Soaring riffs and the screech of strings quivering between fingers and frets as they explode into life, the guitar has been a central facet of music since its introduction in the 16th century. But its iconic status in modern music, catapulting the most gifted to global fame, would have been impossible without the foundation of the electric guitar.
This is the first in a blog series that will focus on both the diverse world of electric guitar design, as well as the influential artists who shaped rock guitar history from the early 20th century to the modern day. In this quick introduction to the electric guitar, we’ll explore the acoustic origins of this instrument, the players who popularized it, and its current status in the world of music.
Footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe shredding a gospel solo on the track “Up Above My Head” has become iconic to rock history
The Birth of the Electric Guitar
In 1928, the now familiar crackle of an amp rang out as it kicked on, and the first electric guitar strings hummed to life.
Big band music was steadily gaining popularity throughout the 1920s, and there was an increasing need for a guitar sound that could soar above the sea of horns and drums. The electric guitar was born out of necessity, but would soon take on a life of its own. As music continued to evolve in the mid-20th century, it would became a cornerstone of rock and roll, and, arguably, the most iconic instrument of all time.
But the electric guitar could not have achieved its worldwide renown without the players who breathed life into it. The instrument saw its earliest uses in the big band jazz and blues of the early 1900s, but it is also quintessentially tied to the legacy of Black gospel in American music.
Often dubbed the godmother of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) is credited as one of the first musicians to bring electric guitar to gospel music with her 1944 track “Rock Me.” Though she found her start with acoustic and amplified hollow-body guitars, Tharpe would go on to be an early adopter of the solid-body electric with her early 1960s white custom Gibson SG. Footage of her shredding a gospel solo on the track “Up Above My Head” has become iconic to rock history.
Influencing artists like Chuck Berry, Etta James, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan, Tharpe’s unique playing paved a new path in the world of amplified music. To see her plucking out a bluesy solo on her white SG during a 1964 performance of “This Train,” check out the video below.
The First Spark
Long before the solid-body electrics of the late 1940s and early 1950s, people were toying with the idea of amplified string instruments.
The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company added amplification to their line of upright basses and violas in 1924, but it was Chicago’s Stromberg-Voisinet (formerly the Groeshel Mandolin Company) who put the first electric guitars on the market four years later. This instrument line included guitars, tenor guitars, mandolins, and banjos, all of which were fully hollow like their acoustic predecessors.
While the output of an acoustic guitar depends entirely on the amplification of the wood body and the player’s hands, electrics receive their extra power from simple physics; as the strings vibrate, the guitar’s pickups (essentially magnets wrapped in wire) translate these impulses into an electrical current. This travels down the instrument cable and into an amplifier, creating those unique crunch, twang, and thrum sounds that have so thoroughly saturated modern music. At the time of the original Stromberg-Voisinet electrics, however, those delectable tones were difficult to attain, as their pickups only registered vibrations from the tail end of the body.
This fundamental problem was solved in 1931 with the release of George Beauchamp’s Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” lap steel guitar, equipped with pickups that would detect vibrations from the strings themselves. Allowing for more desirable tone and powerful amplification, this innovation would open the door for the electric guitar market to diversify into the constantly evolving industry we see today.
The Electric Guitar Evolves
As demand for louder music increased in the mid-20th century, hollow-body electric guitars began experiencing signal feedback on stage. To combat howling, screaming amps, the first solid-body electric guitars hit the market in 1949 in the form of the Fender Esquire, an early form of the Fender Telecaster (Tele).
The solid-body guitar market would explode over the next decade, leading to the introduction of the Gibson Les Paul, SG, Firebird, Flying V, and Explorer, and the Fender Stratocaster (Strat) and Precision and Jazz basses. Alongside these titanic companies, brands like Epiphone, Danelectro, Rickenbacker, and Ibanez saw their starts in the solid-body electric guitar world throughout the 1950s.
Certain guitar designs found purchase with famous players, and some of these musician-instrument relationships have become legendary.
While he also played Gibson SGs and Flying Vs, Jimi Hendrix holding his left-handed, upside-down Fender Stratocaster is iconic to rock and roll imagery, and his mastery of this instrument continues to inspire Strat players to this day.
While other notable rock guitar pioneers of the 20th century inherently tied to their signature guitars, include Keith Richards and his butterscotch Telecaster, Chuck Berry and his red ES-355, Prince and his Madcat Tele, Eric Clapton and his black Strat, Angus Young of ACDC and his red SG, Eddie Van Halen’s custom Frankenstrat, and Sir Brian May’s handmade Red Special. But while these guitars may have facilitated the rise of these players to stardom, it is certainly the skill of these musicians and their ongoing relationships with their instruments that have solidified them in rock history.
In future installments of this series, we’ll examine these artists and their guitars in depth, homing in on the legacies of these historic instruments. We’ll also take a look at notable guitar models and companies, great up-and-coming guitarists, and the innovative ways that modern luthiers are pushing the electric guitar to its absolute limit.
For a deeper look at the histories of the most renowned guitar players and other musicians, be sure to check out our artist and city tours app.