Electric guitar conference in Bowling Green

Skip McDonald

PhD composition student Ben Jameson tells us about his recent trip to a conference over in the USA:

The ‘Electric Guitar in Popular Culture’ conference took place at Bowling Green State University, Ohio at the end of March. The conference was organised by Dr. Matt Donahue from the university’s Department of Popular Culture, and brought together scholars and musicians from around North America and the rest of the world with a shared enthusiasm for the electric guitar. Over two days, we heard papers on various aspects of the iconic instrument, engaged in interesting discussions, and heard performances from local and international guitarists. I was fortunate enough to have a paper based on my PhD research into Tristan Murail’s electric guitar piece Vampyr! accepted for the conference. I took this as an excellent opportunity to make my first ever visit to the USA (hopefully the first of many!).

A large part of the appeal of the conference for me, and no doubt for many of the other participants, was the keynote address from Steve Waksman, author of Instruments of Desire, one of the first and most important scholarly studies of the electric guitar. Dr. Waksman’s talk gave a useful outline of the small but growing research area of ‘guitar studies’ and illustrated how our relatively small conference was part of a wider recent growth of interest in the academic study of the electric guitar. Other notable papers included a second keynote from heavy metal author Martin Popoff and presentations on surf guitar, Lou Reed’s ‘ostrich’ tuning, heavy metal pedagogy and – of particular interest to me – the role of the electric guitar as a ‘classical’ instrument.

In addition to the usual conference activities of presenting and discussing papers, participants were invited to attend special performances of guitar music at the university and another venue in downtown Bowling Green. These performances primarily highlighted the talents of local Ohio musicians, through a variety of genres including jazz, blues, neoclassical rock and surf punk. The closing performance by Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald (formerly of the Sugar Hill Records house band) was particularly enjoyable. We were also offered a tour around the university library’s popular culture collection and sound recording archive, which are among the largest in the United States.Conference logo

I really enjoyed my experience of visiting Bowling Green, and it was great to meet others with similar research interests and share our work. The conference was very well organised, and everyone I met was friendly and welcoming. I am grateful to the Faculty of Humanities for awarding financial support from the AHRC travel fund that allowed me to make my trip.