The Evolution of the Electric Guitar

by Zach Wendkos

A long and mighty history, owing itself to a lineage of equally mighty individuals, has brought the Electric Guitar out of the treetops of imagination and into the walking flesh of our lives. The Electric Guitar has survived and thrived through ongoing periods of natural selection, hybridism and fruitful bouts of geographical distribution; creating what we have today; seen as the pinnacle of modern technologies.

Now, let this humble story on the development of the Electric Guitar stand as testament to the true origin of our beloved instrument. May it ne’er find itself cast under the dross of stagnant history, may it ne’er cease to inspire. May we carry forth into the unseen future the continued growth of the wondrous and ever-evolving Electric Guitar.

1931: The Rickenbacker “Frying Pan”

frying-pan-guitarThe “frying pan” was the first electric guitar ever produced. The instrument was created in 1931 by George Beauchamp, and subsequently manufactured by Rickenbacker Electro. The instrument earned its name because its shape resembles a frying pan: it has a flat, circular body, and the neck represents the “handle.” It was a lap steel guitar designed to cash in on the popularity of Hawaiian music during the 1930s. Beauchamp and machinist Adolph Rickenbacker began selling the Frying Pan in 1932; however, Beauchamp was not awarded a patent for his idea until 1937, a fact that allowed other guitar companies to produce electric guitars during the same period.

1935: The Rickenbacker “Electro String”

electro-string-guitarThis electric guitar was called the Bakelite Spanish Guitar. Bakelite is an early form of plastic used to make records, billiard balls, and telephone receivers in the early 1900′s. Electro String was the original company that created the guitar. Electro String later changed its name to Rickenbacker. Adolph Rickenbacker had maintained other interests throughout Electro String’s short history; he never had as much faith in the guitar business as his partners. Nevertheless, he continued instrument making until 1953 when he sold the company to F.C. Hall, a leading figure in the post-WWII Southern California music business. That sale marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, the dawn of modern Rickenbacker guitars.

1941: Les Paul “Log”

les-paul-log-guitarThe Les Paul “Log” was created by Les Paul after persuading Epiphone to let him use their workshop on Sundays. A Gibson pickup was mounted onto a 4″ x 4″ block of solid maple wood with the string, to avoid the feedback problems that acoustic/electric guitar had at the time. For the sake of appearance, he attached the body of an Epiphone hollow-body guitar, sawn lengthwise with The Log in the middle. This solved his two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body. These instruments were constantly being improved and modified over the years, and Paul continued to use them in his recordings long after the development of his eponymous Gibson model.

1947: Bigsby-Travis Guitar

bigsby-travis-guitarIn the 1940s, Paul Bigsby, best known as the creator of the “Bigsby Vibrato”, was a foreman in a machine shop owned by Albert Crocker of the Crocker Motorcycle Company. Bigsby’s love of motorcycles and country-western music led to a friendship with country-western singer Merle Travis. The seeds of Bigsby’s subsequent career with his signature vibrato design were most likely planted the day Travis asked him if he could fix a Kaufman vibrato unit. He did more than fix it. Bigsby created a whole new system. The creation had something that would subsequently prove very important in the development of solidbody electric guitars — all six tuners on one side of the headstock as opposed to the three-a-side headstocks popular at the time (and, of course, still popular on many electric solid bodies).

1948: Fender Broadcaster (Telecaster)

fender-telecaster-broadcaster-guitarOnce Leo Fender had parted ways with his partner “Doc” Kauffman, he set out to create a guitar that concentrated on utility and practicality, and less on design aesthetics. He wanted to create a regular guitar that had the clear sound similar to the sound coming from the electric Hawaiian guitars, but without the feedback problems. The result was a two-pickup model named the Broadcaster. From this point onwards all Fender necks incorporated truss rods. The Gretsch company, itself a manufacturer of hollowbody electric guitars (and now owned by Fender), claimed that “Broadcaster” violated the trademark for its Broadkaster line of drums, and as a newcomer to the industry, Fender decided to bend and changed the name to Telecaster, after the newly popular medium of television.

