The electric guitar is an innovation that helped shape the 20th century. Say what you will, but we’d be living in an entirely different world without this single development in musical technology.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at when the electric guitar was first invented. The problem is that the answer is pretty murky.
There were patents for several styles of “electric guitars” long before the solid-body electric guitar as you know it. Even before that, it’s likely there were other backyard inventors who weren’t able to take their product to the market or secure a patent.
Because of that, when talking about the year which the electric guitar was invented, both the question and the answer can be interpreted differently. We’re going to be as concise as possible. We’re also going to include a few dates of specific innovations on the path to the solid body electric guitar as you know it today.
When Was The Very First Electric Guitar Invented?
Technically, the very first electric guitar was patented in 1890 by an inventor named George Breed. This is the first attempt documented at electrifying a fretted string instrument.
George Breed was a U.S. Navy officer who took his skills learned in the Navy Academy’s electrical engineering classes and applied them to modifying an acoustic guitar. One might argue that this model doesn’t count though.
The design Breed patented was made to provide infinite sustain to an acoustic guitar, rather than actually amplifying the sound through a speaker. An electromagnet surrounding the strings provided an effect similar to that of an EBow.
Either way, this invention would never actually go to market and Breed would go nearly forgotten about except in the literature of guitar historians.
The Need For Louder Guitars
Amplified electric guitars didn’t just come about because they were cool and could make different sounds. There was a need brought on for guitarists to play to bigger audiences.
One of the most obvious catalysts was a new type of music in the early 20th century called “Big Band” music. “Swing” music would also fall into this category, which sprung up in the 1930s.
These bands were usually made up of 7 or more instruments, which often included drums, saxophones and trumpets. Acoustic guitars just weren’t able to be heard through the louder volumes of these fashionable new dance clubs which featured Big Band and Swing acts.
While there had been many people tinkering with the concept of amplifying a guitar, this new problem brought about more interest in properly designing a viable prototype.
Where there is a market, there’s also money to be made. Where’s there’s money to be made, there are people lining up to invest their labor, expertise and capital. Because of that, Big Band music was somewhat of a turning point for the electric guitar.
The First Electrically Amplified Guitar
The first well-documented guitar which used electricity to amplify a guitar was invented in 1931 by George Beauchamp*. The Richenbacher Electro Hawaiian guitar prototype was made from one piece of solid maple and used 2 horseshoe magnets with a wound coil for a pickup.
Nicknamed “The Frying Pan” because of its circular shape and long neck, the Rickenbacker did fairly well as a lap steel guitar for Hawaiian music (also popular in the 1930s).
The subsequent model in 1932 was dubbed the model A-25 and made from cast aluminum. In 1934, they modified the scale of the Richenbacher to 22.5″ and reduced the fret count from 25 to 23 for the model A-22.
While the guitar was being manufactured and sold by 1932, the patent wasn’t filed until 1934. Following the filing the patent was finally issued in 1937. This gap allowed for competitors to move in during that period.
While the Rickenbacker Electro was well-liked by guitarists in the Hawaiian genre, it didn’t fair well with other genres of music. Lap steel guitars were just much different than the more traditional acoustic guitars.
With Problems Come Innovations
During this period, in the first half of the 20th century, there were several attempts at producing an amplified guitar sound using electricity. While the Richenbacher A-22 was a lap-style steel guitar, others were made using an acoustic guitar design.
There was one major downside to amplifying an acoustic guitar, which was the feedback produced by the resonant sound. The sound coming from the speaker would resonate in the hollow body of the guitar and vibrate the strings.
The pickup would then send the sound to the amplifier which would pump it back out through the speaker. Picture that occurring over and over at the speed of sound.
You don’t have to imagine though –
If you’ve ever plugged an acoustic guitar into an amp or PA system, you probably know that they are much more susceptible to feedback. What was the solution? You guessed it! – Enter stage left, the solid-body electric guitar.
The Original Modern Electric Guitar – Solid Body
The first prototype of what we consider to be a modern, solid-body electric guitar was created in 1939 by one Lester William Polsfuss, otherwise known as Les Paul. His prototype, known as The Log, began with a 4×4 chunk of pine, an Epiphone* neck, two homemade pickups and a vibrato tailpiece.
