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With advancing technology, more sophisticated musical instruments became possible, and during the 20th century, peaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the electric guitar became an institution for musicians and a battlefield of competition among the great guitar players of the era. From Les Paul to Page and Hendrix the explosive possibilities of electric guitar reached their full potential.
So what’s the story behind the electric guitar? Who invented it and how did it all come to exist?
The names of Les Paul and Leo Fender grace many of the most famous electric guitars. Although their contribution to the electric guitar manufacturing is the most valuable, the first traces of an electric guitar go way back to the 19th century when the term “electrified” was the way to put it.
From then on, the story of the instrument shows that its invention, like so many others, was not a straightforward event when one genius saw a need and created a technology to fill it. It was a messy, scattered process, one that's difficult to piece together even 80 years later.
GEORGE BREED AND THE ELECTRIFIED GUITAR
The need for an electric guitar arose because the classic guitar was too quiet to contribute to the music a band produced in many settings. This problem particularly began being apparent in the concert hall music of the 1880s. What’s more, the idea of using the magnificent powers of electricity for producing music was lurking around, waiting to be turned into realty.
It was in 1890 that an American Navy officer George Breed figured out that an electric apparatus could be built onto a guitar and transfer vibration from strings to an electric current. The idea was revolutionary and worthy of a grant for a patent.
The new sound was described as “Exceptionally unusual and unguitar-like.” The guitar plays itself, in other words, producing an ethereal, metallic drone. It didn’t exactly amplify the sound or empower it, but it certainly made the possibility of electrified instruments tangible.
STROMBERG ELECTRO INSTRUMENTS
The tenor banjo dominated the fretted–instrument market in the late 1920s, making it an obvious choice for early implementation of pickup technology. In 1928 an article in “Music Trades” magazine appeared, presenting the first ever commercial pickup—the Stromberg Electro. As the Music Trades put it "an electronically operated device that produces an increased volume of tone for any stringed instrument" seemed like an introduction to a new era in music. The ad featured presented two banjos and two electrified guitars with its pickup and an amplifier.
However, no evidence exists that the mass-marketed guitar was ever produced. The theory that it was just a good ad campaign is more likely. Nevertheless, who knows if a Stromberg Electro guitar won’t appear somewhere one day and change the course of electric guitar history once and for all.
GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE – BEAUCHAMP AND LLOYD’S INVENTIONS
After the Stromberg mystery, the guitar market was dying for a real electric axe.
In the 1920s, a National String Instrument Corporation founding partner, George Beauchamp, had developed an electromagnetic pickup that sensed the vibrations of metal strings, and the company built a wood-bodied test model commonly known as the Frying Pan for its round body and long neck.
Being a player of a Hawaiian guitar, a type of a lap steel guitar, Beauchamp discovered the key factors in building a first crude guitar, most similar to its later offspring. Jazz musicians and others tried attaching various things to hollow-body wooden guitars to amplify the sound with not so great results, but then the Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar was electrified. The Hawaiian steel guitars (so-called because they are played with a steel bar), are placed across the knees and played horizontally, giving rise to the term “lap guitars” or “lap steel guitars.” Eventually, some were forged from brass, and were much louder than the wooden varieties. At the same time in history that lap steel guitars began to be made of metal, electrical amplification was becoming a reality.
Earlier pickups were microphonic, meaning they depended on string vibrations being transferred through the air or a wooden bridge. Beauchamp’s design instead transferred vibrations electromagnetically, with metal strings disturbing a magnetic field to produce electric signals.
At around the same time, Lloyd Loar, a former engineer at the Gibson instrument company in Michigan, began developing his own pickup in the '20s. In 1923, he even built a prototype of an electrified harp guitar. By 1924, Loar had even designed an electric bass and performed a concert on an electric viola he had built. His promising experiments with pickups and amplification turned to dust when his visions were not understood at Gibson, so the cooperation ended, despite him making serious progress on the technology.
RO-PAT-IN CORPORATION – A MATCH MADE IN MUSIC HEAVEN
Beauchamp clashed with his company over their refusal to manufacture electric guitars, but that just may have been the beginning of a modern electric guitar we know today.
A Swiss immigrant, Adolph Rickenbacker set up shop in Los Angeles in 1925. The National String Instrument Corporation was one of his customers, eventually engaging Adolph to make metal bodies for its resonator guitars.
Beauchamp, Rickenbacker, and others severed ties with National and joined forces in 1931 to form the Ro–Pat–In Corporation, making a step closer to producing a successful commercial model. The Ro-Pat-In's George Beauchamp had developed an electromagnetic pickup that sensed the vibrations of metal strings, and the company built a wood-bodied test model commonly known as the Frying Pan for its round body and long neck (although it did not hit the market until the late 1932). So was the first electric guitar prototype conceived.
The Frying Pan was available in two models with different scale lengths: the A22 and A25. Ro–Pat–In achieved a successful sell of 13 guitar–and–amp sets in the launch year of 1932.
Nowadays there’s an array of options of electric guitars, suiting every taste and need, from sound nuances to pure aesthetic styles. The myriad of resources, such as Music Groupies and others on the internet offer detailed reviews on electric guitars, starting from materials to brands and manufacturers.
So who was the first to build a proper electric guitar that would fit to at least basic standards of what we today consider an electric guitar? It’s hard to say. The story is intriguing by itself and each manufacturer may take credit for different revolutionary ideas that were eventually merged into a successful instrument. Nevertheless, without them, who knows whether the history of electric instruments would have been the same.