Paper Session
Nov 21, 2021 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM(America/Chicago)
20211121T1300 20211121T1350 America/Chicago Guitar and Bass AMS 2021
Defining the Sound of the Electric Bass: Experiments in the Recording Studio, 1958-1963
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 19:50:00 UTC

When the electric bass guitar was invented, it lacked a distinct sonic identity. Intended as a direct substitute for the upright bass, its inventors originally designed it to mimic the muted, quick-decaying timbre of an upright as closely as possible. This situation persisted until the end of the 1950s, when multiple teams of producers and bassists began independently crafting new bass sounds in the studio, notably by emphasizing the use of a plectrum (or "pick," as it is better known today). Their recordings, I argue, were the first to showcase the electric bass's unique timbral possibilities. Building on the work of Albin Zak and Travis Stimeling, this paper details the careers of bassists Buddy Wheeler, Guybo Smith, Ladi Geisler, and Harold Bradley and their collaborations with, respectively, instrumental rock icon Duane Eddy, rockabilly singer Eddie Cochran, easy listening bandleader Bert Kaempfert, and Nashville stars Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline. I first discuss the cultural contexts that led to each of these timbral experiments, especially these bassists' attempts to overcome the traditional constraints of the recording studio and consumer audio equipment; I then detail how each of the distinctive picked timbres they created came to act as sonic trademarks for the artists they recorded with, especially after their recordings became hits. More than simply creating novels sounds, however, I contend that the popularity of these recordings ultimately fostered a new low-end aesthetic that fundamentally reshaped the sound of popular music into the 1960s and beyond.

Brian Wright
University Of North Texas
Resurrecting Masculinity: Gender, Jazz Timbre, and the Afterlife of Dennis Irwin's Bass
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 19:50:00 UTC

Double basses are notoriously challenging instruments to play, transport, maintain, and amplify. Yet, while technology has somewhat mitigated these problems, there are those who adamantly refuse convenience in the name of tradition and sound. Dennis Irwin (1951-2008) was one such musician. Proceeding from the notion that musical instruments can experience an "afterlife" of meaning and resonance, this project applies a critical lens to the late Irwin's 1937 American Standard plywood double bass. By triangulating Dennis' Bass, a 2012 YouTube film that reawakens the instrument nearly four years after Irwin's passing, with frameworks from critical organology, jazz and gender studies, and studies of men and masculinities, a rare window opens onto how musical instruments accrue, amplify, and vibrate meaning in the absence of their owners. Irwin's bass was wrought by its keeper into a technology of supportive physical power; while its presence "resurrects" masculinity in the film, inspiring testimony from its players, its deep timbres resound simultaneously with a historical shift in bass technologies and epistemologies of style, as well as the historiographical regendering of that shift within "straight-ahead" jazz cultures. Focusing on the dirt Irwin left behind on his fingerboard, this project illuminates a material and symbolic connection to his sound praxis, which negotiated a "blue collar" white masculinity alongside the tradition of African American embodied labor undergirding the musical textures of jazz history. Thus, by pointing to a deep current of underexamined bass timbres, it critically deconstructs heteronormativity as a dominant epistemology in jazz's historical and social soundings.

Ken Tianyuan Ge
University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill
Stratifying Stratocasters: Electric Guitar Production and the Global Division of Labor
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 19:50:00 UTC

Since its 1954 debut, the Fender Stratocaster has arguably become the most recognizable electric guitar model in the world. The iconic design was appropriated by Japanese companies operating with lower labor costs, leading US-based Fender to negotiate overseas manufacturing and distribution in Japan in 1982 and establishing a factory in Mexico in 1987. Since then, it has become common practice among American guitar manufacturers to seek labor and materials from abroad, often splitting their production models along the lines of country of origin. Fender sells Stratocaster designs that are variously 'Made in America,' 'Made in Japan,' 'Made in Mexico,' or outsourced from areas where labor laws and environmental regulations are lax.

Invented in the 1930s, the electric guitar has had an incalculable impact on the industrialized world's musical landscape. Recent critical organology has tended to examine instruments from the perspective of technics, timbre, cognition and the interface between body and instrument, but the role of capitalist economic logic in shaping electric guitars and their markets remains understudied. Guitar oligopolies' business practices motivate the materials, design and production process of instruments, usually self-justified with claims to intellectual property, history, tradition and originality. However, such ideologies belie the function every instrument has to its manufacturer: convertibility to profit. Therefore, it is important that a critical organology engage the neoliberal market logics that drive the guitar industry and the ideologies it provides to consumers.

This paper identifies the role of global finance capital in changes to the sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing process and sales effort for electric guitars. Drawing upon Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank's world-systems theory, I outline how large guitar corporations have used automation technology, marketing, and the global division of labor to streamline the musical instrument mass production process and maximize capital. Although the electric guitar has always been embedded in global capitalism's political economy, changes in the configuration of the world economy into the twenty-first century have affected what materials instruments are made from, how and where they are made, by whom and for whom, challenging manufacturers' invocations of tradition and historicity.

Michael Dekovich
University Of Oregon
University of North Texas
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Oregon
No moderator for this session!
No attendee has checked-in to this session!
Upcoming Sessions (Local time)