Last Updated on September 15, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: Santiago Motto
Aka. Sandel. Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover.
Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music.
Whenever Santiago is not pouring all that experience and love for the instrument into articles, you can find him playing live shows supporting his music and poetry books as “Sandel”. If he’s not doing either of those, you can also find him gigging with his band, “San Juan”, writing, reading, or enjoying the Sun.Hide The Rambling▲
Editor: Edward Bond
Edward has been playing the guitar since 2002. So Edward has over 20 years of experience as a guitarist, has authored 15 guitar books, has written for renowned music blogs, and spent a decade teaching music. He began merging his passion for writing and music in 2020 and has written for big guitar websites such as Guitar Head Publishing and KillerGuitarRigs.com.
Originally from Seattle, Edward moved to Norway in 2021 for a master’s in music. He’s studied at the Jazz Institute Berlin and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and currently resides in Trondheim. His education includes a European Jazz Master’s, a diploma in Film and Game Scoring from Sofia, and a Bachelor’s in Jazz from University of Oregon.
Edward has played in numerous bands and currently, Edward works on his own project Starship InfinityHide The Rambling▲
The electric guitar is probably the most famous musical instrument on Earth. But it certainly didn’t start that way. The electric guitar endured a long, winding road to reach the summit, with a few bumps and mishaps along the way.
In this history of the electric guitar, I will tell you about the journey that took the electric guitar from an accompaniment role, relegated to the back of the stage, to an instrument at the forefront of a musical revolution.
- You’ll learn about the first-ever attempts to electrify a guitar.
- You’ll be a privileged witness to the birth of a new guitar-playing era.
- You’ll better understand the most significant brand clash in guitar history: Fender vs. Gibson.
- You’ll learn the impact these companies had in the musical revolution of the ’50s and ’60s.
- We’ll make some predictions about the future of the electric guitar.
Early Attempts to Electrify The Guitar
Need is the mother of invention; for the electric guitar, that need was volume.
Let me take you back to a time when the guitar occupied a discrete role in music, before every famous electric guitar shape you know and love was not even a dream in Leo Fender or Ted McCarty’s head.
The Breed Guitar (1890)
The first record of an electric guitar comes from a patent applied for in 1890 by George Breed, a naval officer from Pittsburgh, PA. The Breed guitar is closer to an EBow than to a modern electric. The pickup created an electromagnetic field that excited the strings, and the guitar’s hollow body was the guitar amplifier.
Breed’s experiment didn’t succeed, though. The guitar weighed around 20 pounds and its non-traditional sound never took off.
The Frying Pan That Changed Music (1931)
Although it seems odd today, Hawaiian music was the thing back in the ’20s and ’30s. It was played with the signature guitar for the style, an acoustic lap steel guitar.
However, the sound of that instrument extended beyond the sonic realms of Hawaiian music. The lap steel’s popularity as a melodic instrument grew enormously during that time. Soon, it became so famous it was played in other musical styles.
Yet, integrating it into a large ensemble was a big challenge. It wasn’t loud enough to compete with louder instruments, like a brass section, for example.
George Beauchamp and John Dopyera became business partners because they shared the same need: volume. So, together, they created the resonator guitar. Instead of using an acoustic soundboard to amplify and add resonance to the sound, the resonator guitar did it with a metal structure. These guitars are still used to play contemporary Hawaiian, folk, blues, and country music.
The partners parted ways soon after their first effort, and Dopyera founded the Dobro company. But, Beauchamp wasn’t going to stay still for long, either. On the contrary, he experimented at home until he developed a usable pickup design. Then, he recruited Harry Watson and Adolph Rickenbacker. These bold entrepreneurs created the frying pan, the first usable solid-body electric guitar ever sold.
The Ro-Pat-In Electric Spanish Guitar (1932)
The “frying pan” was the first Hawaiian guitar, but the Ro-Pat-In was the first electric Spanish-style guitar. It was designed, manufactured, and retailed by Beauchamp, Rickenbacker, and company.
The guitar’s layout was something we no longer see in guitar design: a string-through-pickup design. Furthermore, that design also featured a mounting plate for the pickup that was 1 inch thick. This helped reduce the low rumble and feedback hollow-body electric guitars generated back in the day.
