The AMAZING History of the Electric Guitar
The History of the Electric Guitar
Our story begins at the end of the 19th century, in a musical world without the sound of the electric guitar, dominated by artists such as Perry Como and the Beverley Sisters.
They were well dressed and combed, sang about simple things like their love for the lord, about their beloved country and about love.
It was all very respected, the music world had its own artistic guidelines, and it was there mostly for entertainment purposes (shows and dancing clubs).
Have a listen to the sound of a musical world without electricity running through our guitars.
The sound of modern music started forming its shape through the guitar and the Blues in the late 19th century.
It was then when the Blues was born, in the deep south, as a reflection of the African-American life.
The Blues, the ignition spark in the electric guitar history, was the story of the suffering and hardship of the African-American people, but even though it sprouted out of slavery and poverty, the Blues was also a symbol of love, hope, and redemption.
* Therefore, ‘blue’ also means ‘sad’, “I got the Blues”.
back in the 19th century, the guitar wasn't a favored instrument, it lacked volume and therefore character. The only advantage it had is that it was portable, once the Blues was born so begun the incarnation of the guitar.
The Blues adored the guitar, it was its natural sound, and within that new fusion culture a legend emerged in the Mississippi Delta:
If you want to play your guitar really well, there is a way, if you dare… You must take it to a crossroads at midnight, a tall dark man will approach you, don’t be afraid… Hand him your instrument and let him tune it. When he gives it back to you, you’ll find that you can make your guitar sing and cry. But beware… That man is the devil and the price for playing the guitar that well is your soul.
The story goes that that’s what happened to a blues guitarist named Robert Johnson at a crossroads just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
"Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson
Whether the legend is true or not, it doesn't really matter, the myth has stuck.
Johnson was a brilliant guitar player, recorded very little, lived fast and died young.
That was enough to make him a guitar hero and one of the pillar-guitarists in guitar history.
🎶 Musical anecdote:
For nearly 200 years Africans were brought to America and were forced to convert to Christianity. These terrible times were the base of one of the most influential musical fusions of all time. The African slaves brought their heritage with them and when they sang to the sounds new Christian Major scale harmonies, they brought their own sound into the melodies.
The African sound signature comes from a detuned (slightly lowered) bVII and a bIII on a Major scale.
sometime after, these notes were called "Blue Notes".
"Muddy Waters in France", own work, author: Lionel Decoster (CC BY-SA 4.0) | "Robert Johnson" by Ray MacLean (CC BY 2.0) | "Son House"
The Blues is on the move
African American communities that were working these plantation fields were forced to pack their guitars, and migrate up north from the infected Mississippi Alabama Georgia area and brought their culture with them.
The Bluesman that emerged in America at the end of the 19th century with a guitar in his hands traveled easily across America from blues shack to another and by the ’20s of the last century, blues clubs began to emerge around urban areas such as Chicago and Detroit.
"juke joint" for migratory workers, Feb 1941 by The Library of Congress, No known copyright restrictions
The Role of the Slide Guitar
Believe it or not, but the first electric guitar wasn’t designed to play Blues or Jazz, it was actually built to play Hawaiian style music.
An exotic sound that was spreading around the world during the ’20s.
The trademark of Hawaiian sound was achieved by sliding a metal bar on an overlayed down guitar, imitating, in a way, a human voice and by 1916 more Hawaiian records were sold in America than any other kind of records.
The Hawaiian sound had a romantic essence accompanied by dreamy stories of an American man meeting a native Hawaiian girl and by 1920 every mid-size town had its own band performing Hawaiian style music in local restaurants.
The Story of W.C Handy
He was born in 1873, was one of the most influential songwriters in the United States and the first one to publish music in the form of Blues. Some refer to him as the ‘Father of Blues’.
From his writings - the Blue Notes:
“The primitive southern Negro, as he sang, was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tone of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton field of the Delta or on the Levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same...
I tried to convey this effect...by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called Blue Notes) into my song, although its prevailing key was major...and I carried this device into my melody as well...This was a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot.”
In 1903, W.C Handy had a momentous encounter with the guitar.
He fell asleep while waiting for a train somewhere along the Mississippi. While waiting, according to Handy, he was woken by an unearthly sound.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.
