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A Short History Of Electric Guitars

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The date of the first application of a pickup to a guitar is uncertain but Loyd Loar who worked for Gibson from 1920 to 1924 (and is famous for his mandolins and arch tops) developed a pickup. The company developed a bunch of prototypes which were not accepted by the “agents” (who I believe sold to the retailers). Vivi-Tone was founded by Loar and two other folks from Gibson – however they were too far ahead of the curve and there was no market.

Walter Fuller recalled that when he joined Gibson in 1933, he found some pickups that he believed were made ten years earlier under Loar’s supervision. They were more like microphones than modern day pickups with a fixed anode and a charged, stretched diaphragm. It was not a successful design.

Commercially successful electric instruments began to appear in the 1930s. In 1931 Rickenbacher (that’s a correct spelling for the era) produced a Hawaiian guitar that came to be known as the “Frying Pan”. It was the first instrument to use a modern style electromagnetic pickup which, in addition to ten years of market simmering, might explain its success.

Rickenbacher was not alone – Rowe-DeArmond had started producing pickups early in the decade and Dobro produced a small number of amplified resonator guitars in 1932.

While the Hawaiian guitars were solid from the start, the electric “Spanish” guitars of the time were mostly arch tops with a pickup stuck on them. Various global events were pulling attention away from guitar manufacturing. As a result the electric guitar did not begin to become well known until the late 30s when Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman’s band brought Gibson’s ES-150 to the masses. (Note that “ES” stands for Electric Spanish).

The Second World War continued to hamper development because people with manufacturing skills were pressed into service.

Les Paul (born in 1916) had experimented with his own pickups as early as 1929. He was certain that making a stiffer instrument, keeping the pickup in place and allowing the strings to move was the way to go and so started working toward solid instruments.

He had John D’Angelico put a soundpost or block inside an instrument for him to keep the top still, and in 1937 commissioned an instrument from Larson Bros. of Chicago with a heavy solid top and no sound holes. A short while later he experimented with “The Log”, essentially a railroad tie, where he stuck the bouts of the guitar to the plank which contained everything else. He built this at Epiphone’s New York factory in 1941.

At the same time in California (where Les Paul spent some time) Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender were also experimenting. In 1947 Bigsby made a now famous solid body instrument with a single pickup for Merle Travis. It’s infamous for looking like a cross between a “Les Paul” but with a headstock similar to a Strat. Obviously neither instrument existed, so that’s not the case, (possibly the reverse) but is a clear indicator that cross pollinization was taking place.

In 1947 Leo formed the Fender Electric Instrument Company and in 1948 started to market the “Broadcaster” whose name was changed to the “Telecaster” in 1950. With the Broadcaster the modern solid body, two pickups, etc. had finally begun production.

The 40s also saw the birth of the modern, amplified pedal steel. Named the “Electraharp” and produced by Gibson, its history forks at this point because it really was no longer a guitar but something else entirely.

The electric bass guitar was first marketed by Fender in 1951, and it was this instrument that could be said to be his unique invention. I’d have to do more research, but the combination of bass range and guitar frets is probably his in a sense. My caveat is only because many early instruments had frets tied around the neck so the idea could have essentially been in place for hundreds of years at that point, but I believe he was the first to bring together bass range, frets and pickups into the first electric bass guitar.

As the market developed, Gibson produced the Les Paul in 1952 and Fender brought out the 3 pickup Stratocaster in 1953.

Remember that up until now the single coil pickup was all that was in production. (Think P90 and “soapbar” pickups on Gibsons at this point).

The next breakthrough was the work of Seth Lover and Walter Fuller who created the humbucking pickup in 1954. (It grew out of the needs of Radio broadcast and recording where, as to this day, quieter is better.) Gibson’s ES 135 was the first to sport this innovation and entered into regular production on Les Paul guitars in late 1957. Early humbuckers have entered the mythology stamped with the now famous “patent applied for” phrase. The design of these pickups is exactly the same as is produced today.

At that point the essence of the modern electric guitar was in place. There have been a few innovations since. The Alembic company (formed in 1968 to supply the Grateful Dead’s sound systems) were the first to put transistorized preamps in guitars and basses. Arnie Lazarus produced the FRAP (flat response audio pickup) piezo transducer in ’69. Ovation may have been first to use individual tranducers under each string.

Everything else (while the art has been greatly advanced) seems like a variation on these themes. Certainly Bill Lawrence, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Floyd Rose and many others have widened the flow of this river of innovation. But as far as I know Les Paul’s pursuit of the solid body is what brought all this to the fore.

From my perspective Leo Fender did three great things. He timed the start of business just right and he taught the world how to manufacture guitars. Gibson had an acoustic guitar background as did almost everyone else. However Leo looked at the solid body with fresh eyes. Bolt on necks may or may not have been introduced by him (they existed on other instruments) but he pulled together the art of manufacturing guitars like no one else. And of course, he created the electric bass.

