History Of The Electric Guitar Term Paper

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¶ … Electric guitar [...] history of the invention of the electric guitar and of primary inventor/developer Les Paul. What were his contributions, as a designer, and as a musician? How have the technical developments in electric guitars and amplification affected the evolution of rock? The electric guitar electrified rock, literally. A distant cousin of the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar had power, presence, and an attitude, and it made a difference in the music we listen to today. Some believe the electric guitar is rock and roll music, and it exemplifies how a new instrument can create a sound, and a legend, all its' own. Guitars have existed in history for thousands of years. Related to lutes, (which had only two strings), most guitars had six strings, and were designed to be strummed or plucked. It was not until the 20th century that the acoustic, hollow-bodied guitar metamorphosized into the solid-body, electric model so known and loved today. Many people often credit Les Paul with designing the first viable electric guitar, but actually, many men contributed to the electric guitar's history and ultimate success.

There were several precursors to the modern electric guitar, and many of them began to develop in the early 1920s and 1930s. Swing and Big Bands had a larger sound, and the other instruments tended to overwhelm the guitars. Guitar players knew they needed to make their instruments louder to stand out, so they added steel strings to their instruments, giving them a louder tone. These first steel-string models were the first attempt at amplifying the guitar's natural sound, and so, most music historians consider them the first real cog in the wheel leading to the electric guitar. One historian notes, "By the 1920s steel-stringed acoustic guitars were used in blues, folk, country, and popular music" (Friedlander, 1996, p. 211). During this time Hawaiian guitars, which eventually evolved into the pedal-steel guitar, were also used, and two West Coast musicians, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera, developed a metal-bodied guitar supplied with metal disks inside that amplified the sound, making it three to five times louder than a regular acoustic guitar. They created the National String Instrument Company in 1927, and patented their design. Played with a slide, the guitars evolved into the "Dobro" still used today (Maguire, 2000).

Beauchamp and Dobyera parted company, with Dobyera continuing on to develop the dobro style guitar, and Beauchamp pairing with friend Paul Barth to create the first electric "pickup," which picked up the sound from a guitar string and amplified it. Their first prototype guitar, called the "Frying Pan" because of its long neck and tiny round body, was displayed at the Smithsonian Museum's exhibit on the history of the electric guitar in 1996. Beauchamp approached Adolph Rickenbacher with his idea, (cousin of pilot Eddie Rickenbacher), and together, they began to build their new type of guitar, which "immediately became popular as a Hawaiian lap style slide guitar and set the Rickenbacher company on it's historical path of becoming the first manufacturer of electric guitars" (Maguire, 2000). The Frying Pan came with its own amplifier that was twice as big as the guitar. These early electrics were used in many of the Swing and Big Bands of the time, and some of the famous names playing them included Charlie Christian and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, who were some of the first to develop guitar solos in front of their bands (Friedlander, 1996, p. 211). However, there was one big difference between these early jazz guitars and the electrics that would follow. These early guitars used one pickup and a large, hollow body, with an arched top and F-holes. It would take another transformation to create the solid-bodied varieties we are familiar with today.

In the early 1900s, a clerk named Orville Gibson began manufacturing guitars in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was also fascinated with amplifying the sound of his guitars, and began experimenting with his own types of pickups and other devices. In 1933, Gibson collaborated with an engineer in his company to create "Vivi-Tone," a company devoted exclusively to developing an electric Spanish guitar (Maguire, 2000). The company floundered, but the seeds of electric guitars were planted in Gibson's head. Gibson had other engineers work on a new style of pickup, and when it was perfected, they initially installed it on the lap guitars of the past, but quickly moved it to a more traditional F-hole jazz guitar, creating the legendary "ES-150, (ES for Electro Spanish, 150...


