This could be a long ramble. It’s not just that I play guitars and have got some rather nice ones that makes me want to say so much about them. They are a wonder: I can’t think of many other man-made objects that tell you so much about social as well as musical history over such a long period. Cars and planes – yes, but their history is so much shorter. Guitars’ looks, their variety, their versatility, their power and their symbolism have always said something about the times and the people who have used them.
What other instrument has been capable of expressing the delicacy of Elizabethan madrigals: the dark power and drama of Villa Lobos and Flamenco: the raw physical energy of Chuck Berry: the breathtaking skill of Django Reinhardt: the challenging innovation of Jimi Hendrix, the mournful pathos of slide players like Blind Willie Johnson: the voice and song extension for Richard Thompson and Robert Johnson, and the driving but simple rhythmic foundations for The Beatles and Bob Dylan? And yet it has been easily accessible as a means of accompaniment for billions of amateur music makers over many centuries.
This section mostly comprises Andrew’s long and very personal essay on the development of the guitar. But first, here are some pictures of some of his own instruments (click on the photos for video clips of Andrew playing them).
I’m always staggered by how long ago they were invented. There’s always been a heated debate about who actually came up with the idea, but it was Adolph Rickenbacker (yes – the same Rickenbacker whose company later made the guitars John Lennon and George Harrison played, Roger McGuinn pretended to play, and Pete Townsend smashed up), who first produced a guitar with an electric pickup.
This was in 1931.
The idea was – I keep reading – very simple (remember that I just can’t figure out anything I can’t see). A big old horseshoe magnet was positioned over and under the strings, and an electrical coil placed underneath that. Apparently, when the vibration of the strings disturbs the magnetic field, an electrical signal is generated in the coil, and sent out of the guitar to an amplifier, where it is boosted and sent out to a loudspeaker.
Rickenbacker stuck one of these assemblies on top of what looked like a bedpan (it was actually called “The Frying Pan”) and set it up for the then-popular Hawaiian style.
Rickenbacker was already involved in the “how do we get the guitar louder” business, having manufactured the steel bodies for National resonator guitars since 1928 (yes, yes – I will come on to that!). Not only that, but the company he formed to market these new inventions (called Ro-Pat-In: nobody quite knows why – maybe it was a combination of their wives’ Christian names: Roxanne, Patsy and – well maybe not) included Paul Barth and George Beauchamp – former executives and founders of the National Company, who went off in a huff over patents.
A couple of years later Rickenbacker (sometimes – back then - spelt “Rickenbacher”) tried sticking this pickup in an arch-top guitar, but later went back to making small solid bodies (out of aluminium or bakelite), and set up for Hawaiian playing.
For a few years Rickenbacker’s electrics were the only ones around. Lloyd Loar – formerly Gibson’s chief designer, and creator of the ground-breaking L5 “f-hole” models, made some strange solid-bodied efforts in the mid 1930s, but not much is known about them.
It wasn’t until good old Gibson entered the fray in 1936 that the electric guitar really started to muscle in on guitarists’ consciousness.
Gibson placed a flat bar pickup on one of the arch-top L5 derivatives: the L50, and stuck tone and volume controls on the body. The model number “ES 150” continued the Gibson trend of differentiating Hawaiian guitars from Spanish (“H” or “S”), now prefixed by “E” for electric.
Gibson continued to make a whole range of electrics based on their hugely popular “f-hole” jazz guitars, both in Hawaiian and Spanish versions, and these lines are still amongst Gibson’s best.
But they were also – alongside Rickenbacker and National/Dobro, making little flat solid-bodied “lap” guitars for Hawaiian playing, and it was this design that started folks a-thinking about the future of electric guitars.
