The invention of electric guitars started a new vibe in the world of music. When you consider how many people it effects in a positive way, it is one of the greatest inventions of all times. It is now the most popular instrument in the world. Masters of the guitar are looked to as ‘Idols’ and ‘Heros’. Every guitar player and enthusiast has a hero. No other instrument is capable of so much versatility in terms of sound manipulation like string bending, pinch harmonics, and tapping to name a few. Other related things to consider include guitar effects and gear, which alter the sounds coming out of an amplifier (amp) in every way imaginable and unimaginable.
Electric guitars are one of the several types of guitars available for your enjoyment. Normally made out of a solid piece of wood it uses built in electronic pickups to gather the vibrations that its steel strings produce which change those vibes into electrical current, which is made louder with an amplifier and a speaker.
Electric guitars have been around for decades and were invented a number of years before Les Paul or Leo Fender got the idea. No one person can claim to be the inventor, rather it collectively evolved from the hard work and experimentation of a number of people. Some well known names associated with the first electric guitars are Adolf Rickenbacker, Leo Fender, Orville Gibson, Les Paul, Merle Travis. There were others less known, and some I am sure who were instrumental in the development of the electric guitar and entirely unknown.
The electric guitar evolved from the Lap Steel guitar which was very popular in the 1920s. The lap steel guitar is played on the lap with a metal bar that is moved across the strings changing their pitch. Adolf Rickenbacker came up with the first known example of the electric lap steel. It was called the ‘Frying Pan’ because it looked like one. A solid round piece of wood for a body that was fitted with a neck with tuners. The addition of the electric pickup placed at the bridge of the guitar, was the solution to becoming electrified. The pickup consisted of a two horse shoe magnets that surrounded the strings and a coil of wire beneath the magnets.
The main reason for the electric guitar is not limited
to just a volume increase, electric guitars have been modified and messed around with since their conception. They lend themselves well to modifications, which is nearly irresistible to many players, and part of the personal feelings every guitar gives us. This instrument in the hands of certain folks is like a fast car to a hot rod enthusiast. Once you get the bug to modify your electric guitar, it then turns into an obsession, and the possibilities are endless. They actually become an extension of you and your vibe.
The first electric guitars were spanish style acoustic guitars (acoustic-electric) like that of the Gibson ES-150. They where hollow body guitars with two ‘F’ holes in the ‘top’ and a pickup placed under the strings between the bridge and where the neck was attached. The solid body electrics (non lap steel, or large hollow body)) wouldn’t come out for a number of years yet. The ingredients to ‘electrify’ guitars were becoming known in the early 30’s with the introduction of the electric lap steel.
The first known hollow-body electric for sale were by Rickenbacker in 1935 called the Electro-Spanish. It was shaped like a normal acoustic guitar and didn’t sell very well. Gibson came out with there ES-150 in 1936. The ES also stands for ‘Electric Spanish’ as they where hollow-body acoustics with a pickup. This was the beginning of new changes for those who were ‘listening’.
The first solid body electric appears to be from Rickenbacker. It was an electric solid body guitar and not a lap steel guitar. It was based on their Bakelite Steel guitar.
In 1939 Les Paul started work on his version of the solid-body electric which is called the “Log”. Les was known to have placed the pickup from a phonograph player and well as the telephone mouthpiece under the strings during early experimentation. The guitar for the most part looked like a 4 x 4 (4 inch square) piece of wood about the length of an acoustic guitar body. On this were attached two single coil pickups, a bridge with tremolo, and the neck. To make the guitar look more like presentable he cut an epiphone spruce body in half and placed one half on top and the other beneath the ‘Log’. This gave the appearence of an acoustic guitar but it didn’t have the feedback problems associated with hollow bodies electrics. Les started on this guitar in 1939 and brought it to Gibson in 1941. Gibson called it a broomstick with pickups.
The Solid Body Electric didn’t commercially appear until the late 1940’s and was produced by Fender. It was originally called the Esquire and was then changed to Broadcaster and soon changed to Telecaster. Many people think that the first electric was the Stratocaster but the Stratocaster didn’t come into production until mid 1954.
Electric Guitars of today are still based on the same basic principles that were first established decades ago, but modern technology and fertile imaginative minds have improved almost every aspect about them while retaining the original paradigms of engineering. An excellent parallel example of the same sort of evolution is the Harley Davidson motorcycle. Harley Davidson motorcycles were introduced in 1908 using the 45 degree opposing v-twin cylinder design. While they are very modernized in terms of it’s natural evolution, the basic design is the same.
The Gibson Les Paul guitar has changed the face of rock music yet hasn’t changed too much since it’s beginning’s back in the mid 1950’s. The same with the Fender Stratocaster: Not much has really changed since the time it was created. Sure the pickups are made better as is the finish and hardware but back in the good old days electric guitars where made by hand. Automation is one of the main components of creating less expensive guitars. Leo Fender was the first person to mass produce guitars, just as Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry with the assembly line.
Nothing beats a hand crafted custom shop guitar. When it comes to the pros and cons of mass production, a good argument can be made for both. Mass produced guitars are produced on computer controlled equipment. The tolerances and shapes should all be the same on CNC (computer numerically controlled) equipment no matter where it is made. The main difference between CNC mass produced guitars and custom hand built ones are the ‘love’ a guitar maker builds into every guitar and, any personal design or hardware preferences you may have. These differences can cost a lot of extra money, and can not be preformed on a mass production basis.
For me personally, the electric guitar allows me more versatility and ways to express myself. I enjoy classical guitar music, I was even trained at the age of 11 years old in the discipline of classical guitar. The skill level of a classical guitarist is amazing and the music is beautiful, but it does not penetrate and shake my soul like the sounds of an electric guitar.
Being 55 years old gives me the advantage of being exposed to almost all the early pioneers the electric guitar, both players and inventors, who were the same people in many cases. This new instrument gave us the ability to manipulate the sounds coming out of the amplifiers with an awesome and imaginative array of sound altering gear or effects equipment. With the proper combination of effects equipment and or synthetic sound equipment, practically any sound can be produced on an electric guitar today.
Jimi Hendrix literally blew the world of guitar playing into a new stratosphere when his fertile mind commanded him to think in his quirky out of the box ways of making new and different sounds. He coaxed and forced new sounds from his Fender Startacaster guitar that were soon emulated or translated into the personal vibes of many other guitar players. Using feedback, effects equipment and many unknown or hidden modifications that little is still known about. Peter Townsend, Buddy Guy, Robert Plant and a full plate of musicians used the guitar as their own personal expression and communication tools, completely altering the way the world thought of guitar music.
Guitar playing is an integral part of the lives of many people serving a variety purposes. Guitar Players Center is stuck on the idea every person should play a musical instrument, electric guitars is our choice. There are so many powerful good side effects and benefits from learning to play an instrument that we will leave that for another post. Enjoy.