In all this I also overlook the input of many players who helped develop various features and ideas. As an example, I believe Alan Holdsworth was one of the first folks to put a humbucker in a Strat (which was sometimes made out of lighter weight wood than a Les Paul) and started a revolution which can be seen in any music store today. The ES-335 and its variations and knockoffs are still extremely popular. Even the modern archtop, a very different instrument today than the ones built by Gibson, Stromberg, Epiphone et cetera, during those times has benefitted from the humbucker and piezo pickup development.

The instrument that I’ve played for the longest time is an Ibanez AH-10 which is Strat like, but with a single humbucking pickup in the neck position. It didn’t come that way, and various experiments show on the pickguard. It has a fairly light basswood body, a knife edge whammy which has three springs tightened down and maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. It’s the classic story of finding an inexpensive guitar that with a little tweaking becomes something special. Yeah!

This article’s permanent home is here, in Daniel Berlinger’s weblog Archipelago.

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About Daniel Berlinger

  • http://www.ans.com.au/~jgwr/blog/ James Russell

    I’m pretty sure I saw a picture once of an electric guitar made in 1910. If I recall it correctly (and it’s been many years, so I can’t remember where I saw it), it was a mighty odd-looking instrument…

  • Ian

    thank you very much I used some of your information if that is alright with you…
    I hope you don’t mind it was just for a school project so don’t worry about sending it out on the web or anything. you can contact me if you need to.

    THanks
    ian

  • chad girard

    this place roks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Yes, yes Chad, it does.

  • hilary

    hey, this web site really is excellent. I go on here in my spair time! i find it truley helpful when i need reasearch! thancks a lot!

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  • HW Saxton Jr.

    Since were on the subject of E-Lek-Triss-A-Tee:
    Tampa Red was the first bluesman to play slide on a standard 6 stringed ELECTRIC guitar,thereby
    helping to set the standard for cats like Robert
    Nighthawk,Elmore James,Earl Hooker,Muddy Waters,
    Hound Dog Taylor and all of the rest.

  • Loa curfew III

    What is the oldest guitar in the world? (Electric)

  • Garrbear

    this site relly rocks i love it

  • Michael Edelhofer

    While using your information for a school project, I noticed a mistake in your 8th paragraph, 2nd line, after the comma, the word, I believe, should be “and” and not “an”.

  • Jman

    Hey, was EVH or Alan Holdsworth first to put the single humbucker in the Strat body? EVH was totally famous for it, and I remembered reading about how he had a “Les Paul Strat” guitar. Evh was a huge guitar innovater anyway and I can’t believe he wasn’t mentioned (along with many other big names…) Who produced the first whammy bar? What about Floyd Rose’s floating bridge? Seymour Duncan?

  • http://www.freewebs.com/acdc_rocks Nicole

    this site rocks! hey check out my site too! i cant find like alot of info on the history of electric guitars.

  • StuartP

    Tampa Red was the best bluesman.

  • Roger

    Cool posting Daniel. I beleive it was George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker who officially invented the first electrc guitar. Wasn’t one of Les Pauls first working pickups made from telephone parts? I own a Gibson SG. It’s currenlty is the only “Axe” I own. At one time in the 80’s and early 90’s I owned several Gibsons including a Melody Maker, Sonex 180 and Flying-V. I regret letting them go even though they were fairly inexpensive, except for the V.

    On a different note: To Josh and Nikk who posted above, go fuck-off and play with your Superman dolls!

  • Eric Olsen

    I believe Daniel is long gone, though his post lives on. If I am wrong Daniel, please let me know.

  • Roger

    Didn’t pay attention to the Sept 02 date. Just thought I’d provide what little knowledge I had.

  • Eric Olsen

    and fine knowledge it is

  • elzie

    thankies for the info!! , it made my essay a loot easier , not i didnt copy starigh what you wrote but yea , thankiez!!! ( A+ , FIRST EVA!!)

  • Bennett

    Hey Rhys. Try to avoid typing words that long, please. It really messes up the page.

    Thanks!

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word allowed in a Blogcritics comment.

  • Bennett

    Yeah, and even that one tweaked out the “Hot Topics” column…

    [ya bastid]

  • Ross O’Dell

    The first electric guitar was made in 1925 by Adolph Rickenbacker and the first guitar smash was an accident by Jimmi Hendrix when he fell off stage and threw his guitar back on stage and it broke. The very first guitar company was “Electro String Company” it was founded in 1931 by Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp. The same year that the Great Depression came.

