The electric guitar is a very loud version of a six string instrument descended from the lute. The electric guitar is unique among its modern peers in the fact that, while a person learning to play on a standard, non-electric guitar is capable of annoying only him/herself and anyone else in the same room, an electric guitar is capable of annoying the entire household or apartment building, enabling a tolerably bad player to become a REALLY LOUD bad player, which many consider worse. It is the preferred instrument of hooligans and counter-culture musicians for this very reason. It has also led to the dreaded 'extended solo', popular (in the 1980s, of course) among egotists and men with small winkies.
History - You did WHAT to perfectly good guitar?!?
Pictures of almost all of the Guitars mentioned here can be found at The Lemelson Center located at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
The Early Attempts
The creation of the electric guitar began somewhere in the early 1920s, with the growing popularity of Big Band music. It is the final (and most successful) concept in a line of wacky ideas designed for one purpose: volume. Acoustic, small bodied, gut string guitars (now known as 'classical style' acoustics) of the time were just not loud enough to compete with the other instruments in the band. At about the same time, Hawaiian style guitars1 began to emerge. The first step toward a louder guitar was the introduction of steel strings instead of gut strings, in about 1850, on Spanish style (vertically held) guitars. The steel was brighter and louder, but it also put far more tension on the neck, often warping and shattering it as well as the soundboard. This problem was solved by the creation of 'X bracing' for the soundboard, a new way of arranging the guitar's soundboard support ribs in the interior of the body, named after its shape, and by the creation of the truss rod for the neck. It is simply a steel rod inside of the neck which counteracts the tension the strings put on the neck by pulling it in the opposite direction. This removed the risk of having your guitar shatter in your hands, and allowed steel strings to become the new standard. However, it still wasn't loud enough to compete with the other instruments in big bands.
Luthiers such as Orville Gibson began to experiment with carved, arched sound boards instead of traditional flat ones, which added to the projection of the guitar, but did not dramatically improve it. The need went so far that in 1927, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera created National String Instrument Co strictly to sell their creation: a guitar with a hollow metal body, and aluminium resonator cones within it under the strings, which made it 3-5 times louder than a traditional guitar, and 500,000 times heavier, often leaving one inch dents in your thigh2. The first 'electric', Spanish Style guitar on the market was produced by Lloyd Loar as early as 1923. The sound was converted into electricity by an electrostatic pickup (aka tiny microphone) mounted on the bridge that sensed the vibrations of the soundboard. This design, however, produced enormous amounts of feedback3, and was never commercially successful.
It's ALIIIIIVE!: Who got it Right, First.
In 1930 George Beauchamp, the true creator of the electric guitar, was fired from National String Instrument Company. Beauchamp had been experimenting with a well known fact at this time: when a wire passed through a magnetic field, it changed the intensity of the field. With a coil of wire wrapped around the magnet producing the field, the interaction of the magnet and the moving wire created a changing electric current in the coil. This is the same principle used in phonographs, electric motors, and generators. Beauchamp had adapted this principle to music as early as 1925 with a single string instrument, but was struggling to adapt it to six strings so that each string would have an evenly powerful signal. Through much experimentation, in 1930, Beauchamp and his friend Paul Barth created a pickup based on two horseshoe magnets with steel poles added onto one side of each internal gap wound with wire, allowing the pole placement to amplify each string individually. Once the pickup, wound on a washing machine motor with wire from a sewing machine motor, was working as it was supposed to, Beauchamp contacted Harry Watson, the plant superintendent of National String Instrument Co, who came and hand carved the neck and body of the first viable electric guitar on Beauchamp's kitchen table. George Beauchamp then took the prototype guitar, a Hawaiian style lap guitar nicknamed 'The Frying Pan', to Adolph Rickenbacher (cousin of WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher), the owner of a tool and die company that made the steel bodies for National’s Resonator guitars. Using the influence of Rickenbacher, the two formed a company under Rickenbacher’s name to produce the instruments. The 'Frying Pan' was an immediate success, and countless numbers of lap steel players used it.