The Gibson ES-150 is considered the first modern electric guitar, and the first model shipped from Kalamazoo in 1936. Charlie Christian used this model to create guitar solos, and the ES-150 is still affectionately called the "Charlie Christian" model (Maguire, 2000). The electric guitar was here to stay, but there were some problems with these early hollow-body models. They amplified sound, but they also had problems with feedback, distortion, and disagreeable overtones. Enter Les Paul.
Les Paul was a talented musician and electrical genius. Hoping to solve feedback problems, and lengthen the time a guitar could hold a sustained note. Paul believed the key to better sound was in a one-piece solid body guitar. Historian Friedlander continues,

Paul experimented with a railroad tie, finding that "you could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding." In 1941 he built his "Log" at Epiphone's New York guitar factory from a four-by-four length of wood, two wings fastened on to make it feel like a guitar, and two pickups. This was the prototype solid-body guitar, a design that has come to dominate rock/pop music for the past three decades (Friedlander, 1996, p. 212).

He dubbed his prototype "The Log," and took it to Gibson. However, it took Gibson quite a while to finally produce his model, and by then, other manufacturers, such as Fender, had come up with their own designs. The first Les Paul model Gibson was produced in 1952, and "in 1949 Fender released what would become the first successful solid body guitar the 'Esquire,' later renamed the 'Broadcaster,' and ultimately the 'Telecaster'" (Maguire, 2000). Thus, the Fender truly was the first solid-body electric on the market, but it was the Les Paul model that really took off. In fact, Buddy Holly used the Stratocaster, and was the first major rock star to use an electric solid-body. "James Burton - who played the solo on the Dale Hawkins 1957 hit 'Susie Q' at age fifteen and joined Ricky Nelson's band a few years later - used a Telecaster. Frankie Beecher -a former jazz guitarist with Benny Goodman -switched to a Gibson Les Paul while in Bill Haley's band (Friedlander, 1996, p. 212-213). Thus, the tradition of electric guitars and rock and roll was born. Later, the tradition would continue in developing the electric bass guitar, and later, even electronic drums that mimic the sound of real drums remarkably well.

By the 1960s, there were new innovations in pickups and design. New pickups reduced the hum problem with earlier models, and both Gibson and Fender models became the favorite of early rock musicians. Probably two of the best-known and talented electric guitarists who evolved from the period were Eric Clapton (first with the band Cream, and then on his own), and legendary Jimi Hendrix, who favored a Stratocaster and took rock to new, and sometimes earsplitting, heights. Hendrix once told another musician "The best thing you can do, brother, is turn it up as loud as it'll go" (Gracyk, 1996, p. 108). That was only one way Hendrix revolutionized rock music. He turned up his amp as far as it would go to produce distorted and disorienting sounds from his guitar, and these riffs became his trademark, and the trademark of a generation of dissenters and protesters. His highly amplified and raunchy "Star Spangled Banner" became the anthem of a young nation, and showed just what could be done with an electric guitar.

Today, rock continues to rely on the electric guitar for many of the properties that persist in making the sound unique and appealing. One rock critic states, "the sonorous resonating properties of feedbacksustained guitar textures have assumed an explicitly spiritual association through their development by bands and performers such as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Tom Verlaine and Television, and more recently Sonic Youth" (DeCurtis, 1992, p. 15). There are few people who will not acknowledge the very real influence the electric guitar had on modern music, and the influence the guitar continues to inspire today. Without the electric guitar, rock would have taken a very different direction. One writer notes, "Ever since the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll captured the passions of America's troubled teens, the guitar has come to symbolize the youthful rebellion that came into full flower in the 1960s" (Butters, 1996, p. 4). The guitar still symbolizes many things to many people. Acoustics symbolize the peace and folk movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and the F-hole Fenders represent country and western…

Sources Used in Documents:


Butters, P. (1996, November 7). The power of guitars: Exhibition amplifies instrument's history. The Washington Times, p. 4.

DeCurtis, A. (Ed.). (1992). Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Friedlander, P. (1996). Rock and Roll A Social History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Gracyk, T. (1996). Rhythm and noise: An aesthetics of rock. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Maguire, Jeff. (2000). Jeff Maguire's history of the electric guitar. Retrieved from Jeff Maguire's Web site: http://www.angelfire.com/music2/myguitar/page2.html29 April 2004.

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