We guitar players have always had the need to turn it up. Finally, by the late 1960s we had amps that could go to 11!
Making guitars loud enough to be heard for performances with other musicians had long been the goal of many players. Early acoustic Spanish style guitars were quite small demure instruments referred to as parlor guitars. These were mostly played in a home entertainment situation. Volume was not that important when played solo for a few guests. Once the guitar was to perform with other louder instruments in public places the requirements changed.
So this evolution plainly started in the pursuit of higher volume! It may be worth noting that higher volume did not mean the overdriven and distorted sounds, that came later. In fact, the original goal was to develop clean sound that just amplified the sound of the natural instrument.
The electric guitar may be the most important and popular instrument of the last half-century in American music.
Evolution from gut string to steel string guitars – more volume!
At the turn of the century, guitars were primarily played in the family parlors because it was simply not loud enough to be heard in other venues. With the innovation of steel strings that could be played with picks, the guitar got louder and began to be included in string bands alongside fiddles and sometimes banjos. C.F. Martin new style of guitar building was one big reason this was possible.
By the 1850s, an immigrant from Germany named C.F. Martin, one of the oldest American guitar makers, developed “X-bracing” to reinforce the guitar’s body leading to a new American flattop guitar design. This allowed guitars to go from gut strings to steel strings. Steel strings first became widely available in around 1900, but the increased tension was too much for the Torres-style fan-bracing. C. F. Martin’s “X-bracing” allowed for the flat-top steel string guitars. They were louder and better sounding. Also worth noting that the early C.F. Martin guitars had the old world Stauffer styled headstock with 6-inline tuners that was later an influence to the first solid body builders.
The guitar’s big advantage over the violin is the ability to play chords and provide a level of bass rhythmic support in a way that a fiddle player can’t. The guitar with steel string soon moved into string bands raising its popularity considerably.
Orville Gibson in the 1890s, created a carved top hollow guitar with an oval sound hole that not only increased volume, it also set the standards for the archtop guitar. Creating a steel-string guitar with a body constructed similar to a violin, viola or cello, where the bridge exerts no torque on the top, only pressure straight down. This allows the top to vibrate more freely, and thus produce a bit more volume. In the early 1920’s Gibson designer Lloyd Loar refined the archtop “jazz” guitar with f-holes, floating bridge and cello-type tailpiece.
Archtop instruments were designed to reduce the thickness and mass of the vibrating top to increase volume, but the downward pressure was limited by the top’s strength. The solution was to employ an early architectural element well known as a dome, built with a series of arches. With the guitar’s size, the arched shape allowed for reduced size and weight of the internal bracing, further enhancing the guitar top’s ability to allow for the bridge vibration. Of course they had a great classic look as well. An archtop guitar was pretty costly to build as compared to a flattop can be machine cut with little waste and less construction time.
Gibson also innovated with their ES-175 model by using laminated wood tops instead of hand carved. These archtops have stiffer tops that used hydraulic machinery to press flat laminated sheets (like plywood) to build these domed guitars. This was faster and easier as well as less expensive. Plus when guitars became electrified, laminate tops had an advantage – less feedback.
Today, only a few guitars have arched tops that are truly hand carved like a the old style violin-maker style except for some high-priced jazz guitars. Some players like love the sound from a solid, hand carved top, while others cite pressed-laminate guitars more feedback resistant and like their sonic characteristics.
C.F. Martin soon developed larger and louder acoustic guitars called Dreadnoughts aptly named after large British Navel ships of the day. These larger flat top acoustic guitars are the norm today. But back in the 1930s they were huge guitars that had more volume, resonance and bass response. Martin also pioneered the 14-fret guitar where the neck joins the body at the 14th fret instead of the 12th fret.
John Dopyera of the National String Instrument Corporation took the idea of acoustic amplification designing even further. He designed a steel-body guitar with banjo-type alumimum resonator built into the top. National and Dopyera Brothers (Dobro) produced these resonator guitars that were usually made from metal like bronze and steel, but some have wood bodies. These guitars were made louder mechanically, instead of electrically.
In the 1920s, innovations in microphones, speakers, radio, and the very early days of recording made amplification for guitars plausible. The first commercially advertised electric guitar was essentially offered in 1929 by the Stromberg-Voisinet company of Chicago. It was far from being successful.
Soon the guitar had replaced the Banjo in many big swing bands, but was still mostly a rhythm instrument as it could hardly be heard. Soon after, these hollow body Spanish-style archtop guitars were electrified and now could compete with even brass instruments. This changed the game completely as the electrified Spanish guitar became a solo and even a lead instrument. Especially in the hands of one very talented Charlie Christian. In 1939, Christian stepped out in front of Benny Goodman’s band and performed long, complicated passages imitating the style of horn playing. This was an amazing development at the time and Charlie was a truly gifted musician.
