The Birth of Loud

Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll

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About The Book

A riveting saga in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: the decades-long 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 the primordial elements of 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 from rural Orange County, Paul was a brilliant but egomaniacal 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 the time Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969 on his Fender Stratocaster, it was clear that electric instruments—Fender or Gibson—had launched music into a radical new age, empowering artists with a vibrancy and volume never before attainable.

About The Author

Photograph by Tory Williams

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

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 2019)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501141652

Raves and Reviews

“A rip-roaring journey through the early days of rock 'n' roll, told through the lives of the men whose innovative guitars helped usher it into existence . . . A lively, difficult-to-put-down portrait of an important era of American art that enhances readers' appreciation for the music it depicts.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“A page-turning look at two central players [Leo Fender and Les Paul] in the sonic evolution of popular music. Port explores their trials and tribulations with an expert hand. This is a long-overdue cultural biography of music innovation. VERDICT: Thoroughly entertaining and deeply informative, this love letter to American creativity and rock and roll belongs in every library and should be read by all rock fans.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)

“Lushly descriptive and detailed…[the book] is richly illustrative in bringing these rock giants and the tools of their trade to life in a squall of beautiful feedback.”
—Publishers Weekly

“More than an essential, colorful, and gripping history of the electric guitar, The Birth of Loud introduces Ian Port, the best new non-fiction writer of the past twenty years.”
—Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music

“Ian Port’s found a way to tell the story of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll—for some of us, among the postwar American stories, those that help define who we feel ourselves to be—in beautifully-evoked dual portraits of the men who made the instruments. In doing so, he re-situates this story in its context so neatly it is as if it had never been told before at all.”
Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude

"Ian Port has created a perfect blend of popular history, social commentary, and enough guitar details to satisfy the most rabid six-string geek. This is a fascinating book."
Jonathan Kellerman, bestselling novelist and author of With Strings Attached: The Art and Beauty of Vintage Guitars

"Guitar players are partly born, partly made, and every one has a story. So, too, are guitars, including the electric guitars that changed the world more than half a century ago. This is their story, and the story of their makers, well-told."
Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero

“Long before Les Paul and Leo Fender were brand names who revolutionized music and changed culture, they were two guys—obsessively tinkering to recreate sounds in their heads. In The Birth of Loud Ian S. Port vividly captures the compulsion and competition that drove these fascinating oddballs to rock the world.”
—Alan Light, former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin and author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

“It’s hard for me to think of an invention more crucial to my interior life than the electric guitar, so in a way The Birth of Loud, Ian Port’s moving, riveting account of the instrument’s development and rise to ubiquity, feels like a sacred text—the story of how I came to be. It’s also a rich and fascinating tale of obsession, ingenuity, and American abandon. Thank heavens for Les Paul, thank heavens for Leo Fender, and thank heavens for Ian Port.”
—Amanda Petrusich, author Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records

The Birth of Loud is more than history, journalism or criticism—it’s a killer rock ’n’ roll story, complete with money, egos, star power and, yes, electric guitars.”
—Steve Knopper, author of MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson and Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age

The Birth of Loud channels trickles of intriguing new information into a confluence of big ideas about the history of the electric guitar. This book is essential reading for guitar history maniacs!”
—Deke Dickerson, guitar historian, bandleader, and author of The Strat in the Attic

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