As we can see, the sound of the slide guitar has been heard in the less attractive sides of society as well, there, it was known as Blues Bottleneck, and the ancient question of who came first, the Hawaiian slide guitar or Blues Bottleneck, remained unsolved.
The Devil's Crossroads, Clarksdale Mississippi
The guitar didn’t always have the reputation it has today.
A century ago, down in the southern area of America, it was the instrument of the poor, of the homeless and the guitar was described as the ‘starvation box’, it was the outsider’s instrument long before it became cool.
Many of the early blues guitarists were blind and had no other means of making a living on the road. It might be a little hard for us to imagine such a thing because today, the Blues guitar is the bedrock of today's popular music but in the ’20s and 30’s it had no significant commercial influence.
That was all happening somewhere else, in Hawaiian lands.
The Rise of the Electric Guitar
It was there, in the Hawaiian lands, where the (slide) guitar was brewing. It was commonly used in every band composition and was the signature sound of the new Hawaiian style.
Even though the guitar was gaining popularity, the players, on the other hand, found that matching the volume of the band was impossible.
The guitar, naturally, is not a loud instrument and when the slide guitar players were placing it in their lap, the resonating box was facing upwards, making it even less audible in any live installation and a dire need for more volume arose in the guitar population.
Almost Electric - The Resonator Guitar
The news bearer for that problem was a lap steel player called George Beauchamp who teamed up with a violin maker named John De Piero.
Together, they invented the first guitar with resonating combs, which are basically 3 combs placed inside the guitar’s resonating box and when they tremor, they empower the resonating box (mechanical amplification, with no electricity).
The Invention of the Electric Guitar
This glorious invention of the Resonator Guitar wasn’t enough for Beauchamp who moved on to something much bigger - electricity!
In 1931 he joined with Paul Barth and Adolph Rickenbacker to form the Ro-Pat-In Corporation to produce and sell electrified string instruments.
The most notable of these instruments was the Rickenbacher A-22/A-25, it was a Lap Steel guitar called ”the frying pan” and it was the first mass-produced guitar in the world!
Beauchamp was relaying on a basic electrical principle to amplify the guitar’s strings and created the Horseshoe Pickup - the first guitar pickup in the world!
From there on, as today, the guitar had a close inseparable companion, the amplifier! And the guitar had been changed forever.
Have a listen - original Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" demo
Mr. Les Paul
At the very same time, a boy from Wisconsin was obsessing about how to get more volume from his guitar, that boy is now a legend.
Les Paul is the name on one of the world’s most favorite electric guitars, favored by players like Jimmy Page and Slash. His reputation as a genius is secured by ’40s and 50’s hit records he made with his wife (Mary Ford).
His first try of electrifying the guitar was done as a kid, at home, he took the phone apart and placed the receptor under the strings. It worked! But Les experienced a lot of feedback issues since he was trying to amplify an acoustic guitar.
Les was also a great guitar player and when he grew up he moved with his band to new york, where he will conduct his unofficial research about the electric guitar.
His Jazz trio was performing nightly on Broadway and the performances were broadcasted to an audience of millions and many of them wrote in with requests, Les used to play two sets a night, and in his guitar research, chose to play one set on the acoustic and one set on the electric.
Everyone liked the electric guitar better, the band, the radio acres, and the listeners! We can finally hear you they said.
Les Paul with his first Multitrack Recording Machine (8 Track Recorder) by shannonpatrick17 (CC BY 2.0)
Les quoted while describing the feeling of the transition to electric:
Benny Goodman, his bandleader at the time, famously growled about the guitar “who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player...” but that was before he was struck by the guitar sound of Charlie Christian.
The Electric Guitar moves to the front
T-Bone Walker in American Folk Blues Festival in Hamburg, Musikhalle, March 1972 by Heinrich Klaffs (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Thanks to electricity, the guitar could now compete on equal terms with the dominant brass of the big-band era and it would be T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian who would become the new heroes of the electric guitar.
Charlie brought a new thing to the world of guitar players, lines, grooves, and solos! With the help of electricity, now guitar players could take many versatile new parts of the musical composition.
This was the beginning of groove-based compositions that is a fundamental element in today's music. It was a call to all guitarists, ‘get your electric guitar and start pluckin’ (Charlie Christian).