Gibson was a leader in building these style guitars, like the ES-150 that Charlie Christian was known to play. ES stood for Electric Spanish. It was a standard archtop fully hollow body guitar that had been routed to add a magnetic pickup that could feed a tube driven amplifier. Electric guitars were not very successful until Gibson introduced the ES-150 model, which Charlie Christian made famous. This was pretty groundbreaking.
Alvino Rey had been hired by Gibson to help produce the prototype guitar pickup for the ES-150. The final version of the ES-150 was built by Gibson employee Walter Fuller. Though the guitar was an immediate success, it had some flaws. The ES-150 was still an “old world” design that could only be created by skilled luthiers. As music progressed and performances were for larger audiences, even more volume was needed. Unfortunately, the early fully hollow body electric guitars had issues with feedback at higher volumes. Some players were known for stuffing foam into these hollow body guitars to reduce the “howling” when the amp volume was turned up. Despite this shortcoming, the guitar was becoming one of the most popular instruments. So companies were trying to build a solid body guitar that would not have the feedback problems and could be mass produced at reasonable prices. This was many years before Jimi Hendrix and others made an art form at inducing feedback.
The electric solid body guitar owes a great deal of its development to the popularity of Hawaiian music in the 1920s and 1930s. Hawaiian guitars were solo instruments that were laid across the players lap and played with a metal bar or slide. Hence these instruments were called lap steels.
Adolph Rickenbacker originally made the metal components for Dopera Brothers’ National Resonator Guitars. While at National, Rickenbacker met George Beauchamp and Paul Barth who had been working together on the principle of the magnetic pick-up. Together they formed the Electro String Company and in 1931 produced their first electric Hawaiian guitars later nicknamed the “frying pan” due to its all metal construction and its look.
Electric Hawaiian guitars were the first instruments that were solid in construction and used a magnetic pickup for their sound being amplified electrically. Early literature illustrates both 6 and 7-string versions of the “frying pan” were made. Both had the same cast aluminum construction. This was the first commercially successful electric guitar. Ro-Pat-In’s AKA Rickenbacher’s (later renamed Rickenbacker) production for 1932 were their first electric Spanish-style guitars, but is is estimated there were only 9 instruments were made.
Rickenbacker teamed up with musician and inventor Doc Kauffman (soon to be Leo Fender’s partner after meeting in 1941) to introduce the solid body electric Vibrola Spanish guitar. These were not great sellers and were discontinued after only a few years. Doc Kauffman was an inventor of an early vibrato tailpiece that were later used by Les Paul, Chet Atkins and many other players. This predates the Bigsby tailpiece by quite a few years. It was a crude device and made it hard to keep the guitar in tune when using it.
Les Paul was not only a great guitar player, he was an innovator and a tinkerer. Around 1940 he was striving for a solid body guitar that the string sounds would use a pickup, he wound himself, to send to an amplifier. It has been said that, Les Paul persuaded Epiphone to let him use his workshop on Sundays, where he built the historic “log” guitar. He created this guitar made from a 4 X 4 piece of solid wood that had “wings” added to it from a standard archtop guitar body to make a recognizable guitar shape that allowed it to be played sitting down. This is considered an important innovation of the development of the solid body electric guitar. Les Paul did not stop there he developed several guitar innovations as well as multi-track recording and Sound on Sound recording. This allowed Les to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track.
Les Paul and Mary Ford were popular in the early 1950s. This husband-and-wife team in which Les and Mary played electric guitars and Mary Ford sang often performed live with the use of multi-track tape to add vocal harmonies and additional guitar parts to sound more like a full band. Les Paul created the “Pulverizer” that was a box he attached to his guitar. The invention allowed Paul to access pre-recorded layers of songs during live performances so he could replicate his recorded sound on stage. Les Paul and Mary Ford had 16 top-ten hits.
There is strong evidence that Les Paul had collaborated with Paul Bigsby on a solid body electric guitar at some point. Bigsby built a small bodied solid body electric guitar probably somewhere between 1947 and 1949 about the size of a lap steel body with a full sized spanish (round) neck. This guitar was later re-discovered at a garage sale in the late 1980s, less then 15 miles from Mahwah, New Jersey, where Les Paul lived from the early 1950’s until his death. The guitar had an early 1950s Gibson P90 cream cover pickup in it when found, but there was evidence that a Bigsby pickup had been mounted before.
The fact that the guitar surfaced so near Les Paul’s home in New Jersey and the fact that it had a cream P90 (like the early Gibson Les Paul guitars) installed, led many to believe that it had once belonged to Les Paul. In 1999, a body template marked “Les Paul” (in what appears to be Les’ own handwriting) was discovered after the sale of the Bigsby Company.
When confronted with the evidence of the body template labeled “Les Paul,” Les had this to say:
“Bigsby brought over this little guitar that he’d made up. We fooled around with it and I threw it in my pile of guitars. It was so small that it was hard to play. Years later, when I moved back East, I had a bunch of stuff that I had left across the street with a neighbor. He must have got rid of that little guitar, because I never got it back.”
