The invention of the electric guitar was a major milestone in music history.
From music by Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to the Beatles, the electric guitar has featured in so many iconic songs, making it into a sacred object of rock’n’roll.
And who knows how many have been shattered on stage…
The instrument itself has evolved immensely. But do you know the details of the electric guitar’s development?
While knowing this history isn’t essential to good music playing, it will help you situate your practice in wider cultural contexts. It could inspire beginners to learn known music pieces and help more advanced players refine the techniques of their guitar idols. Why not take a guitar class and brush up on your facts?
This history has been handed down from generation to generation. And it could be something fun to share with your children or students… Let’s take a stroll down memory lane together in true vintage style!
The invention of the electric guitar
The invention of the acoustic guitar of course preceded that of the electric guitar. Its creation goes back about 4000 years. This historic instrument deserves our respect!
It has often been said that the guitar was simply an evolution of the lute or zither, which is thought to be one of the instruments played by the upper class of Ancient Rome.
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However, archaeologists have discovered traces of string instruments like the harp or the tamburica, which are about 3500 years old. At this time the first guitar was created: a guitar used by the Egyptian singer Har-Mose.
As you might very well suspect, the guitar has undergone many evolutions since then, including the appearance of the electric guitar in the 20th century.
It was in 1920 when engineer Lloyd Loard created the first electric guitar in the United States. At that point he was working for a little-known instrument manufacture company: does the name Gibson mean anything to you?
This invention was possible thanks to the creation of the dynamic microphone at the beginning of the century. This microphone caused a true revolution as it made it possible to record music.
But credit is predominantly due to jazz musicians who quickly identified the need to amplify the sound of the guitar. Indeed, it was very difficult to hear them among the brass orchestras they accompanied.
Loard then combined this microphone to a Hawaiian guitar to make what we today call the electric guitar.
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The commercialization of the electric guitar
Still, people had to wait several years before being able to purchase the electric guitar!
In 1931, the “Frying Pan” was the first electric guitar to be sold in the United States by Rickenbacker.
Today, this guitar is valued at over $2500.
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The Frying Pan differs widely from the electric guitar we’re familiar with today. It was played on the knees and microphones had to be added to its frame, as it didn’t produce a sound!
In 1940, Leo Fender opened his own electrical repair and manufacture shop for amplifier components. Today, it’s one of the most well-known companies in the world of electric guitars and amps.
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Created by Orville Gibson, the Gibson Guitar Corporation was formed in 1902. Gibson was a luthier (a stringed instrument maker) who was particularly fond of the mandolin. Today he is recognized as one of the world’s biggest producers of guitars.
Many musicians consider Gibson electric guitars to achieve the best sound and effects. Well-known players of Gibson les Paul guitars include Slash, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Pete Townshend, and Bob Marley... not bad!
Epiphone Guitars, whether electric or acoustic, are widely reputed for their low cost, making it a preferred brand for beginners. Still, the guitars offer very good sound quality.
In contrast, the Ibanez Guitar is for the music star. These guitars are recommended for their quality, as well as their original and extraordinary design.
The Japanese company Yamaha is not limited to manufacturing musical instruments, it also offers a large choice of automotive products (motorbikes, engines…). We think its guitars shine at the top of this list!
And here are a few more important brands to note: Vigier, Dreadnought, Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jumbo, Dean…
Now that you know the basic brands, why not study further? What's the difference between a Fender Stratocaster and a Les Paul Custom?
Some of these models are related to other guitar variants including the acoustic guitar, folk guitar, classical guitar, bass guitar, electric acoustic guitar, acoustic bass guitar, electric bass guitar…
And many of these guitars will be equipped with accessories such as a guitar strap, strings, tuners, bridges, picks, amplifiers, mixing decks, tuning forks, music scores and guitar tabs!
From pickups and headstock to its neck, do you know all the elements that compose an electric guitar?
Musical developments and the electric guitar
Throughout its history, the electric guitar has witnessed many evolutions. Between the first Hawaiian electric guitar to the great Fenders of today, so much has happened!
And musicians have taken advantage of changes in its sounds to create new styles.
Blues music existed well before electric guitars came onto the scene…
Slaves played it on acoustic guitars and on pianos. But as time went on, electric guitars were introduced to this genre.
From that point, blues musicians used guitars to play the genre’s legendary three major chords in twelve measures.
Jazz is a musical strand that descended from the blues.
It was also played by slaves, but the harmonies were generally richer, surpassing the three main chords of the blues.
Remember that it’s thanks to this music genre that we all enjoy the electric guitar today.
Following the more dance-centered rock’n’roll (incarnated by the iconic Elvis Presley), rock music was born in the 1960s, and it was pretty much a match made in heaven with the electric guitar.
Rock reached its height in the 1970s, thanks to groups such as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and the Rolling Stones.
And let’s not forget to mention the name of Robert Johnson, a major artist of the 1930s, whose blues-style music has been enormously influential to rock’n’roll’s biggest players!
Rock is the perfect music genre for attaining a wide variation in electric guitar playing techniques!
From its start, popular music grouped together folk songs of the United States and Great Britain.
But little by little, this moniker was applied to the international variety of music that we now listen to on the radio. Pop music also has some if its roots in rock.
This explains why certain groups like the Beatles identify themselves between the two currents.
While rock was developing, one of its derivatives was born: hard rock.
This hard-edged music style is characterized by the domination of music over singing.
It was notably shaped by groups like the Scorpions, Black Sabbath and Guns n Roses.
This music genre is very close to hard rock, with a few distinguishing marks, including its guitar effects.
Unlike hard rock, heavy metal distances itself from the blues and rock. Its fundamental sound centers around the iconic distortions produced by the electric guitar.
Heavy metal’s themes of predilection often touch on medieval motifs such as evil and hell, earning it criticism by religious communities.
6 Major electric guitarists
Every true guitarist has his or her idol from the canon of major musicians. Here’s a list of six of the greats. Why not listen to and immerse yourself in their music that still touches our spirits today?
1. Jimi Hendrix
No one compares to Jimi Hendrix today.
This great left handed guitarist of the 60s marked an entire generation of musicians and continues to influence budding guitarists. He managed to develop numerous innovative techniques during his very short yet impressive career (he died at the age of 27).
2. BB King
This revered musician is the king of the blues.
BB King has inspired great names such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix with his skill for communicating music and emotion. It’s difficult to put into words the contribution of this legend who left us in 2015.
3. Eric Clapton
Singer, composer and guitar player, this Brit is 71 years old today.
After playing with the Yardbirds and the BluesBreakers, Clapton went on to refine his blues-fused style. His fans have named him “slowhand” in reference to his musical technique.
4. Carlos Santana
Mexican-born Carlos Santana has disseminated his Latin rocker style around the entire world.
He collaborates regularly with many international stars who seek him out.
5. Keith Richards
This iconic member of the Rolling Stones incarnates rock.
Accompanied by his sidekick Mick Jagger, he has played some of this historic group’s greatest pieces of music – and their latest album just came out!
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6. Chuck Berry
Every self-respecting rocker venerates this man, whose work led to the birth of rock’n’roll.
“Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Maybelline” are all by him. Although this revered legend tragically died last month, he is still considered one of the best guitarists of all time. [update]
Now that you know the basic differences of guitar brands like Yamaha and Fender, click here to discover all the different types of electric guitars!
There are many guitar lessons for beginners out there wanting to be as great as the above - just take a look yourself!