Electric Guitar History – Invention, Evolution & Innovations

Size of bands and orchestras in musical performances increased in the 19th Century, a period known as the big band era. Public dancing in large groups became popular in the early 20th century. Use of acoustic guitars was confined to being a supporting instrument in such large music ensembles, with volume of the instrument being the major constraint. 

Desire to produce louder volume led to experimentation with different shapes, construction of guitars and amplified instruments in the beginning of twentieth century. Some such developments were:

  • Introduction of steel strings resulted in greater volume and tension in the acoustic guitar.
  • Traditional flattop acoustic guitar was changed in size as well as shape. One of the resulting designs was an archtop, that was much louder and stronger than the original.
  • Experiments with Hawaiian style lap steel guitars were done.
  • Change in acoustic guitar body & string material, size and shape of guitar resulted in increase in volume to a certain extent, but soon the limits were reached. Inspired by functioning of telephones, attention of guitar designers turned to electronic amplification.
  • Adaptations of telephone transmitters were used in some stringed instruments. Even carbon button microphones were placed on the bridges, without much success. 

Who Invented The Electric Guitar?

At the time, a large number of designers were experimenting with electric amplification and out of these, many had claimed to have been the first to invent electric guitar. From the available data from the history, it is difficult to accurately say who invented the electric guitar but what is known with certainty is that electrified hollow archtop guitar was the first electric guitar to be commonly used. Quickly these became instruments of choice for Jazz, blues and country music. 

Let us first look at some of the important developments in electronic amplification of guitar sound.

  1. 1
    Lloyd Loar, working as an engineer in Gibson Guitar company, developed a pickup for string bass and the Viola in 1924. This pickup was significantly different than the ones in use today. In his set up, the string vibrations were transmitted through the bridge, on to the magnet and coil of the pickup. 
  2. 2
    Attempts were also made to pick the vibrations from the soundboard itself by utilizing similar pickup. Stromberg-Voisinet company, produced and commercially advertised electric guitar, made with this technology, in 1928.
  3. 3
    In both the above arrangements, the designers were basically attempting to amplify the natural sound of the acoustic guitar. The problem with these methods was that the resulting output from the pickup was very weak. 
  4. 4
    In 1931, George Beauchamp, working with Adolph Rickenbacker, used a more direct system by picking the vibrations directly from the strings through an electromagnetic pickup. This electromagnet had a coil wrapped around a magnet. When current was passed through it, a magnetic field was produced to amplify the string vibrations.
  5. 5
    Utilizing this technology, the first commercially successful electric guitar was launched  by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker in 1932. It was a lap steel guitar known popularly as the Frying Pan due to its shape.
  6. 6
    Soon, other players and makers started modifying and adapting the concept to traditional Spanish style hollow body guitars made from wood.

Early Electric Guitars

Three early electrified archtop guitars to become popular were

  1. 1
    Gibson ES-150 was launched in 1936 with a 16” wide body with a bar pickup placed near the fretboard. 
  2. 2
    ES 100 and ES-250 were introduced in 1937 and 1938 respectively. ES-250 was replaced by full bodied Gibson ES-300 in 1940. It had a 17” body and an unusually long pickup fitted at an acute angle, which was replaced by a shorter one in 1941. Advent of World War II slowed down further developments in electric guitars for a few years.
  3. 3
    Rickenbacker Spanish (SP) guitar

These instruments were known as the Electric Spanish guitars, hence, the term ES in their nomenclature. To some, they were nothing short of miracles in those days and have proved to be a bridge to modern guitars. 

They sounded very different from the traditional acoustic guitars, making their acceptance slow at the beginning. The tone often sounded muddy with lack of sustain and very much prone to feedback. 

It's utility and lack of pure authentic sound was debated at length during the initial years. Charlie Christian developed the first unique playing style for these instruments, by taking up ES-150 from the time of its arrival.

These early electric guitars retained the full sized hollow wooden body with hand carved tops, though a little low end. They suffered from distortions, overtones and feedback with amplification of the body and string vibrations.

Moving Towards Laminated Tops.