The Spanish Electric
The first electric Spanish style guitar was made by Gibson Luthiers, pioneered by Lloyd Loar, an engineer at the company. Loar, in fact, formed Vivi-tone, a subsidiary of Gibson, for the sole purpose of creating electric guitars. The company collapsed within a year, but the seeds had been planted. In 1935, Gibson began to work with Alvino Rey, a prominent slide guitarist of the time, to develop a better pickup for Spanish style guitars. This culminated in a solid bar magnet wound with the pickup coil, instead of individual pole pieces for each string, developed by Rey in conjunction with Lyon and Healy Co of Chicago and built by Gibson employee Walter Fuller. The pickup was initially incorporated in a Hawaiian style guitar, but was quickly adapted to a Spanish style. This guitar, a hollow body F-hole4 arch top, was called the ES-150, for Electro-Spanish guitar, $150.00. The first commercial model was shipped from Kalamazoo, Michigan on 10 May, 1936, effectively making it the first 'normal' electric guitar.
The ES-150 was widely accepted by Jazz and Country musicians of the time, but not in the general culture. Electric guitars were at first deemed a fad, especially because they sounded so little like traditional guitars. A few, innovative players of the time helped to bring the electric to prominence, including Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters. They all experimented with the longer sustain, stronger harmonics, and power of the new guitars. Early electrics, however, were merely acoustic guitars with electronics added into the design. This caused problems with distortion, overtones, and immense feedback, the major drawback for a player using an electric of that era. This was somewhat of a mystery to Luthiers; they did not see the guitar as the source of the problems, but the pickup on it. There was little drive, therefore, to do much about the problem until the mid 1940s.
The First Solid Body
A prominent Jazz guitarist and inventor of the time, Les Paul (who is sometimes, incorrectly, given credit for inventing the electric guitar entirely), began to experiment with ways to solve the problems electrics faced. He believed that the solution was to create a solid body guitar. This, he theorised, would stop the feedback caused by the highly acoustic soundboard hearing itself on current electrics. His first successful attempt was a 4”x4” piece of pine, called 'The Log', mounted with simple magnetic pickups Paul made himself. In order to make 'The Log' more playable, and look more like a guitar, Paul glued cutaway halves of a hollow body to the either side of the central solid body. Les Paul found that he had created quite a nice sounding jazz guitar with little or no overtones and feedback. He approached Gibson in 1946 with the idea, but Gibson was skeptical of the concept; they thought it was too outlandish for most musicians to accept.
*Ahem...* The First SUCCESSFUL Solid Body
Far from the Kalamazoo, Michigan based Gibson Luthier Co, off in Anaheim, California, lived Leo Fender, a radio repairman. He sympathized with electric guitarists of the day who constantly fought against feedback while they played. As early as 1943, Fender had a prototype solid body electric that he would rent to players, hoping to gather suggestions on how he could improve it. In 1949, many prototypes later, Leo Fender released the Fender Esquire, which would later be renamed Broadcaster and eventually Telecaster (checkout A2939466 for a very in-depth study of the Telecaster). The guitar had all of the advantages of Les Paul’s design, but it never caught on with jazz musicians, who preferred the mellow sound of the ES-150 to the snappy, trebly sound of the Telecaster. It was, however, incredibly popular among Country and Blues players. Of special note is the fact that, while Gibson made guitars like individual pieces of art, Leo Fender designed his guitars to be mass produced. The Fender design was modular, easy to fix, and uncomplicated.