– Les Paul, in an interview with Andy Babiuk for the Bigsby book
In fact, the blade pickup that is found on Les Paul’s “Clunker” guitar could have come from this little prototype Bigsby guitar. Les talked about having other Bigsby pickups, and collector/author Robb Lawrence has a Bigsby pickup that Les gave him, which also may in fact be the pickup from the little prototype Bigsby.
Les Paul and the Electric Guitar The “Clunker” started life as a 1942 Epiphone Broadway that Les Paul acquired in early ‘42. Paul modified the guitar in his workshop, adding a steel bar to brace the body and replacing the electronics with hand-wound pickups of his own design. The Clunker became his favorite guitar both onstage and in the studio.
Evidence that the Les Paul prototype guitar was made in 1947:
1. The pots inside in the instrument are dated May 5, 1947. This of course is not conclusive to a build date, but tells us that the instrument could not have been made before that date.
2. Les’ quote (which conflicts with some of Les’ other quotes) that “Merle Travis asked about the pickup, which he called ‘the big guy in the back.'” If Merle saw Les’ prototype guitar before his iconic May 1948 guitar was designed, then possibly Les’ guitar could date to 1947.
Evidence that the Les Paul prototype guitar was made in 1948 or more likely, 1949:
1. The Bigsby headstock has the iconic standard 6-on-a-side shape. Were the instrument made in 1947, it may have had the 3-on-a-side headstock like the Jack Rivers prototype. Merle Travis is credited in the original 1940s Bigsby literature as having invented the 6-on-a-side headstock design, so that strongly, if not definitively, means that the prototype was built AFTER the May 1948 Merle Travis Bigsby guitar.
2. The Bigsby logo inlaid on the headstock has no dotted “I.” The no-dotted I logo on other Bigsby instruments begins in 1949 with the Grady Martin singleneck (#7149) and ends with the introduction of the faux-dotted I on the Grady Martin doubleneck (#10152). The no-dotted “I” evidence points to the Les Paul prototype guitar being built between these dates of July 1949 and October 1952, despite the potentiometer dates of 1947.
3. The most plausible reason for Paul Bigsby to make Les Paul a small bodied electric guitar is so that Les would have something to play while in the hospital following his car accident in early 1948. Les was essentially unable to play the entirety of 1948, and began his recovery and comeback in 1949. If indeed Paul Bigsby made this special “little guitar” for Les during his recovery, a build date of late 1948 at the earliest and late 1949 at the latest makes the most sense. The guitar may date from the “no dotted I” period of July 1949 to October 1952, more than likely made in late 1949.
The Les Paul prototype guitar is the most mysterious of all the Bigsby guitars. While Les finally admitted to the guitar being made for him, it is still unknown when the guitar was made and how much it influenced Les’ design, or disrupted Les’ claims of innovation, for the eventual 1952 debut of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. One thing is certain, however–Les Paul didn’t want the world to know about the little Bigsby solidbody electric guitar, he gave the guitar away when he was a rabid collector of other instruments, and admitted knowing about it only after the evidence became too overwhelming to deny. The evidence would point to the conclusion that Les wanted to sweep this little Bigsby prototype guitar under the rug.
The guitar is constructed like no other Bigsby guitar, made out of two pieces of birdseye maple sandwiched together and stained with a dark stain. The neck is finished in a standard Bigsby fashion, but the body is finished quite crudely, especially on the sides. In addition, the guitar has a large aluminum plate in between the neck and the fingerboard, with a screwed-on fingerboard. The thick aluminum plate continues beyond the fretboard and acts as the pickguard, housing the pickup and the bridge.
One of the first solid body Spanish style guitar was actually built for Merle Travis by Paul Bigsby around 1948. This was a huge innovation. But Paul Bigsby did not mass-produce these and actually built instruments on commissioned orders from a few musicians of the day. He build several lap steels and even pedal steel guitars as well. This innovation of the early solid body electric was actually designed by Merle Travis himself. Travis sketched out the design for Bigsby to build. Travis had a big part in all aspects of the design including have the 6-inline tuners on one side (like the early Martin Stauffer style guitars he likely saw).
The original Merle Travis Bigsby guitar had no cutaway and different switching for the single pickup. The original headstock also was quite different. Not long after receiving the guitar that Travis commissioned, did he have Bigsby make these changes. Merle Travis however only played this guitar for a few years before moving to play large body hollow body electrics made by Bigsby and Gibson.
The Merle Travis Bigsby guitar was mostly hollowed out from the back, and not really a “solidbody” as we know it today. Merle apparently didn’t care for the tone of the guitar, as he only played it a year or two before moving on to hollowbody instruments, or big bodied guitars with neck-through design. Interestingly, Merle Travis, the man responsible for coming up with the idea of a solidbody guitar, would shy away from solidbody instruments for the rest of his career.
