what he wanted and what he thought would make him a star: a loud, sustaining, purely electric guitar sound. Nothing would give it to him.

His search for this pure tone—and through it, fame—led him to California, to a wary friendship with the self-taught tinkerer Leo Fender, who was interested in the same problem. The two men began experimenting together, pioneering the future of music. But when Les finally managed to drag the guitar out from its supporting role and deposit it at the center of American culture—and when a radical new electric guitar design finally became reality—their friendship fractured into rivalry. The greatest competitor to Leo Fender’s instruments was soon a Gibson model with Les Paul’s signature emblazoned in gold. From then on, it was Fender vs. Gibson, Leo Fender vs. Les Paul, their namesake electric guitars battling for the affections of a vast generation of players inspired by the new sound of rock ’n’ roll.

For a brief period this competition seemed to abate. But soon after Keith Richards appeared in The T.A.M.I. Show using his Gibson Les Paul, his peers in the British rock scene would find that this instrument could produce tones then out of reach of any other guitar—including a Fender. The Gibson Les Paul could become molten, searing, heavy: sounds for which it was never intended, but which were now wildly desirable. This guitar’s look and sound would go on to virtually define a new style of blues-based hard rock.

So almost from the moment the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones shared a stage in The T.A.M.I. Show, the old Fender-Gibson rivalry, that competition between the unassuming Leo Fender and the attention-seeking Les Paul, reignited. Once begun, this showdown—between bright and dark, thin and thick, light and heavy, West and East, new and old—would consume countless future musicians, as it still does to this day.

But both men’s instruments would also further a larger struggle. Whether in the hands of Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix or the Velvet Underground, Sly and the Family Stone or Led Zeppelin, Prince or the Runaways, Bad Brains or Sleater-Kinney, electric guitars would be used to make music with a tolerance—stated, if imperfectly applied—for people of different racial and ethnic identities. The music fueled by these instruments sought a single audience, or at least one ever-expanding group of listeners, who thought of themselves, however improbably, as young. And perhaps this bias toward diversity and youth explains some of the hostile words so casually published in 1964.

For there were proper adults in the audience of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on the night The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed. There were grown-ups sitting in the many movie theaters where it played. Were they really so bored by James Brown and the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and the Beach Boys? Or did they perhaps sense that young people, armed with Leo Fender’s and Les Paul’s powerful new tools, might finally finish the cultural revolution they’d long been threatening?

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 "The Electric Guitar Spelled Money" 7

2 "He's the Reason You Can Hear Us Tonight" 14

3 "That's Not Les Paul" 21

4 "I'm Gonna Do Something About It" 28

5 "You Say You Can Make Anything Right?" 36

6 "All Hell Broke Loose" 41

7 A "Newfangled Guitar" 46

8 "Point It Toward My Belly Button, So I Can Play" 54

9 "We Perform Like We're Singing in the Bathtub" 60

10 "If Leo Misses the Boat Now I Will Never Forgive Him" 64

11 "The Time When It Will Be Delivered Is Indefinite" 72

12 "Guess I Shouldn't Have Fought You So Long About Releasing This" 79

13 "If You Don't Do Something, Fender Is Going to Rule the World" 83

14 "Like a Surging Undertow" 90

15 "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music" 97

16 "Les Has Actually Made a New Instrument!" 106

17 "He Doesn't Like to Get Involved with Things That Are Unpleasant" 113

18 "Why Don't You Ask for the Moon?" 119

19 "Lets Try This Again" 126

20 "We Had No Idea That 'Maybellene' Was Recorded by a Niggra Man" 131

21 "Two Donkeys on Each End of a Rope, Pulling in Opposite Directions" 136

22 "If We're Going Over Well, Our Guitars Weigh Less Than a Feather" 143

23 "I Realized It Was All Over for Musicians Like Me" 147

24 "Why Do You Have to Play So Loud?" 154

25 "You Won't Part with Yours Either" 163

26 "I Just Don't Understand Him at All" 169

27 "Where You Going, Leo?" 174

28 "Prone to Loose Talk" 180

29 "That Man just Done Wiped You Up" 184

30 "I Can't Believe I Have to Play This Shit" 188

31 "It's a Rickenbacker" 193

32 "I'd Broken My Cardinal Rule" 200

33 "He Is Clearly Not Growth-Minded" 205

34 "Which Is Worth More?" 212

35 "I Thought Dylan Was Abandoning Us" 216

36 "Give God What He Wants" 221

37 "It Is a Giant Step" 229

38 "I Don't Have My Own Guitar" 233

39 "From Completely Different Angles" 238

40 "Here Was the Real Thing" 245

41 "The Guitars Nowadays Play Just as Good" 250

42 "You Finally Heard What That Song Was About" 256

Epilogue 261

Acknowledgments 283

Notes and Sources 289

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