Riley and I find ourselves in an ancient underground conclave and a wizardly elder is guiding us through a guitar time travel trip.
A single string is stretched across a stick which is then attached to a gourd. The string is plucked and a certain kind of haunting sound is brought forth as it echoes through the Sumerian marketplace–it is the cry of a newborn announcing the dawn of guitar. It was called ‘tar’–the Persian word for string.
Over the next 5000 years, the tar took many paths of evolution: the three-stringed bowl harp of Babylonia, the tanbur of Egypt and the Assyrian chetarah. The Middle ages in Europe spawned the 9th century cithara and the 11th century gittern; and later, the chime-like, multi stringed lute and vihuela dominated the renaissance of western Europe. Nineteenth century Spain produced the classic six string guitar–its direct descendants are the 20th century solid body electrics of Les Paul and Leo Fender. Digital effects transformed the 21st century guitar into an instrument with an infinite palette of colors.
Suddenly, the lights go on–the ancient elder is now an octogenarian author in a three piece glen plaid suit and the magical land of guitar is replaced by a theatre on the UCLA campus. Then the wizardly elder–aka Frederic V. Grunfeld, renowned author of The Art And Times Of The Guitar holds a brief Q and A:
Jayne Jeff: “Based on your research, who would you consider the first guitar hero?”
FVG: “If you mean ‘rock star’, it would have to be Fernando Sor of the 18th century. He played to sold-out venues in London, Paris, Moscow and his native Barcelona. There were plenty of groupies. He didn’t have roadies though–no Marshals to set up.”
A spot-on look-alike of the lead guitarist of The Donnas (Allison Robertson–wait it is her!) asks, “What did the oldest guitar look like?”
FVG: “Goodness, I wasn’t around in ancient times so I really don’t have first-hand information. I’m old, but not that old! I do know, however, that The Archaeological Museum in Cairo contains a guitar-like instrument that has three strings and a plectrum suspended from the neck by a cord. The sound box is made of beautifully polished cedarwood and has a rawhide ‘soundboard’.”
Riley Ripintyme: “Well, just how old is it?”
FVG: “3500 years.”
Alison Robertson: “Whoa! That’s the ultimate vintage guitar!”
“Dude, I thought my granddad’s ‘57 strat was old!” somebody else yells out.
AR: “What about women and guitar?”
FVG: “There is no way of knowing of course, but the influence is surely indicated by the numerous paintings and sculptures of women playing guitar throughout the ages.”
JJ: “And their musical influence?”
FVG: “That we can say for sure–it’s been documented that there was a guitar mania as early as the 1800s in Vienna, Berlin and all through France; and it was dominated by female guitarists.”
The theatre lights start to flicker on and off– a none-too-subtle hint that it is time to leave. Frederic looks as if he wants to take more questions, but an aide gently guides him offstage. Sadly, the lecture is indeed over.
The crowd files out of the theatre, gradually dispersing–getting smaller and smaller until there were only two . . . Riley and me. We quickly walk across the campus to the bus stop at Le Conte and Westwood.
RR: “Fernando Sor never started a band, and he did all right.”
JJ: “I didn’t say anything.”
RR: “I know, but I know what you’re thinking.”
JJ: “What’s that?”
RR: “Have I found any band members yet?”
JJ: “Well, since you brought it up, my Granddad’s set up a meeting with Billy James—it might be fun, and you could get some tips on how to start a band.”
RR: “Hey, that’s great! Um . . . who’s Billy James?”