When most people think of electric guitars, they think of rock music. But electric guitars are more versatile than you’d think.
You can find them in jazz, blues, country music, New-Age compositions, and even contemporary classical pieces. Electric guitars are intimately associated with many famous musicians of the twentieth century—and may be the iconic musical instrument of our time.
The demand for electric guitars came during the Big Band Era in the 20’s and 30’s. The big brass bands of the time were very loud, and other instruments had to be artificially amplified to stand up to their powerful sound. Performers experimented with attaching microphones to acoustic guitars. The first manufactured electric guitars were made in 1931 by the Electro String Instrument Corporation.
The first time an electric guitar is known to have been used in performance was in 1932. Bandleader Gage Brewer of Wichita, Kansas, received two electric guitars directly through Electro String Instruments, possibly for publicity purposes. Brewer wrote about the guitars in an article in the Wichita Beacon before the performance.
The earliest known recording of an electric guitar performance was produced in 1938. George Barnes, a jazz guitarist, recorded two songs with the guitar, called “It’s a Lowdown Dirty Shame” and “Sweetheart Land.”
The earliest electric guitars were essentially hollow-bodied acoustic guitars equipped with Tungsten pickups. The problem with hollow-body electric guitars is that the hollow space within the guitar produces vibrations when the strings are plucked or strummed. These vibrations account for the unique tone of an acoustic guitar, but they produce harsh feedback when they interact with the pickups in an electric guitar. Early electric guitar players used to stuff rags and newspapers into their hollow-body instruments in an attempt to get rid of the feedback.
One of the earlier solid-body guitars was an aluminium instrument known as the “Frying Pan” or “Pancake Guitar.” These guitars were said to have produced a sound similar to that of modern electric guitars.
Several other well-known luthiers experimented with solid-body guitars during the early history of the electric guitar. In 1940, during his time at Gibson Guitars, Les Paul attempted a solid-body instrument called the “log guitar,” so called because it was a simple post equipped with neck, strings, and pickups.
The electric guitar did not hit commercial success until the 1950’s, when Fender released its first solid-body model: the Esquire. The Esquire was followed by the Telecaster and finally, in 1954, the Stratocaster. The “Strat” was hailed in professional musical and luthier circles alike, and became a signature instrument of such famous musicians as Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and many others.
The electric guitar produced an aggressive sound very different from the melodic and lyrical tones of its ancestor, the acoustic. The sound of the electric guitar became characteristic of rock and roll in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a high-profile instrument during this time, appearing on stage with hundreds of famous bands and musicians.
This created demand among the general public for affordable electric guitars. In the 60’s and 70’s, electric guitars were very expensive—too pricey for a buyer who wasn’t a famous musician. Although some companies attempted to fill the gap with cheap imitations, the sound of these guitars did not compare to the real thing.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Japanese manufacturers stepped forward with affordable electric guitars capable of professional-quality sound. This put pressure on American companies such as Gibson and Fender to provide their own affordable lines. Electric guitars became more and more successful in the consumer market as quality improved, and prices went down as new manufacturers entered the market. Soon, electric guitars were more accessible than they had ever been.