Soon the awareness began to grow that electric guitar is a different breed with totally varied requirements and capabilities from acoustic guitars and needs to be dealt differently. Their design should bring the electric qualities to the front, while the acoustic features could be given the back seat, leading to cost savings on the acoustic side. 

It was also realized that it is difficult to distinguish between the tones of the woods, one the magnetic pickup and tube amp has been used. The output is largely dependent on the pickup and the amplification system used. Amplification of body and string vibrations, in fact caused undesirable effects.

ES-175, an electric guitar with pressed laminated top was introduced by Gibson in 1949. Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and many other musicians were notable users of this electric guitar. The brighter and snappier sound of laminated top appeared much better on amplification. Other manufacturers also adopted the use of laminates and it quickly became the standard for the arch-tops.

The Birth Of Solid-Body Electric Guitars

While ES-150 was an immediate success on launch, the problems related to feedback and distortion due to amplifications of body vibrations were yet to be tackled. Les Paul, an acoustic guitarist, built the first solid-body test bed electric guitar to overcome these problems. In this guitar, strings and pickups were mounted on a solid piece of pine wood. In addition pieces of an Epiphone Acoustic archtop guitar were sawed and attached to the sides.

This arrangement was termed as "the Log" due to the use of the solid-body and eliminated the problems of ES-150 to a large extent. Les Paul took his electric guitar design to Gibson in 1946, but did not get the anticipated response from him.

The Rise Of Fender

In 1948, Paul Bigsby made a through neck, solid-body electric guitar. This guitar was made for country music artist Merle Travis. Inspired by this, many other guitar manufacturers started experimenting with the idea, but first commercially available and successful solid-body electric guitar was produced by Leo Fender in the year 1950.

Arrival of Fender Telecaster

Fender's solid body instrument was initially termed as Fender Esquire, then renamed to Fender Broadcaster before acquiring its its final name - The Fender Telecaster in 1951. The name Broadcaster was already used by Gretsch, another instrument manufacturer, on many of his drums related products, necessitating the change. It had single cutaway, solid ash body with screwed maple neck, truss rod and slanted pickup on steel bridge plate. The bridge had three saddles carrying two strings each.

Fender Telecaster

In the initial phase, the guitar was designed and released with one pickup. Subsequently second pickup was added in the Telecaster versions. guitar with single pickup was still called as the Fender Esquire.

They were not received well in the beginning and the prototypes were even nicknamed "Canoe pedals" and "Snow shovels". Jimmy Bryant was one of the first reputed guitarist to play Telecaster.

First Solid-Body Electric Bass Guitar - The Precision Bass

Fender delivered another remarkable innovation in the later part of 1951. It was in the form of a solid-body electric bass guitar which took everybody by surprise, as the utility of this strange appearing, hybrid instrument was not envisaged by the music fraternity till then. Little did they know that the instrument will transform the sound of popular music forever. A quote by Forrest White who was the production chief in Fender's company:

People who weren’t sure if Leo was crazy when he brought out the solid-body guitars were quite certain when they saw the electric bass.

It was similar to Telecaster but had a long neck with four strings. The strings were tuned one octave below the four low end strings of a normal guitar, similar to double bass instruments. It was named as Fender Precision Bass. It had a bolted maple neck with 20 frets and yellow ash body like the Telecaster.

Fender-Precision-Bass

However, it had second cutaway, which would eventually become inspiration for Stratocasters. The cutaway was designed to extend the top horn with the aim of providing balance between long neck and heavy tuners.

Read: Types of Bass Guitars

Stratocaster - Fender's Best Known Instrument

After initial period of doubts, Gibson, Gretsch and Kay came up with their versions of solid-body guitars in the form of Les Paul, Duo Jet and K-125 respectively. Les Paul guitar had all the capabilities of the Telecaster. So, in order to remain in lead, Leo Fender needed to come up another path-breaking guitar.

Meanwhile, Freddie Tavares, the steel guitarist, had joined hands with Leo Fender in 1953, to assist him in design of new products. Soon they conceived the idea for a new solid-body electric guitar, which would become famous as Stratocaster.

