Developed in the early part of the twentieth century, the electric guitar has become one of the most important instruments in popular music. Today's solid-body electric guitar derives from the acoustic guitar, an instrument first introduced in America as the Spanish-style guitar. Even though body designs of modern electric guitars often differ from their acoustic predecessors, all guitars are constructed with the same simple template. All guitars, acoustic or electric, are built with a bridge, body, and neck. The most significant difference is that acoustic guitars are hollow while electric guitars have a solid body.
For years, the acoustic guitar was limited to a supporting role in large musical ensembles because of its volume. Thus, the major motivation that drove the creation of the electric guitar was instrumentalists' desire for greater volume. Predecessors of the modern electric guitar were amplified acoustic guitars crudely modified by inventors who attached wires, magnets, and other "pickup" attachments. (Pickups are electromagnetic devices that increase volume.) However, as technology started advancing in the 1930s, newer versions became more complex, and the electric guitar became a solo instrument, a development that helped expand musical styles.
The earliest electric guitars were made in the 1920s and 1930s, but these were very primitive prototypes of the modern solid-body electrical guitar. The very first electrified guitar was said to have been invented by Paul H. Tutmarc. Inspired by the inner workings of the telephone, which employed magnetics to create vocal vibrations, Tutmarc experimented on the Hawaiian guitar, building a magnetic pickup out of horseshoe magnets and wire coils that amplified the vibration of the instrument's strings.
Around the same time, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera, two Los Angeles musicians, worked on creating even louder guitars. After experimenting with attaching amplifying horns to instruments, they, too, developed an electromagnetic pickup, this one comprised of two horseshoe magnets. Pleased with the effectiveness of the pickup, Beauchamp had a craftsman make a guitar designed with a wooden neck and body. Nicknamed the "frying pan" because of its shape, this became the first electric guitar. Beauchamp took the prototype to Adolph Rickenbacker. The two men formed a company and began manufacturing the first of the famous Rickenbacker line of electric guitars. Thus, Rickenbacker became the first manufacturer of electric guitars.
The first "Spanish-style" electric guitar was built and sold by Lloyd Loar, another early experimenter. His design was the direct predecessor of the modern electric guitar, and it inspired Orville Gibson, another guitar pioneer, to create the electric guitar model that revolutionized the instrument: the ES-150. Slide guitarist Alvino Rey developed the prototype of the ES-150, which has been called the first modern electric guitar. The final version was built by Gibson employee Walter Fuller. Though the guitar was an immediate success, it had some flaws. The vibrations from its hollow body were picked up and amplified, which created feedback and distortion. This led Les Paul, a guitarist and inventor, to develop the solid body electric guitar in 1940.
Paul's innovation, which was called "the Log" because of its solid body, involved mounting the strings and pickup on a solid block of pine to minimize body vibrations. The "Log" consisted of two basic magnetic pickups mounted on a 4 × 4 in (10.2 × 10.2 cm) piece of pine. To make it look more like a conventional guitar, Paul sawed an arch-top guitar in half and attached the pieces to his model. The solid body proved effective in eliminating the problems of the ES-150.
In 1946, Paul took his new guitar to Gibson, who was skeptical about the solid body. Leo Fender, however, understood the conception, and in 1949, he started selling the "Esquire," which became the first successful solid-body guitar. The guitar was later renamed the "Telecaster," one of the most famous guitar brand names. The Telecaster became extremely popular with country, blues, and rock and roll musicians. The Telecaster prompted Gibson to build his own solid-body model, which was named the "Les Paul."
In 1956, Rickenbacker introduced the student model Combo 400 guitar, with its so-called "butterfly-style" body. The guitar's unique construction featured a neck that extended from the patent head to the base of the body (known today as neck-through-body construction) and with the sides of the guitar body bolted or glued into place.
By the 1960s, the electric guitar was an established musical instrument. Innovations in design continued through the decade. In 1961, Gibson introduced "Humbucking" pickups into the Les Paul guitar that were designed to eliminate unwanted hum from the magnetic coils. (Humbucking pickups used two coils wrapped out of phase. This eliminated the common mode hum present in previous designs.) That same year, McCarty introduced the ES-335, a semi-hollow body guitar designed to incorporate the best of both the hollow body and solid body designs. Both Gibson and Fender had introduced futuristic looking designs. The Gibson SG and the Fender Stratocaster became familiar to audiences because they were frequently used by rock guitarists in the 1960s.
