The Evolution of the Electric Guitar: An Introduction to Every Major Variety of the Instrument That Made Rock-and-Roll

The past century has seen many stylistic changes in popular culture, none more dramatic than in music. We need only hear a few measures of a song to place it in the right decade. The sound of an era’s music reflects the state of its technology: whenever engineering can make possible tools like multitrack recorders, tape loops, samplers, and synthesizers — to say nothing of listening media like cylinders, vinyl records, and online streaming — the soundtrack of the zeitgeist has been transformed. But in living memory, surely no development has made quite so powerful an impact on popular music as the electric guitar.

“Almost all guitars currently on the market are either a direct descendant of, or very similar to, a handful of instruments that came to life during the span of one decade: the fifties.” With these words, Dutch Youtuber Paul Davids launches into a video journey through the evolution of the electric guitar as we know it, beginning in 1950 with the Fender Telecaster.


Davids doesn’t just explain the components and construction of that venerable instrument, he plays it — just as he does a variety of other electric guitars, each with a sound representative of its era. Even if you don’t know them by name, they’ll all sound familiar from a variety of musical contexts.

The invention of the electric guitar made possible the birth of rock and roll, which shows no few signs of frailty even here in the twenty-first century. The earliest models produced are ever more highly valued for their sound, their feel, and their apparent simplicity, a quality many rockers hold in the utmost regard. But despite long adhering to the same basic form, the electric guitar has incorporated a great variety of innovations — in its pickups, its vibrato systems, and much else besides — whose combinations and permutations have given rise to entire subgenres like surf, heavy metal, rockabilly, and grunge. Like rock itself, the electric guitar arrived having already attained a kind of perfection, but possessed too much vitality to stand still.

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The Story of the Guitar: The Complete Three-Part Documentary

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All of the Different Kinds of Acoustic Guitars, and the Different Woods They’re Made Of: The Ultimate Acoustic Guitar Guide

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Clock That Changed the World: How John Harrison’s Portable Clock Revolutionized Sea Navigation in the 18th Century

In the early eighteenth century, a pocket watch could keep reasonably accurate time, give or take a minute per day. This may not sound too bad, given how we now regard even the most advanced technology of that era. But it certainly wasn’t good enough for marine navigation: each day, a ship could tolerate its clocks gaining or losing only a couple of seconds. Without proper reliable information about the time, sailors on the open sea had no way of knowing quite where they were. More specifically, the sun told them how far north or south they were, their latitude, but they didn’t know how far east or west they were, their longitude.

Theoretically speaking, the “longitude problem” was easily solvable. You could calculate it, writes Gear Patrol’s Ed Estlow, “by sighting the sun at high noon where you were, and if you had a good enough clock for the time back home, you could compare the two and, with some simple mathematics, determine your position.” But engineering such a good-enough clock in reality took about half a century. “In 1714, the British government offered the huge prize of £20,000 (roughly £2 million today) to anyone who could solve the longitude problem once and for all.” But the money wasn’t fully claimed until 1773, by a Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison.


Harrison’s name looms large in the annals of chronometry, and not without reason. His work of inventing an accurate ship clock involved the creation of five different models, known by historians as H1 through H5. H1 was a portable version of the kind of sizable wooden clock with which he’d already made his name. It was only in with H4, in 1765, that he realized small is beautiful, or rather accurate, at least if equipped with oversized internal balance wheels to hold up more reliably against the constant movement of a ship at sea. This design worked without a hitch, but even so, the Board of Longitude only saw fit to award him half the money offered.

Neither Harrison’s solving of the longitude problem nor his receipt of a disappointingly halved prize seem to have stopped his obsession with building ever-better timekeeping devices. This comes as no surprise given the qualities of mind that emerge in “The Clock That Changed the World,” the episode of BBC’s A History of the World at the top of the post. While working on H5, Harrison “sought the support of King George III” (he of the famous madness). “The King, a natural philosopher in his own right, tested H5 himself and promised Harrison his support.” That support finally got the elderly Harrison his promised amount and then some, but one senses that — like any pursuit worthy of one’s lifelong dedication — it was never really about the money.

Related content:

New Archive Reveals How Scientists Finally Solved the Vexing “Longitude Problem” During the 1700s

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An AI-Generated Painting Won First Prize at a State Fair & Sparked a Debate About the Essence of Art

Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by Jason Allen Jason Allen via Discord

The technology behind artificial intelligence-aided art has long been in development, but the era of artificial intelligence-aided art feels like a sudden arrival. Since the recent release of DALL-E and other image-generation tools, our social-media feeds have filled up with elaborate artworks and even photorealistic-looking pictures created entirely through the algorithmic processing of a simple verbal description. We now live in a time, that is to say, where we type in a few words and get back an image nobody has ever before imagined, let alone seen. And if we do it right, that image could win a blue ribbon at the state fair.