Fender Stratocaster

Electronics and hardware were the two standout design development areas resulting in vast improvement in the guitar's playability and sound. Full production for Stratocaster was launched in October 1954, after introduction of prototypes in May and June.

The main features of the new Stratocaster were.

  1. 1
    It had three pickups used for the first time on a single guitar, resulting in completely different tones. Newly designed pickups were much brighter with very sharp highs. Switching arrangement between the pickups coupled with dual tone controls resulted in a very broad range of voices.
  2. 2
    It had an adjustable bridge and a tailpiece.
  3. 3
    It featured a fully adjustable and self contained vibrato unit (vast improvement on Bigsby Vibrato unit) to down-bend the pitch. The unit was strangely named as Tremolo. It had six bridge pieces to cater the six strings. It was possible to adjust both height and length using this unit. It gave rise to lot of new paying styles such as hard-twang country style, wild dive-bombing, air-raid effects etc.
  4. 4
    It had a sleek contoured body with no sharp edges to make playing that much more comfortable. This was to overcome complaints by many musicians about discomfort from sharp edges in Telecaster. It had a yellow-to-black sunburst finish and soon elevated itself to the status of design icon.

It was destined for future glory, particularly in the hands of players like Carl Perkins,. Buddy Guy and Buddy Holly. It is considered by many to be the most popular, copied and played solid-body instrument in electric guitar history.

Gibson Les Paul

In modern times, Les Paul is synonymous with rock. But when it was launched by Gibson to counter the growing fame of the Telecaster, rock music itself had not evolved.

In 1946, Gibson had turned down Les Paul’s request to try solid body. Even when Telecaster was launched, initial reaction by other manufacturer’s was to wait and watch. They felt that starting production of these instruments would indirectly mean putting their stamp of approval.

But by 1951, it had become clear to Gibson, that these guitars were here to stay and could not be ignored. But he was reluctant to go for it alone and approached Fred Gretsch of Gretsch Guitar Company. Gretsch opined that “If rest of us don’t do it, the thing will die down”.

Finally, they decided to approach Les Paul (Lester William Polfuss), who was by then a big name in show business, a reputed guitarist and more importantly, an innovative Engineer. He had once remarked that:

He wanted to build solid body because the strings will have more sustaining power, all the notes will sustain evenly, and unwanted resonances will be eliminated in absence on any acoustical body.

Actual contribution of Les Paul in design of the guitar are not well recorded and contradicting accounts are available. According to some, it was limited to finalizing the performance requirements and electronics design. However, the electric guitar was eventually named after him and launched in 1952. First advertisement of the electric guitar said "Gibson Les Paul Model. Designed by Les Paul. Produced by Gibson"

Gibson Les Paul Guitar

Key aspects that governed the design of Gibson Les Paul model were:

  1. 1
    Gibson intended to tap the market of the traditional guitar players, who were upset by the bolt-through concept of Fender's design. He used his time-tested neck construction method and two numbers of P-90 pickups with individual volume and tone controls and a toggle switch for selection. These pickups were already used on his hollow body models with f-holes earlier. Glued necks add sustain and sonic depth.
  2. 2
    Initially they tried to use Mahogany, but it did not provide right sound and sustain. Maple was considered to be too heavy to be used alone. So, finally he came out with an option, where he had used his expertise with carved arch-top guitars to model the new solid body electric guitar. He added a Maple cap over the solid body made from Mahogany. Mahogany produces warm resonant sound. Carved Maple piece added sustain, brightness and cut in it.
  3. 3
    Scale length of 24 3/4" is also smaller than Fender's guitars. This results in bringing the neck of Les Paul more within the reach of the left hand of the players, giving a feeling of comfort.
  4. 4
    Initial design had a flat neck angle and seemingly awkward bridge. What happened was that Les Paul suggested a tailpiece, which worked as bridge and tailpiece at the same time. This combo tailpiece was fitted on the guitar to achieve higher string sustain. Instead of passing strings over the bridge, first guitars were fitted with strings running under it, leading to a very shallow neck to body angle. These were soon changed. Modern Gibson Les Paul electric guitars have significantly steeper neck angle to the body.
  5. 5
    Simultaneously, Les Paul amplifier called GA-40 was launched as part of Gibson's first solid body electric guitar outfit.