James Marshall Hendrix was born November 27, 1942 in Seattle. Hendrix taught himself to play guitar by listening to blues recordings; left-handed, he used a restrung right-handed guitar. Hendrix became known in the 1960s for playing the guitar behind his back, with his teeth, and setting it on fire. At times his stage pyromania overshadowed his musical pyrotechnics, but he is recognized as perhaps the most influential rock guitarist in history.
Hendrix began as a studio musician in the early 1960s, forming a band in 1965. The following year he created a new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and started a new sound—acid rock—that employed intentional feed-back and other deliberate distortions. His stage antics gained him notoriety at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and the band had a Top 40 hit with their version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" in 1968. That year Hendrix directed his efforts to studio recordings, but appeared with his new group—Band of Gypsies—in 1969 at Woodstock, where he gave a memorable performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Hendrix was named pop musician of the year by Melody Maker, 1967 and 1968; voted Billboard artist of the year, 1968; named performer of the year and honored for rock album of the year by Rolling Stone, 1968; presented with the key to Seattle, 1968; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992; and received the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, 1993. Hendrix died September 18, 1970 from asphyxiation resulting from a drug overdose.
Raw materials that go into the construction of the electric guitar include well-seasoned hardwoods such as maple, walnut, ash, alder, and mahogany for the solid body. The denser the wood, the better sustain an instrument will have (sustain refers to how long a note can be held). Wood density can also have an effect on the tone. Some bodies are also constructed with plexiglass. Wood is also used in the construction of the neck, including maple, rosewood, and ebony. Other raw materials include glue to hold the pieces together, chrome for the hardware, and a nitrocellulose lacquer for finishing the body.
The solid-body electrical guitar gets its volume from the magnetic pickup installed within its body. This pickup responds to the vibration of strings, transforming the energy into electrical impulses that are amplified by a loudspeaker system called an amplifier. For the best sound, the pickup needs to be stable and unaffected by vibrations from the body. Early electric guitar pioneers discovered that a pickup connected to a hollow-body acoustic guitar resulted in distortions and feedback. The need for stability is what led to the development of the solid body, the one feature that most characterizes the electric guitar. The solid body increases stability, and early electric guitar makers discovered, through experimentation, that guitar bodies made of high-density hardwood worked best.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, guitarists and inventors like Les Paul and Leo Fender developed the early designs of the solid-body electric guitar. Later, manufacturers moved away from traditional shapes and colors and came up with their own designs, many of which were quite fancy. More advanced models included the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Flying V.
The major components of the electric guitar include the bridge, the body and the neck. Secondary components include the fingerboard, strings, nut and tuning heads. A guitar manufacturing facility is, to a large extent, a woodworking facility, as wood selection and body design are large parts of the electric guitar construction process.
In attaching the neck to the body, several methods are used by different manufacturers.
During each stage of the process, the product is inspected. Even the smallest flaw in design such as a scratch or excess dried glue could send the guitar back down the line, or might even cause inspectors to scrap it. During final assembly, when hardware and wiring is installed, each component is tested separately to verify that it is working properly.
It is generally considered that the great part of the evolution of the electric guitar took place in between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, a period that saw the creation of the major innovations. However, guitar manufactures and inventors are still exploring ways to modify the instrument. These changes would include modification in design, materials, in pickups, or in finishes. Some guitar makers are looking to bodies made of plastic or graphite. Others are exploring designs that include hollow or semi-hollow bodies. For some time now, inventors have been trying to apply piezo to guitar pickup, or amplification. Piezo is a material with piezoelectric properties. If applied correctly to a musical instrument, it senses vibrations or changes in pressure. For a guitar, it could be applied in a contact microphone, or it could be placed on the guitar itself, where it would sense guitar vibration. Ultimately, it could enhance the sound of a guitar.
In the design area, a company has developed a mass 3D solid and surface modeling software that has attracted the attention of the Gibson, Warmoth, Suhr, and Tom Anderson Guitarworks guitar companies. The software would free designers from the limitations of two-dimensional planning and allow them to create complete three-dimensional designs before the manufacturing process began. In this way, they could be more experimental with designs. Potentially, the software would allow designers to create new designs in 3D without having to build prototypes or models. Designs could then be sent to a computerized woodworking station for a limited production run.
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