Electric guitars are found in bedrooms, 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 through music lessons or a garage band or as a songwriter or professional player. We now take for granted that virtually every Rock, Blues, Metal, Country or Indie band will have an electric guitar plugged into an amplifier with one or more of the now thousands of related products available to achieve that “right sound.”
Before becoming the ubiquitous instrument it is today, the guitar went on a long and transformative journey that removed it from its humble beginnings as an acoustic folk instrument and transported it to being the voice of a generation and then beyond to the digital age. The story of the electric guitar is not only the story of the evolution of a musical instrument, it is equally a story of our changing cultural and social identity during 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, but with the invention of the amplifier and microphone (or pickup) its once small sound could suddenly be heard loudly and clearly. In the early 30s this new electrically enhanced version began to change the popular perception of the guitar as a folk and cowboy instrument. The guitar’s short engagement to the amplifier soon became a marriage and the two became one, effectively making the guitar and amplifier a new instrument. By the late 30s players like Charlie Christian, Carl Kress and George Barnes were now taking solos over horn sections while the banjo (still being used by Duke Ellington in his orchestra) was being replaced by the more sophisticated sounds of the F Hole electric jazz guitar. The once intimate and delicate parlour instrument had become as dynamic as its cumbersome and very heavy mechanical cousin, the piano.
The quiet warmth of the guitar’s sound was always a favorite of vocalists but now with amplification the instrument was becoming increasingly versatile. It could now replace the piano in small-group settings and was capable of filling a room with sound, making it an ideal companion for horn players and now singers with their new microphones. The guitar was stepping out from behind the rhythm section to become the polyphonic alternative to the not always available piano.
While Charlie Christian was helping Benny Goodman swing and America was getting ready to enter the war, Les Paul was re-inventing the electric guitar in the Epiphone factory in New York. This new, totally electric instrument could barely be heard without the use of amplification; Paul originally called it “the log.” It was essentially a guitar-shaped block of wood with a built-in pickup that was to eventually become the “Les Paul” or SG (solid guitar). Soon after the war Bing Crosby gave Les Paul the second Ampex 200, the first commercially produced reel-to-reel audio recorder; Les added an additional recording head and created the first sound-on-sound recorder.
These two innovations became indispensable to the creation of the 16 top ten hits recorded by Les and his wife Mary Ford during the 50s. What made their popularity particularly remarkable was that these songs were being recorded primarily with a guitar, a voice and the new marvel of multi-track recording, while many of the chart-topping crooners of the day were using entire bands and orchestras to achieve similar results. It wouldn’t be long before this multi-track technology and the solid body electric were to be adopted as the cornerstone of the entire popular music industry.
The leisure time of the post-Second World War generation was unprecedented and radio was now being used to broadcast recorded music instead of just live performances and news and drama. The Silent generation born before World War II was beginning to spend money on music by purchasing home record players and vinyl recordings and 45s that were quick pressings of the radio hits. At this same time a new music was emerging out of the black rhythm and blues of the 40s; disc jockey Alan Freed was one of the earliest supporters of this music on his Cleveland radio show and is credited with being the first, at least on radio, to have coined the phrase “Rock and Roll” to describe it.
Eddie Fisher and Doris Day soon had to make room for Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly who were quickly followed to mainstream radio by Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Rock and Roll was coming to life along with mass media, and the guitar was its strongest voice. Soon instrumental artists like the Ventures, Duane Eddy, Link Ray and Santo and Johnny brought the sweet sound not only to the top 40 charts but to living rooms throughout North America and Europe. The backing track to the late 50s was played on six strings with an amplifier.
With the emergence of this new small-group driven pop music there was also an attendant consumer demand for the new “electric” instrument which could now be purchased in catalogues and department stores all over North America. This same popular demand was instrumental in nourishing a new retail chain of Mom and Pop music stores that popped up from Coast to Coast. These local stores not only offered the latest products from an ever increasing number of manufacturers but also began offering music lessons for legions of young students wanting to capture this new sound for themselves.
This first wave of boomers had grown up listening to their parents’ record players and radio programs and these left them uninspired and lacking their own voice. Perry Como and Patti Page just weren’t it when it came to speaking to this new generation who had seen televisions and were talking about having their own flying cars. The vanguard of the Baby Boomer generation was now entering their teen years and they had discretionary money in their pockets that they were spending on music. Not only did many of them want a guitar and amp to play with but they also wanted to buy the recordings of their new favorite artists.
Despite music becoming increasingly popular as a consumer item, the turn of the decade found American popular music struggling to define itself. With the new emerging industry there was big money to be made and sharks disguised as agents and managers and record executives began to circle the talent pool; music was becoming big business. The payola scandal had just ended in 1959 with a hearing by the US House Oversight Committee that brought charges against the outspoken “black music” loving Alan Freed. Ray Charles started singing country, Surfer bands sang surfer songs, dance crazes were manufactured, big-haired girls sang about their parties and unfortunate hits like Sukiyaki, Sugar Shack and Puff the Magic Dragon made it seem like Rock and Roll was being put to death by an overdose of martinis mixed with hallucinogens.
Had it not been for some of the Queen’s working class subjects Rock and Roll may have been lost forever. Young bands from Britain with names like the Animals, the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were providing hope. These new groups with their tight suits and moptop haircuts were causing a fuss and not only because of their appearance – it was the music! The new breed of English rockers were rediscovering something that America was in the process of burying alive in saccharine string arrangements, weird dances and Vegas-style hubris.
Rock and Roll was about to be repackaged with accents, loud guitars and a stylish and very European sensibility. It was then to be exported back to its country of origin where the first and second wave of Baby Boomers were a little older and had even more spending money and more time and were now desperate for something new they could call their own that took their minds off atomic bombs. The invasion was about to begin.
Guest Author Bio
Lloyd English is a life long professional musician. During his career he has produced and recorded several albums as well as directed concert choirs, led music in 4 different church denominations and played over 2000 dates throughout Canada in every conceivable genre. His music has been played all over the world on major television networks and syndicated radio. He currently runs his own music school and recording studio and is the co-founder of My Guitar Pal Online.
Blog / Website: My Guitar Pal