Merle Travis did understand the importance of this Bigsby guitar to history as he kept the guitar for decades boosting on his own contribution to the design. If Merle Travis hadn’t designed the Bigsby solidbody electric guitar in 1948, it is doubtful that the Leo Fender’s Telecaster would have looked the way it did, if they had ever been introduced at all. Such was the huge influence of this one instrument. Merle Travis donated the guitar in 1974 to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, where it is currently displayed to the public. Clearly Merle Travis who had a huge influence as a guitar player (just ask Chet Atkins) also had a huge influence on the development of the solid body guitar as well.
Paul Bigsby built a double neck guitar for Grady Martin and pedal steel for Speedy West. In the mid 1950’s Paul Bigsby also designed guitars for Magnatone, an early amplifier company known for their innovative tremolo circuits. Of course most know Bigsby best for his vibrato tailpieces that he invented and manufactured.
It is worth noting here that the Paul Bigsby guitars were not what we today might call a full solid body guitar. They were actually chambered a bit to make room for the electronics. Although, they had no sound holes and the pickups were sending the sound of the strings to an amplifier. They all had set necks or neck-thru construction. Still pretty groundbreaking. Paul Bigsby guitars were custom hand made by order. Bigsby had no intention of a factory or even hiring an assistant it seems. It took our next innovator to improve on the design and allow for mass producing these instruments.
Leo Fender started out repairing radios and amplifiers. Leo Fender meets and talks to Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman for the first time around 1941. Doc Kauffman was formally a chief designer of electric guitars for Electro String Company (Rickenbacker). Soon after K & F Manufacturing Company was founded by Kauffman and Fender to build Lap Steel guitars and amplifiers. Doc and Leo were early makers of Hawaiian lap steel guitars and designed and built tube amplifiers for the instruments. These were distributed by Electro String exclusively around 1945.
Leo Fender, a non-player, actually is credited with the “first mass produced” solid body guitar, the Telecaster. Don Randall (Fender Sales & Marketing Manager) was said to have suggested to Leo to design a solid body Spanish style guitar to complement the Hawaiian lap steels they were making. Leo was well aware of the Merle Travis Bigsby guitar as he was a big county music fan. Also Paul Bigsby was in California not far from Fender. Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby knew each other socially. Other “tinkerers” were also playing around with the idea of the solid body guitar around California in those days as well.
Leo most certainly improved and changed the Bigsby style guitars. The removable bolt-on neck of the Fender Broadcaster (later Telecaster) was so players could quickly replace the neck when frets were worn out. The control plate was made for the electronics to be accessible for quick repair as well. Leo figured, in those days gigging musicians only owned one guitar. If it was broken they were not earning a living.
In 1950, the initial single-pickup production Fender model appeared called the Esquire. Only about fifty guitars were originally produced under that name. Most had to be replaced under warranty because of early manufacturing problems. In particular, the Esquire necks had no truss rod and many were replaced due to bent necks. This single-pickup model was quickly discontinued, and a two-pickup model was renamed the Broadcaster. Broadcaster name was likely used as it related to radio which was king at the time. Fender introduced the Broadcaster in the autumn of 1950. It was the first guitar of its kind manufactured on a substantial scale. After receiving notice from Gretsch of a trademark issue (Gretsch already had the “Broadkaster” name registered for a line of drums), Fender needed to change the name of their solid body guitar.
Leo, a frugal man, had his factory workers simply snip the “Broadcaster” name from its existing stock of decals, so guitars with these decals are identified simply as “Fender”, without any model name. These guitars are known by collectors as “nocasters.” By the summer of 1951 the guitar was officially renamed as the Telecaster and has been in continuous production ever since. The Telecaster name had its origin in television that was becoming popular. The Esquire name later was re-introduced as a “one pickup” model that less expensive guitar.
The Fender guitars were full solid body made from a slab of wood. The strings feeding through the body like the Merle Travis Bigsby guitar. No doubt that the headstock with the 6-inline tuners on one side was an idea that Leo may have also gotten from the Merle Travis Bigsby guitar. The Kluson tuners were cut the same way to fit on the headstock in the same way as Bigsby did it. The Staffer style headstock had what was was referred to as the “Persian slipper” shape with single-side machine tuners, a shape still used in Fender electric guitars today. Leo Fender definitely had mass production and easy quick repair in mind. Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby had much different ideas on business models.
In 1951, Fender also released the the first solid body bass guitar named the Precision Bass. Nothing had existed like this before Leo’s innovation. The name “Precision” came from the use of frets to play in tune more easily than upon the fretless fingerboard of the double bass. This invention finally allowed musicians to not have to carry huge “dog house” double string bass to a gig and allowed them to be heard when played with other electrified instruments. Acceptance of the electric Precision Bass was helped greatly by the endorsement of Elvis Presley’s bass-player Bill Black who played one during the filming of Jailhouse Rock. Monk Montgomery became the first jazz player to popularize the “Fender Bass” while playing with his brother guitarist, Wes Montgomery.
