Fine tuning

Guitar Man

Will Hodgkinson <em>Bloomsbury, 304pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0306815141

This lovely book has two subtitles - A six-string odyssey and You love that guitar more than you love me - of which the first, for the purpose of synopsis, is more instructive. Will Hodgkinson, a rotten guitarist, decides to seek a lesson from each of his guitar heroes, at the end of which he'll play a live gig. I should declare an interest here: my sister is a close friend of the author. Indeed, she appears in the book, introducing him to Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes via the record collection of her uncle (who is, now I think about it, my uncle, too).

I was at this gig of his. I can verify that he met his goals and I can honestly say that he's a way better writer than he is a musician - which isn't intended as an insult, because this is a very winning book. In the hands of almost anyone else, it would be a wryly, not really disguised memoir with the guitar conceit tacked on - and that may or may not work, depending on the author and whether or not he is an arse. Hodgkinson seems to have an aversion to that kind of thing. He'll describe how he feels about this or that experience as if he's doing homework, hastily dashing off the odd "I felt guilty"/"delighted" before getting back to the actual memoir, which is all about the guitar.

His is an idiosyncratic and timeless prose style - it is hard-wired to express enthu-siasm, and when it absolutely can't find any (when, for instance, it deals with the author's own guitar technique), it settles instead for a kind of hyper-tolerant curiosity. It is extremely pared down, very simple, self-effacing - sometimes to the point that it's frustratingly difficult to winkle a person, still less a position, from the baldness of the text.

So, considering Jimi Hendrix and Emmylou Harris, Hodgkinson concludes: "I never imagined that all these hep cats had to sit and study time signatures and circles of fifths before being granted permission to groove." You can never really figure how he's using a phrase like "hep cats". Ironically? Parodying him-self with the dated language? Or because, you know, that's what they were . . . cats, who were hep?

What dawns on you with the appear-ance of every new guitar hero - from obvious giants such as Johnny Marr to more special-interest talents such as the modern folk band Circulus - is that the narrative register is like black beans in a soup: precisely because the accent is on texture over flavour, it is the perfect means of uniting disparate elements and, moreover, uniting them with meaning and respect. Incidentally, Marr sounds like a very generous guitarist - he teaches the author some guitar noodling I don't really understand and then says, gnomically: "I'm searching for something a little cosmic right now, and I've realised that I would have to live several lifetimes before beginning to understand the possibilities of a guitar." Isn't that, given the choice, exactly the kind of person you'd want Marr to be?

Things hot up a bit, event-wise, when Hodgkinson goes to America and picks up amazing vignettes about people, and recording studios, and weird gigs in Canada where the artist thought he was in Germany, about how rock'n'roll was invented (via some part of some instrument getting broken, mainly) and the music of the South:

The slaves were denied drums and horns on the plantations they worked on for fear they would send secret messages, but stringed instruments were seen as harmless . . . there was the option of making a diddley bow on the outside of your shack: two nails were hammered on to the wall of the front porch and a broom wire was pulled taut between them. A bottle or a rock was placed underneath the wire . . . in this way the guitar was reduced to its heart. The butt of America produced the style on which almost all American music was based.

The structural apex of the book is when the author finds Davy Graham, whose (apparently) seminal "Anji" was the lodestone of all his guitary enthusiasms. Epiphanies are had, the gig takes place, "Anji" is played; things wax and wane in accordance with the rules of narrative, but you get the sense that, without those rules, Hodgkinson would quite happily have carried on learning the guitar for ever. I've already forgotten how many strings a guitar has, but I was still charmed by the odyssey. Imagine how much you'll enjoy it if you're already into this kind of thing.

Zoe Williams writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special