1952: Gibson Les Paul

gibson-les-paul-guitarThe Les Paul model was the result of a design collaboration between Gibson Guitar Corporation and the late pop star, electronics inventor, and accomplished jazz guitarist Les Paul. In 1950, with the introduction of the Fender Telecaster to the musical market, electric guitars became a public craze. In reaction, Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty brought guitarist Les Paul into the company as a consultant. Les Paul was a respected innovator who had been experimenting with guitar design for years to benefit his own music. After successfully experimenting with his “log” guitar, Les Paul took his ideas to Gibson. They turned him down, calling the guitar “a broomstick with a pickup on it.” However, in 1950, Gibson came back to him and signed him and his design. While at Gibson, Les Paul went through 50 to 60 prototypes before he felt happy with his final design. The rest, as they say, is history.

1954: Fender Stratocaster

fender-stratocaster-guitarThe Fender Stratocaster, often referred to as “Strat”, is a model of electric guitar designed by Leo Fender, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares in 1954, and manufactured continuously by the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation to the present. The Fender Stratocaster had 3 features that made it a revolutionary guitar in 1954. First, it had a double cutaway neck with beveled edges. Second, it had the Fender engineered “tremolo” unit built into the floating bridge. Third, it was the 1st solid-body guitar to be fitted with 3 pickups. A 3-way selector switch on the guitar allowed the guitarist to select a pickup. This was later changed to a 5-way switch, as guitarists began to see they could get unique sounds by having the switch set in between the 3 positions.

1979: Van Halen “Frankenstrat”

van-halen-frankenstrat-guitarThe Frankenstrat was Eddie’s attempt to combine a Gibson and Fender. It was made from an ash Stratocaster body with a routing that Eddie made to fit in a Gibson PAF humbucking bridge pickup, with a single coil neck pickup. The neck pickup was simply for decoration and was never actually wired with the humbucker, due to Eddie’s inability to wire the switch properly. It had a maple neck, chrome hardware, and red, black, and white stripes. Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstrat” guitar marked the beginning of guitars made for the hyperfast, technical playing. Van Halen pioneered employing higher output pickups, state of the art floating tremolo units, and sleeker, more profiled necks and bodes to play faster on. Virtually every major manufacturer raced to come out with models based on Eddie’s original guitar.

1982: Jackson Randy Rhoads

randy-jackson-rhoads-guitarThe Jackson Randy Rhoads was the electric guitar that was originally commissioned by guitarist Randy Rhoads, and is now produced by Jackson Guitars. Originally, this guitar was to be called The Original SIN. His second Flying V, which was black with a silver pickguard and string-thru body bridge, was going to be called the Concorde. Randy re-designed these newer ‘Concordes’ or production models with a longer “horn” because he felt too many people were relating his white Pinstripe V to a Flying V; he wanted to produce a guitar that bore more resemblance to a shark’s fin. His V’s both had maple bodies with maple thru body necks. The SIN had a standard blocked vintage-style tremolo. The vibrato is of very high quality; and the pickups are designed to capture the treble more efficiently than a normal guitar.

1994: Ibanez 7-String Guitar

ibanez-7-string-guitarThe 7-string, solid-body guitar was originally developed in the early 90s by Steve Vai with Ibanez guitars. The seven-string guitar became prominent when the band Korn featured Ibanez Universe guitars on their 1994 debut album, capitalizing on the massive low end produced by the 7th string (typically a low A). This period marked a highwater point in the popularity of the seven-string guitar, as manufacturers jumped on the seven string bandwagon that they had previously steered clear of including such “traditional” brands as Fender subsidiary Squier and Gibson subsidiary Epiphone, and manufacturers who had been producing sevens expanded their offerings. Today the 7-string still rumbles and shreds on with artists like Muse, Dream Theater, and Suicide Silence.

2008: Guitar Hero Controller

guitar-hero-controller-guitarThe Guitar Hero series has made a significant cultural impact, becoming a “cultural phenomenon”. The series has helped to rekindle music education in children, influenced changes in both the video game and music industry, has found use in health and treatment of recovering patients, and has become part of the popular culture vernacular.Many consider Guitar Hero to be one of the most influential products of the first decade of the 21st century, attributing it as the spark leading to the growth of the rhythm game market, for boosting music sales for both new and old artists, for introducing more social gaming concepts to the video game market, and, in conjunction with the Wii, for improving interactivity with gaming consoles.