Developed in the early part of the twentieth century, the electric guitar has become one of the most important instruments in popular music. Today's solid-body electric guitar derives from the acoustic guitar, an instrument first introduced in America as the Spanish-style guitar. Even though body designs of modern electric guitars often differ from their acoustic predecessors, all guitars are constructed with the same simple template. All guitars, acoustic or electric, are built with a bridge, body, and neck. The most significant difference is that acoustic guitars are hollow while electric guitars have a solid body.
For years, the acoustic guitar was limited to a supporting role in large musical ensembles because of its volume. Thus, the major motivation that drove the creation of the electric guitar was instrumentalists' desire for greater volume. Predecessors of the modern electric guitar were amplified acoustic guitars crudely modified by inventors who attached wires, magnets, and other "pickup" attachments. (Pickups are electromagnetic devices that increase volume.) However, as technology started advancing in the 1930s, newer versions became more complex, and the electric guitar became a solo instrument, a development that helped expand musical styles.
The earliest electric guitars were made in the 1920s and 1930s, but these were very primitive prototypes of the modern solid-body electrical guitar. The very first electrified guitar was said to have been invented by Paul H. Tutmarc. Inspired by the inner workings of the telephone, which employed magnetics to create vocal vibrations, Tutmarc experimented on the Hawaiian guitar, building a magnetic pickup out of horseshoe magnets and wire coils that amplified the vibration of the instrument's strings.
Around the same time, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera, two Los Angeles musicians, worked on creating even louder guitars. After experimenting with attaching amplifying horns to instruments, they, too, developed an electromagnetic pickup, this one comprised of two horseshoe magnets. Pleased with the effectiveness of the pickup, Beauchamp had a craftsman make a guitar designed with a wooden neck and body. Nicknamed the "frying pan" because of its shape, this became the first electric guitar. Beauchamp took the prototype to Adolph Rickenbacker. The two men formed a company and began manufacturing the first of the famous Rickenbacker line of electric guitars. Thus, Rickenbacker became the first manufacturer of electric guitars.
The first "Spanish-style" electric guitar was built and sold by Lloyd Loar, another early experimenter. His design was the direct predecessor of the modern electric guitar, and it inspired Orville Gibson, another guitar pioneer, to create the electric guitar model that revolutionized the instrument: the ES-150. Slide guitarist Alvino Rey developed the prototype of the ES-150, which has been called the first modern electric guitar. The final version was built by Gibson employee Walter Fuller. Though the guitar was an immediate success, it had some flaws. The vibrations from its hollow body were picked up and amplified, which created feedback and distortion. This led Les Paul, a guitarist and inventor, to develop the solid body electric guitar in 1940.
Paul's innovation, which was called "the Log" because of its solid body, involved mounting the strings and pickup on a solid block of pine to minimize body vibrations. The "Log" consisted of two basic magnetic pickups mounted on a 4 × 4 in (10.2 × 10.2 cm) piece of pine. To make it look more like a conventional guitar, Paul sawed an arch-top guitar in half and attached the pieces to his model. The solid body proved effective in eliminating the problems of the ES-150.
In 1946, Paul took his new guitar to Gibson, who was skeptical about the solid body. Leo Fender, however, understood the conception, and in 1949, he started selling the "Esquire," which became the first successful solid-body guitar. The guitar was later renamed the "Telecaster," one of the most famous guitar brand names. The Telecaster became extremely popular with country, blues, and rock and roll musicians. The Telecaster prompted Gibson to build his own solid-body model, which was named the "Les Paul."
In 1956, Rickenbacker introduced the student model Combo 400 guitar, with its so-called "butterfly-style" body. The guitar's unique construction featured a neck that extended from the patent head to the base of the body (known today as neck-through-body construction) and with the sides of the guitar body bolted or glued into place.
By the 1960s, the electric guitar was an established musical instrument. Innovations in design continued through the decade. In 1961, Gibson introduced "Humbucking" pickups into the Les Paul guitar that were designed to eliminate unwanted hum from the magnetic coils. (Humbucking pickups used two coils wrapped out of phase. This eliminated the common mode hum present in previous designs.) That same year, McCarty introduced the ES-335, a semi-hollow body guitar designed to incorporate the best of both the hollow body and solid body designs. Both Gibson and Fender had introduced futuristic looking designs. The Gibson SG and the Fender Stratocaster became familiar to audiences because they were frequently used by rock guitarists in the 1960s.