Gibson was being pushed out of the electric market, so in 1952, they released their own solid body electric: the Les Paul. While the guitar bears his name, it was in fact designed by Ted McCarty, the new president of the company. It more closely resembles an 1800s Gibson rather than a modern one. It was mounted with P-90 pickups, which were originally developed in 1946, had bar magnet cores, and a very mellow voice. In 1954, Fender launched the futuristic looking Stratocaster, the most successful, most copied guitar in history. It sported 3 pickups in the neck, bridge, and middle positions on the guitar body, and a tremolo bridge which allowed the player to bend and warp notes. In 1961, Gibson introduced humbucking pickups into the Les Paul model, and also brought out the new SG (Solid Guitar) a slimmer, lighter, more trebly version of the Les Paul. Excepting new materials innovations and odd-ball one-off models, the Electric Guitar has remained pretty much the same since 1961.
Timeline: Electric Guitars, etc
1850-ish- introduction of steel strings and developement of x-bracing and truss rod
1894- Gibson Luthiers 'founded', known for carved top guitars
1923- Lloyd Loar, of Gibson, produces electrostatic pickup electric
1925- George Beauchamp experiments with single string conduction pickup
1927- National String Instrument Co founded, National Steel model resonator invented
1930- G. Beauchamp fired from NSI Co, first true electric guitar, 'Frying Pan' invented and released by Rickenbacher
1935- Development on Gibson ES-150 begins
10 May, 1936- 1st ES-150 shipped from Kalamazoo, Michigan Gibson factory
1943- Leo Fender prototypes solid body guitar
1946- Les Paul approaches Gibson with homemade 'The Log', refused
1949- Fender Esquire, later Broadcaster and then Telecaster, released in mass production
1952- Gibson releases Ted McCarty designed Les Paul in response to Fenders' command of the market
1954- Fender releases the Stratocaster
1961- Gibson introduces humbuckers into the Les Paul and releases the SG
What Do You think They're Made of, Punk?
Electric guitars are really pretty simple in construction. Building a hunk of wood with strings and a neck takes far less ability than creating a hollow body to do basically the same job. Electric guitars have only 6 basic parts: a body, a neck, pickups, tuning keys, a bridge, and controls. (See here for a good diagram.)
The body, almost always made of wood but occasionally resin or plexiglas, can be any shape, as the tone of a solid body electric guitar is completely independent of the body shape, unlike an acoustic. The material can affect the tone, as lighter woods produce clearer, sharper tone, and heavier woods produce a warmer, bassier tone. Plastics are usually engineered to have the same resonant frequency as the strings, which mostly eliminates any tonal impact. Hollow and semi-hollow5 bodied guitars are more limited in design, as their tone is partly influenced by the shape of the body cavity.
The Pickups and Their Controls
The pickups, mounted in the body between the neck and the bridge, are part of what makes the electric guitar so unique. The pickup output is wired to a simple control circuit that consists of a low pass filter that cuts treble tones, and a volume knob. Most guitars have two or three pickups, and part of the controls is a switch that selects and combines them in various phasing. The controls may be pickup specific, that is, volume and tone controls for each pickup (the volume and low pass filter before the switch, in the case of a Les Paul), or they may have controls that affect all of the pickups (the volume and low pass filter after the switch, in the case of most lower end guitars. Stratocasters split the difference, with the volume after the switch and the tone pots before). For a wonderfully complete entry on pickups, see A3176165.
The bridge is located below the pickups, toward the butt of the guitar. The bridge is the end of the string scale on the body, and usually has small, adjustable saddles that allow the intonation of the strings to be set. The adjustment of the string length at the bridge is known as calibration, and it ensures that the individual string’s harmonic points correspond with the appropriate fret number. In simpler terms, it assures that every string is in harmonic tune with every other, so that all chords are in tune, even if the guitar was tuned to only one of them. The bridge is made of one or two pieces, depending on the type. A one piece bridge passes the strings over the intonation adjustment saddles, and then through the body out to the back, where string stops known as ferrules6 hold them in the pierced holes. A two piece bridge consists of the intonation adjustment saddle set, and then a stop bar about one and a half inches behind it which holds the string stops (those little balls at the end of strings). The third major type of bridge is a tremolo bridge. Tremolo bridges are either suspension or compression. Suspension bridges are single piece. The strings first pass over the saddles, and then go straight into an attached string block. The entire bridge is suspended in between the strings' tension and three extension springs in a cavity on the back of the guitar. The bridge is held in place by either six screws or two poles. When the tremolo arm is compressed, the equilibrium between the string tension and the spring tension is interrupted, and the entire bridge rocks back and forth, bending the notes. A compression bridge is two piece, and consists of a cam shaped roller that the strings are go under, and a stop bar. When the tremolo arm is compressed, the cam, which starts pressed into the strings, lifts up and bends the notes flat.