Leo Fender, assisted by employee Freddie Tavares, began designing the Stratocaster in late 1953. The Fender Stratocaster was introduced in 1954, with its landmark tremolo (wrongly named as it is actually a vibrato). Stratocaster was very futuristic and named accordingly. Leo expected the Stratocaster to completely replace the Telecaster. To his great surprise demand for both models have been strong to this day.
The almost immediate success of Leo Fender quickly influenced other manufacturers to start competing with their own solid body models. Les Paul had originally shown his “log” guitar creation to Gibson around 1941, but Gibson did not see a viable product. In 1952, Gibson became Fender’s first major competitor, introducing the solid-body Les Paul named after the endorser. This after turning down a solid body design that looked a lot like the Gibson Les Paul model shown to them by O.W. Appleton in 1943. Gibson did not take the solid body guitar seriously until Fender started selling them in mass. More Fender History here.
The 1952 Les Paul model solid body guitar mirrored the arched look of Gibson’s earlier hollow body guitars. This was no doubt for marketing reasons to get players to better accept their first solid body. Gibson’s machinery and many years of guitar making gave them the ability to build a arch style top on the early Les Paul model. Something Leo Fender likely could not do in those early days at Fender and a feature he was not all that interested in. Gibson Les Paul’s cost more than Fender Telecaster’s and the archtop looks was likely one of the reasons. Of course, Fender did add some contour sanding for the player’s comfort starting with the Stratocaster model in 1954.
Gibson’s Les Paul was built in Kalamazoo to try and show the Fender guys in California how it should be done. The Les Paul model was made to look like a more refined traditional guitar. It actuality, it had one big flaw. Gibson used a old Les Paul design trapeze style bridge. In their haste to get to market, found that the neck did not have a proper tilt back like the hollow body arctops and they had to reverse the string wrap making palm muting impossible. This is several years before Ted McCarty invented the first tune-a-matic style bridge.
Fender counted in 1954 with the Stratocaster that looked like a space ship to players when first seen in the hands of Buddy Holly. This started one of the fiercest rivalries in the Guitar World that still is active today.
There were many pioneers and important figures for the evolution of the solid body electric guitar, but none more important than, Paul Bigsby, Les Paul and Leo Fender.
By the mid-to-late 1960’s there were many solid body electric guitars flooding the marketplace from many different companies including Japan and other countries. Most were building copies or variations from models first introduced by Fender, Gibson, Danelectro and Mosrite.
The story of the evolution of the solid body guitar is not complete without a discussion of the amplifier. Without the invention and availability of an amplifier, solid body guitars would not have been very practical. The amplifier had to be there first. Then innovators found ways to pickup the sound from the strings using a sort of microphone. With the advent of amplification it became possible to do away with the hollow body guitar’s soundbox completely. A solid body guitar with no feedback issues was now possible.
Early “amplifiers” used to make guitars louder were nothing more than radios that players modified to take a guitar input. The method of getting the string vibrations picked up was done with whatever they could find. This often was telephone parts. Les Paul once said that he learned a lot about pickups from taking telephones apart. Acoustic guitars were sometimes amplified by using microphones or tungsten pickups. Tungsten pickups were used to by placing them in the sound hole below the strings. Eventually it was learned that a magnet with a coil of wire wrapped around it made a pretty good guitar pickup.
Vacuum tube (or valve) technology was available pretty early on. Radio was king in the early 1930’s and 1940’s. Radios were expensive, but available and in many homes they were the center of the living room. It was not long before enterprising guitar players experimented making the family radio into their amplifiers. There has been stories of how car radios in the late 1930s were even used to boost the volume of street corner musicians.
The Stromberg-Voisinet company appears to be the first to market a functioning production model electrified stringed instrument and amplifier set around 1928-29. Promotion was directed to music dealers through ads in the 1929. Full page ad was in the Chicago Musical Instruments jobber book, which showed the $165 AC-powered portable “two stage amplifier” surrounded by a bevy of $40 magnetic pickup-equipped “Stromberg Electro Instruments.”
Companies named Vega, Vivi-Tone, Audio-Vox and Volu-Tone were making amplifiers for instruments in the early 1930s. Soon enough, companies like Magnatone, Kay, Fender, Gibson were producing purpose built guitar amplifiers. Guitar pickup innovation followed as well.
Distortion and overdriven amps was still not actively sought out and implemented. This was discovered by accident when musicians who liked this sound and decided to continue using it. Amps in the early days were not designed for this purpose. Although, could produce this easily. In fact many early amp makers were taken by surprise at this development as they were striving for cleaner sounds. All before amp makers like Marshall, Vox, Peavey, Orange, Mesa-Boogie and others followed and before effect pedals were readily available. Way before the Beatles, used feedback on “I Feel Fine” which was notable for being one of the first uses of guitar feedback in popular music.