James Marshall Hendrix was born November 27, 1942 in Seattle. Hendrix taught himself to play guitar by listening to blues recordings; left-handed, he used a restrung right-handed guitar. Hendrix became known in the 1960s for playing the guitar behind his back, with his teeth, and setting it on fire. At times his stage pyromania overshadowed his musical pyrotechnics, but he is recognized as perhaps the most influential rock guitarist in history.
Hendrix began as a studio musician in the early 1960s, forming a band in 1965. The following year he created a new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and started a new sound—acid rock—that employed intentional feed-back and other deliberate distortions. His stage antics gained him notoriety at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and the band had a Top 40 hit with their version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" in 1968. That year Hendrix directed his efforts to studio recordings, but appeared with his new group—Band of Gypsies—in 1969 at Woodstock, where he gave a memorable performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Hendrix was named pop musician of the year by Melody Maker, 1967 and 1968; voted Billboard artist of the year, 1968; named performer of the year and honored for rock album of the year by Rolling Stone, 1968; presented with the key to Seattle, 1968; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992; and received the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, 1993. Hendrix died September 18, 1970 from asphyxiation resulting from a drug overdose.
Raw materials that go into the construction of the electric guitar include well-seasoned hardwoods such as maple, walnut, ash, alder, and mahogany for the solid body. The denser the wood, the better sustain an instrument will have (sustain refers to how long a note can be held). Wood density can also have an effect on the tone. Some bodies are also constructed with plexiglass. Wood is also used in the construction of the neck, including maple, rosewood, and ebony. Other raw materials include glue to hold the pieces together, chrome for the hardware, and a nitrocellulose lacquer for finishing the body.
The solid-body electrical guitar gets its volume from the magnetic pickup installed within its body. This pickup responds to the vibration of strings, transforming the energy into electrical impulses that are amplified by a loudspeaker system called an amplifier. For the best sound, the pickup needs to be stable and unaffected by vibrations from the body. Early electric guitar pioneers discovered that a pickup connected to a hollow-body acoustic guitar resulted in distortions and feedback. The need for stability is what led to the development of the solid body, the one feature that most characterizes the electric guitar. The solid body increases stability, and early electric guitar makers discovered, through experimentation, that guitar bodies made of high-density hardwood worked best.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, guitarists and inventors like Les Paul and Leo Fender developed the early designs of the solid-body electric guitar. Later, manufacturers moved away from traditional shapes and colors and came up with their own designs, many of which were quite fancy. More advanced models included the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Flying V.
The major components of the electric guitar include the bridge, the body and the neck. Secondary components include the fingerboard, strings, nut and tuning heads. A guitar manufacturing facility is, to a large extent, a woodworking facility, as wood selection and body design are large parts of the electric guitar construction process.
- Wood is selected, inspected, and processed to be made into bodies, necks and fingerboards. Sometimes it must be cured first in a conventional or vacuum kiln to maximize its stability. Curing can take as long as a week, and it relieves stress and wetness. The wood that will be made into a body is loaded onto a scissors lift and transferred to a conveyor where it is planed on both sides. It then moves down to the cut-off saw worker, who cuts the wood to size. From there, the wood is sent to a machine called a KOMO, a computer-controlled router that drills weight relief holes to make the wood lighter. The machine also cuts a channel in the wood where wire will eventually be placed.
- The wood then goes back into the rough mill, where it will have a maple top and mahogany back glued on in a glue mill under 900 lb (408 kg) of pressure. It is then placed on a glue wheel to dry for four hours. Up to this point, the wood is a square block. When dry, it is ready to be shaped. It is sent back to the KOMO, which is programmed to cut the periphery into the desired shape. The KOMO also routs the back electronic pockets.
- The body then goes to the body line for its final shaping. First, a worker sands the body by hand with sandpaper, then it undergoes a process called "rabbeting." Rabbeting involves first making a machine cut that will accommodate the binding that the body needs. The worker maneuvers the body while the machine makes the cut. The body then moves down the line to the binding station. The worker takes the binding material, drenches it in glue by pulling it through a glue box, then wraps it around the rabbet cut made in the body. The worker then ties the body completely with rope to hold the glued binding material in place. Then the body is hung overnight to dry.
