An Early History of the Electric Guitar

An Early History of the Electric Guitar

The first attempts at producing the electric guitar date from the early part of the 20th century. In the 1920s a lot of hobbyists tried various ways to magnify the sound from guitars and other stringed instruments using carbon button microphones at the bridge and tungsten pick-ups, but this produced ineffective signals and consequently poor results. Hollow bodied acoustic guitars were the accepted form at the time and much experimentation went on throughout the 1920’s and early 30’s by numerous luthiers any one of whom may have claimed to be the first inventor. The 1930’s saw the beginning of the ‘Big Band’ era, who’s sound was closely associated with jazz and wherein brass instruments featured prominently. Because of this the guitar needed to gain a stronger voice and this was a major influence on the development of the electric guitar.

George D Beauchamp (1899-1941) was the man credited with discovering the first successful magnetic pick-up for a guitar. In 1931 he and his accomplice Adolph Rickenbacker (1886-1976) produced the guitar known as the ‘Frying Pan’, a lap steel instrument in which this technology was introduced. The body of the ‘Frying Pan’ was formed from cast aluminum and featured a pick-up composed of a pair of magnets that curved over the steel strings. Beauchamp did not acquire a patent for his invention until 1937 which allowed other manufacturers to capitalize on his work, in particular the Gibson Guitar Corp. The ‘Frying Pan’ was introduced to the public in 1932 and over 2700 were made before the 1939 sudden increase of the Second World War, when production ceased.

The first fully electric guitar, meaning that it had individual string pick-ups instead of a single bar, was credited to a North Carolina physics professor by the name of Sidney Wilson. In 1940 Wilson entered his guitar in the N.C. state engineering fair and stole the show. He reasoned that individual pick-ups would solve the unequal loudness problem that the single bar pick-up was afflicted with. He also argued that a hollow bodied guitar was more inclined to vibration feedback issues and consequently his prize winner was built with a substantial body. Following the war, electric guitar production went by a metamorphosis when in 1952 Gibson’s designer Ted McCarty, along with Paul Barth and Les Paul, brought out the substantial body design known as the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. This guitar made in two different models the first the ‘Gold Top’ in 1952 and the second the ‘Custom’ in 1954. Prior to that Les Paul had developed his own substantial body guitar known as the ‘Log guitar’ because the body consisted of a substantial 4″x4″ piece of wood with a neck attached and two Swedish hollow body halves attached to each side that had no functionality, but made it more aesthetically pleasing. Whilst Gibson and Les Paul were introducing their brand, another maker Leo Fender (1909-1991), who had a background in electronics, married his electrical skills to guitar production and in 1951 came out with his own substantial body guitar known as the ‘Broadcaster’ later renamed the ‘Telecaster’. That same year Fender also launched a new base guitar called the ‘accuracyn Base’, because it had a fretted neck instead of the traditional open neck and could be played like a guitar instead of the familiar large acoustic bodied instrument. Following on from there, Fender introduced the “Stratocaster’ in 1954 which changed the design of its predecessor to incorporate suggestions from specialized musicians, Fender employees and Leo Fender himself. More importantly it additional the new tremolo bridge, intended to give the sound associated with the pedal steel guitar. In addition it included its third single wire pick-up, which gave it a wider range of tonal possibilities and also a better body design, to allow easier access to the higher registers.

Introduction of the electric guitar was the foundation of Rock and Roll and has had a major impact on jazz, blues, and other forms of popular music.

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