Quickly the guitar became second most popular Gibson electric guitar after ES-125, confirming that solid body electric guitar types was here to stay. Till this time Gibson was not making pickups in house. Ted McCarty, who later became President in the company, decided to start their own pickup production to diversify on electronics as Gibson range of electric guitars was growing. They first made Alnico V pickups with individually adjustable magnets and much higher output.

The coming years saw the following technical developments in Gibson's line of electric guitars.

Design of Adjustable Tune-O-Matic (TOM) Bridge

Ted McCarty wanted to design a bridge to take care of intonation problem & having individual string length adjustment possibility that could be used both on acoustic as well as solid body electric guitars. Prior to this, the standard bridge on Archtop guitars had preset compensating saddle for the strings. So, they devised the new Tune-O-Matic bridge.

In the new Tune-O-Matic bridge, the wooden saddle gave way to metal casing which had six recesses meant to house saddles for each individual string. Each saddle has a groove to match the string shape & gauge and is supported by an adjustable screw. After passing the TOM, the strings are terminated on tailpiece or go to the back of the guitar in string through design. It was first used on Les Paul Custom guitar launched in 1954.

Additional benefit of using a bridge made from metals is change in tone of the sound and sustain. This change results from coupling between the strings and the body. Different metals such as Nickel, Brass and Aluminium have been tried. Bridge is arched equal to the radius of the fingerboard.

With TOM, players could set exact distance from the nut to the saddle for individual strings to get perfect intonation by moving the saddle back or forward. Different versions of TOM include ABR-1 bridge (Vintage, 1954 to 1975), Harmonica Bridge (1970 to 1980), Nashville (Modern, 1975 onward) bridge.

Advent of Humbucking Pickups.

Alnico V pickup did not provide the real marketing edge being anticipated. The features of the pickup were matched by the rivals, particularly DeArmond pickups. Further, large number of guitar players were not very comfortable with it, due to the delicate adjustment, that was necessary to use it.

Engineering department at Gibson started working at the new pickup, one that could also tackle the problem of low frequency hum and electrical interference from transformers, motors and amplifiers that plagued single coil pickups. The problem became more pronounced when more than one electric amplifiers were used. Gibson Engineer, Seth Lover, started working on the pickup in 1954.

He took the idea from the humbucking "Choke Coils", that were already in use in their amplifiers to eliminate the power transformer hum. He extrapolated this design by using two pickups and wiring them with a phase difference of 180 o. and opposite magnetic polarity.

The output from the above arrangement was less prone to extraneous influences with fatter and thicker sound than with single coils.

Ray Butts, an engineer in Gretsch, was also working on coils with similar principle at around the same time.

Gibson staring fitting humbucking pickups on their electric guitars from 1957. These pickups carried a sticker PAF meaning "Patent Applied For" till 1962 and became famous as PAF coils.

Neck-Humbucking-Pickup

Pickups produced in later years have different sound than the initial ones due to design changes related to coil winding, use of shielded wires and change in grade of magnet.

Launch of Modernistic Series of Electric Guitars & Gibson SG

Launch of Stratocaster and then Jazzmaster in 1958 had a big impact on the sale of Gibson's electric guitars. Gretsch offered lively shades as finishes. Gibson realized the importance and value of visual appeal over tradition, quality and playability. In 1958, they came up with a flurry of new guitars and radical changes to old ones, to counter the flamboyance of Fender. This turned out to be their most significant year with unveiling of some of the most cherished electric guitars ever made.

  1. 1
    Launch of Modernistic Series solid body electric guitars - Explorer and Flying V
  2. 2
    Introduced semi solid ES-335 & ES-355 electric guitars.
  3. 3
    Came out with their first double neck electric guitar.
  4. 4
    Introduction of double cutaway body shape in Les Paul Junior and Les Paul Special guitars.
  5. 5
    Finish of Les Paul guitar changed to Sunburst.
Modernistic Series Electric Guitars
Modernistic-Series

Gibson invited artistes from outside and after long deliberations, three electric guitars were finalized to move to prototype stage - Explorer, Flying V and Moderne. Out of these Explorer & Flying V progressed to commercial production stage.