- The next morning, the worker removes the rope, and the body moves to the next station, where it will be shaped by sanding into its finished contour. Using a rim sander, a worker sands off the excess glue and ensures that the binding and the wood are flush. The body then goes to the slack belt machine for smoothing. The worker, by hand, places it under a slack belt and pushes the body under the belt with varying pressure until all carved marks are smoothed out.
- As the body of the guitar is built on the body line, the neck of the guitar is built on the neck line, where the neck is shaped and sanded by hand and the fingerboard and head veneer are applied.
- Fingerboards are made of rosewood and ebony and are stabilized in kilns, shaped, and slotted for frets. In shaping, the fingerboard first gets molded on a molder with a 12-in (30.5 cm) radius. From there, it moves into the rough board area, where location pin holes are drilled. Then it goes to the fret saw machine, where the fret slots are cut by a quick saw machine. A router then creates the inlay pockets on the fingerboard, and the inlays are added. The router is a powermatic tool that suctions the fingerboard down on a table and routs all of the pockets. The inlays themselves are placed in by hand at the inlay station. A worker places epoxy into the pockets, puts in the inlays, then places more epoxy on top of them. This eliminates any spaces. The fingerboard is then left to dry.
- When dry, the fingerboard moves on to a surface grinder that cleans the dried epoxy off of the top. Now the frets are ready to be placed. A worker takes the fingerboard and puts glue into the fret slots and then, by hand, places the fret wire. Using a pneumatic snip, the worker first places the wire then cuts off the excess. From there, the fingerboard is put into a hydraulic press that presses the frets completely in place. The worker then hand-sands the frets to make them smooth. The fingerboard is then slotted to accommodate binding, then left to dry. When the frets are dry, the fingerboard is joined to the neck.
- In the meantime, the neck has been built. This begins when the ten-quarter mahogany neck blanks are quarter-sawn for increased strength and straightness. Neck pattern templates are penciled, and then the neck blank is cut into the template shape with a bandsaw. The neck blank is then put on a rotary profile lathe. The lathe gives the neck its basic shape.
- A worker then joins the fingerboard to the neck by tapping in the location pins on the fingerboard, applying the glue, putting the fingerboard and the neck together, placing the connected pieces into a glue press, and then allowing it to dry. The head-stock veneer is also glued onto the neck blank. The neck is then sent down the line to be shaped and finished by machine rolling and hand sanding. Now the neck is ready to be fitted to the body.
In attaching the neck to the body, several methods are used by different manufacturers. Some electric guitar necks are glued into place while others are bolted on. Many players prefer the glued-in neck, as they believe it gives a better joint that provides more sustain of notes. At Gibson, the necks on a Les Paul are always glued on.
- On the body, the location of neck placement is then traced. A cavity is cut where the neck will be placed. The worker places the neck in the neck slot to see if the fingerboard, neck, and body are all flush. Neck fitting is all done by hand, with a worker using a chisel, a clamp, and glue. The neck is then placed in the joint until a seamless fit is made. The fit is glued, clamped, and left to dry for an hour. When dry, the worker sands off the excess glue. The pickup cavities and bridge holes are added by a computer-controlled router.
- The guitar is now ready to for color preparation and finishing. Before applying the finish, workers hand sand the guitar to smooth any sharp corners. Then a wood filler and stain is applied to color the wood and even out the grain pattern.
- Before the body is sprayed with a finish, the body and neck are sealed to ensure that paint will not be absorbed into the wood. When the guitar dries, the finish is applied by using automated electrostatic methods that improve the consistency of the finish. Afterward, the guitar is sent to the scrapers, who remove any overspray with metal tools.
- After the guitar has dried and has been sanded, it goes into the buffing department. Buffing is a three-step process. First the guitar is buffed on a wheel. A jeweler's rouge compound is used to remove any rough spots in the finish. Two more buffings are then done to achieve a brilliant gloss.
- The guitar now awaits final assemblage, where all of its hardware and electronics are installed. In general, at most guitar manufacturing factories, the final assembly of an electric guitar involve the pickguard placement, vibrato installation, setting the neck, tuner installation, installing strap bottoms, fret dress, nut, bridge and vibrato set up, string tree placement, and pick-up height.
- Next, the hardware and electronics are assembled and placed onto the body and bridge. Hardware placed onto the body include the pickguard, pickguard shield, pickup compression spring, pickup cover, pickup core assembly, lever knob, pickup selector switch, volume knob, tone knob, volume and tone potentiometers, ceramic capacitor, and output plug assembly. Hardware placed on the bridge include base plate, vibrato block, compression springs, bridge bar, set screws, bridge cover, rear cover plate, tension spring, tremelo tension spring holder, and lever assembly.