“This year, the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition gave out prizes in all the usual categories: painting, quilting, sculpture,” reports the New York Times‘ Kevin Roose. “But one entrant, Jason M. Allen of Pueblo West, Colo., didn’t make his entry with a brush or a lump of clay. He created it with Midjourney, an artificial intelligence program that turns lines of text into hyper-realistic graphics.” The work, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, “took home the blue ribbon in the fair’s contest for emerging digital artists,” and it does look, at first glance, like an impressionistic and ambience-rich past-future vision that could grace the cover of one of the better class of science-fiction or fantasy novels.


Reactions have, of course, varied. Roose finds at least one Twitter user insisting that “we’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” and an actual working artist claiming that “this thing wants our jobs.” Allen himself provides a helpfully brash closing quote: “This isn’t going to stop. Art is dead, dude. It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.” Over on Metafilter, one commenter makes the expected reference: “It has a sort of Duchamp-submitting-Fountain vibe, only in reverse. Instead of the proposition being that the jury would wrongly fail to recognize something trivial and as art, now we have the proposition that the jury would wrongly fail to recognize that the art is something trivial.”

However little desire you may have to hang Théâtre D’opéra Spatial on your own wall, a moment’s thought will surely lead you to suspect that, on another level, the conditions that brought about its victory are anything but trivial. Midjourney, as the original poster on Metafilter explains, “can be run on any computer with a decent GPU, a Google collab, or run through their own servers.” The ability to generate more-or-less convincing works of art (often littered, it must be said, with the bizarre visual glitches that have been the technology’s signature so far) out of just a few keystrokes will only become more powerful and more widespread. And so the “real” artists must find a new form too vital for the machines to master — just as they’ve had to do all throughout modernity.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Improbable Invention of Chinese Typewriters & Computer Keyboards: Three Videos Tell the Techno-Cultural Story

Even if you don’t speak a word of Chinese, you surely know that the language uses not an alphabet, but ideographic characters: about 50,000 of them, all told, 3,000 to 5,000 of which must be memorized in order to achieve reasonable literacy. The potential for conflict between the Chinese writing system and twenty-first-century technology hardly needs explanation. How, in short, do Chinese people type? Youtuber Johnny Harris offers an explanation in the video above, beginning with the perhaps counterintuitive answer that Chinese people type with more or less the same keyboard everyone else does — when they’re using a computer, at any rate.

Our smartphone age has given rise to a number of different input systems, all designed to perform the same basic task of adapting the ancient and elaborate written Chinese language to digital modernity. In Harris’ telling, these technologies turn on two major developments: the creation of pinyin, a version of the Latin alphabet that phonetically represents Chinese characters, and the development of algorithms that predict which character the user wants to type next.


His explanation is breezy and not without its errors (the diagram about thirteen minutes in, for example, actually shows the Korean alphabet), and you might consider supplementing it with videos like expatriate Matthew Tye’s more detailed “How Do Chinese People Type?” above.

But if you truly want to understand the evolution of Chinese typing, you must begin with the Chinese typewriter — and so must read Tom Mullaney. A Professor of East Asian Language and Cultures at Stanford University, Mullaney published The Chinese Typewriter: A History five years ago, and has more recently been at work on a follow-up on the Chinese computer. In the lecture above, he recounts the Chinese typewriter’s once-impossible-seeming development in an hour and a half, connecting it to a host of cultural, linguistic, orthographic, and technological phenomena along the way. It’s a story of ingenuity, but also of survival. Chinese made it through the twentieth century without being mangled or abolished to meet the limitations of Western engineering, but not every writing system was quite so lucky.

Related content:

Free Chinese Lessons

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When IBM Created a Typewriter to Record Dance Movements (1973)

Discover the Ingenious Typewriter That Prints Musical Notation: The Keaton Music Typewriter Patented in 1936

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Creates Images to Match the Lyrics of Iconic Songs: David Bowie’s “Starman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” & More

Lyricists must write concretely enough to be evocative, yet vaguely enough to allow each listener his personal interpretation. The nineteen-sixties and seventies saw an especially rich balance struck between resonant ambiguity and massive popularity — aided, as many involved parties have admitted, by the use of certain psychoactive substances. Half a century later, the visions induced by those same substances offer the closest comparison to the striking fruits of visual artificial-intelligence projects like Google’s Deep Dream a few years ago or DALL-E today. Only natural, perhaps, that these advanced applications would sooner or later be fed psychedelic song lyrics.


