Clearly, John Stubbings is afflicted with the same malady that affects most of us—an obsessive fascination with and magnetic pull toward the acoustic guitar. For the better part of six years, the author set out on a personal pilgrimage to search out the origins of the acoustic guitar and its successive ripple effect upon the vast evolution of American and British music and culture.
With a plethora of books dedicated to the history of the guitar and the musicians who play it, you might ask yourself why we need another book on the subject. The author admits that The Devil Is In It: A Story of Love, Obsession, and the American Acoustic Guitar (limited to 300 signed and number copies) was written largely for collectors. It’s an expensive book, and though well worth the read by any and all guitar lovers, the price will limit the audience. But before we discourage anyone from owning this precious publication, let’s take a look at the book’s contents and its impressive reverence for the art of bookmaking.
It is a beautifully produced work, to say the least. Every detail is executed with tremendous care: the ultra-fine, wood-free, archive-quality paper; the selection of a historically rare and beautiful font; and the hand typesetting. Then there are the original hand-tinted ink illustrations by Drew Christie, hand-assembled into each book and also included as frameable prints in a deluxe cloth-covered slipcase and accompanying slide-out tray.
The title is extracted from a quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about a stellar performance in Boston by Madame Delores de Goni. Her virtuosity and implied endorsement of the first X-braced guitar made for her by C.F. Martin, Sr. helped to solidify Martin’s reputation and promote the design that would come to define the modern guitar.
The 380-page book is divided into 31 chapters that offer an inspired and accurate chronological overview of the evolution of the guitar in America, with Stubbings re-tracing the footsteps of the instrument from New York to Pennsylvania, then down through North Carolina and Tennessee to New Orleans, and eventually California. Along the way, his travels connected him with many key players in the acoustic guitar world, including Matt Umanov (Umanov Guitars), Jim Bollman (The Music Emporium), the Jay family (Mandolin Bros.), George Gruhn (Gruhn Guitars), Eric Schoenberg (Schoenberg Guitars), Richard Hoover (Santa Cruz Guitar Co.), Andy Powers (Taylor Guitars), myself at C.F. Martin & Co., and too many more guitar makers, dealers, and musicians to mention. These sources all color Stubbings’ experience with a rainbow of opinions that all point to one firm conclusion: “So much of the music we love today was inspired and facilitated by the acoustic guitar.”
The Devil Is In It is available only from UK publisher Orpharion Press orpharionpress.com. Its cost is a hefty £200 plus shipping from the UK, which works out to about $260 (at the current exchange rate) plus approximately $40 shipping to the U.S. (If the first edition sells out quickly, the author may investigate a paperback or eBook version.) I found it to be well worth the price of admission, as it’s a very special keepsake and an engaging read with a unique point of view. In his quest to unravel the story of the acoustic guitar, John Stubbings has certainly discovered a great deal more.
Dick Boak was employed by C.F. Martin & Company from 1976 until his retirement in 2018. He initiated many Signature Edition guitar projects, managed Artist Relations, and extended Martin’s Museum and Archives.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.