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Electric Reading From the Holiday Rock Shelf

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Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, & Revolution of the Electric Guitar
By Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna
, 400 pp. $26.95

No instrument, of course, is more representative of rock and roll than the electric guitar. But the amplified six-stringed instrument also completely changed the way that blues, jazz and country were played as well, beginning in the 1930s.

“There are few greater, more prevalent modern icons,” the authors write in the book’s preface. “When used in advertising, it is shorthand for freedom, danger and unabashed hedonism. In the hands of a musician, it signifies artistry and rebellion. Its inventors’ ambitions may have been modest, but the instrument they conceived…would leave an indelible imprint on our history.”

Whoa, and you thought ripping through the solo break of “Johnny B. Goode” was just pure and simple fun.

Tolinski and Di Perna’s goal here is twofold. Yes, to celebrate the players who have done wonders with the electric guitar, familiar surnames like Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Beck, Richards and Van Halen. And earlier, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Eldon Shamblin and Chet Atkins.

But a parallel narrative here follows the men who shaped and guided the development of the instrument, names that will be more familiar to gearheads — Paul, Fender, Reed Smith, Gretsch, Bigsby and Rickenbacker. And poor George Beauchamp, the guitar’s forgotten inventor, who imagined the first pickup and design for the first commercially produced electric guitar.

Sometimes, the stories of the friendships, rivalries and bitter disputes between the guitar developers and manufacturers read more exciting than the more familiar rock-star tales herein.

A bit of warning about this book. It helps greatly – greatly — if you are a “guitar guy” interested in the science of the guitar’s construction, and can tell the difference in sight (and sound) between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster, a B.C. Rich and a Gibson, a Mosrite and a Montgomery Ward Airline. But if you are, there’s nearly a century of sound in these pages. And that’s heavy stuff.

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop
By Marc Myers
Grove Press, 336 pp., $26

In his ongoing “Anatomy of a Song” column for The Wall Street Journal, Myers picks a tune of no small popular or artistic importance over the decades and digs deep into its creation, with new, first-hand interviews with songwriters, performers, background musicians, producers and engineers.

This book collects nearly 50 of those columns — each with a new intro about a song's history and significance — from Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952 to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in 1991. The short, sharp chapters breeze by like a particularly well-curated jukebox.

What’s surprising here is how many of these legendary tunes – from “Runaround Sue,” “You Really Got Me,” “My Girl” and “Light My Fire” to “Stand By Your Man,” “Maggie May,” “Another Brick in the Wall” and “London Calling” — were inspired by instrumental flukes or offhand comments that became lyrics.

The Isley Brothers’ barnburner “Shout” began as a live, time-filling improvisation onstage; Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” was about singer John Kay’s new stereo system; and Aerosmith nicked the phrase “Walk This Way” from a line in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Houston appears a few times in the narrative: Jim Weatherly originally wrote a tune called “Midnight Plane to Houston” based on a snippet of conversation he had with his actor friend Lee Majors’s new girlfriend, Farrah Fawcett — and it was Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy, who changed vehicle and destination to “train” and “Georgia” (though Gladys Knight had the hit).

Likewise, songwriter Mark James’s longing for a married old girlfriend back home in Houston inspired “Suspicious Minds,” a late-career hit for Elvis Presley. And that’s our town’s own Joe Sample playing piano on the Hues Corporation’s hit “Rock the Boat,” whose climb to success started in the gay underground discos of New York.

Fast, fun and informative, this book delivers lots of quick bits on your favorite hits – just like a good 45 used to.

The Complete History of Black Sabbath: What Evil Lurks
By Joel McIver
Race Point Publishing, 240 pp. $35

With the original doom-laden heavy-metal fathers (or, actually, 3/4 of them) wrapping up their farewell tour in a few months, this seems like the ideal time for a coffee-table book chronicling their nearly 50-year journey. This lavish volume features more than 150 photos – many rare or never before seen – along with posters, album covers and ticket stubs.

And while the textual portion isn’t lengthy and doesn’t dig deep, in the hands of esteemed hard rock/metal author McIver (who also wrote the book Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), it is surprisingly complete.

I mean, who even remembers David Donato and Ron Keel as Sabbath vocalists? And many of the quotes come from McIver’s firsthand interviews over two decades.

Still, the story of sweet leaves, iron men and neon knights churns briskly, and even touches on the solo careers of members. And don’t worry, Dio fans — Ozzy gets the biggest spotlight but doesn’t hog it.

So, while it may seem incongruous to have a tome on one of music’s most “Satanic” bands as part of your holiday shopping list, here’s one gift that says, “And may all your Christmases be…black!”

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