The rise of the electric guitar

Photograph of an electric guitar resting against a speaker
© istockphoto.com/Ina Peters

The first electric guitars were developed in California in the 1930s. They were hollow-bodied instruments whose most important feature was the magnetic pickup. The invention of the pickup at this stage provided the technology which still continues to act as a basis for electric guitar construction today. The pickup is a device made up of magnets wrapped in fine copper wire. It captures the vibrations caused by the strumming and picking of metal guitar strings and converts them into an electrical signal which, in turn, can be amplified and recorded.

This innovation was followed by another in the 1940s when a number of prototype solid body electric guitars were made, also in California, by Les Paul, Paul Bigsby and especially Leo Fender. The development of the solid body guitar was based on the belief that electrical components could not only replace the sound-producing functions of the hollow body and sound hole of traditional guitars, but could create a new sound at the same time.

In the mid 1940s Fender produced the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar, the Fender Esquire. This was followed by a number of highly successful models many of which have become regarded as classic instruments, reaching iconic status within popular music culture (for instance the Fender Telecaster 1950, the Gibson Les Paul 1952 and the Fender Stratocaster 1953).

These technological developments in the sound of the guitar also transformed its role. With its greater volume and its ability to cut through ensembles the guitar could now become far more prominent. Despite that, the electric guitar was often contained within existing styles of popular music, such as jazz and country music, where it never dominated the sound. But gradually styles developed that were centred around the guitar. Most notable of these were the urban blues of the 1940s and 1950s in cities such as Chicago, and then, from the mid-1950s on, rock ‘n’ roll and rock music.

The growth of guitar-centred styles was due to more than amplification. What happened, rather, was that musicians responded to the sound of the electric guitar in creative ways. Chicago blues musicians, for example, often distorted the sound, so much so that sometimes it resounded within the listeners’ bodies.

Many of the early electric guitarists switched from acoustic instruments, but soon a new generation of musicians grew up for whom the electric guitar was central to the way they learnt music. And from the beginning, this generation and their successors found that the instrument encouraged experimentation. As guitar historian Michael Lydon observes, they;

"did not have the known techniques to transfer or modify; their musical ideas were as uncharted as the sonic territory their fingers were eager to explore." (quoted in Gracyk, 1996:119)

This is a good example of the way technologies can have a central effect upon the way in which we learn, appreciate and value certain types of music. The American philosopher Theodore Gracyk argues that the electric guitar is crucial in the development of a central ‘noise’ element within rock music. That is to say, what we value about rock recordings and performances is as much about the manipulation of sound qualities such as timbre as it is about more traditionally valued elements such as melody, harmony or connection with lyrical content. Indeed, all manner of sonic effects facilitated by the electric guitar and its amplification are now staples of what we expect from rock records. Distortion, feedback, tremolo, and sustain are all techniques which are made possible by the technology itself and have become powerful features of many of the subgenres of rock.

 The rise of the electric guitar did not, of course, spell the end of the acoustic instrument. Far from it. Many musicians and listeners were unenthusiastic about the new instrument’s sound and the way it was used. This attitude, which was often hostile, was fundamental in a turn back to more folk-like sounds and the eventual development of the so-called folk revival of the late 1950s and 1960s. Basic to this movement and to many of its successive phases was a dislike of a sound that was produced by electricity, rather than by more ‘natural’ means. Acoustic guitarists did learn to use technology, but it was the technology of the microphone, as opposed to the pickup that defined the electric guitar.