The video at the top of the post presents the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1977 hit “Mr. Blue Sky” illustrated by images generated by artificial intelligence straight from its words. This came as a much-anticipated endeavor for Youtube channel SolarProphet, which has also put up similarly AI-accompanied presentations of such already goofy-image-filled comedy songs as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown” and Neil Cicierega’s “It’s Gonna Get Weird.”

Youtuber Daara has also created ten entries in this new genre, including Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and (the recently-featured-on-Open-Culture) Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”

Jut above appears a video for David Bowie’s “Starman” with AI-visualized lyrics, created by Youtuber Aidontknow. Created isn’t too strong a word, since DALL-E and other applications currently available to the public provide a selection of images for each prompt, leaving it to human users to provide specifics about the aesthetic — and, in the case of these videos, to select the result that best suits each line. One delight of this particular production, apart from the boogieing children, is seeing how the AI imagines various starmen waiting in the sky, all of whom look suspiciously like early-seventies Bowie. Of all his songs of that period, surely “Life on Mars?” would be choice number one for an AI music video — but then, its imagery may well be too bizarre for current technology to handle.

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Artificial Intelligence Writes a Piece in the Style of Bach: Can You Tell the Difference Between JS Bach and AI Bach?

Artificial Intelligence Creates Realistic Photos of People, None of Whom Actually Exist

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

Much has been said lately about jokes that “haven’t aged well.” Sometimes it has do to with shifting public sensibilities, and sometimes with a gag’s exaggeration having been surpassed by the facts of life. As a Twitter user named Max Saltman posted not long ago, “I love finding New Yorker cartoons so dated that the joke is lost entirely and the cartoons become just descriptions of people doing normal things.” The examples included a partygoer admitting that “I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve downloaded it from the internet,” and a teacher admonishing her students to “keep your eyes on your own screen.”

All of those New Yorker cartoons appear to date from the nineteen-nineties. Even more prescient yet much older is the Daily Mirror cartoon at the top of the post, drawn by artist W. K. Haselden at some point between 1919 and 1923. It envisions a time “when we all have pocket telephones,” liable to ring at the most inconvenient times: “when running for a train,” “when your hands are full,” “at a concert,” even “when you are being married.” Such a comic strip could never, as they say, be published today — not because of its potential to offend modern sensitivities, but because of its sheer mundanity.


For here in the twenty-twenties, we all, indeed, have pocket telephones. Not only that, we’ve grown so accustomed to them that Haselden’s cartoon feels reminiscent of the turn of the millennium, when the novelty and prestige of cellphones (to say nothing of their gratingly simple ringtones) made them feel more intrusive in day-to-day-life. Now, increasingly, cellphones are day-to-day life. Far from the literal “pocket telephones” envisioned a century ago, they’ve worked their way into nearly every aspect of human existence, including those Haselden could never have considered.

Yet this wasn’t the first time anyone had imagined such a thing. “Rumors of a ‘pocket phone’ had been ringing around the world since 1906,” writes Laughing Squid’s Lori Dorn. “A man named Charles E. Alden claimed to have created a device that could easily fit inside a vest pocket and used a ‘wireless battery.'” In the event, it would take nearly eight decades for the first cellphone to arrive on the market, and three more on top of that for them to become indispensable in the West. Now the “pocket telephone” has become the defining device of our era all over the world, though the social norms around its use do remain a work in progress.

via Laughing Squid

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Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

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A 1947 French Film Accurately Predicted Our 21st-Century Addiction to Smartphones

The World’s First Mobile Phone Shown in 1922 Vintage Film

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Damien Hirst’s NFT Experiment Comes to an End: How Many Buyers Chose Digital Tokens Over Physical Artworks?

Damien Hirst is into NFTs. Some will regard this as a reflection on the artist, and others a reflection on the technology. Whether you take those reflections to be positive or negative reveals something about your own concept of how the art world, the business world, and the digital world intersect. So will your reaction to The Currency, Hirst’s just-completed art project and technological experiment. Launched in July of last year, it produced 10,000 unique non-fungible tokens “that were each associated with corresponding artworks the British artist made in 2016,” as Artnet’s Caroline Goldstein writes. “The digital tokens were sold via a lottery system for $2,000.”