The other major piece of the guitar is the neck. The neck consists of a piece of wood, usually maple, a truss rod at the core, a fret board, usually made of rosewood, ebony, or occasionally maple, and a headstock which houses the tuning keys.
The Playing Surface
The fret board is a single, smooth piece of wood or fibreglass, with the top camber curved at a 7-16 inches. This measurement is derived from the diameter of the circle the curve would create if it was extended into the said circle. The fret board has 20-24 frets and markers at the major harmonic points. At the top of the neck, the nut (a small piece of plastic, bone or, rarely, metal, grooved to hold the strings in place) begins the scale length, which is measured going down the neck and ending at the bridge. The scale length is 24 ¾ inches for Gibsons, and 25 ½ inches for Fenders.
The Headstock and its parts
Past the nut, the headstock, which houses the tuning keys and frequently the truss rod tension adjuster, holds the strings in place. The tuners are mounted with the string poles going through the headstock and ending in gears on the reverse side, to which worm gears with attached keys are mounted perpendicular to the string pole, creating a locked system which puts the tuning keys on the side of the headstock, where they are more accessible. The headstock may be tilted back from the neck surface at a 10-12 degree angle, which helps improve sustain (how long a note will ring if plucked), or the surface of the headstock will dip low enough to pull the strings down against the nut. The tuning keys are traditionally mounted six on one side, like a Stratocaster, where the strings are pulled straight up from the neck, or three on either side of a square headstock, like a Les Paul, in which the strings are pulled slightly to either side of the headstock.
Neck Shape and Type
The shape of the neck is very important to how the guitar plays. A thinner, flatter shaped neck makes the guitar easy to appregiate (solo) on, however, it makes it far harder to make chords, and vice versa. It varies from ½ to 1 inch in thickness, but most guitars are about ¾ inches thick. The shape is described by the letter it resembles, such as a C neck, a V neck, or a D neck. The neck is attached to the body at the 15th fret for most guitars, or the 22nd for SGs, by various methods. The Fender method, which is designed for mass production and easy replacement, is to bolt the neck onto the body with four screws. The Gibson method, which is far less replaceable, is to glue the neck tenon, a piece of the neck which extends into the body, into the cavity which is designed to seat it. The third method is not really attached, but is 'neck through'. This means that the neck extends the entire length of the guitar, and has body wings glued onto the sides of the neck/body core.
And the most IMPORTANT part,
Every guitar is finished in some manner or another. Most are painted a solid color, or have a clear coat applied. More expensive guitars may have a 'Sunburst' finish, where the paint fades from a red or brown into an amber clear coat. Some finer acoustic guitars are not finished but oil rubbed to a shine. While this factor is usually chief in the selection of one's guitar, it has the least to do with its playability and tone.
Ah, Tone. How Do I Make Thee?
Let me count the ways...
Guitar 'Tone' can be of either extreme or no importance to electric guitarists. It is kind of a way of saying 'how the guitar sounds', but it generally involves way more work than such a simple statement indicates. It has three major factors: guitar tone, amplifier, and effects. Every guitar has its own individual sound, determined by the thickness of the body, the thickness of the strings, the pickups, the body material, whether or not the guitar has active pickups7 etc. Although this may sound like an incredible array of factors, the truth is that most guitars sound remarkably similar, and the vast majority of differences are only really noticed by the guitarists themselves. The amplifier itself is far more dramatic in the variety of tones it can produce, and it has far fewer variables that effect tone than the guitar itself. Finally, effects can be added to create more diverse sounds.