One of the earliest uses of guitar distortion was on the recording for the song Rocket 88, performed by The Kings of Rhythm and written by Ike Turner. Written as a rhythm and blues song, it is considered one of the earliest rock and roll songs.
Around 1956, guitarist Johnny Burnette of the Johnny Burnette Trio had one of the tubes from his amp fall out during a show while covering Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept A-Rollin’ (a song that later became a hit for Aerosmith). The audience loved it, and a local critic gave the sound a rave review. This led Burnette to keep the sound once he recorded the song in the studio.
Link Wray was a huge innovator for using a distorted guitar sound. His 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble” by Link Wray and his Ray Men popularized “the power chord that has been copied ever since. “Rumble”, was actually banned in New York and Boston for fear it would incite teenage gang violence. Yes, Rock was born. Iggy Pop, Neil Young and Jimmy Page cite Link Wray as a big early influence. Jimmy page mentions that Link Wray had a “real rebel attitude” and credits him in It Might Get Loud documentary.
In the early days, amplifiers were all using vacuum tube (valve) technology. Lots of innovation happened over the years. The transistor radio had been around since the early 1950s. The transistor technology was able to provide for effects to be easily added directly on the amplifier. Then effect pedals started arriving and became the rage. It was only a matter of time until fully “solid state” amps appeared. Transistor amplifiers promised to be less expensive to build and maintain, reduce weight and heat, and may be more reliable.
Well in the 1960s some amp makers were moving to solid state, but reliability and tone quickly became an problem. One issue was that solid state amps did not distort or add crunch to a players guitar tone the same way tube amplifiers did. Solid State amps sounded harsh when overdriven. The early solid state amps were pretty unreliable as well and hard to fix on the road. Some purists stayed with tube powered amps for these reasons. Of course solid state amps did improve and found their niche, especially with Jazz players which liked very clean sounds.
Large and louder and more powerful amps were built as the need for more and more volume increased. These were before the advent of good sound reinforcement for large events. The amp “backline” was the main way to push sound into the audience so they could hear and “feel” the band. Again the need for more volume.
Fender was a poplar maker of guitar and bass amps. They were hugely innovative in design. Eventually, Marshall, using the basic circuit from the popular Fender Bassman amp developed very powerful and loud amps for their customers. We ended up with 200 watt plus “stacks” that could blow the roof off. Yes, these did go to 11 as Nigel Tufnel famously said in This Is Spinal Tap.
Eventually, sound reinforcement and PA systems became more sophisticated and were able to cover all the audience seats with even and quality sound. Instrument amps could be sent to the main PA using miss (later using direct boxes). Large deafening amp “stacks” are no longer really needed. Small combo amps can be used in the “backline” that allow the player to concentrate of his tone and not have to worry that he will not be heard. Also surely saves the musicians hearing which long suffered at concert volumes.
After vacuum tube, solid state and a hybrid design of both made appearances in the market place. The next big jump were modeling amps. Microprocessor technology made this possible as it allowed the use of digital onboard effects to create many different sounds all within the same amplifier. These modelers promise to mimic any and all pedal effects and most any vintage guitar amplifier. Modeling amplifiers can be programmed with “simulated” characteristic tones of different existing amplifier models (and speaker cabinets—even microphone placement). Most modeling amps can be controlled or programed via USB connection to a computer, iPad, smartphone or MIDI. Line 6 was an early innovator and brought some of the first modeling amps to market.
The same digital technology of solid state amps and modelers also allowed for guitar synthesizers. These allow guitar players to mimic other instruments or create completely different sounds. Guitar-synthesizers descend from originals innovations offered in the 1970s by early manufacturers such as Hammond Innovex & Ovation, Ludwig, Norlin Music/Maestro, EMS, 360 Systems, Ampeg & Hagström, Arp, Moog, Roland Corporation & FujiGen, Electro-Harmonix. Guitar-synth using guitars utilize regular electric guitars equipped with special electronic sensors (or pickup) that actuate a synthesizer. The Roland GK line of pickups for an example.
The sound and characteristics of vacuum tube or valves are still very sought after. Many players still like the tone that can be achieved with tubes. The warm sound and gradual crunch and then distortion and overdrive that can be accomplished with a tube amp is still hard to beat. Makers of modeling amps understand this and are always improving the way they can “mimic” the classic tube amps. The next wave that came to modeling amps is a hybrid design that uses digital technology in the preamp section and uses tubes for the power section.
Modelling amps are getting better all the time and becoming lighter and smaller. It is hard to ignore how convenient these amps can be with most every sound you may want in one small affordable package. Some of these digital solid state amps are now so small and powerful that they are available in a size that fits on a pedal board and can put out 100 watts!
