The electric guitar has been around for almost a century now. But where did it start? Someone had to sit down and come up with the idea. The electric guitar has remained unchanged for the most part for all this time. But who invented the electric guitar?
Who Invented The Electric Guitar? Hint: It Wasn’t Just One Person!
I remember clearly, the day I first asked this question to myself. I was watching Dimebag Darrell, and thinking about all the crazy sounds he can make with the guitar. Then I started thinking:
There isn’t an easy answer to this one. Because there are people that invented the technology, yet there are people that refined and perfected the idea.
The History of The Electric Guitar: How It All Happened…
1890: The George Breed Patents
George Breed was a United States Military man. At some point, he took up the idea of adding electricity to a guitar. But not in the way you think!
George wanted to add the electric element to the guitar, but he wanted to make it like a “Player Piano”. This would be a guitar, when fed electric current, could play all by itself!
Player Pianos were all the rage in the 1800s, and they replaced the need for a person to actually play a song. George tried to implement this technology to make the guitar play itself, using pre-installed song rolls.
The device attached to the guitar and used to transfer the string vibrations into an electrical current. It was a great idea, but people who tried it were quoted as saying it sound “Very unlike a guitar, in every way”.
This was cool idea, but it didn’t really pan out. Sorry George, things didn’t work out for you. It did however get some other people thinking. The wheels started turning…
1919-1920: Lloyd Loar/Gibson
Lloyd Loar was a part of Gibson’s quality and control division. He was the first person to try out using magnetic pickups on acoustic instruments. Lloyd managed to not only make it work with a guitar, but also a bass. Later he used a pickup on a Viola to amplify the sound.
Gibson did not see any point in the work he was doing. The company was focusing fire on the acoustic guitar and banjo market. Lloyd was simply out of his depth trying to convince Gibson to try out his new ideas.
Lloyd left Gibson, with his ideas. He was fed up with the company dismissing his ideas, so he and his team resigned from Gibson. They needed their own company and brand.
In 1933, Lloyd and his associates created their own company that would specialize in amplifying acoustic instruments. They named the company Vivi-Tone, and worked for years trying to get the technology right. After a few years, the idea was abandoned.
1925: Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp
Adolph Rickenbacker started his career in the Swiss alps as a machinist, making metal tools for workers. He migrated to California in 1925, where he found work with the National String Instrument Corporation.
He was commissioned work by the company to make guitar parts. Rickenbacker made tuning machines, and hand crafted metal tops for Dobro-style guitars. The Dobro worked to amplify the guitar naturally, but better things were on the horizon.
At the same time, and in the same company, George Beauchamp was pushing the idea of amplifying acoustic intruments. The national String Instrument Company had no plans of taking George up on his ideas, and he became more and more resentful.
George was a guitar player himself in a band. He constantly had issues with being heard when the rest of the band was playing. You see, George also invented the resonator/Dobro guitar to help amplify volume naturally. The same parts that Adolph Rickenbacker was making in his machine shop.
George eventually designed the first real magnetic pickup, and Adolph Rickenbacker helped him make and design them. The pickups mounted on the instrument under the strings just like today.
Finally, we have an actual pickup that resembles what we see today! The natural acoustic sound was never up to par with the audience, unfortunately. They thought the sound was too “unreal” and “not natural”.
Rickenbacker and Beauchamp believed in their idea so much that they resigned from the National String Instrument Corporation. When they left the company, their best men followed. They created the Ro-Pat-In Corporation.
1932: Ro-Pat-In and The First Real Pickup Design
This is where things get really exciting! Rickenbacker, Beauchamp, and their crew moved on from their oppressive environment and really started to develop their ideas.
They went through many pickup designs, including the “Frying Pan Design” guitars. These guitars looked like their namesake, and had a built in magnetic pickup. They worked better than their original design, and were bottom mounted under the strings.
Several designs followed, and unfortunately there are not a ton of pictures. Electric pickup guitars did not win over the public yet. But Rickenbacker didn’t give up.
Where the duo finally broke new ground, was with their next models. But they needed a name change, and they needed a new design. Little did they know, they were catching the attention of Gibson.
