Electric guitars are found in bedrooms and rehearsal garages and performance venues all across the continent and beyond. Every day tens of thousands of people engage with a guitar in one way or another, whether music lessons or a garage band or as a pro player or songwriter. We now take for granted that virtually every Rock, Blues, Country or Indie band will likely have an electric guitar plugged into an amplifier and there are now thousands of products available to achieve that “right sound”.
Before becoming the instrument it is today the guitar took a transformative journey that removed it from its humble beginnings as an acoustic folk instrument. In the hands of great players and innovators It traveled from the dawn of household electricity into the digital age . The story of the Electric guitar is not only the story of the evolution of a musical instrument , it is equally the story of cultural and social identity in the most tumultuous century in human history.
The Electric Guitar evolved in concert with the emerging age of technology. It began as a simple acoustic instrument used primarily to accompany dancers and singers, with the inventions of the amplifier and microphone (or pickup) its once small sound could suddenly be heard loudly and clearly. With players like Charlie Christian the guitar’s folk and cowboy associations were being replaced by lyrical and virtuosic solos that were now being heard above horn sections. The once intimate and delicate nature of the instrument was becoming equally as dynamic as its cumbersome mechanical cousin, the piano.
As a direct result of amplification the F Hole hollow body guitar largely became the substitute for the banjo in the Dixie Era and became indispensable in the Swing bands of the 30’s and 40’s while also being used in hosts of smaller combos. The warmth of its sound became a favorite of many vocalists of the day and it continued to step up to an ever more important role in the sound of many vocal and jazz and popular recordings of the period.
By the 1950’s Les Paul had helped re-invent the electric guitar as a solid body instrument. During the same period he also brought to life the modern multi-track recording machine. Through the decade he and his wife Mary Ford had 16 top ten hits including renditions of songs like How High the Moon and Tennessee Waltz . What made their popularity particularly remarkable was that these hits were being recorded primarily with a guitar, a voice and the new marvel of multi track recording while the chart topping crooners of the day were using entire bands and orchestras to achieve similar results. This new “electric” guitar sound and multi-track technology was soon to become the foundation of modern Rock music but that complete realization was still slightly over a decade away.
Through this popularity in pop music guitars became a consumer item and could now be purchased in catalogues and department stores all over North America. This same popularity was also instrumental in nourishing a new supply chain of Mom and Pop music stores from Coast to Coast who not only offered the latest products from an ever increasing number of manufacturers but also music lessons for legions of young students wanting to capture this new sound.
The leisure time of the post second world war sock hop and juke box generation was being lived with a soundtrack provided by Electric guitars. Instrumental artists such as the Ventures, Duane Eddy, Link Ray and Santo and Johnny brought the sweet sound not only to the top 40 charts but to the popular imagination in living rooms throughout North America and Europe.
While very white artists like Eddie Fisher and Patti Page dominated the charts in the conservative cold war early 50’s there was a new music being heard on juke boxes and “Race Music” radio programs that was very different and was quickly being adopted as the music of the “new generation”. Rock and Roll artists like Little Richard and Bo Diddley joined artists like Elvis and Buddy Holly who quickly adopted the style . Chuck Berry with his signature clearly “electric” guitar sound was putting his indelible mark on the future with songs like Maybelline and Johnny Be Good. His aggressive vocal and playing style planted in the roots of the Blues were laying the groundwork for the new wave of singers and guitar slingers for generations to come.
Entering the 60’s American Popular Music continued to struggle in defining itself, Ray Charles started singing country, Surfer bands singing surfer songs, manufactured dance crazes, girls singing about Parties and unfortunate hits like Sukiyaki and Sugar Shack and Puff the Magic Dragon made it seem like Rock and Roll was being put to death by an overdose of stupid. Had it not been for a new resurgence in England we may have been lost. It seemed there was something real going on in England? There were young bands with names like the Animals , the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles that were causing a fuss not only with suits and haircuts but by the fact that they seemed to be back into something that America was now burying in string arrangements, weird dances and Vegas style narcissism.
