A technological innovation that changed the course of music in wholly unprecedented ways. What was originally meant as an amplification of big band jazz guitar, soon became the rhythmic fervour of Johnny Cash, the swinging virtuosity of Django Reinhardt, the electric anguish of Jimi Hendrix, the bittersweet melody of B.B. King, and even the fiery arpeggios of Yngwie Malmsteen. Whether it was jazz, swing, blues, country, pop, rock, classical, or any of the innumerable new genres that were created in its wake, the electric guitar is by no doubt one of the most important musical innovations of the past century.
Where did it come from? There was little interest in using electronics with musical equipment until the 1910s. Patents for electronic devices based on telephone transmitters were originally fitted to violins and banjos. These first ‘pickups’ were improved and upgraded through the 1920s by professional luthiers, guitar manufacturers, and electronics hobbyists and began to be used in hollow bodied acoustic guitars, with moderate success.
Acoustic guitars, used in big bands, country western bands, and jazz groups, took a backseat in the 1920s because of their volume limits. They could not stand out to growing brass sections of the decade. Thus, by using amplification devices, these hollow bodied guitars could easily take up their rightful place in larger orchestras. Guitar innovators of the day, such as Les Paul, Leo Fender, and Adolph Rickenbacker experimented with unique ways of amplifying guitar sounds.
As acoustic guitars gained interest in the late 1920s, Rickenbacker introduced the first solid body electric guitar in 1931 (with no interior resonating air spaces), famously called the Frying Pan. His inspiration was taken from Hawaiian guitar music of the day, and he created an instrument designed for this in particular. Sounding much more edgy and aggressive, it gained little popularity outside its esoteric group of supporters.
However, as the 1930s rolled onwards, guitar engineers spanning all genres began experimenting with this new technology. The first ‘Spanish’ solid body guitar was introduced by 1934, and jazz and country models were being designed and marketed simultaneously. Interest in electric guitar exploded. The first recordings were made by 1932, and the list of professional electric guitarists grew exponentially, crossing many different orchestras and groups. Jack Miller, George Barnes, Floyd Smith, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian (of the famous Benny Goodman Orchestra), and others were made famous by the novel sound and versatile capability of the electric guitar.
By the mid-1930s, guitar manufacturing became US industry. Gibson’s ES-150, introduced in 1936, was one of the first attempts at marketing a consumer guitar. Gibson dominated the guitar market throughout the 1940s (when, during WWII, most guitar manufacturing was halted because of war manufacturing laws), until its viable contender, Fender, created the Fender Esquire in 1950. Following from the Esquire, Fender introduced the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and a line of electric bass guitars as well (an innovative alternative to the standard fretless double-bass).
As is often said, the rest is history. With the preliminary electronic inventions, the early virtuosos, and the top-quality manufacturing and marketing that America’s best had to offer, the electric guitar became one of, if not the, classic instrument of the 1950s and 1960s. 1950s jazz, blues, country and rock ran in new directions with the electric guitar. New players, considered legends today, such as Charlie Byrd, Johnny Guitar Watson, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley took the stage and gained worldwide acclaim for their skill and sound. 1960s players carried on the momentum – Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell in jazz, and the rise of the hippy movement and alternative rock styles in the UK and the US introduced an entirely new element to the music scene – with the electric guitar on center-stage.
The electric guitar continued through the rest of the 20th century to influence music in myriad ways, more that can be mentioned here. It became a work of art, a pop-culture icon, and an instrument of intense emotional power and personal expression. Legendary players, such as Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Slash, Carlos Santana, Angus Young, and Keith Richards became not only world famous, but also symbols of the freedom and power of the youth of a new and bold generation of individuals. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to consider the 20th century without the electric guitar.