  • mike

    thanks man that was kool

  • justin

    i am doing a really in depth research paper for my class
    all of the previous sources ive been to were about 10 pages of text
    though i doubt daniel looks at these comments, i give him kudos for making the info on the page short and to the point

  • Jake

    This is really cool it really helped for a school progect and i found it interesting. This was not like researching it was fun

  • kenny

    this site is dumb

  • justin

    hi

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    nice you must have spent a lot of time on this

  • http://blogcritics.org/mt/tb/831 Lynice

    -woot-

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    i got an with this in school

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    i got an A+ with this site.

  • Ashley (a guy)

    Used some of this information on an assignment. You will be mentioned in the works cited page. Thank you for your data

  • danny

    this site is crap

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    this is to complecated make sence because i got an f so make sence

  • tony

    rock n’roll 4 ever!!!!!!!!!

  • Cameron

    This info rules.

  • Gage

    great help for a thing im dong 4 school!!!!

  • ??? Emilie ausseil

    Why didn’t you put MORE information!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    You want me to have an F?????!!!!! So, do as I say and put MORE information in this stupid thing!!!
    Like, who invented it or why was it created or how did they do it… ALRIGHT?!?! God, you made me mad!!! Cuz I need to do a stupid, stupid essay!!!!!!!

  • http://none Francois Garand(french)

    This is col… oops! I forgot to put a cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oooh,… je m’aime trop!!! This suks…

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  • Kyle

    awesome
    think i might buy a gibson les paul buzzsaw
    Choke Upon Death is my band

  • Bob

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  • Jay

    This site roxs soxs so go die in hell people who don’t

  • CaSsIe

    WOah!! waaaaaay interesting, i luv learning more about my favorite instrument. i’m making a timeline for the electric guitar, (its gonna be a long one)
    thanks for the info
    ps the smash accident was cool!

  • http://idk. mike ross

    What was the nbame of the first electric guitar?

  • http://idk. mike ross

    how did country music become popular through out the U.S?

  • bob

    henry bailey

  • Andy

    dis plas is ****** stupid!

  • Josh

    I’m doing a report on this. I hope all of this stuff is true, not fake like wikipedia.org. =)

  • SLUT HO

    why do u guys care so much about music its only fun to listen 2 get a life u son of a bitch nuget ho fuker of 15 $ hookers cause u guys cant afford anything else fuk u fuk u asses

  • SLUT HO

    u guys ned alife get 1
    mother fuckers lol

  • Marksalv

    The first Guitar with an active pre-amp was the Burns TR2 1963 not the alembic.

  • G Dawg

    This article was pretty helpful, but the only thing was that the person who wrote it has too many opinions, and not enough information on the actual facts of the Electric Guitar.

  • jessica

    umm yeah i was just woundering if you guys know when the first electric guitar was made..
    because i have to do a music project on it and its due tuesday and thats all i have left to find..

  • DxMonkey

    Instead of bashing someone who did this for you, why not do some research yourself? Always looking for a short way out of an assignment, you deserve to fail anyways =-)

  • Faker

    This site is totally awesome, i am addicted to playing my guitar and was dying to know all about the electric guitar. It is the best thing in the world, better than skateing and everything whoever made this site was a genious and should be in the history books!!!!!!!!!!!!! U are so totally AWESOMMMMMMEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!1

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  • liCKY LOO LOO

    THIS IS A MEAN SITE

  • Selena Marie Gomez

    Well i learned in 8th grade that a gitar can be an electric or manual!

  • bliffle

    Pretty good article.

    I hate to point this out to you guys, but this article is not a primary source. If you crib from it for your own report or whatever you may repeat incorrect information. A bad thing to do.

    Which is why plagiarism is a no-no, for it is plagiarism, even in the off chance that you give this author credit.

    What you can do, for creating your own report, is to use the info herein to start your own research into the subject and then independently go to primary sources for info.

    Anything less is lazy, and will backfire when it is discovered.

  • Wayne Shores

    yeah i’m commenting rite now tell me this shit isn’t down…

  • shannon

    heyya doing my homework for skool good site anywayz!!! nice work!!

  • shannon

    how old r u lot lol this website is 50 50 half crap and half gd does any 1 agree with me if do comment asap

    by ?

  • http://www.electricguitarlessons4u.com Ron

    This is an excellent writeup on electric guitar history. Les Paul was the man, RIP brother.

  • http://www.musicgearreview.com/category/Electric_Guitars Electric Guitar Fan

    Great post guys. I had no idea the ES in ES-150 stood for “Electric Spanish.” I guess you learn a new thing every day. Thanks and cheers!

  • nathan mitchell

    lol im in year seven and i havent readd it yet

  • Chris Guitar

    it boggles my mind that Les Paul was experimenting back in 1929, and that it took so long afterwards to really come out with the first generation les paul solid body. I think there’s probably a lot of technology that happens to, where it’s around or available, but it just doesn’t emerge until decades later. crazy stuff, thanks for the post.

  • j

    amesome

  • j

    what