What set them apart was their unique shapes. Flying V had a pointed arrow head shape. The shape of Explorer has been interestingly described by Tony Bacon in his book "Electric Guitars - An Illustrated Encyclopedia" as "An Uncompromising study in offset rectangles"

These guitars had humbucking pickups, master tone control, volume control for individual pickups and three way selector switch. Body and neck of these guitars were made from Korina hardwood, instead of usual choice - Mahogany. Korina, an African tonewood was only used on Hawaiian guitars, till then. Pretty appearance of the Korina guitars was the reason for this switch.

These guitars wee advertised with the following punchline:

The swept-back, tapered lines of this really forward-looking instrument will be a real asset to the combo musician with a flair for showmanship

These electric guitars caused quite a sensations at NAMM Convention that year, but the commotion did not convert into many sales as they were thought to be too futuristic. As per Gibson factory records, only 98 Flying V and 22 Explorer were originally made about 20 each were assembled subsequently from the parts originally procured. The production of these electric guitars was discontinued due to lack of demand.

Flying V was re-issued in 1967, this time in Mahogany and became popular as a heavy metal guitar. Many guitar players such as Andy Powell, K. K. Downing, Rudolf & Micheal Schenker have used this instrument. Explorer was re-introduced in 1975.

Gibson SG.

By 1960, the sales of existing solid body electric guitars had dropped considerably. So, it was decided to phase them out and replace them with restyled modern electric guitars. These redesigned electric instruments were later called as SG Series.

Gibson SG was the solid body electric guitar introduced in 1961 and called Gibson Les Paul SG. Four variations of the guitar were introduced at the launch - SG Junior, SG Special, SG Standard and SG Custom. SG Custom was top of the line guitar, while SG Standard remains the best selling electric guitar in Gibson Guitars history.

GIbson SG

The key features of Gibson SG were:

  1. 1
    This modern electric guitar had flattop, much thinner (1 5/16") and contoured solid body, made from Mahogany. Maple cap, used in Les Paul models, was dropped in SG series, making the guitar light weight without any loss in musical value or deterioration in sound. The body edges were chamfered. As per Ted McCarty, their solid body electric guitar had always suffered with weight problem . This modern electric guitar design allowed them to reduce the weight considerably.
  2. 2
    The guitar had double cutaway design with sharp & pointed ends providing a very aggressive look. The shape allowed very easy access to upper frets. Neck of SG guitar joined the body at 22nd fret, further easing the access to upper frets. It also had a very slender neck profile, allowing very fast fretting hand movement. Gibson advertised it as the "Fastest Neck in the World"
  3. 3
    The simpler construction reduced costs but made the neck weak. Also the complete redesign was done without any discussion with Les Paul. He was also dissatisfied with this modern electric guitar design and it was mutually agreed to discontinue the association and the model was renamed as SG.
  4. 4
    The pickup slot was moved upwards towards the bridge to strengthen the neck of the SG electric guitar. Control layouts were changed to move pickup selector switch near to bridge. Sound of SG guitar has mid-range emphasis, often termed as bite, due to both pickups being more closer to the bridge of the guitar.
  5. 5
    Head stock was marginally enlarged to give a more balanced look to the electric guitar.
  6. 6
    Black color pick guard was designed in angel wing style to match the body shape. 
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1 thought on “Electric Guitar History – Invention, Evolution & Innovations”

  1. Richard Stanton CGP

    That was a good article. Acutely told. Have you written anything about, how good are the new reproduction guitars? Gretsch Chet Atkins guitars and Gibson /Epiphone Les Paul (1959 LP by Gibson and Epiphone. I’m not sure what others are in production. I know Fender did a Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat. Also George Harrison Gretsch Duo Jet.
    Some very expensive guitars.

    Anyway, thanks for this article. 👍

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