The Vivi-Tone Acoustic-Electric Guitar (1933)
Lloyd Loar was responsible for one of the most ornamented and beautiful Gibson guitars ever: the L-5. He worked for Gibson between 1919 and 1924. Moreover, he’s responsible for innovations such as the violin-inspired F-holes.
Lloyd Loar created the Vivi-Tone model utilizing a telephone transducer as a pickup. The guitar featured a thick laminated body to fight back against feedback, a hand-rubbed archtop body, and an extended 24 ¾” scale length.
Charlie Christian and the Jazz Revolution on Board a Gibson ES-150 (1936)
Charlie Christian (1916 – 1942) was a pioneer jazz guitarist and is considered the player who changed the role of the guitar in music. He was a virtuoso who crafted uncanny improvised solo lines. This allowed him to jam with players like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Parker.
He needed a guitar loud enough to compete with a trumpet and the Gibson ES-150 did precisely that. Gibson issued the ES-150, and the pickup on that guitar sounded so clear and powerful that it’s still produced by brands like Lollar. Despite the feedback issue, the ES-150 was manufactured until 1940, when the line saw a significant expansion, including the ES-100, ES-125, ES-250, and ES-300.
Although it might seem routine today, the guitar was not a soloing instrument by then. Charlie was bold enough to break all boundaries and shine bright like the jazz star he became. The electric guitar went from accompanying to stealing the soloing spotlight thanks to Charlie Christian.
Les Paul’s “Log Guitar” (1940)
Lester William Polsfuss (1915 – 2009), also known as Les Paul, was a jazz virtuoso player and inventor. But beyond those labels, most people know him for being the man with the most famous signature guitar ever.
Before Gibson made the Les Paul model for him, the inventor approached the company with his own design and was laughed at. Les Paul was tired of the feedback issues of hollow-body guitars, so he made an instrument with a big log where he mounted the pickups. Then, he added a Gibson neck to the prototype and used it to play with Bing Crosby, but it was too ugly for the public view.
Les Paul then bought an Epiphone guitar, cut it in half, and added these sides as “wings” on both sides of the log, making it look closer to a traditional guitar shape. Yet, Gibson and Epiphone still rejected him, claiming he was “a weirdo with a broomstick with pickups on it.” They would regret ever saying that.
Solid Body Electric Guitar from Les Paul Foundation
The Development of The Solid-Body Electric Guitar
Leonidas Fender revolutionized the guitar-making world with his inventions. While at it, he also set the foundations for the coming innovations in music over the next 40+ years. The solid-body guitar design created by Leo Fender equipped guitarists ready to change the world with the means to do it.
Why Was the Solid-Body Electric Guitar Needed?
As live music became increasingly popular, a louder instrument was paramount for guitar players. The rock and roll revolution was just around the corner, and the jazz and bebop bands were playing for bigger crowds.
In this scenario, feedback was a significant problem. The pickups of hollow-body guitars didn’t just amplify the vibration of the strings, but also the low rumble of the air inside the box. This translated into annoying feedback that forced guitar players to keep the volume down; they could not cut through louder instruments and make the amplified signal reach the audience.
Can you imagine the raw power and wild playing of Jimi Hendrix, for example, having to lower the volume to avoid feedback?
Guitarists needed an instrument that was ready for the future, for the spotlight. Fender gave them the perfect vessel to increase the output volume without the feedback.
The Slingerland Songster (1939)
Although the brand Slingerland is famous for making quality drum kits, before the Les Paul “log” guitar, the Songster Electric guitar could be considered the first solid-body electric in history. This was a “catalog” guitar, which you could order and get by mail with its amplifier and case.
Although revolutionary when it came out, this predecessor to the mass-produced solid-body electrics was discontinued by 1940. Slingerland decided to go all-in into the drum business.
Leo Fender, The Engineer Who Changed the Future
Contrary to what most people think, the father of the Stratocaster wasn’t an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he wasn’t even a guitarist!
But that didn’t stop him from creating a true revolution. Fender didn’t just create a musical instrument; the company opened the door to mass-produced electric guitars. Fender made electric guitars widely available for the working musician.
You can think of Leo Fender as the Henry Ford of the modern electric guitar.
The flat-top and archtop guitars of the time were expensive to make, hard to maintain, and difficult to service. Fender’s guitars including the Broadcaster, the Telecaster, and eventually the Stratocaster, featured a crucial difference in their anatomy: bolt-on necks.