- Builders install pickups, pots, tuning keys, jackplates and toggle switches. The adjusters notch the tailpiece and nut, string the guitar, check neck pitch and intonation, and adjust the bridge height. The cleaners remove smudges and dirt, install back plates, pickguards, truss rod covers and other hardware and then polish the chrome, nickel or gold hardware.
- The guitar undergoes a final buff and polish and a final inspection.
During each stage of the process, the product is inspected. Even the smallest flaw in design such as a scratch or excess dried glue could send the guitar back down the line, or might even cause inspectors to scrap it. During final assembly, when hardware and wiring is installed, each component is tested separately to verify that it is working properly.
It is generally considered that the great part of the evolution of the electric guitar took place in between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, a period that saw the creation of the major innovations. However, guitar manufactures and inventors are still exploring ways to modify the instrument. These changes would include modification in design, materials, in pickups, or in finishes. Some guitar makers are looking to bodies made of plastic or graphite. Others are exploring designs that include hollow or semi-hollow bodies. For some time now, inventors have been trying to apply piezo to guitar pickup, or amplification. Piezo is a material with piezoelectric properties. If applied correctly to a musical instrument, it senses vibrations or changes in pressure. For a guitar, it could be applied in a contact microphone, or it could be placed on the guitar itself, where it would sense guitar vibration. Ultimately, it could enhance the sound of a guitar.
In the design area, a company has developed a mass 3D solid and surface modeling software that has attracted the attention of the Gibson, Warmoth, Suhr, and Tom Anderson Guitarworks guitar companies. The software would free designers from the limitations of two-dimensional planning and allow them to create complete three-dimensional designs before the manufacturing process began. In this way, they could be more experimental with designs. Potentially, the software would allow designers to create new designs in 3D without having to build prototypes or models. Designs could then be sent to a computerized woodworking station for a limited production run.
Bacon, T., and P. Day. The Ultimate Guitar Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Denyer, R., I. Guillory, and A. M. Crawford. The Guitar Handbook. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Wheeler, Tom. The Guitar Book. New York: Harper and Row, 1998.
Rickenbacker Web Page. December 2001. <http://www.rickenbacker.com/us/ehistory.htm>.
The Electric Guitar Web Page. December 2001. <http://www.si.edu/lemelson/guitars/noframes/00main.htm>.
"Electric Guitar." How Products Are Made. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/manufacturing/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/electric-guitar
"Electric Guitar." How Products Are Made. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/manufacturing/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/electric-guitar
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"electric guitar." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/electric-guitar
"electric guitar." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/electric-guitar
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
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This instrument has dominated the production of popular music since its invention in the 1940s. Although primarily identified with both the sound and the image of rock 'n' roll, the electric guitar has made its mark on all genres of popular music, from country to world beat. Combined with an amplifier, and armed with a large inventory of special effects, the electric guitar is an extremely versatile instrument that can produce an infinite variety of sounds. Its ease of playing and low cost have made it an important consumer good of the twentieth century. It has given the baby boom generation the means to make their own music and emulate the great guitar heroes of their times.
Musicians began to consider electric amplification of the acoustic guitar during the 1930s when guitar players sat in the rhythm sections of the big bands and struggled to be heard. The Western Electric system of amplification was readily available and was soon employed to power the signal coming from the first primitive guitar pickups. The first electric guitars were hollow bodied acoustic models with pickups attached, but in the 1940s guitars were made with solid bodies to better suit electric amplification. Leo Fender was the first to mass produce solid bodied electric guitars and his Telecaster (1951) and Stratocaster (1954) models remained in production in the 1990s. Fender established the basic layout of the electronics and the shape of his Stratocaster has been the most copied by other manufacturers of electric guitars.
The increased volume of the electric guitar was soon heard in popular music. Les Paul used a model of his own design to make successful records in both the country and popular fields in the 1940s and 1950s, but it took rock 'n' roll to showcase the power of the instrument and the great number of new sounds it could make. The electric guitar figured large in the two well springs of this new popular music: rhythm and blues from the black urban centers and rockabilly from the country. Blues musicians like Muddy Waters electrified a traditional music and brought it into the urban context, using the harder sounds of the electric guitar to make the blues more urgent and menacing. Country players had been the first to adopt the electric guitar perhaps because their audiences were used to the metallic sounds of the steel guitar which was extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The high, ringing tones of the Fender guitar became the trademark of a new type of country music which was both more traditional than the popular records made in Nashville and more modern in its stark metallic tone. The Bakersfield sound of players like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens was created not far from the Fender factory in California and soon spread across the country.