A Simple Recipe For Tone
Take 1/2 Litre of Pickups, minced
A guitar's pickups are the starting place for tone. The three variables of a pickup determine the tone it will create: The Magnet Strength, The Number of Windings, and the Pole Piece Density.
The simplest pickup is a solid bar magnet wound directly with no pole pieces. The most used form of this style is a P-90, and it generates a very mellow, warm tone, no matter the amount windings. A more complex pickup is a standard single coil, a Fender style pickup. This consists of a plastic bobbin with six pole pieces inside it, and two long, thin magnets glued to the bottom in contact with the pole pieces. The wire is coiled around the bobbin and the pole pieces, not the magnets. This results in smaller central core and a brighter tone, as well as a more articulated sound, because each string has its own pole piece, allowing them to be voiced more equally. Most pickups are made with six pole pieces. Rarely, a thin, vertical plate is used as a single pole piece. This results in a super low density core and a super bright tone, however, there is little depth to it. When musicians first began to experiment with higher gain signals, they encountered 60Hz hum. This is a buzzing noise created in single coil pickups by the 60 times per second8 reversal of the AC power generated by the pickup. This was counteracted by the invention of double coil pickups, simply two single coil pickups stuck together and wound in opposite directions, with a single output. 'Humbuckers', named for obvious reasons, got rid of the 60Hz hum, but they also cut out some tone. They tend to be a little duller than single coils, but they are better for gain and tend to be placed next to the bridge, the brightest pickup location, where the signal loss is not as noticeable9.
A pickup wound with more than average windings gives a higher output and a hotter tone, and makes it easier to distort. Less than average gives a lower output and milder sound. The magnet strength has more or less the same effect. Magnet strength and winding can be used to compensate for each other, but it should be noted that it is not a two-way street: while over-winding a pickup with weaker magnets brightens and intensifies the tone, the windings compensating for the weak magnet, a stronger magnet will never compensate for under-winding. This may seem odd, as a pickup with average windings can be made hotter with a more powerful magnet, but an underwound pickup won't respond. However, neither of these two factors can change the effects of the core size/shape, which is the both the most major and least flexible variable.
Add 1/2 Litre Liquefied Amplifier
The amplifier is what makes the electric guitar unique among all other instruments. It is the only amplifier in the world which seeks to modify the signal while it amplifies it. No other instrument in the world uses an amp that distorts, sculpts, and potentially feedbacks the signal intentionally. The interaction between the guitar and the amplifier essentially makes them one instrument, like no other on Earth.
All amplifiers are two-circuit: the first circuit, the pre-amp, takes the guitar input, amplifies it slightly, and through various pass filters, sculpts the frequency to the desired tone. The second circuit, the power amp, amplifies the signal straight through without modifying the tone, to the desired volume level. The power amp outputs to an onboard speaker in a 'combo' amp, or to a separate speaker cabinet from the amplifier 'head'. However, the signal may not go directly to the Power Amp; it is sometimes sent through an effects loop or a reverb pan10.
A phenomenon first noticed in the late 1950s exists between the pre-amp and power amp: distortion. Guitarists found that a distorted sound was far more interesting than a clean tone, and began experimenting with it. Unfortunately for their audiences, at that time the only way to achieve that kind of sound was to turn the amp up as loud as it could go, and allowing the speaker attempt to voice signals more powerful than it could handle, producing so-called 'natural' distortion. Soon, however, amplifier makers discovered that by increasing the power of the signal that the pre-amp sent out, the distorted tone could be created before the signal was amplified. This allowed the same tone to be achieved at much lower volumes. Many amplifier manufacturers experimented with super high gain (gain is the correct term for the pre-amp output level) style tone, which was finally perfected in the 1980s. Some manufacturers preferred a lower gain tone, though, and stuck with a lower power pre-amp. This produces a milder tone known as overdrive which has application in blues music and other forms in which a very high gain signal is not preferable.