The jukebox and blues music of America had been taking root in Britain since the late 50’s and by 1962 had fused into Mersey Beat. The evolution of the electric guitar was about to get the biggest boost in its history and the soon to be British Invasion was destined to begin a metamorphosis of not only popular music but of popular culture and it was doing so by revisiting the original themes of American roots music.
This led to yet another convergence of technology and music, a television appearance by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th, 1964 ensured the Invasion was to soon become a full on occupation. The new mass media through radio and television was proving its new found power and influence. The new baby boomer generation had been exposed to the new music and now they wanted more and more meant live performances.
By 1965 the Fab Four answered their succession of number one hits with an American tour which included a concert appearance at Shea Stadium in New York . This was a “music” event that was being held in an arena that was designed for baseball games, not rock concerts, besides, what was a “Rock Concert”?
It became apparent almost immediately that not only was this the beginning of something entirely new but so were the demands of meeting those requirements. The Vox amplifiers being used for the Shea event were entirely adequate for a large nightclub but what were they doing on a stage in a football field in the middle of 55,000 people. In fact there was no equipment that was adequate for this type of event, it had not yet been designed or manufactured. This was uncharted territory with a seemingly limitless frontier of demand that would stretch to ever new horizons.
This challenge to get sound to large audiences created opportunity for innovation and new products previoulsy unimagined. Companies that once wired stadium public address systems for sporting events and dog shows now began designing sound systems for massive audiences wanting to hear bands from a block away. Guitar and amplifier manufacturers tried to play catch up with this completely new type of demand for the modern performer.
As far as the audiences were concerned they were changing too. Now, not only did they want to “hear “the bands but more so they also wanted to “experience” the bands.
PA’s needed to be much much bigger and much better, drum kits now needed to be miked, stage monitoring had to be designed to actually be a real reference for the whole band, microphones needed to reject feedback at these new unheard of decibel levels and the guitar had to embrace all of these new requirements while stepping out front.
Because of these new db levels the guitar had to reject feedback which now meant that Les Paul’s and Fender Stratocasters manufactured over a decade earlier started to become the practical choices for this new wave of loud Rock. The older style hollow body electrics that had been ubiquitous during the 50’s were falling into disfavor as something of an anachronism due to the fact that they were just too problematic in these new hi gain stage environments. Besides that, the sleek and slim designs and finishes of the new solid bodies just seemed to esthetically fit within the new and fashionable milieu of electric music.
The Vox and Fender night club combo amps began sharing the market with the 100 watt Marshall double stacks as well as other similar seismic event creating amps including Hi- Watt and Orange. Not only did this begin to make the guitar players very loud but it also created a new sound and an entirely new playing technique. This playing technique borrowed the note bends of the great electric blues traditionalists such as Albert King, BB King and
T Bone Walker and added the infinite sustain and complex harmonics of this new breed of amps and then put them in the hands of the second wave of British music that by now was passionately embracing this new electric sound and amp technology .
The Yardbirds were a hard hitting heavily American blues influenced British rock band that at one time or another had Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck in their ranks. Out of this hot house of rock guitar came The Cream , Truth with Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin. The electric guitar had now arrived with an explosion that became nuclear when Jimi Hendrix reclaimed the American territory by intercepting a missile marked “Marshall” and fired it back with an upside down rock launcher called a Strat. His earth shattering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 asked the question: “Are You Experienced” and the audience had to admit, it was not.
A single guitar and amp could now achieve decibel levels greater than an entire symphony orchestra and Hendrix wielded this new power without restraint, he was the embodiment of a revolution. He unabashadely used all the screaming inconsistencies of the new sounds as strengths and with them forged a new sensual modern art. Despite all of his unconstrained abstract impressionistic madness he was still firmly rooted in the blues tradition. This combined with powerful technique and musicality put him at the forefront of defining the electrified instrument, the amplifier and guitar in his hands had truly become one.
This was one of the most profound marriages of art, technology and the creative spirit in human history and put the electric guitar at the center of the ceremony. The once quiet, romantic and expressive acoustic folk instrument had found a new voice in an electronic amplifier and an American blues guitar player.