In the 1920s, as public dance music became more popular
and the infant recording industry required high volume
to capture a musical performance, guitar makers increased
their efforts to develop ever-louder guitars. Some people
continued experimenting with larger sizes and metal
bodies; other innovators started to focus on electricity
as a possible aid.
By the end of the 1930s, electronic amplification proved
to be one of the most successful innovations for building
a louder guitar, despite the misgivings of some traditionalists
about the new technology. Country and jazz guitarists
were among the first to champion the electric sound.
Then in the 1940s and 1950s, players and makers began
building Spanish-style electric guitars with solid wooden
bodies, which led to new designs and new sounds.
A Louder Guitar
The history of the electric guitar's development comprises
a legacy of invention and innovation dating back well
before the 20th century. Particularly since the introduction
of the modern six-string Spanish-style guitar around
1800, there has been continuous interaction among guitar
players and makers seeking ever-greater volume for their
By the 1850s, C. F. Martin had developed "X-bracing"
to reinforce the guitar's body, as well as other innovationsleading
to a new American flattop guitar design. In the 1890s,
Orville Gibson's carved-body guitar not only increased
its volume, it also set standards for instrument makers
in the early 20th century and blazed the trail for the
The quest for a louder guitar intensified during the
1920s with the advent of big band music, phonograph
recordings, and commercial radio. To compete in these
new markets, guitar makers began not only building larger
flat top and archtop guitars, but increasingly experimenting
with different materials and designs.
John Dopyera of the National String Instrument Corporation
took the idea of acoustic amplification to its limit,
designing a steel-body guitar with banjo-type resonator-amplifiers
built into the top.
The Electrified Guitar
The idea of using electricity to create louder string
instruments already existed by the end of the 19th century.
But it was only during the 1920s and 1930s that engineers,
makers, and musicians began to solve some of the challenges
of electronic amplification.
Around 1931 George Beauchamp, working with Adolph Rickenbacker,
produced an electromagnetic pickup in which a current
passed through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet,
creating a field which amplified the strings' vibrations.
Introduced on a lap-steel known as the Frying Pan, the
pickup made this guitar the first commercially viable
By the late 1930s other makers and players adapted
the new technology to the more traditional Spanish-style
hollow-body wooden guitars, but were troubled with distortions,
overtones, and feedback—the amplification of vibrations
in the body of the instrument as well as in the strings.
Inventors began trying to address these sound difficulties
by experimenting with solid, rather than hollow, guitar
bodies. The Slingerland company commercially introduced
a Spanish solid-body electric guitar in 1939. Around
1940, on an instrument dubbed "the Log," guitarist
and inventor Les Paul mounted strings and pickups on
a solid block of pine to minimize body vibrations. During
the 1940s, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender also began experimenting
with Spanish-style solid-body guitar design.
During the early years of its existence, the electric
guitar's viability as a "true" instrument
was frequently debated. The instrument's detractors
often claimed it did not produce a pure, "authentic"
musical sound. Country and jazz musicians, most notably
Charlie Christian, were among its first defenders,
the electric guitar's louder sound and ability to compete
with other melody instruments in ensemble performances.
guitar pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s included artists
such as jazzmen Eddie Durham and Oscar Moore, country
pickers Noel Boggs and Merle Travis, and blues masters
T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. All experimented
the instrument's tonal and harmonic possibilities.
In the process, other musicians, makers, and audiences
started to pay attention to the new electric sound.