In an effort to make it look more like a guitar, Les Paul cut a hollow body Epiphone in half and attached them to each side of the 4×4 piece of wood.
Gibson and Epiphone passed on Paul’s pitch to mass-produce his solid-body electric guitar until 1952. They referred to it as a “broomstick with pickups“. Only upon seeing the success of Leo Fender’s electric guitar designs did they decide to finally partner with Les Paul.
When the release of the Gibson Les Paul guitar, you can’t help but think that their design may have been also influenced by O.W. Appleton’s solid body he pitched to Gibson in 1943. While Appleton did receive a letter in 1952 from Gibson acknowledging regret for being so quick to dismiss him, he would never actually be credited for any contribution.
* Some will argue that The Log was originally made using a Gibson neck. Upon close review of Les Paul interviews, it seems that Gibson had Paul put a Gibson sticker over his Epiphone headstock for marketing purposes. After all, they wouldn’t want the original Les Paul guitar to be an Epiphone.
When Was The First Solid Body Electric Guitar Mass Produced?
Leo Fender brought the first mass-produced, solid-body, electric guitar to market in 1950 called the Fender Esquire. The first prototype, however, was developed in the fall of 1949.
The Esquire housed a single pickup, adjustable bridge and a bolt-on neck. The body design was a dreadnought, single cut-away and mostly credited to George Fullerton, who was Fender’s employee at the time.
A 2-pickup model would later be introduced call the Broadcaster. This would soon be renamed the Fender Telecaster. With the success of Fender’s solid-body electric guitars, Gibson soon took notice.
While Leo Fender didn’t invent the electric guitar, he kickstarted a revolution with the Fender Esquire.
A Timeline Of Electric Guitar Innovation – Guitar History
While, in this article, we covered a few key events which brought about the electric guitar, there are many more to speak of. There are several other people who played an important role in the process.
So many, in fact, that it becomes hard to give everyone the credit they deserve. With these people came many models which advanced the electric guitar feature by feature.
The purpose of this post is to highlight exactly when the electric guitar was invented, but here is a timeline of important contributions:
- 1890: George Breed – First patented use of electricity for a fretted instrument
- 1924: First Guitar Pickup – Loyd Loar from Gibson created the first magnetic guitar pickup.
- 1927: The First Amplifier – American Musical Instruments developed the first amplifier
- The amplifier was originally intended to play records from a phonograph but was later modified to amplify guitars.
- 1928: Stromberg Electro from Author Lynn Wheelwright – Acoustic-Electric Guitar
- This guitar was marketed by the company, but I’ve never been able to turn up any evidence of it actually being manufactured.
- 1931: Richenbacher Electro Hawaiian – Dubbed “The Frying Pan”
- 1932: Ro-Pat-In Spanish Electric Guitar – Also by Rickenbacker and Beauchamp
- 1933: Vivi-Tone Acoustic-Electric Guitar
- 1936: Slingerland Songster Model 401
- 1936: Gibson ES-150 Spanish Electric-Acoustic Guitar
- 1939: Les Paul’s “Log”
- 1941: W.W. Appleton – Designed what became known as the “App” Guitar
- Possibly the design inspiration for the Les Paul body
- 1948: The Bigsby Merle Travis Electric Guitar – Technically the first solid-body electric guitar sold to the public. It wasn’t mass-produced though. These were hand-made custom guitars sold in limited numbers.
- Some argue that the headstock was Leo Fender’s inspiration for the Stratocaster headstock.
- 1950: The Fender Esquire by Leo Fender – First mass-produced solid-body electric guitar.
- This model led to the infamous Fender Telecaster.
- 1952: The Gibson Les Paul – Some might say that this release put the finishing touches on the electric guitar.
Take just a moment and try to imagine a world that didn’t include the electric guitar. Think about the entire picture. How many musicians we might have never heard and songs that would never have been sung.
Soundtracks from many, many movies would be completely different. The hippie and anti-war movement during Vietnam would probably have not been a thing, Woodstock would have never happened and several generations would probably have shaped a little bit differently. If not, a lot.
And worst of all, you’d be reading an article about trumpets right now ? (no offense to my trumpet players out there).
Good or bad, we could be living in a completely different world right now if it weren’t for that single innovation. An innovation that teams of people worked on together for half a century without even knowing one another.
On the other hand, I could just be being dramatic!
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