This characteristic allowed Fender to reduce production prices and increase production numbers drastically. Furthermore, a client could send the neck in for servicing or to swap it if it was defective.
Also, Fender didn’t use the more precious and fragile mahogany, rosewood, and ebony of the time. What’s more, Fender’s creations were austere-looking and very simple compared to the ornamented works of art other companies like Gretsch and Gibson were making.
Let’s make a little timeline to understand how Fender went from the Esquire to the Broadcaster and finally settled on the Telecaster model.
|Fender Esquire||The first iteration of the mass-produced, six-string, solid-body electric guitar made by Leo Fender received this name and featured only one pickup in the bridge position. The necks didn’t have a truss rod, which caused warping. It was discontinued in 1969 after being offered as a cheaper option to its successors for 2 decades.|
|Fender Broadcaster||The Fender Broadcaster came out in 1950 with a dual pickup system and a solid-body construction. The guitars also featured a truss rod, a three-way switch, a volume knob, and a “blend” knob. The guitar could be played with the lead pickup (bridge), the rhythm pickup (neck), or the neck pickup with no high-end via the blend knob|
|Fender No-Caster||In 1951, the Gretsch company filed a lawsuit due to the similarity between Fender’s Broadcaster and the Gretsch Broadkaster model. In short, Fender needed a new name. The problem was the number of necks already branded as “Broadcaster.” Consequently, the name was scraped off, one by one. These guitars are known today as “Nocasters.”|
|Fender Telecaster||By 1952, Fender released the Telecaster model that has remained mainly untouched until today (except for the controls and switching options). This new, fresh, youth-oriented instrument was tough, affordable, and novel-sounding.|
Mass-Produced Guitars and The Musical Revolution
Suddenly, the electric guitar was accessible to a broad portion of the population. This meant the young people, the accomplished players, the bold innovators, and the dance enthusiasts could now create a new sound with an electric guitar in their hands.
Furthermore, this new instrument departed from the classic Gibson guitars’ dark, low-end oriented sound. In the same vein, they weren’t as precious, fragile, or expensive as those guitars.
Soon, the working-class heroes of the post-war USA started being heard.
Thus, the big explosion that rock and roll, blues, and country music experienced through the ’50s and ’60s became utterly unstoppable. In the center of the picture were the mass-produced, affordable, reliable, and widely available Fender guitars.
The Diversification and Innovation of The Electric Guitar
Once the Telecaster started selling and taking over a market that belonged to Gibson, the company took notice. They were far from giving up and letting Leo’s creation flood the market.
With a new president, Mr. Ted McCarty (yes, the PRS guitars are named after him), Gibson returned to an old idea brought to them by an old friend, Les Paul.
The Les Paul Guitar (1952)
Although not everybody knows this, the Gibson Les Paul is a signature model. Gibson made Les the guitar of his dreams, featuring a mahogany body, maple top, and P90 pickups. It was finished in gold top (some were all-gold) and featured the now-discontinued trapeze tailpiece.
As for the archtop design, McCarty knew that Leo didn’t have the machinery, know-how, or tools to carve an archtop. They used that as a differentiator and selling point since they were trying to compete with an already established winner.
Throughout the years, the Les Paul guitar suffered many changes, but the main idea of the guitar remained the same as the original one. According to collectors and connoisseurs, the peak of Gibson’s quality, the holy grail of Les Pauls, was the ’59 production.
The Gibson SG (1961)
Ted McCarty invented and patented the tune-o-matic bridge, the Firebird, Explorer, Flying V, the SG and humbucker pickups, together with Seth Lover. All of this happened while he was Gibson’s president until 1966.
The design of the new Gibson SG, released in 1961, was very different from that of the Les Paul. But why did Gibson make this change? Well, to revamp the guitar and sell more. The new guitar was a thinner, more resonant slab of mahogany with no maple top and a new tremolo system known as a sideways vibrola.
What Gibson didn’t know then was that they were creating a definitive rock and roll machine with a distinctive and unique sound. The lack of mass, compared to the Les Paul, gave the SG a midrange-oriented sound, while the humbucker pickups created a razor-like tone.
Gibson went back to manufacturing the original Les Paul shape in 1967. English rockers such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards started playing pre-SG Les Pauls and obtaining a massive sound with a substantial low-end out of them. As more fans and devotees wanted to grab one, Gibson echoed that petition.
