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Book Review

Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars


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'Between the Strings' is a book for every person, professional or amateur, who has held an instrument in their hands, realizing that they are something greater for it, that the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.
Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars
John August Schroeter
Mel Bay

Perhaps it's because the guitar is the most popular instrument around - played by everyone from talented professionals in a variety of genres to amateur dabblers at campfires around the world, that it is considered so deeply individual. There are so many guitar-makers stamping their own personal imprint on guitar design, that the variations on the singular theme of the guitar seem endless. From size of body to type of wood, from thickness of frets and neck to material used for the nuts and saddle, the permutations and combinations to create an instrument that becomes intensely personal are, indeed, infinite.

Maybe it's because of this that guitar players from around the world sometimes spend their whole lives looking for that perfect instrument, the one that fits them as if it were an extension to their own body, allowing them to coax new sounds that may entertain others but, in the final analysis, more importantly pleases them first and foremost. And it seems as though everyone has a story to tell about their instrument. John August Schroeter, founding publisher of Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine and producer of audiophile acoustic guitar recordings, has, with Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars , created a love letter to the instrument, a book that anyone who has felt an attachment to the instrument will read with pleasure and complete understanding, while those who haven't yet found their instrument will read with the hope that their time will, most certainly, come. And for those who don't play the guitar, the book sheds some light on exactly why a specific instrument is such a personal thing; why a guitar is not just a guitar.

With articles written by players from around the world and a breadth of genres, the book tells stories of guitars lost, guitars found; guitars stolen and then returned; guitars given and guitars received; guitars built and guitars, sadly, destroyed. With articles written by guitarists well-known and lesser-known, including Charlie Daniels, Adrian Belew, Robbie Robertson, Will Ackerman, Chet Atkins, George Thorogood, Eliot Fisk, Earl Klugh, Frank Gambale, Pat Martino, Les Paul and many, many others, as well as guitar makers including Alicia Adams and George Lowden - over one hundred anecdotes in all - the book covers a breadth of genres and a wealth of belief systems. Schroeter organizes the book so that there is a logical flow. The articles are grouped into distinct, albeit unnamed, sections so that throughout the 350-page collection, there is a sense of development, a sense of narrative.

The numbers of quotable lines from the book are far too many to go into, but one of the best articles, one that truly expresses the deeper meaning an instrument can have for a person, is that of "American Pie" composer Don McLean. "A long, long time ago, in the days of black and white, a person could fall in love with their instrument...and when the dream of ownership at last gave way to reality, that union of guitar and player was duly celebrated. In those days there were no instructional videos or collections of guitar tablature. If you wanted to learn those songs you had to learn them from other people. You had to learn them from fleeting glimpses on a small, black and white television screen, where you saw something being done that you heard on record a million times, but could figure out how it was done. All this contributed to a tremendous amount of imagination, and that imagination is what yielded the relationship. And when that relationship came to fruition, when you were finally able to afford that castle in the sky guitar, it was a magical moment."

Through the course of these one hundred stories, there are many magical moments. From Spencer Bohren's tale of a treasured guitar stolen, and then returned by a weeping, penitent thief who had never stolen before, but had "wanted one of those big ol' Gibsons since I was a little boy," to Robbie Robertson's tale of his treasured Fender Telecaster being stolen, only to be replaced, without asking, by a "booster," a thief who would "steal to order," to Pat Martino's now well-known story of losing his memory and abilities due to an aneurysm, only to rebuild his prodigious talent through listening to his own recordings, the book manages to convey just how important the relationship, shared between the player and the instrument, truly is. From Adrian Belew's humourous anecdote of making an ugly second-hand Fender Stratocaster even uglier, but at the same time more personal, to how Peter Frampton lost his treasured '54 black Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty to a plane crash only to have Gibson eventually offer to build a replacement, these are stories that are more than simple anecdotes; they are positively spiritual.

Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars is a book for every person, professional or amateur, who has held an instrument in their hands, realizing that they are something greater for it, that the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. For guitarists it's a confirmation; for the non-guitarist it's a window into the soul of a relationship that is truly special. While players of other instruments have, no doubt, similar stories, the broad reach of the guitar makes it truly unique, because the guitar is an instrument that can be within the reach of everyone. Some of the guitars described with affection in this collection are fifteen-dollar starter guitars; others are custom-made models worth thousands of dollars. But common to all is a love, a passion, a dedication that makes Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars an entertaining, educational and thoroughly compelling read.

Visit John August Music on the web.

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