This section will examine the impact of the electric guitar on American culture and society.

The Early Years: Planting the Seeds of Rebellion

Intially, the electric guitar was seen as little more than a curiosity in the U.S., a fad which would probably run its course and then go away. The early prototypes certantly left much to be desired in terms of musical quality, but the possibilities of what could be done with electric sound pushed guitar innovators onwards, even in the face of harsh detractors, most of whom were acoustic guitar purists. By the 1950s, even the electric guitar’s harshest critics realized that it was here to stay. [1] First appearing in big swing jazz bands and small time productions, performers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry would take the electric guitar to new heights by using it’s crisp sounds with their own flashy showmanship and an energetic, anti-authoritarian attitude to push the limits of contemporary social standards. Though these early efforts at anti-establishment tendencies seem tame to us today, such as Berry’s hit song, “Roll Over Beethoven,” gestures like these set the stage for future events. When younger audiences saw this charismatic, black pioneer of rock and roll singing about tossing out the old ways (Beethoven), it was unlike anything their parents had taught them before. The early 20th century had always been a time of social conformity and properness (or at least perceived properness) and here was a man and his guitar preaching what was to them, totally new ideas all while wailing on an electric guitar. It wouldn’t be until the 60s and 70s, however, that the electric guitar would be heartily embraced by a generation that was now primed and ready for change.[2]

The Electric Guitar’s Golden Age: The 1960s and 1970s

By the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Watergate and other political and social incidents set in motion a new movement in the United States, a movement away from the traditional social norms and modes of thinking of the early 20th century. Having lost faith in the “American Dream” many young Americans looked for an outlet to help them express their feelings of confusion and openness to new ways and new ideas. They found that outlet in the electric guitar. [3]

Continuing the theme of rebelliousness and change set up in the 50s, the electric guitar became the creative weapon of choice against “normal” society. Guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix, not to mention the many British guitar legends practicing at this time like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, would look for new and creative ways to express themselves with their instruments. This involved reverting back to the days of feedback [4], in order to truly push the limits of their instruments and to get away from the squeaky clean image of the early 20th century [5]. Many songs using the guitar took on anti-war messages and openly criticized American policies, like Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” There would also be entire concerts revolving around the electric guitar and political commentary which became legendary in their own time, such as Woodstock in 1969.
Various groups and genres took up the electric guitar to explore their messages through it during this time as well, such as the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Black guitarists like B.B. King would explore the blues with their electric guitars and the new wave of feedback-seekers to help them express their disappointment in America and to tell others of their trials and tribulations [6]. Women such as Bonnie Raitt dismissed entirely notions of what it meant to be a proper woman in society and helped other women find voices of their own through song, and more specifically, the electric guitar [7].

Raitt and King performing live together. 1

The 80s, 90s and Today

After the power house of emotion that was the 60s and 70s had become but a memory, the electric guitar regretfully seemed to loose some of its rebellious spirit. By the 80s there were no more huge social statutes to overthrow, no more outrageous wrongs to right, most of that had had major dents put in them during the previous two decades. Now, the electric guitar became more of a “cool” instrument. The music and players that revolved around it were still as anti-establishment as ever, but the political message and experimental nature seemed to have been lost. Guitarists like Eddie Van Halen would come onto the American scene with songs celebrating youth and life and emphasizing a party culture more than political revolution. This is not inherently bad, but it did remove a certain weight from the life of the electric guitar.

Later on in the 90s, however, guitarists like Kurt Cobain and Steve Vai realized what was happening to the guitar and would set out to lament the materialistic society American had become and reinvigorate the desire to explore the boundaries of electric guitar’s abilities, respectively.

Steve Vai, preparing back stage for a show with one of his experimental guitars. 2


The electric guitar has been, from its very inception, a tool of exploration. It has been used by Americans to examine themselves and the world around them. It has been at the center of some of the most important movements in our history and continues to be a symbol for recklessness and unorthodox methods.


1 – The Lemelson Center, “Invention,” The Invention of the Electric Guitar, (accessed April 9th, 2011).

2 – Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire ( London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999), 113-115.

3- Bruce Pollock, By the Time We Get to Woodstock (New York, NY: Backbeat Books, 2009), xi-xii.

4 – Waksman, Instruments, 137.

5 – Pollock, By the Time, 3-12.

6 – Waksman, Instruments, 137.

7 – Sheila Whiteley, ed., Sexing the Groove, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997), 39.



1 – Ed Roman, “Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King Performing Live,” 2008, (accessed April 11th, 2011).

2 – Rich Pike, “Steve Vai Back Stage,” 1999, (accessed April 11th, 2011).


Chuck Berry, Roll Over Beethoven, 2008, Youtube Video, (accessed April 11th, 2011).

Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix, Live at Woodstock, 2010, Youtube Video, (accessed April 11th, 2011).

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