Amplifiers are commonly made with either transistors or vacuum tubes, but vacuum tubes are preferred by almost all players. Once a transistor receives a signal outside of its limits, it 'clips' the portion of signal it cannot handle out, and passes through the remainder of it. This is because they are digital, and the can only funtion completely on or off. Vacuum tubes, because they are analogue, are far more flexible. At a certain power level, the tubes begin to 'saturate', which has the same effect that the clipping of the transistors does. The vacuum tubes, however, do it in a far more gradual manner, letting signals that it can juuust handle slip through, not cutting parts outside their range. The result is smoother and far more desirable for a guitar. This may not sound like much of a difference, but it is dramatic how much tubes add to the tone of a guitar. When an amplifier is at a high gain setting, the guitar strings or body may 'hear' itself in the speaker output. Like any good string instrument (and a classic example of audio physics), the strings will begin to vibrate when they are exposed to their resonant frequency. This creates feedback, a high pitched squealing or whining tone. Too much feedback was the major reason solid body guitars were developed, however, feedback can be used creatively and carefully to create incredibly dynamic sounds impossible by the guitar alone. Jimi Hendrix is noted as being one of the first guitarists to experiment with this feedback loop11.
Fold in a Jigger of Effects Pedals
Effects Pedals are usually designed to be operated by the guitarists' unused feet (hence the nickname 'stomp box') and are used to create sounds the guitar and amp cannot alone. Often a distortion pedal is used to create more gain than a pre-amp can, or an overdrive pedal to create a warmer, low-gain tube tone which a transistor amp has difficulty creating. Other effects are made simply to produce extremely strange noises. One of the most common is a 'phaser'. This takes the guitar’s signal, copies it, and puts it in a different phase to original, and then remixes the two. When the two signals are in phase, the guitar sounds normal, but when they are not, the the signal is canceled out. The characteristic 'underwater' woosh is made by modifying the frequency one signal is at constantly. Another common effect is 'chorus', in which the signal is copied three or four times over, delayed various times, and then remixed with the original. This creates a far 'thicker' sound which is hard to describe . An effect used greatly by Jimi Hendrix is the 'wah-wah' Pedal. This pedal takes the signal, and runs it through a variable pass filter. Simply speaking, it cuts all but one of the frequencies out of the sound, and does so in a smooth, sweeping manner, creating a 'wah' sound. There are far more effects than this, each stranger than the last, all of which have application somewhere.
Voila! Guitar Tone!
Special Notes for Playing the Electric Guitar
As well as the fretting hand and the picking hand, the electric guitar also requires the use of the facial muscles in order to play it. Particularly tricky passages involve bizarre expressions, grimacing and pouting. Often a foot is employed. This is usually placed on the top of a monitor in front of an attractive member of the audience*.
Because of the grimacing and pouting required by particularly emotive solos, the guitarist finds it difficult to keep a cigarette in his mouth at the same time and so, in the late 1960s, Fender added an innovative gadget to some of its Stratocaster guitars. Looking (and in fact, performing) exactly like a standard guitar string, this device was perfect for holding guitarists' lighted Marlboros.
It is rare to see a contemporary band that does not include at least one guitarist. Some guitarists have risen beyond the average hack, and they are usually known as Guitar Heroes.
Famous dead guitarists include Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, John Denver, Dimebag, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Christensen, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Django Reinhardt, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Randy Rhoads, and Kurt Cobain.
Famous living guitarists include Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, John Mayer, Slash, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, Kerry King, Kirk Hammet, Les Paul (91 and still going), Eric Johnson, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Robert Cray, Robin Trower, Angus Young, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards (technically dead), Zakk Wylde, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Brian Setzer, and (insert your favorite guitarist here).