History of the Electric Guitar

Kevin Ott
Man Playing Guitar

The electric guitar arguably became the defining instrument of twentieth century popular culture. Its origins began in the early twentieth century and progressed quickly as manufacturers evolved, and as multiple music genres and influential musicians fell in love with the electric guitar's unique sound.

Electric Guitar Timeline

The electric guitar has evolved over time.

Development

Gibson and Rickenbacker, names still well-known for guitars, were instrumental in the early development of electric guitars.

  • 1922-1924: An engineer named Lloyd Loar at the Gibson factory discovers a magnet can take the vibrations of a guitar string and turn them into electrical signals. This is the first major step toward the electric guitar.
  • August 1927: The American Musical Instruments company develops the first amplifier, which is originally meant for a phonograph. It later becomes adapted for electric guitar.
  • January 1931: Adolph Rickenbacker takes a lap-steel guitar made of aluminum and attaches an electromagnetic pickup to it. He calls it the "Frying Pan." This is considered the first official electric guitar although it is not fully electric. It has a hollow body and one pickup for all the strings, which produces an uneven sound.
  • 1930s: Rickenbacker's invention kick starts the Hawaiian music craze of the '30s.
  • August 1940: A scientist named Sidney Wilson creates the first modern electric guitar. He discovers that adding a dedicated pickup to each string balances the sound. He also makes the body solid instead of hollow to remove unwanted feedback. His guitar wins first prize at the North Carolina science fair, but he never files a patent for it, and Fender and Gibson later use the idea.
  • June 1941: Les Paul creates his version of a solid body electric guitar, which he calls the Log, and its superb sound makes the guitar a success.

Ongoing Innovation

Legends of music start to use the electric guitar, which helps its popularity rise, and guitar makers respond with innovations.

  • 1949: Legendary blues guitarist B. B. King releases his first album. His guitar playing eventually sets the standard for blues guitar and influences millions of electric guitar players.
  • September 1951: Leo Fender, founder of guitar maker Fender, releases the company's first electric guitar, the Broadcaster, later named the Telecaster in 1952. This is a prelude to the famous Stratocaster. Fender guitars succeed because they're designed for mass assembly with interchangeable parts, making it easy for players to customize and work on the guitar.
  • 1952: Les Paul releases its groundbreaking Les Paul Goldtop models, which introduce important innovations to guitar design--everything from pickups and tune-o-matics to tone knobs and neck angle--between golden years of Les Paul from 1952 to 1957. These guitars changed the face and sound of the not just rock and roll but popular music as a whole.
  • 1953: Elvis Presley releases his first no. 1 hit, The Heartbreak Hotel, which changes popular culture and opens the door for the reign of rock and roll electric guitar.
  • July 1954: Fender releases the Stratocaster, which introduces its now-famous, innovative three-pickup design. Up until that point, no major commercial guitar had incorporated any more than two pickups.
  • May 1955: Chuck Berry, the legendary guitarist and singer of early rock and roll, signs his first record deal with Chess Records.
  • May 1955: Gibson invents the first humbucker pickup, an innovative pickup that is double-wound to provide noise cancellation and create a cleaner sound.
  • 1956: Johnny Cash releases I Walk The Line, a classic example of Cash's "chicken pickin'" style that has a huge influence on both rock and country music for generations to come.
  • March 1957: 13-year-old Jimmy Page, the future guitarist of Led Zeppelin, is nationally recognized in England when he appears on a BBC show playing guitar.

New Looks and New Sounds

As musicians experiment withe instrument, they develop new sounds centered on the electric guitar.

  • March 1958: Chuck Berry releases his guitar-driven classic Johnny B. Goode, which further cements the iconic sound of the electric guitar in the popular conscious.
  • August 1958: Gibson releases the Flying V guitar, the first electric guitar designed to look stylish with less emphasis on its sound. The visual appeal of guitar is becoming rooted in popular culture.
  • 1958-1960: The term Nashville Sound is coined to describe the smoother version of guitar playing and country music production coming out of Nashville to balance out the rowdy, rough honky tonk music of '40s and '50s country music. Guitarist Chet Atkins helps create this sound as he expands the electric guitar's influence and uses it to innovate an entire genre.
  • Late 1950s and 1960s: California-based West coast country artists Buck Owens and Merle Haggard create the Bakersfield Sound, a rougher, grittier version of country that intentionally defies the smooth orchestra-soaked sound of Nashville country. Its heavy use of twangy, stripped down electric guitar gives the instrument yet another decisive role in creating a new sub-genre of music.

