Change is not Always Easy

Change is not Always Easy

In 1930 the American Federation of Musicians spent a half million dollars on nationwide ads in major magazines urging people to avoid presentations of reproduced music (sound tracks at movies) and listen to live performances. As you might have guessed, the campaign didn’t work. Consider this – when DVD’s first emerged, would it have been possible for VHS tape manufacturers to successfully advocate the rejection of DVD’s? Not likely! Once a new technology is introduced that is functional, it near impossible to turn back the clock.

The technology that amplified sound in movie theaters also influenced improvements in guitar amplifiers. Engineers, working with manufacturers such as Rickenbacker, National, Dobro, Gibson, Kay, Regal and others, generated a wide range of lap steels and electric guitars prior to World War II, exploiting the changes in technology. The amplifiers of the day did not have great power but, for the first time, the upgraded amps enabled guitars to be heard when they were playing with the big bands.

When World War II ended, many people returned to civilian life with new found electronic skills. Seth Lover of Gibson Guitars learned electronics in the military; he was the designer of the humbucker guitar pickup that shaped the Gibson sound. Leo Fender started a radio repair shop in the 30’s, he was often approached by musicians for help with PA’s and instrument amplifiers. After the war concluded, the big band sound was gradually replaced by smaller amplified groups. Leo introduced a line of powerful amps and guitars in the 50’s (as the Korean War was closing out) that caused a rapid shift in musical trends for these small groups.  In the mid 1950’s, Hartley Peavey inherited his first set of hand tools from his grandfather, J.L. Peavey, and became the youngest person to enroll in Ross Collins Vocational School in Meridian. Hartley’s skills advance as he learns to use millings machines and soon after graduation, starts building amps and designing new guitars.

With the improvements in electric guitars, basses, and amplifiers, it became reasonable for a small combo group to easily fill a large venue with more volume than a twenty-piece acoustic big band. Club owners, faced with the choice of paying for a small combo or a twenty-piece big band had a strong incentive to go for the much less expensive smaller group.  The nature and composition of jazz music was changing to fit the smaller bands.   Miles Davis released his watershed album ‘Kind of Blue’. The minimalist sound, austere chord arrangements, and small combo motif presented a view of things to come for Jazz and other forms of music.

The technical advancements in amplification and instruments led to the compression of band membership from 20+ to 3+ musicians. The minimalist approach dramatically changed the music scene and set the stage for the introduction of modal jazz, fusion jazz, post modern bop Jazz, urban blues, rockabilly, rock-n-roll, honky-tonk, and much of the music we are familiar with today. At the same time, it put many senior musicians out of work for the rest of their life. It would be quite a few years before it became evident that new electronic technologies offered musicians opportunities rather than simply being a threat to their existence.

“There’s a very strong part of me that feels that peer-to-peer illegal downloading is just a more sophisticated version of what we did in the 80s, which was home taping. If they really like it, some of them might buy the records […] if they don’t buy the albums they might buy a concert ticket, t-shirt or other merchandising.” Ed O’Brian, Radiohead.