History of the Electric Guitar!

While you probably have never heard the name ‘George Beauchamp’ before, if you play electric guitar, well then you owe him a debt of gratitude. Because it was Beauchamp, working with Adolph Rickenbacker (yes that Rickenbacker), who created the first commercially viable method of stringed-instrument amplification.


The first instrument to use an electromagnetic pickup,  click on the image to see every detail!


What Beauchamp and Rickenbacker invented was the electromagnetic pickup. While the creation of the Beauchamp/Rickenbacker pickup was the first commercially viable method of electric amplification, Lloyd Loar was experimenting with pickups as a method of amplification as early as 1923. Loar was working with electrostatic pickups that sensed vibrations in the soundboard. Gibson released the L-5 Electric that utilized Loar’s pickups in 1929. But as you probably already know, electromagnetic pickups–which work by passing a current of electricity through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, in turn creating a field that amplifies the strings’ vibrations–is what we have on modern electric guitars. The Beauchamp/Rickenbacker pickup was first released on a lap-steel known as the ‘Frying Pan’ in 1931.



1929 Gibson L-5


By the end of the 1930s, other manufacturers had begun experimenting with using electromagnetic pickups on traditional hollow-body Spanish-style guitars. While the pickups did successfully amplify the sound of the strings, there was a lot of distortion, overtone, and feedback caused by the hollow body of the instrument. In 1939 the Slingerland company released a solid-body Spanish-style guitar with electromagnetic pickups that solved a lot of these problems. The Slingerland guitar is the earliest known, commercially produced Spanish solid-body.

In the 1940’s, leo Fender worked with Paul Bigsby, experimenting with Spanish-style solid-body guitar design. In 1947, Paul Bigsby teamed up with country singer Merle Travis to design a solid-body guitar. Modern electric guitars closely resemble the result of Bigsby and Travis’s collaboration.




Fender Broadcaster

Fender was the first to successfully massproduce electric guitars with his 1950 introduction of The Broadcaster. In 1951 Fender had to change the name of the Broadcaster to the ‘Telecaster’ due to copyright infringement problems. That year he also introduced the Precision Bass. The ‘P Bass’ was played like a guitar and had frets so that it could be played with “precision.” It was also amplified, thus liberating bassists from unwieldy and increasingly difficult-to-hear acoustic basses.

In 1952, Gibson became Fender’s first serious competitor, introducing its own solid-body guitar named after Les Paul. The Les Paul quickly grew into a family of four models: the Junior, Special, Standard, and Custom. In 1954 Gibson introduced the tune-o-matic bridge on the Les Paul Custom, which is still the standard Gibson electric guitar bridge.

The same year that Gibson released the tuno-o-matic, Fender released something even bigger: it’s first Stratocaster. The Strat incorporated a third single-coil pickup, a sleekly contoured body, and a double cutaway design. Most important among the Strat’s new features was the addition of the new vibrato (or “tremolo”) bridge, an innovation intended to let guitarists bend strings to create a pedal steel-like sound. Later, in 1958 Fender would release the floating tremolo on its Jazzmaster guitar. The tremolo would become an important part of the rock sound in the late 1970s and 80s.




1954 Fender Stratocaster

In 1958 Gibson debuted a group of futuristic solidbodies. The ES-335 was an instant success, combining traditional archtop styling with modern, solidbody construction. However the Flying V, Explorer and Moderne proved to be decades ahead of their time. Gibson pushed on into the 1960s with two more bold solidbody lines–the double-cutaway SG model in 1961 and the reverse-body Firebird in 1963.

In in 1960 Fender released the Jazzmaster guitar and bass. Fender felt that the instruments’ redesigned neck–narrower and more rounded–would appeal to jazz musicians, but instead the instruments became very popular with surf rockers like The Beach Boys. The pickups were wide, white, “soapbar” pickups. Their coil is wound flat and wide, in contrast to Fender’s usual tall and thin coils. This gives them a warmer tone without losing clarity.


Of course this post doesn’t even really begin to scratch the surface of the electric guitar’s history, whole books have been written on the subject. But you get the general outline and major milestones. Hopefully in future posts I’ll be able to delve more deeply into specific sub-topics, and other guitar manufacturers’ contributions.

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