How the Electric Guitar Changed the World

On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, took to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, plugged in his Fender Stratocaster, and belted out an electric version of his acoustic hit, “Maggie’s Farm”, followed by his recent release “Like a Rolling Stone”–with the distortion turned way up. It was the first time any significant musician had played an electric guitar like that–and although the Newport audience hated it and tried to boo Dylan off the stage, that performance changed the music world.

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Fender Stratocaster.

Although guitars have been around since ancient times (the remains of instruments have been found which used a tortoise shell for a resonating chamber, a bent stick for a neck, and strings made from twined animal intestines), the “guitar” as we know it today, with a shaped hollow wooden box, wooden neck with frets, and six strings tuned by pegs, appeared in Spain around 1800. By the 1850’s, it was possible to make steel strings for guitars, which gave better and louder sound, but also placed a much greater stress on the body of the guitar. Guitar makers like CF Martin and Orville Gibson began using carved bodies and cross-struts to brace the soundbox and make it stronger.

But by the 1920’s, guitar players were facing a problem. The ordinary acoustic guitar was fine for playing alone in small concert halls or dance floors. But by the 1920’s, the “Big Band” wave was in full force, and the guitar was being swamped out by all the other instruments. And even for solo artists, the new technologies of radio and phonographic recording required music to be played at high volume to record properly. What was needed was some way to make the guitar sound louder so it could be heard.

The first step was taken in 1924, when Lloyd Loar, a designer with the Gibson guitar company, invented the “electric pickup”, an electromagnet that transformed the vibrations from the soundboard into electrical signals that could be sent to an amplifier. In 1931, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker invented a new pickup that gathered vibrations directly from the strings before sending the signals on to an external speaker, giving much cleaner and better sound.

During this time, Hawaiian music was enormously popular, and Hawaiian music differed from Big Band music because the guitar carried all the melody. It had to be loud. As a result,  the first commercially successful “electric guitar” had a cast-aluminum body and was designed to play Hawaiian music, by holding the guitar flat on your lap and using a steel tube to fret the strings. It had one electric pickup. Because of its metal construction and its shape–round at one end with a long straight handle–it was known as the “Rickenbacker Frying Pan”. This was followed in 1936 by the “Rickenbacker Electro-Spanish”, which fitted a pickup into a metal-bodied Spanish-style guitar. Gibson responded with several models of its own “ES” Spanish-style guitars.

But when guitar makers tried to add electric pickups to traditional wooden guitars, they had a problem–the pickups would amplify any stray vibrations in the hollow guitar body as well as the strings, causing poor sound quality. To combat this, designers began to make guitars with solid bodies, removing the source of the vibrations. One early attempt to do this was the Slingerland Songster, made in 1939. But the most successful version of the solid-body Spanish design appeared in 1940, and was known as “The Les Paul Log”. All of the guitar’s workings were contained in a straight solid piece of 4×4 pine wood with the neck attached; the guitar had a nonfunctional conventional guitar body glued to this just to make it look less odd. Les Paul followed up with other models. The new electric guitars were particularly popular with African-American jazz players, with the most prominent being T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and Charlie Christian of the Benny Goodman Band.

In 1947, a radio repairman named Leo Fender, tinkering in his spare time, came up with a solid-body design that he first called the Broadcaster, then he added a second pickup and renamed it the Telecaster. By 1951, the Telecaster was the best-selling electric guitar in the US. The next year, the Gibson guitar company offered its “Les Paul Gold-Top” model solid-body.

It was fortuitous timing. The rock and roll revolution was just beginning to take off, and nearly all the early bands, from Chuck Berry to Buddy Holly, used either Fender or Gibson electric guitars. Berry in particular incorporated the guitar into his act, with his trademark “duck walk” across the stage as he hammered out chords. His showy stage guitarmanship was later incorporated by such legends as The Who and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1954, Fender made some changes to the design of the Telecaster, including adding another pickup and putting new indents in the guitar body to allow musicians to play high up on the neck, and named the result the “Stratocaster”. With three pickups, each could now be adjusted independently to form a whole new variety of sounds and effects. One of the first major artists to take up the Stratocaster was Buddy Holly, who did not have a flashy style of playing, but his exposure on national television introduced the Stratocaster to many budding young musicians. The “Strat” became the guitar that made the rock music revolution. When Bob Dylan banged out his Strat in 1965, the audience hated it, but every rock guitarist in the country soon had Strats of their own. Stratocaster-wielding rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jeff Beck, (along with other legends like Jimmy Page, Bob Marley, Joe Perry, Peter Frampton, and Pete Townsend, with Gibson Les Paul, Explorer, or Flying V models) made the electric guitar the king of the airwaves, in every genre from surf music to heavy metal.

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5 thoughts on “How the Electric Guitar Changed the World”

  1. “The exhilaration (of the electric guitar) comes largely from the fact that at the flick of a knob you can positively drown out any other colleague that happens to be playing with you, not the most musical or charming sentiments, but exciting none the less. As for the sound – musical sound – I frankly find that to be the most boring, lifeless, phoney, vulgar noise that could have ever been contrived by humankind on this planet.”

    –Julian Bream

    Bream might of course be slightly biased. 🙂

    What I found most interesting was that in 1947 there was such a job as radio repairman. How the world has changed: nowadays you throw away the broken radio and buy a new one, which the Chinese are happy to supply cheaply and in unlimited numbers. 🙂

    1. What I find interesting is that some fan of a guy who became known for writing and performing protest songs for folkies and hippies could/would pay a million bucks for a guitar.

  2. In a world where some people would pay more than a hundred million for a Jackson Pollock drip painting, nothing surprises me anymore. 🙂

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