Author's note: When I first sat down and decided to write an article for Ultimate-Guitar.com, I was stumped. It seemed to me that everything that needs to be covered has: basics and essentials of playing for beginners, advanced techniques, even information on recording and the music industry. After taking a look at my own experiences, I decided on what was missing: a brief history on some of the makers and breakers of the guitar. As a scholastic musician, I've played everything from brass to strings to keyboards, and knowing the history of the instruments has become just as big of a part of my studies as playing them. I'm hoping this information can help all players, new or old, to understand the changes that have occurred over time to our favorite instrument and how it has impacted music.
A Brief History Of The Electric Guitar
By Kevin Heiland
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the guitar had already proved itself a formidable instrument. Capable of self-harmonization and vocal accompaniment, the six-string acoustic had become a legend tracing back to the medieval period. However, with the prominence of brass sections in modern music, the guitar had met its match. In popular 1920's and '30's Hawaiian music, the guitar was a melody-based instrument played with a metal slide to amplify the sound. In a Jazz setting, the guitar was purely for rhythm: the volume of an acoustic instrument other than a piano could never outplay the cries of a full brass section, and the player had to resort to comping chords. The allure of combining technology with the guitar, however, was not far off at the time.
In early 1930, George Beauchamp, a Hawaiian guitar player and Adolph Rickenbacker, an electronics engineer, met at the Dopera Brothers guitar manufacturer in Los Angeles, California. Together, they eventually developed the schematic for a revolutionary idea: an electronic guitar. The premise was simple: by fitting the guitar with two magnets, a magnetic field was created which could pick up the vibrations from a string and transfer it to a resonating wire coil. The original magnets were often parts found in telephones and other signal-transmission devices. Wrapped around the magnets were a series of coils, originally made of copper. By allowing an electric current through, the magnets could pick up vibrations, even at soft dynamics, and then send it through the coiled wire and through separate resistors for tone and volume. A tone resistor cut out higher frequencies, while the second resistor controlled volume by minimizing the amplitude of the sound waves. Finally, the signal was transferred through a cable and connected into a PA system.
They worked on their design until 1937, when they're submitted a patent for the Rickenbacker Electric Guitar, cleverly coined the Frying Pan Guitar due to it's shape and metal build. Unfortunately for the duo, other companies had picked up on the idea, and began manufacturing electric guitars of all sorts. Most were acoustic hollow-bodies fitted with magnetic pickups, and while the allure of volume caught many, some became distraught at the high amount of feedback created by the resonating body. The solution became more prominent after luthier-legend Les Paul tried his hand at creating electric guitars: a solid, wood-bodied guitar would be cheaper to make, lighter, and would provide virtually no feedback.
By the late forties, there was no stopping the revolution. Big Band and Swing jazz ensembles had scooped up the idea and incorporated it into their acts. Legendary band leaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington showcased the instruments in their acts, while players like Freddie Green proved that the instrument could be both a rhythmic machine and a singing melody-maker. By 1950, Fender had patented and mass produced the Broadcaster, a dual-pickup guitar with a solid body and variable volume controls. Later renamed as the Telecaster due to name trademark issues with Gretsch Drums, the Telecaster became an affordable guitar which was appearing on stages worldwide.
In 1952, Gibson began putting out the Les Paul, a solid-bodied, dual-humbucker guitar designed by its namesake. This officially set Gibson as the largest guitar manufacturer in the world, selling more models and building more guitars per day than any other company. To combat this, Fender released the legendary Stratocaster, combining the functionality of the Telecaster and the looks reminiscent of old Hawaiian guitars. The standard for electric guitars had been set, and these models were now being released to the artists who would come in the next decades to create an entirely new style of music which we have all come to love.
Without the contributions of the engineers and designers of the time, the music world would be quite different. The role of the guitar itself would have remained a rhythmic instrument and may never have become a legendary icon of rock as it is today. It's important for students to understand the heritage of this instrument: while it is taken for granted now, it was born as a rocky concept which faced many hardships in development. The little nuances that go into its creation may never be fully understood by the average player, but just the knowledge of the passion and creativity that went into its birth is sufficient to bring out truly emotional playing.
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