"Swing to Bop" (1941) by Charlie Christian
T.Bone Walker did for Blues what Charlie Christian did for Jazz.
That's not really surprising, they took guitar lessons and gigged together back in Oklahoma City.
Walker was a natural performer, playing behind his back, with his teeth and doing the splits, he took the guitar to the front of the stage with him.
The Blues Guitar Going Popular
One young man, born in 1925, at the cotton fields of the Mississippi, was inspired to pick up the guitar by the playing of T-Bone Walker, his name was Riley King.
He first heard T-Bone while taaking a break at the plantation and not long after, he bought his first $15 guitar. As an 18-year-old teenager, he was working as a tractor driver while playing with the Famous St. John's Gospel Singers and Bukka White.
In the late ’40s, he started developing his own audience, he was working at WDIA Memphis radio as a singer and disc jockey, where he was given the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy", or the short version - B.B.King
During an interview:
“I wanted to be a Gospel singer like my pastor at church… My pastor played an electric guitar at church so the first electric guitar I ever heard was in church… But I had a little Gibson guitar that was not amplified so I had some kinda thing you put on called a pickup and that amplified the guitar”
Why did you name your guitar Lucille?
“I was playing in one of the states called Arkansas, in a little town called Twist Arkansas, and it used to get quite cold in winter, and so they used to take something like a big garbage platter, set it in the middle of the dance floor, half fill it with Kerosene, light that fuel and that’s what all of us used for heat.
While people were dancing, two guys started a fight and knocked down the container… it looked like a river of fire… Everybody started to run to the front door, including me, but I forgot I left my guitar inside so I went back for it and almost lost my life trying to save my guitar...
I didn’t know the lady that I was told these guys were fighting about but they told me her name was Lucille. Inamed that guitar Lucille that very day to remind me never to go back into a burning building trying to take a guitar…”
Gibson Custom BBKing Lucille
In 1956 B.B.King made 342 appearances in 366 days plus 3 separate recording sessions. In those days he was playing mostly to African American audiences.
The young crowd loved him, his guitar and the Blues he brought with him until in 1969 his audience was 95% white.
The rise in popularity created audiences overseas and the Blues has started affecting a new generation, the guitarists of the ’60s.
B.B.King about living on the road:
The Newborn of the Blues - Rock N Roll
Bill Haley & His Comets rehearse at the Dominion Theatre in London, where they will open their British tour, Public domain
The invention of the electric guitar was tremendous.
Now guitarists could play alongside screaming trumpets, and bashing drum kits in various acts and big band performances.
Alongside this new invention, the teens of the ’40s were looking for the next big thing, the next big sound and the fusion of Blues with the young rebellious essence of the ’40s was a ripe ground for the creation of Rocknroll.
The news bearer was Bill Haley, the American Rock N Roll guitar pioneer who burst into the International musical arena in the early ’50s.
Bill Haley’s influence on the guitar world is undeniable. In his early career that ‘baby face dancing guitar player’ was a joke, but soon enough he started shaking things up.
In 1953, Haley's recording of "Crazy Man, Crazy" became the first rock and roll song to hit the American charts and in 1954 Haley recorded the famous “Rock Around the Clock” song.
A year after the song’s major success a themed movie came out starring Haley.
When “Rock Around the Clock” came out to the cinemas the kids went wild and trashed the place! The seats of the theater were torn apart and rebellion had a whole new sound.
Busy times on the way out of the cinema, 'Rock Around the Clock' with Bill Haley, City Theater, Amsterdam, September 1, 1956
The new technologies of cinema were an important component in this film’s revolution, its nation-wide success presented the American folk the scenery of which white musicians performed in the same venues as Hispanic and Black performers.
Not only that, for a brief moment in the film an all-black vocal group called the Platters shares the stage with the all-white Comets and Bellboys groups.
Another big player at the guitar games was Elvis, the apostle of Rock N Roll music. He was a star in a whole new level, he was an astounding performer that swept the nation off its feet.
In his hands, the guitar was so much more than an instrument, “the king” was sexy and by association, so was the guitar.
Pete Townshend (The Who):
The Solid Body Guitar Revolution
Moving to California of the late ’40s...
