Electric guitars have such an iconic look and sound that it’s hard to imagine a world without them.
These humble six-stringed lumps of wood aren’t just legendary in their own right – they’ve created countless legends!
How did this magical instrument appear seemingly out of nowhere, and change the face of modern music in a just few short decades?
Necessity is the mother of invention
Acoustic guitars have been around for a long, long time. They work perfectly as a solo instrument, or to accompany a singer– but in larger ensembles, the acoustic guitar just couldn’t cut it.
Something had to be done.
And in the true spirit of electric guitar, the solution was more volume!
“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” (Credit: Embassy Pictures)
Getting amped up
People were trying to amplify acoustic instruments as early as the 1910s but had little success.
Some attempts included:
- Placing a modified telephone transmitter inside the guitar body
- Attaching carbon microphones to the bridge
None of these ideas had the desired outcome – either resulting in a weak signal or too much feedback.
What we really needed was something to directly “pick up” the magnetic signal from the strings 🧐
The ‘Frying Pan’
The Rickenbacker Electro A-22, AKA the "Frying Pan," is considered to be the first example of an electric guitar.
Although this was a lap steel, the technology was transferable to other types of guitar.
- The real importance of this instrument was the magnetic pickup.
- Another important discovery was that the resonance of an acoustic guitar body generates unwanted feedback.
- This led to the idea of using a smaller, solid body for electric guitars.
Now we’re cooking! Left to right: Prototype, patent, and finished product. (Images: Wikipedia)
The shape of things to come
In the 1940s and 1950s two titans emerged: Gibson and Fender. Their impact on guitar, and music in general, can’t be overstated.
Timeless aesthetics and iconic tones have cemented two particular models above all others – the Les Paul and the Stratocaster.
Here are a few distinguishing features that set them apart.
Gibson Les Paul
Notable players: Jimmy Page, Slash, Zakk Wylde, Gary Moore, and don’t forget Mr. Les Paul himself!
- Humbucker pickups solved the buzzing issue found in single coils.
- This innovation was a big benefit to rock guitarists using heavy distortion.
- Set neck construction made the Les Paul famous for its sustain.
Notable players: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Frusciante.
- The double cutaway allows easy access to the higher frets.
- Fender’s tremolo arm opened up a world of new sounds.
- Three single-coil pickups made the strat tonally versatile.
- The bolt-on neck creates a brighter, more ‘snappy’ tone.
Rock ‘n’ roll
Chuck Berry on stage in 1951 (Image credit: Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Armed with these groundbreaking new instruments, the guitarists of the 1950s put them to use breaking ground of their own – in the form of rock ‘n’ roll!
- Visionaries like Chuck Berry harnessed the instrument's energy and versatility to craft songs that resonated with the era's rebellious spirit.
- The electric guitar's capacity to shift between clean, melodic tones and raw, distorted power became a defining characteristic of the genre.
The pioneering nature of the electric guitar made a big impression on young musicians everywhere. Would they continue to explore and experiment with the possibilities of this new instrument?
It’s safe to say there was plenty of experimentation happening in the 60s.
A newfound sense of freedom, and advancements in recording technology, created what many consider to be the greatest decade for music.
Here are some important moments:
Surf music was everywhere at the start of the decade.
- Characterized by fast alternate picking lines, a twangy single-coil tone, and spring reverb.
- The genre may have died down, but influences from the California surf sound can still be heard today.
The British invasion: Bands from the UK including The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones found huge success ‘across the pond’ in the United States.
Psychedelic rock emerged in the mid 60s with bands like Pink Floyd, The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane.
At the very end of the decade, free love and peace were being pushed aside. Rock music was getting darker and heavier with bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin appearing on the scene.
Hold on… we just went through the 60s without mentioning the man who literally set the guitar scene on fire!
Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967
There were many incredible guitar players throughout the 1960s, but none were more influential than Hendrix.
