The Guitar Handbook, by Ralph Denyer, 1992
I TOOK LESSONS FROM A FEW DIFFERENT PEOPLE when I was learning to play guitar, and, in those days before Youtube, I also learned a lot from books. The Guitar Handbook was the best of those. Oddly unfocused, Mr. Deyner’s foundational reference volume teaches basic concepts and gives the reader an overview of amps, types of guitars, and also spends many pages on maintenance and parts. The book dedicates a fair amount of space to acoustic guitars.
The author has obviously tried very much to cover all the basic techniques and concepts one will need, while not producing a long-winded tome. Mr. Denyer has succeeded: the book is barely more than 250 pages. Over the years, as I’ve become a more knowledgeable guitar player, I find myself dipping into pages I’ve previously ignored.
The Guitar Innovators
I first heard of Django Reinhardt, Robert Fripp, and Stanley Clarke in this book. The first edition had profiles of famous guitarists, complete with brief histories, explanations of their styles, and descriptions of their preferred guitars; the current edition has added significantly, including musicians like Brian May and Pete Townshend.
Despite being too oriented towards rock music and also omitting some excellent guitarists — unavoidable, to keep the book from becoming too large — this section is a good overview of guitar players and their techniques.
You can think of a guitar body as a frame made of wood, with pieces of lighter wood glued to the frame, and this section is where I learned how vital the construction of a guitar is to its sound. In an easy-to-read style with many pictures and cutaway diagrams, it also explains about finishing techniques, tuning machines and their effectiveness, and different types of acoustic guitars and what styles of music they’re particularly good for.
Archtop, dobro, and 12-string guitars are all covered, but only briefly. This section is barely dated, due to the unchanging nature of the acoustic guitar, but the mention of Ovation fiberglass-backed guitars being popular “in recent years” could stand to be updated. The recent interest in carbon-fiber acoustics is also missing, as are Tacoma’s guitars, particularly the A-tuned Papoose.
The section also covers some of the history of the guitar.
Adding pickups and a small mixing board to a guitar makes it more complex and versatile. The solid-body construction makes the electric guitar body easier to manufacture — well, some of them — but the electronics easily negate that. Color cutaway illustrations abound in this part of the book.
I first learned about how pickups work in these pages, and when I took apart a guitar for the first time to paint it, I had learned how to do it from this book. The small amount of information the book has on the bass guitar is in this section.
Many of the concepts introduced here will be covered in more depth later in the book, in the section on maintenance.
Playing the Guitar
Although no other section feels like an afterthought, this section on operating your guitar machine is clearly the heart of this book. Anyone learning on their own should read this section, or at the least the first dozen pages.
There’s a page on music notation, including, new to this edition, guitar tabulature. Two entire pages, complete with diagrams and photographs, are devoted to tuning your guitar. Basic chords, strumming, chord progressions, barre chords, using a capo, time signatures and rhythms are all covered in a simple, readable style.
More advanced information on music theory is covered later in this section, but it can be worked up to slowly. There’s material here that I hope one day to master; it’s nice to know that I still have much to learn.
Guitar Maintenance and Customizing
I learned about the different types of strings available in this section of the book. It also covers refretting, basic saddle and nut adjustments, repairing splits and cracks, setting guitar intonation, and also guitar electronics; this last makes up the bulk of the section.
This section could have been titled “Guitar Amplifiers”, except that it also covers effects, PA systems, mixers, and microphones.
This section significantly dated. The omission of guitar amp modeling is particularly glaring; even in 2002, the date of this edition, modeling was beginning to become popular. However, the basic concepts behind hardware amps are covered well, and the principles behind a tube amp are fairly unchanging. Also, the recording technology pages are embarrassingly out of date; the revolution in computer-based multitrack recording is barely mentioned.
The Chord Dictionary
There are more comprehensive chord dictionaries, but not by much. The chord diagrams are cleverly organized, with three positions for each chord. There are some omissions (where are the suspended second chords?) but these chords are all but the most advanced guitar player will need to start out.
Chord dictionaries are a strange, partially outdated tool. There are websites where you can type in a chord name and you’re instantly given a fingering on the guitar; there are even web tools that will do the reverse (useful for composers who invent chords and need to write them down).
I hope this book is updated soon. There are copyright dates for 1982 and 1992; the cover page has a 2002 date next to the publisher’s name, but the book was clearly written in the nineties.
The Guitar Handbook is a friendly, useful reference. There’s a lot of information here, but the tone of the book is encouraging without being sycophant, and comprehensive without being confounding. Any new guitarist should own a copy; I’ve played for over two decades, and I can still open the book and learn something new.