1935: Electro/Rickenbacker Emerges
Rickenbacker and Beauchamp continued to innovate their pickup design, and finally had a breakthrough. The company re-branded itself as Electro guitars, under the Rickenbacker brand name.
Rickenbacker guitars and basses eventually went on to be a best selling company. But everyone has to start somewhere.
Their breakthrough model was the Ken Roberts model. This is where we get closer to the modern guitar. It was still an acoustic guitar at heart, but the new pickup design changed the sound. You can buy these guitars at auction these days…for about 7 Million Dollars.
The Ken Roberst models were met with suspicion initially. But they soon became popular, especially for Big Band musicians. The Ken Roberts had a single pickup, and a tremolo bridge. For the first time, a guitarist could control their volume on stage.
The two F-holes made the guitar finally meet the standards of people wanting to preserve the actual acoustic tone. It sounded great plugged in to an amp and people were amazed. The electric guitar started to be accepted by professional musicians.
But now we come full circle. The industry giant, Gibson, steps up to plate.
1935: Gibson Catches On..
Gibson started getting lambasted with order quotes for electric guitars. They made great acoustics and mandolins, but they were behind Rickenbacker. They had scoffed at the idea of an electric guitar, until customers started to demand it.
Gibson started with EH Custom line. These were to be direct competition with the “Frying Pan” guitars coming from Rickenbacker. They were lap steel guitars with a single pickup and came with an amplifier as a combo set.
Later that year, they released another model to compete with Rickenbacker and Electro Guitars. They announced the new ES 150. The new model took the design of the Ken Roberts models from Electro, and changed it by adding a bridge.
In 1936, they applied for a patent for their new “Strings Over” design that added a bridge, and for the first time we see a pickup mounted like modern ones today. The pickup was like a P-90, and had it’s roots in the single coil designs and ideas.
The ES 150 became very popular with Jazz musicians. So much so, that they still produce the ES 150 to this day!
The modern electric was just around the corner. Unfortunately, it would not make history…
1947: Paul Bigsby and Solid Body Electric Guitars
Gibson dominated the electric guitar market for a decade. Rickenbacker continued to produce their designs as well. Japanese companies started to import less expensive models before WWII grounded their production to a halt.
After the war, popular musician Merle Travis commissioned Paul Bigsby to make a solid body guitar. Merle and Paul designed a bird’s eye maple guitar with a thru-neck design. The guitar had Mere’s name engraved, with leftover wood used to make decorative inlays and a pickguard.
The Travis-Bigsby guitar featured a single-cut design, which reminds us of the infamous Les Paul by Gibson. It had a single pickup in the bridge, which gave Merle his signature sound. Tone knobs were added after the initial design so he could better control his tone on stage.
Electric guitar took a huge leap forward with Paul Bigsby’s master craftsmanship. Merle ended up asking Paul to make him a double cut version of the guitar using all of the same woods. Merle played shows for years with his new solid body electrics.
Gibson went on to design their own versions of solid body electric guitars. But it would be a decade before Gibson caught up with their Les Paul models.
Bigsby should go down in history as being the first person to make a solid body electric. But since he never mass produced his work, his name is often forgotten. He unfortunately was overshadowed by a sleeping giant.
The legendary Leo Fender.
1950: Fender Guitars Take Over The Market
In a strange turn of events, Leo Fender became a legend. Not bad for a guy who not only didn’t play guitar, but was an electrician. Leo fender Spent a lot of time making/repairing radios and other electrical appliances. He opened a repair shop for live music equipment, and musical instruments in 1938.
The first real foray Leo had with making guitars, was not for production means. He made a crude guitar just for testing pickups. He was intrigued by the idea of solid body guitars, and there wasn’t really any competition, yet. He created several prototypes.
Within a few years, Leo handed over his popular radio/equipment repair business to his friend, Dale Hyatt. Next, Leo re-branded himself as Fender Musical Instrument Company. His goal became mass producing electric guitars for affordable prices.
The most economic way to do this, is a solid body guitar. He started using pine wood for the body of the guitar, and maple for the necks of the guitars. The pickup technology was tailored to suit a solid body instrument. This became the first mass produced single coil pickup!
The Fender Esquire’s initial run was 50 guitars. These were made to Leo’s specs, and sold for $190. They sold out immediately.