The Kemper Profiling amp ships with hundreds of amps and rigs already installed and available to the user. These sounds are said to have been Profiled by pro musicians and engineers in top studios around the world giving you access to the rarest and finest amps ever made. This is the promise of todays modelers.
Software based modelers that run on a computer, tablet or even a smartphone line GarageBand, Amplitube, Guitar Rig, Logic Pro, Avid Eleven Rack, etc are inexpensive and do not even require much in the way of hardware. You just load the software up and put on some headphones or feed out to some speakers.
But for many of us just plugging in a good guitar to a great 100% tube amp is hard to beat for simplicity and our tone. Tube amps are still extremely popular with bouquet makers recreating vintage models and innovating “spins” of classic tube amp circuits.
The first patented single-coil guitar pickup used for the Rickenbacher “frying pan” guitar developed by George Beauchamp consisted of two “U” shaped magnets with one coil or wire. It was nicknamed the “horseshoe pickup” for obvious reasons. Harry DeArmond invented the first commercially available attachable instrument pickup in the mid-1930s.
Early guitar pickups were all mostly a single coil of wire wrapped around a magnet. These pickups were able to produce great definition and detail in the sound. One issue was they they tended to be noisy and amplified 60-cycle hum. Guitar pickups evolved fast in the 1950’s. Later on, two coils were wound in different directions that would cancel or “buck” the hum. Hence the name Humbucker.
The two most common guitar pickups used today are single coil or humbuckers. Probably the most common style of single-coil pickups are found on Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters. They are physically narrow with a well-focused magnetic field, picking up from a short section of the string, which results in a more extended high-frequency response than broader sized pickups. The pole pieces are non-adjustable. They sound different than a P-90 (sometimes nicknamed soap-bar or dog-ear depending on mounting) developed by Gibson or a DeArmond single coil pickups.
The response and hence the sound will differ greatly with pickup design. Magnet type (such as Alnico, Cobalt, or Neodymium), shape, wire wrap used and how many turns all affect this greatly. Humbuckers were a great innovation as they got rid of most of the noise (hum) and still allowed for a great guitar tone. The “humbucking coil” was invented in 1934 by Electro-Voice, but was not used in guitar pickups until years later. In 1938 A.F. Knoblaugh patented a pickup for stringed instruments involving 2 stacked coils. This pickup was to be used in pianos, since he was working for Baldwin Piano at the time.
Single-coils pickups produce great clarity and high frequency response and even though can allow for hum are still preferred by many players. They like the clarity and bell-like tone that can cut through the mix when playing with other instruments.
Humbuckers got rid of the hum. But they tend to sound darker and puncher. Both of these pickup designs have found players that like the sound and their characteristics. The Gibson Les Paul solid body was the first guitar to use humbuckers in substantial production.
However, the first use of a humbucking pickup for guitar was done by Joseph Raymond “Ray” Butts, but Seth Lover of Gibson around 1955 was also working on one himself. Ray Butts initially developed one on his own to solve a hum problem for his friend Chet Atkins. Later Ray worked for Gretsch and the Filter’Tron™ style pickup was born. Who developed it first is a matter of some debate, but Ray Butts was awarded the first patent (U.S. Patent 2,892,371) and Seth Lover while working at Gibson, came next (U.S. Patent 2,896,491). Ultimately, both men developed essentially the same concept, but Ray Butts was never recognized as the one who produced it first. Likely due to Gibson using them in substantial production numbers.
The Mini-Humbucker has been described to sound somewhere between a full sized humbucker and a single coil. Originally developed by the Epiphone company in the ’50s and seen on some early Epiphone guitars. They were used on Gibson models (gave the Gibson Firebird a distinctive tone) after the purchase of Epiphone in 1957. These pickups have their own character. Mini-Humbuckers were later used most famously in the Gibson Les Paul Deluxe around 1968.
The Mini-Humbucker pickup fit into the pre-carved P-90 pickup cavity using an adaptor ring developed by Gibson in order to use a surplus supply of Epiphone Mini-Humbucker pickups. They were not that popular with players at the time in the Les Paul Deluxe as they were likely seeking a Les Paul styled from 1959 in this heavy rock era. Therefore you will find many vintage Gibson Les Paul Deluxe guitars routed out for full size humbuckers sporting Humbucker pickups made by DiMarzio.
After-market pickup makers, like Seymour Duncan and Larry DiMarzio, started becoming quite popular around this time. Players chasing sound would be more willing to replace the stock pickups in their guitars.
Pickup design has come a long way. Today we see “rail” pickups, noiseless single coils, humbuckers that you can split the coils, coil tap, stacked humbuckers and even active pickups that use electronic components as well. Don Lace’s Lace sensors is a great modern example of a pickup designed to sound like a single coil without the hum. All sorts of shielding methods and “dummy” coils (where a lower pickup coil functions solely to cancel hum) have been designed over the years to make guitar pickups quieter.
