There may be no literature less rocking than that of the coffee-table genre, and yet this is the selfsame place where Rock Hardware, a pictorial history of various rock-related sundries, will doubtless rest best. Not that Mojo's Paul Trynka and his essay-writing brethren (yes, they're all male; big surprise with gearheads) set out to produce yet another oversize coaster for your cafe au lait, but the dominance (and quality) of the pictures and the impenetrability of the text to all save the most myopic of hobbyists assures this tome's restive living-room status. Martha Stewart would say that's a good thing; but then, that WASP would probably have fraudulent pointers on how to pump your devil's horns, too.
Not that Rock Hardware offers any shortage of text, but when bloodless erudition is stacked up against pretty pictures, see where your eye wanders. Most coffee-table books favor the image over the word, and no wonder: When one sits in a living room waiting for the host to return with the petit fours, one can't afford to go comatose over a dissertation on Weimar-era poster art. The primary purpose of the text in a good coffee-table book seems to be to remind the reader (as a purely visual cue) that he or she is not illiterate. In this way, Rock Hardware differs: Its text reminds the reader that there are some areas of specialization where literacy is thoroughly unessential.
Let's eavesdrop on a comparison of the two foremost brands of rock's own strap-on, the electric guitar: "Where Fender utilized indigenous woods, Gibson chose Central and South American mahogany for the neck and body, Brazilian rosewood for the fingerboard and maple for the distinctive carved top. Gibson used a traditional glued-in or set neck joint with a small traditional heel as opposed to the angular 'heel' of the Telecaster. Where Fender chose the longer 25.5" scale length, Gibson retained their nominal 24.75"." This sort of schematic flow goes on for 144 pages, pushing before it a wash of electronic flotsam and jetsam, including guitars, amps, keyboards, synthesizers, brass, woodwinds, PA systems, drums, basses, and recording equipment. And yet, from a distance, the effect is somewhat soothing. Having no commitment to the text or any clue how to fathom its technical depth, one may watch it wash past as one would a river, casually engaging and disengaging attention as various currents, sun dapples, and eddies drift by. "The Synclavier system was based on 24-harmonic synthesis, but later evolved into a multi-track direct-to-hard-disk sampler for audio/video post-production." Gurgle, gurgle gurgle.
Still, there is information embedded in the blather that might be of interest. Leo Fender, inventor of both the Stratocaster and the Precision Bass -- essential rock guitars, and readily named fetishes -- apparently didn't know how to play. The revolutionary appearance of his Telecaster, the Strat's forebear, was based not so much on design savvy as the demands of assembly-line production. The wood was cheap, and the necks were bolted on with four machine screws. The continuing git-geek lust over these "vintage" cheapies, and the influence they exerted on all subsequent electric guitar design, speaks worlds about both our consumer culture and the mild imaginations of rockers.
Whatever worthwhile tidbits one may tweeze from all this bristling, tech-spec back-hair, the best thing about Rock Hardware is still the pictures. Many musical instruments -- be they guitars, basses, brass, or woodwind -- are ornate, if not beautiful. And even where they're simple, and scratched or mauled by aggressive playing -- as is the case with Elvis' acoustic on Pages 40-41 -- you'll marvel that someone was willing to pay $200,000 for them. Even more amusing are those photos where the dumb lust of the technophile and the pathetic staginess of certain rock pioneers collide. The full-page image of Keith Emerson live in concert (circa 1972) dressed up in executioner's leather, hunched before a cable- and switch-laden keyboard monstrosity, shooting the audience a malevolent glare as if to flaunt that he was really rockin', illustrates just how thoroughly un-"rockin' " technology is. You'll notice in the chapter on recording, where there are more square angles, switches, and plugs than elsewhere, that potentially monotonous images of consoles are swapped in favor of more exciting depictions of artists in the studio.
Considering that Rock Hardware was put out by Miller Freeman, which publishes the magazines Guitar Player, Keyboard, and Bass Player, the technical wallow is no surprise. The line of magazines offers the same sort of meticulousness in everything from guitar solo transcriptions to Hartke Systems aluminum-cone driver wiring diagrams -- and Miller Freeman's readership would demand no less of Rock Hardware. But my subscriptions to such publications expired years ago, along with my interest in solder and virtuosity. The attitude of many musicians depicted in Rock Hardware toward their instruments seems to be far less devotional than that of its writers. In a 1962 still from Summer Holiday, Jet Harris (of the Shadows) stands atop his stand-up. Silly, true, but do you think Harris had wood composition, varnishes, and string gauges in mind? No -- but he was probably happy with the picture.