There was (and still is) a problem, you see. The natural acoustics produced by the sound chamber of an acoustic guitar sort of conflict with those produced by the electro-magnetic pickup. Consequently you get “feedback”. This is still a big problem for acoustic guitarists who need to amplify. It’s especially difficult when playing in to a microphone. I’m not sure about the details, but basically the sound waves generated by the electrical jiggery-pokery get back inside the guitar again, then – in turn – get picked up again by the amplifying device, and form a sort of continuous loop. It’s also to do with the vibration of the wood on the guitar being out of kilter with the note produced (and amplified) by the pickup or microphone.
Either way, it can be a bugger, and ever since those early days guitarists have battled with the problem, and usually given up and turned to the alternative – the solid- bodied electric guitar.
This is where the biggest arguments occurred about “who was first”. At around the same time – between 1948 and 1951, several crackpots were fiddling about with the concept of a solid “standard” guitar (there had already been some Hawaiian ones). The idea wasn’t entirely new: the great guitar virtuoso Les Paul took a weird effort called “the log” to Gibsons in 1939, and they laughed him out of the house. It was essentially a big Gibson archtop sawn in half, with a big chunk of timber placed down the centre with the pickups mounted on it. The solid bit eliminated all the vibration and feedback problems he’d experienced with the electrified hollow acoustics Gibson had been marketing hitherto.
Rickenbacker had already been making a guitar version of one of their little bakelite Hawaiian guitars as early as 1935, but they never caught on.
There were two (well, three really, as two people worked together on one project) fairly unknown tinkerers who could maybe rightly claim the “me first” crown. One was Paul Bigsby (whose name later became associated with the “vibrato” or “tremolo” arm fixed to thousands of guitars). In 1949 he built – in association with country singer/guitarist Merle Travis – a revolutionary guitar with a solid single-cutaway body (looking spookily like the later Gibson Les Paul), and a machine head which looked spookily like the (not much later) Fender Telecaster.
Leo Fender was the other tinkerer. He was joined in his Fender Electric Instrument Company by George Fullerton, and they produced – around 1950 – what shortly became the Telecaster (it was originally called the Broadcaster, but Gretsch were already making a drum kit by that name, and threatened legal action: as it turned out, this was a pretty dumb thing to do, as the Fender guitar was a massive hit, and Gretsch would probably have been quite happy to have been associated with it!).
A few years after that, Fender went even further, with the space-age-looking Stratocaster (better known as the “strat”).
In between these two – and probably the reason behind Fender’s adventurousness with the Strat – Gibson waded in with the Les Paul solid-bodied guitar.
When Gibson saw the success of the Fender, they realised what they had missed when they turned away that famous crackpot Les Paul and his “log”. So they went back to him (he was really famous by now) and asked him to design a new solid electric guitar for them. And so the great Les Paul models were launched.
To this day – just as the Martin Dreadnoughts did in the flat-top acoustic world – these three very different-looking guitars: the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, and the Gibson Les Paul, set the pattern for electric guitars. They’ve sat perfectly comfortably alongside the big “f-hole” guitars with pickups on, and there has even been a range of “hybrids” – thin hollowed-out bodies with pickups on, like the Gibson 335 and the Rickenbackers I’ve already mentioned.
Once these two concepts had been proven to work – there wasn’t really much more you could do with the electric guitar (although electric guitar buffs would murder me for saying so!). Development since then has been in the detail of the electronics inside the pickup, but more in the quality of amplifiers, and the gadgets you can use to make the sound more versatile and – of course – MUCH LOUDER. When you think of those early radio-type amplifiers, and compare the sound quality and level with big stadium guitar bands like AC/DC, it’s pretty mind-boggling. And yet, when you look at the guitars chosen by many of those guitarists, they’re as often as not Fender Telecasters, Fender Strats or Gibson Les Pauls. Many big-name players (like Dave Gilmour, Sting and - here he is again - Eric Clapton), take a great pride in playing really old guitars, with not many improvements (if any) on the original components and set-ups.
Where a lot of mental energy has been exerted, though, is in finding ways of amplifying acoustic guitars, and avoiding the feedback problems I mentioned earlier. I can sympathise with those who prefer the sound and feel of an acoustic guitar, but want it to be heard in concerts and pubs.