The Fender Stratocaster (1954)
Although there’s no official confirmation, the Stratocaster might be the best-selling guitar ever and the most copied shape of all time, too. The Stratocaster was Leo Fender’s effort to outdo his creation: the Telecaster. Just like it happened with the SG, Leo was trying to improve on a model, and came up with something completely different and unique that didn’t overlap with his previous invention.
But what was it about the Stratocaster that was so groundbreaking?
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We can talk about the new tremolo system that remains largely unmodified today. Also, adding a third single-coil pickup opened a new world of possibilities. Finally, the contours of the new body were ergonomic and comfortable to play an entire night if necessary.
It was a guitar ahead of its time, and it took time for the howling new blues and rock and roll sounds to embrace this unique instrument.
The Decade Guitar-Driven Music Broke
Depending on the amplifier type, these new guitars were ready to move the sonic boundaries of the world to a new plateau. Indeed, the ability to obtain overdriven sounds by plugging a hot pickup into a cranked amp opened a unique spectrum of possibilities.
For example, the sixties became fertile ground for experimentation, giving birth to sonic movements such as rock and roll, heavy metal, blues, and surf.
But was the cultural element pushing the sonic revolution, or were the new tools the means of exploration musicians needed to achieve this unique sound?
The debate could continue forever, but because of the wide availability, exciting new sounds, and variety of options, guitar-driven music just exploded. Furthermore, small trios and quartets took the spot at dance halls, removing big bands from the stage.
Guitar players could finally be the center of the spectacle. And, as you already know, guitarists took that spot and never let go of it.
So, thanks to a handful of innovative players with new tools to play, what we know as the music scene changed forever. Along with this change came several phenomena, such as Beatlemania.
The Modern Era of Mass-Produced Electric Guitars
After the musical Big Bang that was the ’60s and ’70s, the guitar didn’t stall or lose any of the spotlight. On the contrary, it kept growing to the point where it became difficult to find a band with no guitars.
Furthermore, the number of guitar sales and new players grew astronomically after the pandemic. This means that the era of guitar-driven music is not over and that even better times await ahead of us.
But what does the current landscape of the electric guitar market look like?
On one hand, the traditional brands disputing the guitar market are still in the same spot. Recent statistics show Fender leading with 30% and Gibson following with 18% of the total market share. The third brand is PRS, with 9%, and the fourth is Ibanez, with 8%.
The continuing dominance of the big heavyweight brands translates into a big market for vintage and reissue guitars. Yet the focus is not exclusively on recreating old classics; many guitar brands are also trying to push the sonic boundaries of guitars.
Some brands pushing bold innovations include:
- Music Man/Ernie Ball.
Key Takeaways from the History of Electric Guitars
- The guitar rose from a backing instrument to the main driving force of modern music, thanks to electricity and amplification.
- Volume was the impetus in the electric guitar experiment.
- Charlie Christian helped the guitar step firmly at the forefront of the stage and never go back to the backup role.
- Bold innovators, virtuoso players, and the rock and roll revolution helped shape the electric guitar as we know it now.
Never in history has the electric guitar offered such a wide variety of sounds. There has never been a better time to become a guitar player.
Nowadays, you can make music at home, learn your favorite tunes on YouTube, and even play with a notebook and headphones all night.
Plus, innovations like the Evertune Bridge, fanned frets, and active pickups make the future of guitar playing look fantastic from a player’s perspective, too.
It’s an exciting time to become an electric guitar player.
Don’t forget to check out our history of acoustic guitars!
When was the electric guitar invented?
The first electric guitar made following the principles of the Spanish guitar was invented in 1932. The first Hawaiian electric guitar was designed in 1931.
Who invented the electric guitar?
The electric guitar was invented by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp.
Who made the electric guitar famous?
Although several players made the electric guitar famous through their talent and devotion, the Fender company made it accessible to the masses.
What did the first electric guitar look like?
The first electric guitar was called the “frying pan” because it looked like one.
When did the electric guitar become popular?
The most significant rise in popularity for the electric guitar was during the ’50s and the ’60s. It was fueled mainly by the rock and roll revolution that took over the world.
Did Les Paul invent the electric guitar?
No, Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar. It was invented by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp.
Was the Telecaster the first electric guitar?
No, although it plays a significant role in the history of electric guitar, the Telecaster wasn’t released until 1952, and the first electric guitar dates to 1931 (the frying pan).
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