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Tim Brookes, Telling the Story of the Guitar

May 29, 2005 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Tim Brookes, a British expatriate living in Vermont, has mused on the air about cricket, swimming with sharks, king cakes and the mysteries of a snipe that flies over his country home. He's also a passionate and talented guitar player. And he's just published Guitar: An American Life, which he describes as part history and part love song.

Read an excerpt from the book:

Interlude: Nail Angst

Two weeks before a gig, I break a nail.

It's my strongest nail, the long finger of my right hand. For once my nails were just about perfect, but hubris caught up with me: I let them grow a fraction too long, and with every extra tenth of a millimeter, the nail dries out a little more and gets brittle. I'm taking the laundry out of the drier, the nail catches on the rim of the door, the top snaps clean off.

Players who use picks can use anything for a pick. According to Guitar Player, Chet Atkins used his index fingernail as a pick. Carl Perkins used a tooth from a comb. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top uses a quarter, or a peso. Jerry Garcia tucked his pick between his index finger and the stub of his second finger (his brother severed it with an axe when he was four) when he wanted to fingerpick. Dave "The Edge" Evans of U2 uses West German picks with dimples to help you grip them; he uses that end on the strings to produce "a certain rasping top end." John McLaughlin used to make his own picks out of plastic pie boxes that he cut up with wire cutters.

Playing with your nails probably gets the most natural sound, and the greatest range of sound, from a guitar, but in the end it all comes down to Mohr's scale of hardness: steel strings are harder than fingernails. No getting round it.

Some guitarists take silica supplements. Some take a megavitamin called Appearex, or Biotin, which helps with splitting and brittle nails, and also with bovine and equine hoof problems. Some use Ultra Nails Plus. A guitarist tells me he once asked the British fingerstyle wizard Martin Simpson how he kept his nails hard and Simpson whispered, "Superglue, mate."

I email Simpson to check.

"I did use super glue with tissue paper and baking powder, producing concrete nails[, but] I have for the last 15 years used acrylic nails from the beauty salon.... much better. Previous to all of this I used to just paint my nails with lots of polish, vanity mostly."

You learn to do things with your left hand. You pay extra care when opening the flap over your gas tank in cold weather. Almost everyone buffs constantly, like a nervous habit. Most of all, though, you just feel helpless, and ridiculous for spending so much time on something so damn stupid.

Ed Gerhard, a fine fingerstyle guitarist from New Hampshire, tells a joke that is the truest thing I heard in two years of asking people about the guitar: "You start off playing guitar to get chicks and end up talking with middle-aged men about your fingernails."

Ned Wharton produced this piece.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Two from Tim Brookes

Brookes plays solo on the old Fairport Convention tune "End of a Holiday," written by Simon Nichol. He's joined by his wife, Barbara Boutsikaris on "Arioso," written by J.S. Bach.

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