The History of the electric guitar takes us back to 1930’s, when George Beauchamp started to look for a new means of increasing guitar volumes after being fired by the National String Instrument Company. It was already well known that a wire passed through magnetic field produces an alteration in its intenseness, which could be employed for creation of a changing current in an appropriately paired wire coil. The same principle became the basis for electric generators and motors, acoustic speakers, phonograph needles, and lots of other things evolved during that period. About 1925, Beauchamp had been trying the use of phonograph needles for production of a single string electric guitar. He believed that if he could make a device that would pick up each separate string’s vibration and convert it into a proportional electric current variation, then it can be amplified via one of the tube amplifiers commonly used in Radio and PA systems of those times.
After long months of trials and failures, Beauchamp and Paul Barth made a functioning pick-up, using two horseshoe magnets and six poles. The strings passed through the magnets, with every pole located for proper concentration of an independent magnetic field over every separate string. They taped the coil with Beauchamp’s washing machine engine, which ended by taping the coil with a sewing machine engine, according to Barth.
When the pick-up was finally fine-tuned, Beauchamp contacted Harry Watson, a National String Instrument Corporation director, and a team of craftsmen, who then carved the body and neck of the very first functioning electric guitar. Using hand tools, they made it in several hours at Beauchamp’s kitchen table and called the instrument the “Frying Pan.”
Beauchamp, with the Frying Pan at hand, approached Adolph Rickenbacker, a cousin of the WWI flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. He owned a local tool and dye company and was associated with Beauchamp at National, working on metal body manufacturing for Resonators. With the help of Rickenbacker’s funds and influence, they established a company and decided to name it Ro-Pat-In Corporation, which later became Rickenbacker International Corporation. They started producing the “Frying Pan,” which instantly became popular as a Hawaiian lap style slide guitar and turned the company on its historical way of becoming the first electric guitar manufacturer.
Perhaps, the first man in history, who built and marketed a Spanish style electric guitar, was Lloyd Loar. He was an acoustical engineer at Gibson. He is also noted for his contribution to mandolin design and development. Loar had been experimenting with electrical guitar amplification since 1920’s. In 1933, he founded a new company, Vivi-Tone, as an independent Gibson subdivision. Vivi-Tone has had one special aim – the development of Spanish style electric guitars. Vivi-Tone failed within a year, but Gibson re-took the trend promoted by the failed enterprise and created the electric guitar that revolutionized the guitar world – the ES-150 was born.
In 1935, Gibson employed Alvino Rey – a prominent slide guitarist – to help with the new guitar pick-up development. Rey, together with engineers of the Lyon & Healy Company, developed a prototype pick-up. The final product was created by Walter Fuller, another Gibson employee. The pick-up was initially built in a lap steel model in late 1935. However, it was soon moved onto a standard f-hole archtop guitar and gave birth to the ES-150 (where ES stood for Electro Spanish, and 150 for price in dollars). The first ES-150 was shipped from Kalamazoo MIchigan ,on 20th of May, 1936. This was the birth of the first modern electric guitar.
Although the ES-150 had an unbelievable success, it still wasn’t perfect. The hollow vibrations of the body could often be picked up and amplified. Moreover, there were issues with distortion of the sound, feedback, and unwanted harmonics. Les Paul, an outstanding jazz guitarist and inventor (who died in 2009 aged 94), believed that introducing a solid body instrument would be the solution. His first successful attempt to get rid of these issues was kindly named “the log.” It was made out of two simple magnetic pick-ups made by Les Paul, which were mounted on a 4x4 in. piece of pine. In order to give “the log” a guitar look, Les Paul glued two truncated halves of a hollow body guitar to his 4x4 inch piece. In the result, he got a fine sounding jazz guitar that didn’t produce unwanted harmonics and feedback. In 1946, Les Paul brought his new solid body guitar to the Gibson Corporation.
However, Gibson wasn’t too enthusiastic about the perspectives that the solid body guitar has had, because he was convinced that the audience would not accept this new product. All of the previous solid body guitar introductions have failed. However, another legend,Leo Fender believed that the future guitar market was meant for solid body guitars.
Now there was a man, Leo owned a radio repair shop in Anaheim California, and also looked into the electric guitar development. He built a pattern solid body guitar out of oak in 1943. Fender rented it out to musicians in order to get their suggestions. In 1949, Leo Fender introduced the first successful solid body electric guitar, named the Esquire, which was later named Broadcaster, and in the end became the Telecaster. This guitar had all the benefits of Les Paul’s guitar: long sustain, no unwanted harmonics or feedback, but it didn’t become a favorite among jazz guitarists. They preferred the mellower, rounder, and somewhat acoustic Gibson ES-150 sound. However, the Telecaster became unbelievably popular among blues, country, and rock and roll (1950’s and 1960’s) musicians. The innovative sound of the instrument made it the pioneer rock’n’roll guitar.
After the success of Fender’s solid body guitars, Gibson decided to give Les Paul’s design a second chance. In 1952, Gibson decided to create a solid body guitar that would become the standard in the industry. Even though, the inspiration for this instrument came from Les Paul and the guitar was named after the inventor, the final design came from the new Gibson president, Ted McCarty. The pick-ups were P-90, originally made in 1946 – they had a mellow, warm sound and were very many-sided. The original Les Paul guitars have become some of the most popular guitars in the world.
In the early 1960’s, Ted McCarty introduced a semi-hollow body guitar, the ES-335. It was meant to unite the best of both the solid body and hollow body designs. ES-335 quickly gained popularity and some of the most influential guitarists, like Chuck Berry and B.B. King, have enjoyed using it. At that time, both Fender and Gibson have introduced new futuristic looks in their designs. Both Fender Stratocaster and Gibson SG became a standard among rock musicians. Stratocaster had even become the guitar of choice in the hands of the great Jimi Hendrix.
Electric guitar manufacturers have persisted to improve the basic characteristics and features of the instrument over the years. And, they did succeed in one way or another. But, even so, and even though there have been a lot of other guitar manufacturers throughout history, such as B. C. Rich, Gretch and others including Burns ,and Watkins in the uk, that have participated in the development of the electric guitar, the way we know it today hasn’t changed a bit since 1961. Its rather ironic that us guitarists spend a fortune on equipment that will allow us to reproduce distortion,feedback,harmonics etc that Gibson,Fender etc tried so hard to remove.