Acoustic guitars have a long and interesting history, as we previously discussed on the blog, but did you know that electric guitars have a pretty interesting history as well? Electric guitars are a more modern instrument that were created after the acoustic guitar, and they may be a little more modern than you previously thought.
While acoustic guitars became hugely popular, they had one big problem; their volume. Other instruments had a much higher volume in comparison to guitars, so they would often get drowned out in music ensembles. This would heavily limit the roles that guitarists could take in ensembles.
Not satisfied with their reduced role capability, guitarists began experimenting with how to amplify their volume. Many crude attachments were used; everything from microphones, to tungsten pickups placed into the sound hole. None of these solutions were quite what guitarists needed and did not achieve the volume they required.
In the 1930’s, the very first versions of the electric guitar began to pop up. Around 1931 was when the very first electric guitar was born, and it was created by a man named Paul H. Tutmarc. Paul used a unique method that had not been tried before; he created a pickup using magnets paired with wire coils. This method amplified the vibration of the strings, increasing the volume of the instrument. Fun fact; his method was actually inspired by how telephones used magnets to create vocal vibrations!
Just a few years later, two more innovative people created their own versions of the electric guitar with a similar method using wire and magnets. John Dopyera and George Beauchamp would go on to create the first instrument that began to resemble the modern electric guitar. This guitar was, however, a Hawaiian style guitar, which led to it being nicknamed “the frying pan” due to the shape of these guitars. The guitar design was taken to a man named Adolph Rickenbacker, who would then go on to create Rickenbacker guitars; this was the very first company to manufacture electric guitars for the masses.
Some years later after the debut of the Rickenbacker guitars, a man named Lloyd Loar would be the first innovator to create the first “spanish-styled” electric guitar; it was an acoustic guitar with pickups on it that behaved like the Rickenbacker guitar. This guitar in particular was the inspiration for modern electric guitars, and it directly inspired Orville Gibson, another innovator, to design an electric guitar that would prove essential to the development of the instrument. The guitar was called the ES-150, and it highly resembled modern electric guitars but still had a hollow body. While being the best version of the electric guitar designed so far, it was not without its flaws; it’s hollow body created sound issues because the pickup amplified the vibrations in the body of the guitar, creating undesired feedback in the sound.
So, in the 1940’s, another creator named Les Paul wanted to fix this problem. He would go on to create a guitar with a solid body made out of a single piece of pine that was carved to match the typical guitar shape. It successfully fixed the problems of the ES-150. Les Paul brought his creation to Oroville Gibson, who was unfortunately not sure what to think of the design.
Another man by the name of Leo Fender, however, saw the appeal in the design and how it functioned. He thought it was a great idea, and in 1949, began to sell the very first modern electric guitar; the “Esquire”. It was ultimately renamed to the “Telecaster”, a name likely every single guitarist has heard over the course of their musical career, and it was a hit among musicians.
The Telecaster would go on to change the history of music forever, and inspire many other companies to begin creating their own electric guitars.