The electric guitar is among the most iconic instruments of all time. This instrument has been around for many decades and has entirely changed the landscape of music. Without the electric guitar, we would not have the music that we have today, but how did this instrument come to be? Who invented the electric guitar, and why was it built in the first place?
The electric guitar was developed over time by several inventors. The credit for the instrument goes to George Beauchamp, Paul Barth, and Adolph Rickenbacker, who developed the first commercial instrument that resembled an electric guitar, known as the Frying Pan, in 1931.
The tale of the invention and development of the electric guitar is varied and fraught with rabbit trails, uncertainties, mistruths, and many mysteries, but there are some solid pathways that we can follow to tell this story well. Let’s explore the invention of the electric guitar and how it came to be the instrument that we know today.
Who Invented The Electric Guitar?
The invention of the electric guitar is a difficult topic to discuss, as the instrument has such a varied past coherently, and the invention of the electric version of the guitar is full of many iterations, various models, specific inventions, and many different opinions.
Therefore, to make this process more manageable, we will consider all versions of the electric guitar and define the instrument as a guitar that is amplified by external pickups. This includes a chambered body, a solid body, and hollow body electric guitars.
This means that the answer to the question of who invented the electric guitar has four separate answers: the inventor of the electric pickup, the inventor of the first electric guitar, the inventor of the first solid-body electric guitar, and the inventor of the first widely used and commercially successful electric guitar.
The Breed Pickup
We begin the journey with the invention of the electric guitar pickup. The very first electric guitar pickup was designed by George Breed, but it was not a pickup as we know it. The Breed pickup was an electromagnetic device that caused the guitar string to vibrate continuously.
This device did not function in the same way as the electric pickup that we are familiar with now, but it did serve as the basis of the modern electric guitar pickup and led to the invention of the electromagnetic pickup that defined the electric guitar.
The Stromberg Electro
Stromberg Guitars used this idea to develop the first electromagnetic pickup for guitars that received the signal from the strings by picking up disturbances in an electromagnetic field and sending that signal to an amplifier in the same way that modern pickups operate.
This guitar was called the Stromberg Electro and was very unsuccessful. However, the idea for the external electromagnetic electric guitar pickup became an answer to the problems that many guitar players of the time were facing.
The Frying Pan
The invention of this pickup led us to the invention of the first guitar, which is considered to be the very first electric guitar, known as “The Frying Pan.” This guitar was invented by George Beauchamp, Paul Barth, and Adolph Rickenbacker when they all worked in the company that would become Rickenbacker Guitars.
The Frying Pan was an aluminum lap steel guitar with an external pickup that functions in the same way modern pickups do. This instrument opened the door to guitar makers and led to the development of the first commercial uses of pickups and the first commercially successful guitar.
The Electro Spanish Ken Roberts Guitar
The success of these electromagnetic pickups and The Frying Pan led to the invention of the Electro Spanish Ken Roberts guitar, which is considered to be the very first commercially successful electric guitar.
This guitar was produced by the same company and the same men that developed The Frying Pan and were an archtop guitar with an electromagnetic pickup mounted externally under the strings. This guitar had a tailpiece with a tremolo arm and bore all of the same features as the modern electric archtop guitar.
This guitar is iconic and will always be remembered as the first electric guitar ever built. It is also the first signature guitar, as Ken Roberts was a friend of George Beauchamp, and the instrument was designed for him.
The First Solid Body Electric Guitar
The Electro Spanish Ken Roberts led to many guitar manufacturers producing the same type of instrument. Among the most famous of these is the Gibson ES-150, which is based on the Electro Spanish Ken Roberts, hence the “ES” in the name, but is a vast improvement on the guitar.
Once large manufacturers such as Gibson began creating these guitars, it was only a matter of time before independent inventors, luthiers, tinkerers, and guitar players began experimenting with their own designs and improvements on the electric guitar.
The first solid-body electric guitars that are the same as the guitars that we know today were invented by Leo Fender and Les Paul.
Les Paul developed his “Log” guitar by building pickups into a large piece of solid wood, mounting guitar wings to it along with a neck and a fretboard. This increased the volume and sustained of the guitar and greatly reduced the chance of feedback.
Les Paul took his invention to Gibson, who promptly refused to produce the instrument as the company saw no relevance or opportunity in it.
At the same time, Leo Fender had begun working on the Fender Broadcaster, which became the Fender Telecaster, and many guitar players became excited about this new guitar design.
After realizing their mistake, Gibson brought in Les Paul to make the guitar that he had invented, and thus the Gibson Les Paul was invented.
