Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Slash. These are just a few names that come to mind when we hear a great electric guitar solo or rhythm. These music greats helped usher the popularity and ubiquity of the electric guitar. But how did this versatile instrument came to be? Here is a brief history of the birth of the electric guitar.
Musicians and tinkerers began experimenting with electrically powered instruments such as music boxes and pianos, in the 1800s. But the first attempts to amplify an instrument did not come until the development of electrical amplification by the radio industry in the 1920s. An electronic amplifier strengthens the weak electrical signal from a pickup on an electric guitar, bass guitar, or acoustic guitar so that it can produce sound through a loudspeaker. More recently guitar amplifiers can also modify the instrument’s tone by emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain frequencies and adding electronic effects, typically distortion and reverb all of which can be discussed in another article.
One of the earliest innovators for the amplified guitar was Lloyd Loar, an engineer at the now very famous Gibson Guitar Company. Loar developed an electric pickup for the viola and the string bass in 1924. In Loar’s pickup design, the strings passed vibrations through the bridge of the instrument to the magnet and coil, which registers those vibrations and relays the electric signal on to the amplifier. The first commercially advertised electric guitar was made by the Stromberg-Voisinet company in 1928 and utilizes a very similar pickup.
The goal of these early innovators was to amplify the natural sound of the guitar, but the signal was too weak. It was only when engineers utilized a more direct pickup system, in which the electromagnet registered string vibration from the strings themselves, that the modern electric guitar was born. The first commercially successful model weirdly named the “Frying Pan” due to its appearance was developed and marketed by George Beauchamp a Hawaiian guitar player and Adolph Rickenbacker, an electronics engineer. The two met at the Dopera Brothers guitar manufacturing company in Los Angeles, California. Together, they eventually developed the schematic for a revolutionary idea of an electronic guitar or as we call it nowadays the electric guitar. The concept was by fitting the guitar with two magnets a magnetic field was created that could pick up the vibrations from a string and transfer it to a resonating wire coil turning the vibrations into electrical signals. The original magnets were often parts used in telephones, telegraphs and other communications devices. Wrapped around the magnets were a series of coils, originally made of copper. By allowing an electric current through, the magnets could pick up vibrations, even at soft dynamics, and then send it through the coiled wire and through separate resistors for tone and volume. A tone resistor cut out higher frequencies, while the second resistor controlled volume by minimizing the amplitude of the sound waves. Finally, the signal was transferred through a cable and connected into a speaker system.
The Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” was an electric Hawaiian model, played flat in the lap, and it caught on immediately with Hawaiian-style guitarists. The standard or “Spanish” style electric guitar, however, sounded so different from an acoustic guitar that it took a while to be accepted. The first artist to develop a playing style unique to the electric guitar was Charlie Christian in the 1930s. At the same time, a few individuals began experimenting with a new kind of electric guitar, using the same pickup as earlier designs but mounting the pickup on a solid block of wood. Les Paul, who was already a well-known acoustic guitarist, built such a guitar on a four-by-four piece of pine and nicknamed it “The Log”. Les Paul designed the solid-body electric guitar in 1941, but by the time it was ready for production by Gibson in 1952, Leo Fender, a former radio repairman had already mass-produced the Fender Broadcaster four years earlier, thus beating Paul to popular credit for the invention. The Broadcaster was a two-pickup solid-body guitar that was fitted with an easy to replace bolt-on neck that contained an adjustable truss rod. The instrument’s pickups were meant to give the same bright clarity as Fender’s lap steel guitars. A 3-saddle adjustable bridge was also included for better intonation.
Regardless of the popularity and earlier release of the Broadcaster, Les Paul acquired a devoted following, and its versatility and quality makes it the favored guitar of many rock guitarists. Gibson introduced a model endorsed by Les Paul himself in 1952 the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. The solid-body guitars didn’t have the feedback problems that characterized hollow-body electric guitars of earlier days and they had greater sustain.
In the 1950s and 1960s, rock stars and other music legends secured Gibson and Paul’s designs, as well as Fender’s famous Stratocaster, a permanent place in American culture.