In recent years, new kinds of pickups have been developed, which transmit and amplify vibrations either from the wood body (transducers), or the strings themselves (piezo). This helps a bit. But my heart sinks when I read articles in guitar magazines (especially ones purporting to be about acoustics), when players are asked about the equipment they use on stage. They usually preface it by saying “oh, I like to keep it simple… all I use is..” then they reel off a huge list of pedals, processors, sound enhancers, pre-amps and special effects.
It seems to me that a lot of people spend a fortune and waste a lot of time and energy trying to add loads of effects to make their acoustic guitar sound like – well, an acoustic guitar! Either that, or they use so many effects that the guitar sounds just like – well, an electric guitar! So why not use one instead? There was a craze a few years back for big-stage acoustic players to stick a sort of plastic disc into the soundhole: it stopped the feedback, but killed all possible resemblance to an acoustic sound.
The real thing is much better. I still play my old guitars into a microphone, but it is tricky avoiding the feedback problem – especially if you want volume. It’s especially bad when you have foldback monitors (the speakers that face you, as a performer, so you can hear yourself). What happens is that the sound from the monitor gets inside the guitar, bounces around inside, then comes out again and straight into the microphone, setting up another of those loops.
There - for all I said about not having much to say about electric guitars, I seem to have drivelled n quite successfully!
there we have it. All about guitars.
It’s been a long old ramble, and I’ve enjoyed checking up on some of the stuff I sort-of knew about, or was interested enough in to find out more.
I know the whole thing has been a bit biassed – it was never going to be anything but an expression of what I knew and felt about guitars.
I’ve missed tons.
Bass guitars, for example: can you imagine how revolutionary it was when Fender - in the early 1950s - didn’t just put a pickup on a double bass, but suggested you held it in your arms rather than standing it on the floor!?
As with the Fender and Gibson solid electric guitars, those early designs set a pattern which have lasted - and others have tried to emulate - ever since (although there are some formidable alternatives).
There have been attempts to create an acoustic bass guitar: started by a collusion between Ernie Ball and ex-Fender pioneer George Fullerton in 1972, with the Earthwood-branded bass. Other makers joined in rather reluctantly, but the idea didn’t really take off until pickups started to be added in the 1980s (rather defeating the object, in my view!). I can’t help thinking that the idea of a bass guitar matching the volume and tone of an acoustic 6-string guitar was doomed to fail. The tension and pitch of bass strings is completely different, and I can’t see how their reverberation can possibly cause the resonance of the timber in a guitar necessary to produce the tone and volume required.They’re still around, but usually have some pretty elaborate pickups fitted.
Another omission: I’ve stopped my discussion about Hawaiian and country slide guitars without saying anything about electric Hawaiian guitars and “pedal steels” which are amazing beasts, with loads of levers and pedals.
I’ve also glossed over the whole world of classical and flamenco guitars. There’s no excuse: my first decent acoustic guitar was a hand-made Tatay Spanish jobbie. I loved it, and it was the only guitar I ever sold for more than I paid for it (I was 14). One of my favourite recent purchases was a 1905 Ramirez flamenco model, which I love even more. The mid-19th Century Torres style has not really changed much, and some of the great Spanish builders have survived (still often in the same familes - as with Ramirez) alongside some other notable European craftsmen, and the inevitable (but often very good) Japanese brands.
But I hope that - despite my omissions and biasses - I’ve managed to share my childish (as well as professional) joy at the very being of the guitar. If you don’t understand it, pick up a D’Angelico archtop, or admire the inlay on a Martin D45: listen to the natural “sustain” on an A-string plucked on a National Tri-cone, or the amplified equivalent on a Gibson Les Paul.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about guitars being the the bread-and-butter or the mirror of Society for the past 400 years, but the fact that they are still around and hugely popular must mean they are pretty bloody important.
3. American guitar makers
4. A new and unlikely influence
5. The boom years - 1920-1970
Sentchordi Hermanos 1880s