From Instrument to Iconic

As the appeal of the electric guitar reaches new audiences, it goes from being just another instrument to an iconic part of music history.

  • November 1961: FM radio is approved by the FCC, and it becomes the primary platform for the electric guitar through a variety of genres from rock and blues to folk, funk, and soul.
  • June 1962: The Beatles sign their first record contract. Their distinct melodic rock use of the electric guitar transcends all genres of music and makes the electric guitar an iconic part of culture. They also kick start the British Invasion, marked by other electric guitar icons like The Rolling Stones and The Who, who contribute their own evolved sound to the instrument.
  • February 1967: Del Casher introduces his new invention, the Wah-Wah Pedal, which becomes an iconic force in shaping the guitar sound, especially when Jimi Hendrix gets ahold of it and shows the world what amazing sounds it can make.
  • 1967: John Fogerty's band officially changes its name to Creedence Clearwater Revival and adds to the evolution of electric guitar by giving it a distinct sound and infusing the music with politics, one of the first bands to link the sound of electric guitar with protest and political commentary.
  • May 1967: Jimi Hendrix releases his first album Are You Experienced? and astonishes the music industry with his unprecedented, innovative use of the electric guitar, creating sounds that no one had heard before. His work is the first to bring the electric guitar in the realm of both virtuoso performance and psychedelic creativity, and he trail blazes the use of effect pedals and feedback that would become widespread in the '70s and '80s.
  • August 1969: The Woodstock Festival brings half a million people together to listen to their guitar heroes play their best songs, including Jimi Hendrix who epitomizes that politically charged musical era with his revolutionary electric guitar style.
  • 1970s: During a decade when the quality of American electric guitars was become complacent, Japanese guitar companies like Aria make replicas of Les Paul and other famous guitar models. The duplicates not only rival the American-made originals, but are better in some cases, which prompts law suits from the American companies.
  • 1971: Led Zeppelin releases their landmark album Led Zeppelin IV, which contains the eight-minute long electric guitar classic Stairway To Heaven. The album goes on to sell 37 million copies over the next four decades. Led Zeppelin not only stretches the capabilities of the electric guitar, they also introduce the era of album rock and arena concerts.
  • 1976: The band U2 forms with guitarist The Edge, whose unusually effective, creative, but simple playing style popularizes the use of another effect pedal, the delay pedal (also known as an echo box). U2's trademark echo guitar sound soon fills the popular center of music when U2 later becomes one of the biggest bands in rock history.
    U2
    U2
  • 1980s: Guitar virtuosos of the '60s and '70s, like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, just to name a few, inspire metal guitarists of the '80s to make guitar solo acrobatics the center of popular music, leading to such rock icons as Eddie Van Halen and Slash from Guns 'n Roses.
  • Late 1980s and 1990s: The electric guitar continues to spread into a staggering variety of genres, from Metallica's landmark Black album, Pearl Jam's neo-classic rock anthems, and Nirvana's epic grunge fest Nevermind to hip hop and EDM.

The Electric Guitar in the 21st Century

With the revolutionary appearance of the internet, smart devices, wireless technology, and artificial intelligence, the current cutting edge developments in the electric guitar reveal, if nothing else, that it has a very interesting future ahead.

In 2007, for example, Gibson released the Robot Guitar, a self-tuning instrument with robotic tuning machines that automatically tune the guitar to the player's desired setting.

In 2017, there are guitars that send their notes to the amp over WiFi without losing any fidelity (unlike older radio wireless systems) and Wond guitars that use sensors in extraordinary ways, such as letting a guitarist cause a note to sustain or vibrate with incredible expressiveness by simply squeezing the guitar a little harder.

From the 'Frying Pan' Into the Fire

The guitar is directly responsible for the creation of many of the primary genres of popular culture, and it has spread out into so many other genres since the 1930s that the electric guitar has done more to shape the identity of culture than almost any other artistic invention of modern times. To think it all started with a little guitar in 1931 nicknamed "The Frying Pan."

History of the Electric Guitar