Leo Fender strived to improve upon his original early designs he created decades earlier, while at G&L. The Comanche model for example, looks like a Stratocaster, but featured his newer Magnetic Field Design Z-Coil pickups. These pickups were designed by Leo Fender to deliver a bright and sparkly top end while offering a robust bottom end, all without any 60-cycle hum. The Magnetic Field Design pickups use a ceramic bar magnet instead of the traditional Alnico magnet, and allows a player to set the pickup output per string, as opposed to the entire pickup as a whole in traditional single-coil pickup designs.
Note: Coil splits are often confused with “coil tap”. Coil taps are most commonly found on single coil pickups, and involve an extra hook-up wire so the player can choose to have all the windings of the pickup included in the circuit, for a fatter, higher output sound or to “tap” into the windings for a brighter, lower output, cleaner sound. Basically, it is all based on how many turns of wire is being used to pickup the strings.
Coil splitting a Humbucker allows for only “one” of the two coils to be used, essentially making the pickup more versatile giving the player single coil like sounds.
However, with all the refinements to magnetic guitar pickups, the basic concept and design has remained the same since the early years. Many guitar players today are still using the classic pickups based on designs from the 50’s and 60’s. In fact, vintage guitar pickups are sought after and can cost a small fortune.
Custom winders like Lollar, Seymour Duncan, O.C. Duff, Larry DiMarzio, RC Pickups, Guitar Fetish, Chris Klein, Curtis Novak, Don Mare, Lindy Fralin, TV Jones, Bare Knuckles, the Creamery, Kinman, Tonerider, Rio Grande, Skatterbrane, Kent Armstrong, Bill Lawrence, Klein and others are all striving for the best sounding guitar pickups based mostly on the original designs. The options and choices are endless.
Imports, Quality, Vintage Guitar Market and Relics
The 1970s saw two major issues in the sale and progress of electric guitars. Manufacturers mostly from the Far East now had 10+ years experience and improvements in quality began appear. The original large makers in the U.S. – like Fender and Gibson (now owned by big corporate entities) – were cost and quality cutting. The imports were delivering guitars that were beginning to eat into the markets that Fender and Gibson once dominated. Towards the end of the 1970’s, Fender and Gibson were loosing market share. Companies like UNIVOX, KAWAI and others were producing Les Paul, Mosrite and Stratocaster clones for 1/5 the price.
In the mid to late 1970s we started seeing a shift to vintage guitars. Many players and now “collectors” were very interested in old original guitars. They were unhappy with some of the current build quality from Fender and Gibson that were now in the hands of large corporations that have lost their “soul” for these instruments and were just grinding out guitars. This spawned what is now known as the Lawsuit Era for guitars as lawyers for Gibson Guitars won a legal battle for patent infringements, which over time, shut down all but a few “copy” guitar manufacturers worldwide.
The early 1980s were not great times for guitars. With the big makers like Fender and Gibson in financial trouble their quality had slipped. This spawned an even larger vintage guitar market with dealers specializing in used original American guitars. Vintage guitar prices started to rise steadily.
Gibson and Fender had to rethink and retool help their sinking position in the marketplace. To better compete with the imported guitars eventually Gibson and Fender started building some very nice imported Guitars of their own. Gibson used the Epiphone brand, now moved offshore. Fender opened facilities outside the U.S. selling under different brand name like Squier which was once mainly a guitar string maker they purchased (they reactivated the brand name for imported guitars). Fender guitars are now made in Mexico (MIM) and Japan (MIJ) that are pretty high quality and also build budget guitars in China and Indonesia. Fender USA are built in the Corona factory in California. All Gibson guitars are U.S. made with Epiphone brand used for Gibson’s imports that are made in Japan, China and South Korea.
However that not all the lawsuits were very successful as it was ruled in some courts that a “body shape” can mostly be copied. The headstock was considered a way to distinguish a brand and cannot be copied. Gibson lost a lawsuit against PRS when it released a single cut guitar that was aimed at Les Paul players. Fender eventually created a licensing program for makers of Fender style necks.
In the mid 1990’s vintage guitars were hitting peak prices. Making it unaffordable for many players to buy them. This helped spawn a weird time for guitars… the relic era. Yes, people were paying extra for authentic looking road worn relic guitars… hence new guitars that are made to look old. Prior to the 1990s artificially worn guitars (relics) sometimes were created by unscrupulous people in an attempt to counterfeit high priced actual vintage instruments. This was before it was fashionable to buy relic instruments from reputable dealers. Some of the early relics done by Vince Cunetto for Fender are now quite collectable. Relic guitars seem to be “love it or hate it” among some players.
Today we are in a kind of renaissance for guitar building with custom and so many bouquet guitar and amplifier builders. Plus the big makers Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker and others now making some very well built guitars that can rival the vintage ones in quality, but may not equal in vibe. With all the imports, there are quality guitars available at most all price points.
The History of the Electric Guitar with G.E. Smith