Hirst also laid down an unprecedented condition: he announced “that his collectors would have to make a choice between the physical artwork and its digital version, and set a one-year deadline — asking them, in effect, to vote for which had more lasting value.” For each buyer who chooses the original work, Hirst would assign its NFT to an inaccessible address, the closest thing to destroying it. And for each buyer who chooses the NFT, Hirst would throw the paper version onto a bonfire. The final numbers, as Hirst tweeted out at the end of last month, came to “5,149 physicals and 4,851 NFTs (meaning I will have to burn 4,851 corresponding physical Tenders).” Hirst also retained 1,000 copies for himself.


“In the beginning I had thought I would definitely choose all physical,” Hirst explains. “Then I thought half-half and then I felt I had to keep all my 1,000 as NFTs and then all paper again and round and round I’ve gone, head in a spin.” In the end he went wholly digital, having decided that “I need to show my 100 percent support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1000 physical artworks).” Perhaps this was a victory of Hirst’s neophilia, but then, those instincts have served him well before: few living artists have managed to draw such public fascination, enamored or hostile, for so many years straight — let alone such formidable sale prices, and not just for his stuffed shark.

“I’ve never really understood money,” Hirst says to Stephen Fry in the video above. (You can watch an extended version of their conversation here.) “All these things — art, money, commerce — they’re all ethereal,” ultimately based on nothing more than “belief and trust.” Returning to the techniques of his early “spot paintings” — those he made himself before farming the task out to steadier-handed assistants — and minting the results into unique digital objects for sale was perhaps an attempt to get his head around the even less intuitive concept of the NFT. All told, The Currency brought in about $89 million in revenue. More telling will be the price of its tokens on the secondary market, where they’re changing hands at the moment for around $7,000: a price impossible properly to evaluate for now, and thus not without the thrilling ambiguity of certain modern artworks.

via Artnet

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The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

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Damien Hirst Takes Us Through His New Exhibition at Tate Modern

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The First Photographs Taken by the Webb Telescope: See Faraway Galaxies & Nebulae in Unprecedented Detail


Late last year we featured the amazing engineering of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now the largest optical telescope in space. Capable of registering phenomena older, more distant, and further off the visible spectrum than any previous device, it will no doubt show us a great many things we’ve never seen before. In fact, it’s already begun: earlier this week, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center released the first photographs taken through the Webb telescope, which “represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered, and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations.”

The areas of outer space depicted in unprecedented detail by these photos include the Carina Nebula (top), the Southern Ring Nebula (2nd image on this page), and the galaxy clusters known as Stephan’s Quintet (the home of the angels in It’s a Wonderful Life) and SMACS 0723 (bottom).


That last, notes Petapixel’s Jaron Schneider, “is the highest resolution photo of deep space that has ever been taken,” and the light it captures “has traveled for more than 13 billion years.” What this composite image shows us, as NASA explains, is SMACS 0723 “as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago” — and its “slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

All this can be a bit difficult to get one’s head around, at least if one is professionally involved with neither astronomy nor cosmology. But few imaginations could go un-captured by the richness of the images themselves. Sharp, rich in color, varied in texture — and in the case of the Carina Nebula or “Cosmic Cliffs,” NASA adds, “seemingly three-dimensional” — they could have come straight from a state-of-the-art science-fiction movie. In fact they outdo even the most advanced sci-fi visions, as NASA’s Earthrise outdid even the uncannily realistic-in-retrospect views of the Earth from space imagined by Stanley Kubrick and his collaborators in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But these photos are the fruits of a real-life journey toward the final frontier, one you can follow in real time on NASA’s “Where Is Webb?” tracker. “Webb was designed to spend the next decade in space,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert. “However, a successful launch preserved substantial fuel, and NASA now anticipates a trove of insights about the universe for the next twenty years.” That’s quite a long run by the current standards of space exploration — but then, by the scale of space and time the Webb telescope has newly opened up, even 100 millennia is the blink of an eye.

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The Amazing Engineering of James Webb Telescope

How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole: Watch the 2017 Ted Talk by Katie Bouman, the MIT Grad Student Who Helped Take the Groundbreaking Photo

How Scientists Colorize Those Beautiful Space Photos Taken By the Hubble Space Telescope

The Very First Picture of the Far Side of the Moon, Taken 60 Years Ago

The First Images and Video Footage from Outer Space, 1946-1959

The Beauty of Space Photography

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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