The first rock guitarists—players like Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly—were inspired by both sides of the racial divide in popular music and the successful hybrid they produced came to be called rock 'n' roll. Buddy Holly was the most influential exponent of the rock guitar not only because of his playing, which used basic chords in an energetic and exciting way, but also because he popularized the all guitar lineup of the rock 'n' roll band: lead, bass (and later rhythm) guitars playing through the same amplification system in front of the drums. Holly's music was widely disseminated on records and the simplicity of his playing made it easy to copy; thousands of teenagers learned how to play rock guitar by listening to his recordings and many of them went on to form their own bands.
Leo Fender had designed his solid bodied guitars with ease of manufacture in mind and quickly moved into mass production. The unprecedented appeal of rock 'n' roll created an enormous demand for electric guitars and by the 1960s the production of instruments had become a highly profitable and crowded industry. Most of the manufacturers of acoustic guitars, such as Gibson and Gretsch, had moved into electric models and a host of new companies entered the field: including Mosrite and Peavey. There were also many new manufacturers of amplifiers and the effects boxes which added reverberation and echo to the sound of the guitar.
But rock 'n' roll music never relied on the sound of the electric guitar alone—the amplifier created the sound and the signal it received could be altered by the electronic circuits of the effect boxes. Thus the clear, high "Fender sound" heard on surf guitarist Dick Dales' records is not just the sound of his Fender Stratocaster but also of the Fender Showman or Bassman amplifier and the 6G-15 Reverb unit plugged in between guitar and amplifier. Musicians began to experiment with this technological system in their continual attempts to find new sounds. Pete Townshend of The Who was the great innovator in using all parts of the system to generate new sounds, his rapid turning on and off of the power switch on his guitar made a memorable ending to several of The Who's songs.
The man playing an electric guitar became a universally recognized image of rock 'n' roll and the instrument itself became a symbol of empowerment for a generation of teenagers who yearned for the abilities and successes of their guitar playing heroes. The myths of rock 'n' roll leaned heavily on the rags to riches tradition in the United States whereby ambitious immigrants could, with "luck and pluck," rise to the top of their profession and achieve the affluence and security of the American dream. The stories of the stars of rock 'n' roll followed this tradition and placed totemic importance on the tools of the trade: the electric guitar. Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Goode," one of the great anthems of rock 'n' roll, tells the story of a young boy who leaves home, with only a guitar on his back, to seek out fame and fortune. This story resonated in thousands of other songs, most of which cast the hero as a guitar player.
The mass adulation of a few leading guitar players in the 1960s was a measure of the size of audience for the music and the market for the instruments. It also marked a return to an older tradition in the popular culture of the guitar, when the solitary bluesman was the center of attention. Several English musicians, including Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, had spearheaded a blues revival in the early 1960s. This invigorated both blues and pop music and also created a new wave of guitar heroes who reflected some of the characteristics of the blues musicians who inspired them: outlaws and outcasts who travelled from place to place living on their wits and enjoying the rewards of their virtuosity on the guitar. The bluesman was a special person, either gifted or damned by the Gods, whose freedom and powers (especially over women) were highly valued in the popular culture of the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix was the greatest of all the guitar heroes; his unequalled virtuosity on the instrument was only matched by the excesses of his lifestyle which were also embodied in his songs.
The steady advance of the technology of electric guitars was centered on two main goals: increasing the volume and finding ever more electronic effects. In the 1960s amplifiers were made larger and more efficient and the separate amplifier unit and speaker boxes replaced the old amplifiers which had electronics and speakers in the same box. The banks of Marshall 4X12 speaker units became the backdrop for the typical rock 'n' roll performance. More complicated devices were used to manipulate electronic feedback and create new sounds. Guitar players could surround themselves with effects boxes, such as "fuzz" and "wah wah," that were operated by foot switches. The sound of psychedelic music of the 1960s was essentially the sound of controlled feedback from the electric guitar.