A man named Leo Fender, a radio technician, is the one who did more to spread the gospel of the electric guitar than any individual before or since.
Not many know, but the man who’s name will be forever linked with the electric guitar never actually learned to play himself!
Leo started tinkering with electronics as a boy and moved on to build amplifiers in his small factory in California.
During WWII, Leo met Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman, an inventor and a lap steel player that was working for Rickenbacker. Fender convinced him they should team up and they “K&F Manufacturing Corporation”.
Towards the end of the war, big bands have grown out of fashion, maybe due to war times, and small combos playing guitar boogie, r&b started popping up.
These dance bands were all armed with pickup-equipped archtop electric guitars because it gave them the power (volume) of a horn section.
As the roadhouse popularity grew, so were its dance halls and the need for louder and more durable instruments.
Fender recognized the potential and in 1948 finished the first prototype of a thin solid-body electric guitar.
It was released first in 1950 as Fender Esquire (with one pickup), later as Broadcaster and then as the Telecaster (with 2 pickups) that was widely used among country and western players and became one of the most popular electric guitars in history and have been in production ever since.
A prototype of the Esquire from 1949 with a 2x3 head, in the Fender Guitar Factory museum
by Cluster Note (CC BY 2.0)
The Guitar Wars
The Telecaster was simple.
A single slab of wood with holes cut for the electronics, and a bolt-on neck was made for easy assembling, it was revolutionary, and together with the Fender amplifier, produced a new clean sound that instantly reshaped the sound of popular music.
The name, Telecaster, was taken from another popular invention of these times - the television!
Fender Telecaster American Vintage 1952 by Massimo Barbieri (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Telecaster was adored by the 50’s Rock N Roll pilgrims and played a big role in their signature sound.
These guitar-dinosaurs, James Burton, Steve Cropper, and many others were the leading sound that reshaped the next generation of guitar players.
One of the most distinguished Telecaster Songs of the '50s - Green Onions by Booker T. And The M.G.'s
Provoked by the success of the Fender Telecaster, the competition had to respond. The more traditional Gibson company, maker of all the finely crafted Archtop Jazz guitars was stung into action.
⚔️ The guitar wars have begun!
Gibson was now ready to reconsider the solid-body experiments that Les Paul started back in the early ’40s.
Not many know, but Les Paul himself tried to push an idea of a solid body guitar back in 1941.
That 41' was called “the Log” even though it was made entirely out of steel.
It had two wooden wings that just imitated a guitar’s resonating box and the idea became the laughing stock of Gibson.
“They looked at it and laughed like hell, they thought it was awful… Gibson thought it was awful, everybody thought it was terrible… They thought I was a little strange” (Les Paul)
Strange or not, Gibson realized that they were missing out on a potentially huge market, they needed to catch up with Fender and make a solid body guitar of their own.
In 1952, the Gibson Les Paul was first produced.
There has been some dispute over just how much Les Paul was involved in all of this.
“He did not convince Gibson to make a solid body guitar, Gibson already knew they darn well had to do that and for that matter, Les did not design the guitar from the ground up nor did he invent the electric guitar or the solid-body guitar. That had been done before.”
(George Gruhn - vintage guitar collector and writer)
But there is no doubt in his advertising value of the time. Between 1950 and 1954, he and Mary had 16 top ten hits.
“Remember, between 1953 and 1960, Mary and I were 5 times a day, 5 times a week on the radio and television. The electric guitar was exposed greatly” (Les Paul)
Les Paul and Mary Ford - World Is Waiting For The Sunrise
The New Star - the Stratocaster
As the solid body wars hotted up, Fender released their masterpiece, the Stratocaster.
In 1955, while Rock N Roll was at its peak, a fresh sound from the west coast had joined the mix, it was the surfer sound from California and in Dick Dale’s hands, the guitar was a brand new weapon.
Dale's success was brief but that didn't prevent him from impacting hard on the guitar world.
He played non-western scales and used a lot of reverb which became the signature sound of surf guitar and he played a left-handed guitar but strung it upside down (and was the one who inspired Hendrix to do so), often playing by reaching over the fretboard.
The Stratocaster was made in a very simple principle, two pieces of wood bolted together. It was made for mass production, a guitar that an unskilled worker could easily assemble or take apart.
