"The Who" Performing In Flint, Michigan
"The Who" perform onstage at Atwood Stadium on August 23, 1967 in Flint Michigan.  Photoraph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The electric guitar’s long, strange trip

Feb 25, 2015

I remember the first time I saw Eddie Van Halen on MTV, the way he played two hands on the fingerboard during his short “Jump” guitar solo. I loved his cool “Frankenstein” guitar, so named because he cobbled together a variety of guitar parts and decorated his creation with colored tape and paint.

Rock and roll is an industry that pushes musical, social, and cultural boundaries, and the electric guitar is its iconic instrument. The acoustic guitar has been around since at least the 16th century. So when I first started working with a colleague on an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, our driving question was: Why electrify this centuries-old instrument?

The simplest answer: Guitarists wanted more volume. As performance spaces increased in size during the 19th century, stringed instruments like guitars were hard to hear over other instruments, especially horns. As a result, the traditional Spanish-style acoustic guitar changed in size, shape, and construction.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, guitar makers built larger-bodied instruments, using steel instead of gut strings, and metal instead of wood for the guitar body. In the 1920s, innovations in microphones and speakers, radio broadcasting, and recording made electronic amplification for guitars possible. The volume was suddenly able to go way up.

The first commercially advertised electric guitar guitar was offered in 1929 by the Stromberg-Voisinet company of Chicago, though it was not a smash hit. The first commercially successful electric, Rickenbacker’s “Frying Pan” guitar of 1931, had an electromagnetic pickup -- a device that converts the strings’ vibrations into electrical signals that can be amplified. But the pickup was bulky and unattractive, and the instrument was designed to be played in a musician’s lap with a sliding steel bar. It wasn’t an immediate hit beyond some Hawaiian, country, and blues musicians.

Spanish-style electrics, which you could sling in front of you while standing and singing, proved much more versatile. Gibson’s 1936 ES-150 (E for Electric and S for Spanish) had a sleek bar-shaped electronic pickup that was mounted into the guitar’s hollow body for a more streamlined look. The pickup earned the nickname “the Charlie Christian” thanks to the jazz virtuoso who is generally credited with introducing the electric guitar solo when he stepped out in front of Benny Goodman’s band in 1939.

Former radio repairman Leo Fender was the first to mass-produce and sell a successful solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar: the 1950 Fender Broadcaster (renamed Telecaster as the result of a trademark dispute). A rivalry sprang up between Fender and Gibson..The 1954 Fender Stratocaster, the guitar most associated with rock and roll, featured a distinctive double-cutaway design that allowed musicians to play higher notes by reaching higher on the fingerboard, three pickups (which allowed for a greater range of sounds since previous guitars had two pickups at most), and a patented tremolo system that allowed players to raise or lower the pitch of the strings. Rock guitarists loved the versatility of the Stratocaster and Gibson’s Les Paul model: they could manipulate the sound by playing close to the amplifier, grinding the strings against things, and using special effects accessories like the wah-wah pedal.

By the ’80s Van Halen was pushing his self-built “Frankenstein” (based on a Stratocaster but with a mish-mash of guitar parts) to the limit, experimenting with “dive-bombing,” which uses the tremolo arm to drive the guitar’s lowest note ever lower. Jimmy Hendrix had done this but forced the guitar out of tune as a result.

It’s ironic that Leo Fender, creator of the most influential instrument in rock music, wasn’t a fan of rock and roll; he preferred country and western. It didn’t matter. Once something new is out there, you can’t stop makers and players from reinventing it, adapting it for new purposes, taking it apart and putting it back together in new ways. The electric guitar is a prime example of unintended consequences.

Monica M. Smith is a historian and the exhibition program manager at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

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