Invention and Adoption

This section will explore the invention of the first electric guitar, it’s development and the various forms it took as inventors experimented with it’s design.

Early Experiments

The first electrified instruments were really just acoustic instruments with pickups placed inside them . Radio broadcasting technology of the late 19th century and early 20th inspired many musical inventors such as George Breed and Llyod Loar to apply amplification technology to instruments [1]. Unfortunately, their early prototypes had many feedback issues with early amplifiers since pick up technology was in such an early and imperfect stage of its development. Various inventors would work on this problem, eventually overcoming it and producing high quality amplified acoustic guitars. At the time, however, many other inventors moved on the idea to simply create a guitar specifically designed for use with an amplifier instead of just converting acoustics. [2]

The Frying Pan

The patent for the first commercially successful electric guitar was issued in 1937 to Texan inventor George Beauchamp and his partners Adolph Rickenbacker and Paul Barth. Their creation was a lap-held, solid bodied (as in, a single piece of solid wood or steel constituted the body) Hawaiian style, steel guitar nicknamed the “Rickenbacker Frying Pan” because of it’s unique shape. Its success was due to its innovative “horseshoe” pickup design which solved many (but not all) of the feedback issues held by earlier electric instruments. Beauchamp and his partners formed the Ro-Pat-In Corporation in 1931 and quickly produced and marketed the “Rickenbacker Frying Pan” immediately after receiving the patent. Though it never became truly popular in the U.S. outside Hawaii, the “Frying Pan” was eagerly bought up by curious guitarists who wanted to see what this new and innovative guitar could do.[3]

Beauchamp's original 1937 patent. 1

The Solid Body Alternative

While Beauchamp’s design was intriguing and progressive, most guitarists in the 1930s and 40s did not like the lap-held design of this steel guitar, having developed their skills by playing Spanish style, strap-held acoustic guitars with which they could stand up and move around as they played. This led several guitar innovators to try to improve upon Beauchamp’s designs and adapt them to solid body, Spanish style guitars. One of the most successful early models was developed in 1940 by Wisconsin born inventor Les Paul. Paul’s guitar, called “the Log,” exploited a pine wood solid body with pickups that were mounted above the body and closer the the strings to minimize body vibrations and further help reduce feedback problems. Unfortunately, this design was very thick which made it quite heavy and was not adopted widely by many players after it’s initial release [4].

Les Paul's "Log" would serve as an example for future solid body guitar designs. 2

Fender Proliferates the Guitar

George Fullerton (left) and Leo Fender, co-creators of the Telecaster. 3

Following Les Paul’s design came another guitar-making legend, Leo Fender. He, along with his business partner George Fullerton, designed and sold the first successful mass produced electric guitar called the “Telecaster.” Fender and Fullerton wanted to make an instrument which appealed to a mass market and set out to question other guitarists about what it was they wanted from an electric guitar. They soon found that a guitar which was easy to repair and maintain was key to marketing electric guitars, since there were no electric guitar repair shops around in the 1940s. So, in 1949 Fender and Fullerton built a guitar which had many easily replaceable parts, a lighter pine wood body than the Log and revolutionary pickups that eliminated the feedback problem altogether. [5] They dubbed it the “Telecaster,” and by 1952 it became the first successfully mass produced guitar in the U.S., being produced by Fender’s first company “Fender’s Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company” (now know as Fender Musical Instruments Corporation). The Telecaster’s design is so ingenious and efficent that it still remains in use today with few variations or improvements. Where other earlier inventors such as Beauchamp had created electric guitars which merely sold well, Fender and Fullerton were able to create an easily accessible guitar whose popularity spread across the U.S. like wildfire. The Telecaster was then adopted as the gold standard for electric guitars from the 1950s onward, upon which other electric guitars would be based. [6]

A 1961 Telecaster. This version differs only slightly from the original 1949 design. 4

Moving On

The next 60 years saw no more ground breaking innovations in guitar making, but was still subject to much experimentation in what could be done to the sounds style of electric guitars and growth in the electric guitar industry. Various guitar companies would emerge to rival Fender and become eventually big names in the U.S. such as Gibson and Dean as well as foreign companies like Ibanez. New accessories for altering and manipulating electric guitar sound would also be developed like the foot pedal for changing distortion effects and tones on the fly and the tremolo, or “whammy,” bar to provide trembling and wavy sound effects. Since the majority of an electric guitar’s body is not filled with any components, guitarists are also free to experiment with their own guitar designs, crafting hand-made custom guitars that are as much a piece of art as the music they make. [7]

Some guitars can be made into works of art themselves.

It is because of all this incredible versatility in sound, look and playability that they electric guitar found its way into the American music scape, infiltrating genres like blues, rock and roll, jazz and country and was able to appeal to so many different people. It could be smooth, quiet, loud, rough, almost anything you wanted it to be and more.

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1 – Nick Freeth and Charles Alexander, The Electric Guitar (Surrey, England: Courage Books, 1999), 14-15, 18-19.

2 – The Lemelson Center, “Invention,” The Invention of the Electric Guitar, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/electricguitar/invention.htm (accessed April 11th, 2011).

3 – Rickenbacker, “The Earliest Days of the Electric Guitar,” Rickenbacker, http://www.rickenbacker.com/history_early.asp (accessed April 11th, 2011).

4 – Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire (Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 1999), 37-45.

5 – George Fullerton, Guitars from George and Leo (Milwaukee, WI:  Hal Leonard Corporation, 2005), 232-237.

6 – Ibid, 253, 268-286.

7 – The Lemson Center, http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/electricguitar/invention.htm (accessed April 9th, 2011).

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Image Sources

1 – George D. Beauchamp, “The Electrical Stringed Musical Insturment,” patent no.2089171, August 10, 1931, United States Patent and Trademark Office. Quick link (accessed February 9th, 2011).

2 – Julio A. Ibarra, “Les Paul and his Log,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/08/13/obituaries/0813-LESPAUL_8.html (accessed April 11th, 2011).

3 – G&L Guitars, “George and Leo,” 1980, http://www.glguitars.com/about-GL/index2.asp (accessed April 11th, 2011).

4 – Andy Summers, “1961 Fender Telecaster,” 2007, http://andysummers.com/wordpress/2007/03/21/fender-guitar/ (accessed April 11th, 2011).

5 – Doug Rowell, “Jewelled Jesus Fender Stratocaster,” 1969, http://www.xigre.com/articles/music/Weirdest_guitars_in_the_world.html (accessed April 11th, 2011).

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