Out of the Frying Pan: The Electric Guitar

Jun 30, 2015

Last week we took a more in depth look at the history of the modern acoustic guitar, starting with its invention in the mid 1800s, and following it through the era of jazz and big band swing, and the development of the 12-string guitar. This week we are going to continue this exploration of the guitar’s history; this time with a look back at the invention, development, and eventual world domination of the electric guitar.

Today, the electric guitar appears in pretty much every popular genre of music, and a number of not-so-popular genres too, but it didn’t start out that way; originally the guitar had a much more humble place in the band. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the rise in popularity of jazz and big band music that the guitar started to become more prominent. But the acoustic guitars of the time faced an extremely difficult task competing with the volume of the brass section, so musicians called on instrument manufacturers to figure out a way to amplify the guitar’s sound. By then experts had already been experimenting with electrical amplification of stringed instruments for a few decades, but with limited success. Patents dating back to the early part of the 1910s describe telephone transmitters being adapted to be placed inside violins and banjos in an attempt to amplify their sound. Later, in the ’20s, home hobbyists tried using a small carbon microphone about the size of a shirt button, attached to the guitar’s bridge. Unfortunately, as clever as this idea was, the button microphones only detected vibration from the bridge on top of the instrument, which resulted in a rather weak signal. Small attempts to electrically amplify the vibrations of the guitar continued throughout the ’20s and early ’30s, so it can be difficult to pin down exactly who was the first to invent the electric guitar.

With all this experimentation going on, it wouldn’t be long before someone discovered that a more direct pickup system, using electromagnetism to register the vibrations of the strings themselves (rather than the bridge) would finally allow the voice of the guitar to be heard over some of the more forceful instruments. Many of the earliest of these truly electronically amplified guitars were hollow bodied acoustic guitars, modified to use tungsten pickups. But the first commercially successful electric guitar, as we would recognize it today, was designed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker in 1931, and affectionately referred to as the “Frying Pan.” Created by Baeauchamp and manufactured by Rickenbacker Electro, the guitar was officially name the Rickenbacker Electro A-22, but earned the nickname the “frying pan” because of its distinctive shape and colour. The A-22 featured a long neck with a relatively small, circular body, and was made from a single piece of cast aluminum, giving it an undeniable resemblance to the kitchen item from which it takes its name.

The “frying pan” was originally designed in response to the surge in popularity of Hawaiian music in the 1930s, but even though Beauchamp and Rickenbacker started selling them in 1932 Beauchamp wasn’t awarded a patent for his design until 1937. This allowed other guitar companies to copy his idea, and produce electric guitars during the same period in time. The frying pan was an instant hit among Hawaiian-style musicians, but it wasn’t picked up but others right away, allowing for a bit more experimentation, like in the decades before. Most of the guitars being produced by these other companies were just hollow-bodied acoustic guitars with magnetic pickups. Audiences and musicians alike loved the new powerful volume, but they also produced a lot of feedback created by the hollow body. Trying to fix this problem, Les Paul, an already well know acoustic guitar player, simply took the pre-existing pickup design and mounted it to a four-by-four piece of pine wood and called it “The Log.”

By the later half of the ’40s, the electric guitar wave had finally caught on. Swing jazz and big band music had snatched up the guitar, and called it their own. Legendary big band leaders like Duke Ellington gave the electric guitar a stage to show off, while prolific acts like Freddie Green showed without a doubt that the new solid-body electric guitars could be used both as a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic band leader. Leo Fender, a name that should ring some bells for any guitar enthusiast, finally introduced a mass produced solid-body electric guitar in 1950. Just two short years later Gibson followed Fender, and started to put out the “Les Paul,” a solid-body guitar designed by the man who’s name it carried. It was this event that solidified Gibson as the largest guitar manufacturer in the world, building and selling more units than per day than any other company. This set up the back and forth battle between Fender and Gibson that goes on to this day.

Throughout the ’50s and ’60 Gibson and Fender permanently secured the guitar’s place in American culture. Thanks to these two companies, as well as amazingly talented musicians all through the ’60s, ’70s, and on to today, the electric guitar has become somewhere people can come to learn, as well as compete with peers and the greats alike. In the hands of such artists as Les Paul, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Slash (to name but a few), the electric guitar found yet another home in the halls of Rock n’ Roll. Today no group or artist can rightfully call themselves rock, punk, metal, or any number of subgenres of rock without an at least halfway decent guitar section, with at least one lead guitar, a bass (almost always electric), and more often than not, an electric rhythm guitar.

Without a doubt the electric guitar has permanently change the face of popular music. If it weren’t for George Beauchamp, Adolph Rickenbacker, big band leaders like Duke Ellington, Les Paul, and manufacturers like Fender and Gibson, jazz and swing would have been a completely different kind of music, and who can even say what the state of Rock n’ Roll would be; probably nothing at all like the plethora we enjoy today. The guitar has led a long and rich life, and it is important for young students to understand its history; in today’s world the electric guitar is ever-present and enjoys a vast popularity, but its has had a rough development, full of dead ends and clever ideas. Most players wont think about these things during their weekly guitar lessons, but knowing this story may help to bring out some truly emotional and inspired playing.