Invented in 1931, the electric guitar became a necessity as jazz musicians sought to amplify their sound. Since then, the electric guitar has undeniably become one of the most important instruments in popular music around the world. It has evolved into a stringed musical instrument that is capable of a multitude of sounds and styles. It served as a major component in the development of rock and roll and countless other genres of music.
Various experiments at electrically amplifying the vibrations of a string instrument date back to the early part of the twentieth century. Patents from the 1910s show telephone transmitters adapted and placed inside violins and banjos to amplify the sound. Hobbyists in the 1920s usedcarbon button microphones attached to the bridge, however these detected vibration from the bridge on top of the instrument, resulting in a weak signal. With numerous people experimenting with electrical instruments in the 1920s and early 1930s, there are many claimants to have been the first to invent an electric guitar.
Electric guitars were originally designed by guitar makers and instrument manufacturers. Guitar innovator Les Paul experimented with microphones attached to guitars. Some of the earliest electric guitars adapted hollow bodied acoustic instruments and used tungsten pickups. The first electrically amplified guitar was invented by George Beauchamp in 1931. Commercial production began in late summer of 1932 by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (Electro-Patent-Instrument Company Los Angeles), a partnership of Beauchamp, Adolph Rickenbacker, and Paul Barth. The wooden body of the prototype was built by Harry Watson, a craftsman who had worked for the National Resophonic Guitar Company (where the men met). By 1934 the company was renamed Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company.
The need for the amplified guitar became apparent during the big band era as orchestras increased in size, particularly when guitars had to compete with large brass sections. The first electric guitars used in jazz were hollow archtop acoustic guitar bodies with electromagnetictransducers. By 1932 an electrically amplified guitar was commercially available. Early electric guitar manufacturers include: Rickenbacker (first called Ro-Pat-In) in 1932, Dobro in 1933, National, AudioVox and Volu-tone in 1934,Vega, Epiphone (Electrophone and Electar), and Gibson in 1935 and many others by 1936.
The solid body electric guitar is made of solid wood, without functionally resonating air spaces. Rickenbacher offered a cast aluminum electric steel guitar, nicknamed “The Frying Pan” or “The Pancake Guitar”, developed in 1931 with production beginning in the summer of 1932. This guitar sounds quite modern and aggressive.
The first solid body “Spanish” standard guitar was offered by Vivi-Tone no later than 1934. An example of this model, featuring a guitar-shaped body of a single sheet of plywood affixed to a wood frame. Another early, substantially solid Spanish electric guitar, called Electro Spanish, was marketed by the “Rickenbacker” guitar company in 1935 and made of Bakelite. By 1936, the Slingerland company introduced a wooden solid body electric model.
The earliest documented performance with an electrically amplified guitar was in 1932, by Gage Brewer. The Wichita, Kansas-based musician had an Electric Hawaiian A-25 (frypan, lap-steel) and a standard Electric Spanish from George Beauchamp of Los Angeles, California. Brewer publicized his new instruments in an article in the Wichita Beacon of October 2, 1932 and through performances that month.
The first recordings using the electric guitar were by Hawaiian style players, in 1933. Bob Dunn of Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies introduced the electric Hawaiian guitar to Western Swing with his January 1935 Decca recordings, departing almost entirely from Hawaiian musical influence and heading towards Jazz and Blues. Alvino Rey was an artist who took this instrument to a wide audience in a large orchestral setting and later developed the pedal steel guitar for Gibson. An early proponent of the electric Spanish guitar was jazz guitarist George Barnes who used the instrument in two songs recorded in Chicago on March 1, 1938, “Sweetheart Land” and “It’s a Low-Down Dirty Shame”. Some incorrectly attribute the first recording to Eddie Durham, but his recording with the Kansas City Five was 15 days later. Durham introduced the instrument to a young Charlie Christian, who made the instrument famous in his brief life and would be a major influence on jazz guitarists for decades thereafter.
Gibson’s first production electric guitar, marketed in 1936, was the ES-150 model (“ES” for “Electric Spanish”; and “150” reflecting the $150 price of the instrument, along with a matching amplifier). The ES-150 guitar featured a single-coil, hexagonally shaped “bar” pickup, which was designed by Walt Fuller. It became known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup (named for the great jazz guitarist who was among the first to perform with the ES-150 guitar). The ES-150 achieved some popularity, but was suffered from unequal loudness across the six strings.
At an Engineering Fair in 1940, first prize went to NC State University physics professor Sidney Wilson for his invention of the world’s first fully electric guitar. Wilson’s guitar was also the first to have single-string pick-up, which addressed the unequal loudness problem of the ES-150’s single coil. Professor Wilson also disposed of the acoustical body, reasoning that it was not necessary for a fully electric instrument. He developed the guitar and entered it in the annual engineering fair. Patents from academia were quite unusual in the 1940s, so Professor Wilson did not patent his invention. In 1949 Gibson incorporated both the individual string pick-up and the cut-away body in its model ES-175. The design was attributed to Ted McCarthy of Gibson Corporation, but the features were first conceived and implemented by NC State physicists.
Early proponents of the electric guitar on record include: Jack Miller (Orville Knapp Orchestra), Alvino Rey (Phil Spitalney Orchestra), Les Paul (Fred Waring Orchestra), Danny Stewart (Andy Iona Orchestra), George Barnes (under many aliases), Lonnie Johnson, Floyd Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, T-Bone Walker, George Van Eps, Charlie Christian (Benny Goodman Orchestra) Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, and Arthur Crudup.
A functionally solid body electric guitar was designed and built by Les Paul from an Epiphone acoustic archtop. His “log guitar” (so called because it consisted of a simple 4×4 wood post with a neck attached to it and homemade pickups and hardware, with two detachable Swedish hollow body halves attached to the sides for appearance only) shares nothing in design or hardware with the solid body “Les Paul” model sold by Gibson. However, the feedback problem associated with hollow-bodied electric guitars was understood long before Paul’s “log” was created in 1940; Gage Brewer’s Ro-Pat-In of 1932 had a top so heavily reinforced that it essentially functioned as a solid-body instrument.