Sunday, April 16, 2000

Rock's electric wail inspired book

Guitar is Miami U. academic's passion

BY Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — When he walks the corridors of Miami University's Upham Hall, passing students with short hair and designer clothes, Dr. Steve Waksman looks like a rock musician from 1970.

[photo] Dr. Steve Waksman
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        His dark hair is long and curly — suitable for a guy whose passion is the electric guitar.

        “There's a connection with the instrument that's very immediate,” he said. “You can hold it, carry it around. You can't do that with a piano.”

        Dr. Waksman, 32, has turned his fascination into a book, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of the Musical Experience.

        The book, published in February by Harvard University Press, analyzes various influential guitarists, including Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins and Jimi Hendrix.

        Miami spokeswoman Susan Meikle described the book as a combination of biography, musicology, critical theory and cultural his tory.

        Its origins were nurtured years ago in Simi Valley, Calif., where the writer grew up.

        “I started playing guitar at 9 years old,” he said. “There wasn't a lot to do. I used the guitar to occupy myself. In college at Berkeley, I used the guitar to entertain myself.”

        In college, he started taking the guitar more seriously. He researched its history. When it came time to write a doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, he decided, against advice, to write about the electric guitar.

        “I took a risk,” he said. “People told me the guitar wasn't a conventional subject for an academic to consider. But I thought that if I was going to spend six years with a project, I should really like it. Now, I'm glad I did it. It wasn't just an academic exercise.”

        He turned the dissertation into a book, which caught the interest of Lindsay Waters, an editor at Harvard University Press.

        “His reaction was not just an academic reaction,” Dr. Waksman said. “He saw Hendrix play. He's not a musician, but he appreciates music.”

        Others share his interest. Kirkus Reviews said Dr. Waksman “plays to both ax-heads and bookworms, so that prickly issues of race, sexuality ... and technical authorship are also addressed in this perceptive and overdue narrative of a singularly American machine.”

        In the early years of the electric guitar, guitarists such as Messrs. Atkins and Paul had to get involved in the making of the instrument because everything about it was new, Dr. Waksman said.

        He discusses the instrument in his introduction to American studies class, and in a seminar called American Popular Music.

        “For many people,” he said, “the electric guitar is more than an instrument. It fits people. It's a passion.”


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