The increasing popularity of other methods of manipulating electronic sounds in the 1970s, such as the Moog synthesizer and electric organ, threatened to end the dominance of the electric guitar in popular music. But there were several sub genres of rock 'n' roll that were still completely dominated by its sound: heavy metal which made a cult of loudness and made futuristic guitars the center of theatrical stage shows; and punk which returned to the basic guitar sound of early rock 'n' roll. Punk musicians made a virtue out of amateurism in their rejection of the commercialization of pop music and the elevation of guitar virtuosos. They encouraged everybody to pick up a guitar and advised the aspiring musician that only a few chords needed to be mastered before forming a band. On the other hand, advocates of heavy metal wanted to be transported to an imaginary world of outlandish stage shows, outrageous costumes and unusual guitar shapes. Both groups of musicians used exactly the same equipment, but to different ends.
Although each decade after the 1960s produced an "alternative" music to rock 'n' roll, the electric guitar's ubiquitous presence in popular music was not challenged. Disco (1970s) and rap (1980s) still relied on the supple rhythm lines of the electric bass. The guitar based rock band continued to dominate both professional and amateur music in the 1990s, ensuring that the instrument will prosper into the twenty-first century.
Gill, Chris. Guitar Legends. London, Studio Editions, 1995.
Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History. San Francisco, Miller Freeman, 1994.
Smith, Richard R. Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World. Fullerton, California, Garfish, 1995.
Trynka, Paul, ed. The Electric Guitar: An Illustrated History. San Franciso, 1993.
Wheeler, Tom. American Guitars: An Illustrated History. New York, Harper, 1992.
"Electric Guitar." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/electric-guitar
"Electric Guitar." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/electric-guitar
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No instrument is more associated with American music than the electric guitar. It is the major instrument in rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3), blues (see entry under 1920s—Music in volume 2), and country music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). It has been played by some of the great musicians of the jazz (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1) world as well. Simply stated, the electric guitar is much like an acoustic guitar, except that a magnetic pickup has been added to turn the vibrations of the strings into electrical impulses. When amplified, the electrical impulses produce sound. The electric guitar is more than a piece of technology; it reshaped American popular music in the 1950s and after.
The drive to create an electrified guitar came from the search for a solution to a common problem. Acoustic guitars had a hard time being heard over the noise of a crowded barroom or concert hall. The acoustic version of the instrument could not be heard next to a roaring big band (see entry under 1930s— Music in volume 2) full of trumpets and saxophones. By the 1930s, a number of inventors were experimenting with amplified guitars. Companies such as Gibson began marketing them that same decade. Perhaps the most important inventor was Leo Fender (1909–1991), who was the first to mass produce solid-bodied electric guitars. Fender's Stratocaster and Telecaster became very popular models in rock music and in country music. Musician Les Paul (1916–) was another great early experimenter with electric guitars, eventually designing his "Les Paul" model of guitar for the Gibson Company. Since the 1950s, the technology for producing electric guitars has changed only slightly. The classic models are still produced, along with hundreds of others.
Few technological inventions have had as much impact on music as the electric guitar has had. Amplification opened up whole new worlds for guitarists. Now they could be heard as soloists, and amplification allowed many new sounds, using electronic effects, to be produced. The electric guitar's biggest impact was in rock music; in fact, it defined the sound. The hard edge and loud volume was perfect for the rebelliousness of rock and roll. Rock music from the 1950s through the 1990s and beyond featured electric guitars prominently. Chuck Berry (1926–) and Buddy Holly (1936–1959) brought the electric guitar to mass attention in the 1950s. The Beatles , the Rolling Stones (see these entries under 1960s—Music in volume 4), and the Who were among the many great guitar-based bands to feature electric guitars in the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) was popular in the late 1960s for the wild sounds he created on his Fender Stratocaster, as was guitar great Eric Clapton (1945–). Electric guitars defined the sound of hard rock, heavy metal (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5), punk (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4), and alternative rock (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5) in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The popularity of the electric guitar has been undiminished since its invention. It continues to be the key instrument in rock and pop music, a tribute to its adaptability and popularity.
For More Information
Freeth, Nick, and Charles Alexander. The Electric Guitar. Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1999.
Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Electric Guitars and Basses: A Photographic History. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1994.
Smith, Richard R. Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World. Fullerton, CA: Garfish, 1995.
Wheeler, Tom. American Guitars: An Illustrated History. New York: Harper, 1992.
"Electric Guitar." Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/electric-guitar
"Electric Guitar." Bowling, Beatniks, and Bell-Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th-Century America. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/electric-guitar