Beat groups and the electric guitar

Black and white photograph of a band on a stage in a cellar

The Pennies Live at the Cavern. © National Museums Liverpool collections (Peter Kaye archive). Accession number MMM 1998.23

Technological developments and the emergence of a much-expanded musical instrument industry are key factors in many developments throughout the history of popular music. It is impossible to imagine, for example, the emergence of rock music without the successful mass production of the solid-body electric guitar. Indeed the availability of affordability of mass-produced instruments for thousands of Liverpool teenagers was a fundamental spark for the Beat group boom that swept the city in the early 1960s.

It is rarely possible, however, to draw straightforward lines of connection from technological or instrument developments to musical developments. Although the electric guitar was increasing in prominence in the 1950s, to many British youngsters interested in music at the time it seemed a little remote - an instrument still played mainly by Americans. What turned those youngsters from listeners into music-makers was skiffle.

Skiffle was based on a reworking of folk and popular songs, mainly from the US, performed by singers with a lively rhythm section accompaniment in which the acoustic rhythm guitar was prominent. It had a homemade feel and was largely a British phenomenon. Its effect was to persuade thousands of youngsters that they too could play an instrument. The huge success of Lonnie Donegan demonstrated that it was possible to make music without years of training, using instruments that were within the reach of many young musicians.

It was a possibility that thousands of young people acted upon and in the mid 1950s there was a boom in guitar sales. In 1956, at the height of the skiffle boom, sales increased five fold from the previous year and guitars could be bought from retailers such as the high street chain Woolworths for as little as £6 19s 6d (Dewe 1998:64). These entry-level guitars were mass produced and often difficult to play. They did however significantly lower the entry point for music making and many musicians who started with such low quality instruments went on to take music making much more seriously.

The folky nature of skiffle had little lasting appeal however and in the end the sounds and associations of US rock ’n’ roll seemed more glamorous to many youngsters. But whereas the first British audience for rock ’n’ roll (in the mid-1950s) had listened to the music, a later audience believed it could perform it - and so the acoustic guitars of skiffle gave way to the electric guitars of rock ’n’roll, and the ‘beat groups’ were born.

By the 1960s Frank Hessy (owner of the Liverpool music shop Hessy’s) was regularly sending a van to London’s Soho for supplies and was said to be selling ‘roughly one guitar a minute’ at peak times (Norman quoted in Dewe 1998:66). The availability of such instruments meant that amateur and semi-professional bands could form and find gigs across the city. Bradley (1992: 75) argues that this accessibility had an early effect upon the beat group sound. The ‘rudimentary, start from scratch’ musicianship of these bands meant that they often played simplified versions of the music that they were covering. This not only included rock ’n’ roll but also a variety of other popular styles that were demanded by audiences out for a night out dancing: ballads, waltz numbers, American pop tunes etc. This diversity of music and playing styles (a result of technical limitations) went on to form the unique characteristics of beat: the mixture of pop forms, simply played and held together with a heavy ‘backbeat’.