Leo had missed the mark in his first runs of the guitar. They had no truss rod for adjusting the neck. Some of the pickups were microphonic and noisy. The bridge had issues. But Leo didn’t play, so he was at a loss when it came to the defects.
The second batch added a truss rod to the design, and a fully adjustable bridge. The redesigned models launched the moniker “Broadcaster” for a short time. Gretsch drums had a trademark on the name already.
For the next year, the famous “Nocasters” were made and released to the public. Since they could no longer use the Broadcaster name, they left the headstock blank. These are highly sought after guitars now, only affordable to collectors.
Leo created a new name for his guitar, The Telecaster. The new design and name took off overnight. Everyone wanted to try this new Telecaster guitar, in every genre of music!
Leo had more orders for the guitar than he could produce, so he sold his radio/equipment repair business and focused all of his assets on Fender Guitars. He hired 100 employees for his shop, a number that would triple in the next 5 years.
In 1954, Leo hit another home run with the Stratocaster. The Stratocaster was a double cut design with three pickups instead of one. It also introduced a tremolo system that was designed in-house by Fender. Today the guitar is synonymous with Rock music and Blues.
We are used to seeing the “Strat” everywhere, aren’t we? Too many players to list rely on their Fender Strat for their guitar needs. But when it was released, no one had ever seen anything like it. In fact, many people thought it would fail!
The Stratocaster obviously didn’t fail. Every year, Leo released new models and sold them en masse to the public. Leo Fender, the man who couldn’t play guitar, became a guitar legend.
After the first few runs, he started using different colors based on automobile paint. These new colors included:
- Candy Apple Red
- Olympic White
- Sonic Blue
- TV Yellow
The colored paint jobs on the new models took off faster than the original Stratocaster. Musicians of the 50’s and early 60’s gravitated towards Fender. The Stratocaster and the Telecaster became the most played electric guitars on the planet.
The rest is history! Fender guitars are still made the same way they were made in the 1950’s. The modern design has had a few tweaks, but they are largely exactly the same as they were when they began.
At the same time, Gibson continued on their own path…
1950-1965 Gibson Carves Their Own Path
In the 1950’s Gibson was sticking largely to their original “jazzbox” designs. Gibson knew that Leo Fender had the market cornered when it came to solid body, mass produced guitars. They had to catch up, by being completely different.
The Gibson ES 335 was designed by Ted McCarty in 1958. Ted designed 4 different models of semi-hollow body electrics, and one fully hollow body model. The Gibson ES 335 took off by 1959.
Ted had a friend named Seth Lover who had an idea to compete with Leo Fender. Seth Lover had invented the humbucker pickup by putting two single coils together and reversing polarity. These pickups were more quiet, fatter sounding, and had a refined look. By 1960, Leo Fender had competition.
Gibson had a hit with their first solid body guitars. Especially with the Les Paul models, but the story of the Les Paul guitar is a long one. It is a story deserving of it’s own place.
Ted McCarty spent the next few years designing solid body guitars loaded with the new humbucker pickups. He created the Explorer, The Modern Les Paul, The Flying V, and many other models. Ted kept his nose to the grindstone for years, and has went down as a legendary innovator.
Gibson also made the move to absorb the Epiphone corporation in 1957, and took over production of their original designs. Epiphone became the affordable end of Gibson, making Gibson’s designs beside the older Epiphone models. This tradition continues today.
Gibson and Fender remained rivals through the 1950s and 1960s. But their designs are the basis for almost every modern guitar, and both companies still make their instruments to original spec.
Next time you see an electric guitar, you will know exactly how that instrument came to be. No matter what the brand or style, every electric guitar shares the same DNA.
So…Who Invented The Electric Guitar?
As you can see, it was years of effort and innovation between several different individuals and corporations. It was a long journey to where we are today.
Without competition and people constantly re-imagining what an electric guitar could be, it’s hard to say where we would be today. The friendly rivalry between companies and visionaries ensured innovation.
There are still people out there changing the design of the electric guitar. New ideas come out every year, yet I feel like we have barely scratched the surface with what can be done with design.
The future of the electric guitar is just as exciting as it’s past.