The Les Paul and the Telecaster were the very first solid-body electric guitars to achieve commercial success and wide use among guitar players. These guitars are still very much in use today.
When Was The Electric Guitar Invented?
Now that we have explored a brief history of the invention of the electric guitar, we must consider the dates when these events occurred.
The invention of the electric guitar happened over several years and the instrument that we recognize today as the electric guitar did not come about until more than 50 years after the invention of the first iteration of the pickup used on an instrument like this.
To make the timeline of the electric guitar a little clearer, here is a breakdown of the timeline:
|The Breed electromagnetic pickup is invented
|1906 – 1928
|Stromberg Guitar develop the Breed pickup into the first electric guitar pickup
|The Frying Pan is developed by the National Guitar Corporation, soon to become Rickenbacker Guitars
|The Frying Pan began commercial production
|Guitar makers develop their own versions of the electric guitar and the pickups used on the instrument
|Vivi-Tone invent the solid-body Electro-Spanish Guitar
|Gibson released the first Les Paul electric guitar in conjunction with Les Paul himself
|Gibson releases the Gibson ES-150, becoming the first commercially successful electric guitar
|Luthiers, tinkerers, and inventors begin developing the idea of the electric guitar
|Les Paul develops his prototype solid-body electric guitar
|Paul Bigsby develops the solid-body Spanish-style electric guitar
|Fender develops the Fender Broadcaster and releases it for mass-production
|Fender produced and release the first Fender Stratocaster
|Fender produced and released the first Fender Stratocaster
The rest is, as they say, history. Since then, the electric guitar has become among the most widely used and popular musical instruments of all time and remains a common sight everywhere in the world.
The guitar has become more developed since then, and the instrument has become more defined, but the foundations of the instrument remain the same as they were in the 1940s when the electric guitar as we know it was invented.
Why Was The Electric Guitar Invented?
Now that we know how the electric guitar was invented, who invented it, and when it was developed, we can now answer some of the other important questions related to the electric guitar.
These questions include why the electric guitar was invented, what the electric guitar was used for in its early years, and even which electric guitars were the first to be commercially successful and widely used.
The first question to answer there is why the electric guitar was invented in the first place.
The electric guitar was an invention that answered the same problem experienced by every guitar player of the time. The problem was that the acoustic guitar was simply too quiet. In the era of the big band and in the time of electric microphones and very loud brass instruments, the acoustic guitar was simply inaudible when played in a larger or louder musical ensemble.
This gave rise to the necessity of guitar amplification. The first way that this issue was resolved was by using microphones to amplify the sound of the acoustic guitar. however, this solution was imperfect, as the microphones in this time were not very refined and were very sensitive.
This means that the microphones would cause severe feedback when used with guitars in the wrong way, and achieving the right level of amplification with this method was very difficult and highly frustrating.
These problems meant that guitar players needed some other form of amplification to compete with the rest of the band, and thus the electric guitar was invented.
The invention of the electric guitar pickup led to the invention of the instrument itself, and the electric guitar solved all of these problems by giving the instrument the ability to be externally amplified, thus making the guitar far louder than it had ever been before.
What Was The First Commercial Electric Guitar?
We have identified the timeline of the invention of the electric guitar and explored the very first iterations of the instrument, but which guitars were the very first to become commercially successful in the way that electric guitars are today?
The commercial success of the electric guitar was slow in the beginning. The Frying Pan lap steel was successful in a small way, and the subsequent Electro-Spanish style guitars became successful with jazz guitarists in the ‘40s.
However, the first guitars to become truly commercially successful and used on an international scale in a relatively short period of time were the Gibson Les Paul and then the Fender Stratocaster, which became an international success in the ‘50s.
The Les Paul electric guitar answered every need that guitar players had and became the first electric guitar to reach true commercial success. The Broadcaster and Telecaster guitars made by Fender did not have the same initial success as the Les Paul but became more popular and widely used over the next few decades.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the ‘60s that the electric guitar became the phenomenon that it is today, changing the course of musical history forever. The guitar that achieved this was the Fender Stratocaster, and the Gibson SG model electric guitar was not far behind it.
These two guitars are still in use today and will forever be the icons that were used in the hands of the great guitar players who shaped the sound of modern music forever.
There is no instrument that has marked the world of music in the same way as the electric guitar. without the invention of this instrument, the guitar would have likely died out altogether, and genres such as rock ‘n roll would have never been born.
We all need the electric guitar, and it is a great miracle that the instrument was invented and refined in the way that we know it today. The electric guitar is iconic in every way, it is influential, and it is the backbone of modern music. The electric guitar has been with us since 1931, and it will continue to be with us forevermore.