The truth is that the Stratocaster was made for fast production so that the company could survive financially.
When designing the Telecaster, Leo worked alone and being the technician he is, he created it with straight lines and hard edges. This guitar basically looks like a plank of wood and it makes sense that he designed it, he wasn’t a guitarist.
When designing the Stratocaster, he had some input from a Hawaiian guitarist who worked for him named Freddy Tavares (who played the starting guitar slide at the Looney Toons theme!). Freddy had an eye for radiating curves, therefore, the Stratocaster design is a lot more shaped and modeled.
Another important mention is Hank Marvin from The Shadows.
He played a big role in the rising popularity of the Stratocaster among many Rock N Roll legends like Mark Knopfler and David Gilmour.
The Stratocaster fitted this new galloping surfer sound like a glove, his use of the Whammy Bar was fresh and unconventional and his beautiful red Stratocaster was his loyal companion in a lot of famous photoshoots.
“It curves in and chamfered on the top so there are no hard edges to dig into the body because he realized how sensitive guitar players are... We, you know, we need these little things..." (Hank Marvin)
"I started listening to the early American old Rock N Roll guitarists and they mainly the guys who were on records by Elvis, Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry… Ultimately, the guitar that took my fancy was the one I saw in Buddy Holly’s hands on the first Crickets album cover…
So Cliff (Richard) offered to buy me a guitar, and I thought yeah… The Fender (Stratocaster) is the way to go“ (Hank Marvin, about the Stratocaster)
The Shadows – F.B.I. (1961)
“Hank Marvin had a Fender Stratocaster and this is what I wanted… I had a Hofner Club 60 which as close to a Fender as I could afford when I was a young lad, it was a nice guitar but I wanted that Stratocaster… because Hank Marvin made it sound so good” (David Gilmour)
“This is the one that I wanted, it had to be red… I had an EP with the Shadows photo on it and there, on the front, there was this red Stratocaster… I saw a flamingo-pink one at the shop, at the bottom of the main road where I lived, I remember standing outside the shop for hour after hour just looking at the guitars so it became a real object of desire” (Mark Knopfler)
Mark Knopfler in Barcelona by Rosario López (CC BY-SA 2.0)
At the beginning of the '50s, while the Stratocaster was starring on TV, on album covers and on stages around the USA, in England it was a distant dream due to trade bans on American imports.
That didn’t stop Cliff Richard, he brought the first Stratocaster into the UK, it was a 54’ red Stratocaster that had been bought for Hank Marvin.
The funny story is that it was borrowed in the ’60s by Bruce Welch and he loved it so much that he never gave it back.
“It’s a very fine guitar and it’s a very funny situation that one because, I had dinner with Cliff a couple of years ago and asked what’s the story about that Stratocaster, ‘Did you give it to Bruce?’ And he said ‘no I didn’t!, he asked if he could borrow it and he just never gave it back” (Hank Marvin)
First produced in 1954, it has become a design classic, its sound still inspires guitar players from young to old, unfamiliar or famous across every continent on the globe, and David Gilmour has a very early model indeed, serial number 0001!
“I don’t think it was the first one ever made but a 1954 Fender Stratocaster… They don’t get much better than this… About as perfect as a guitar can be” (David Gilmour)
David Gilmour with his 54' Stratocaster
Hank’s (and many others) revolutionary guitar playing took the Stratocaster into a new dimension.
These new colors were the fertile ground for the formation of a new guitar god, the Stratocaster emissary, Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix was struggling in America and moved to London in 66’, where he founded the Jimi Hendrix Experience. On October 1st, 1966, Jimi and his new band got a gig at the London Polytechnic at Regent Street, where Cream was scheduled to perform and where he and Clapton first met.
"He asked if he could play a couple of numbers. I said, 'Of course', but I had a funny feeling about him." (Eric Clapton)
Halfway through the Cream set, Jimi went on and performed a distressed version of “Killing Floor”.
"He played just about every style you could think of, and not in a flashy way. I mean he did a few of his tricks, like playing with his teeth and behind his back, but it wasn't in an upstaging sense at all, and that was it ... He walked off, and my life was never the same again" (Eric Clapton)
The electric guitar's golden era is still ahead of us, but that's for the next chapters! 📖
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