Arguably the most innovative electric guitar player ever, with a unique sound and string of trademark techniques.
- Utilizing feedback
- Whammy insanity
- Expressive Wah
- Screaming fuzz-drenched tone
- Reverse guitar solos
- On-stage antics
Behind all the theatrics and wild sound, there was some very clever guitar playing going on.
- Hendrix was a master of connecting chords and scales across the fretboard.
- He could move seamlessly between rhythm and lead playing by blending chords and melodies into one.
To learn more about his approach to guitar playing check out our Hendrix CAGED course.
There came a point where some rock bands were getting so heavy, that a distinction needed to be made – heavy metal was born 🤘
The genre splitting didn’t stop there. Many popular subgenres emerged in the 1970s: Progressive, doom, glam, thrash, the list goes on.
Despite their differences there was one commonality – guitar riffs.
The era of riffs
In the wake of Hendrix, guitarists were looking for ways to make a name for themselves as individuals – not just band members. There’s not always an opportunity for a big solo, but every good rock/metal song needs at least one riff.
- It’s like a guitarist’s personal stamp on a song.
- As electric guitars became more widely available, hobbyists began playing along to their favorite records.
- If other guitarists are trying to learn how to play your riffs – you win!
Sometimes the popularity can backfire. Many infamous riffs from this period are banned in guitar stores around the world.
Similar to the endless covers of Playing God on Instagram. It’s okay at first, but eventually, you just want it to stop.
Get shreddy for the 80s
What a time to be alive! Big hair, unsettlingly tight spandex, and luminous pointy guitars.
Many of the shred gods you know and love have turned their back on their heavily-permed roots, but we’ll never forget.
The fashion wasn’t the only gift we received from our 80s guitar heroes. There were some serious innovations in techniques and gear.
The idea behind the superstrat was to take the form factor of the Stratocaster and modernize it to keep up with this new wave of shredders.
The most notable additions:
- 24 frets instead of the standard 21 on a classic strat.
- Locking tremolo system such as a Floyd Rose.
- Thinner neck profile – a famous example being the ‘Wizard Neck’ from Ibanez.
- Different pickup configurations, usually a combination of humbuckers and single coils (HSH or HSS).
These advancements allowed guitarists to push their instruments even further.
80s guitar techniques
New equipment leads to new discoveries. Here are a few techniques that gained popularity in the shred era.
- Tapping: Eddie Van Halen blew people's minds with this two-handed technique, made easier by the jumbo frets and low action of his ‘Frankenstrat’.
- Dive bombs: A locking trem helps to keep strings in tune under heavy whammy use.
- Trem flutter: This only became possible with the introduction of the floating bridge.
- Pinch harmonics: ‘Hotter’ high output pickups accentuated harmonics that usually go unheard.
What happened next?
You can’t be the new kid forever. After nearly 40 years of being the center of attention, the electric guitar was no longer a novelty, but a respected staple of contemporary music.
90s and 00s
The grunge era saw young musicians turn their focus away from shredding and back to songwriting. Bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam used a more raw, unpolished sound to get their message across.
In the 2000s there was a revival in acoustic guitar music. Players like Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, and John Mayer went back to basics and unplugged for a while.
The millennium also saw guitarists blending electronic elements into their music, especially in the progressive metal scene – check out Animals as Leaders and Periphery for examples of this.
The dust has settled from the electric guitar explosion, but that doesn’t mean the story is over. Musicians and engineers are still working to keep the guitar world fresh and exciting.
- Extended range guitars have been gaining popularity thanks to modern players like Tim Henson and Tosin Abasi.
- Amp modelers and plugins just keep getting better – experimenting with tones has never been easier.
Technology has also made learning guitar more affordable and effective than it’s ever been – if you want to see for yourself, make use of this 14-day free trial.
Next time you pick up your guitar, take a moment to appreciate the history and combined efforts of all the artists who helped shape this amazing culture!
Author: Richard Spooner
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