The Evolution of the Electric Guitar: An Introduction to Every Major Variety of the Instrument That Made Rock-and-Roll

The past cen­tu­ry has seen many styl­is­tic changes in pop­u­lar cul­ture, none more dra­mat­ic than in music. We need only hear a few mea­sures of a song to place it in the right decade. The sound of an era’s music reflects the state of its tech­nol­o­gy: when­ev­er engi­neer­ing can make pos­si­ble tools like mul­ti­track recorders, tape loops, sam­plers, and syn­the­siz­ers — to say noth­ing of lis­ten­ing media like cylin­ders, vinyl records, and online stream­ing — the sound­track of the zeit­geist has been trans­formed. But in liv­ing mem­o­ry, sure­ly no devel­op­ment has made quite so pow­er­ful an impact on pop­u­lar music as the elec­tric gui­tar.

“Almost all gui­tars cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket are either a direct descen­dant of, or very sim­i­lar to, a hand­ful of instru­ments that came to life dur­ing the span of one decade: the fifties.” With these words, Dutch Youtu­ber Paul Davids launch­es into a video jour­ney through the evo­lu­tion of the elec­tric gui­tar as we know it, begin­ning in 1950 with the Fend­er Tele­cast­er.

Davids does­n’t just explain the com­po­nents and con­struc­tion of that ven­er­a­ble instru­ment, he plays it — just as he does a vari­ety of oth­er elec­tric gui­tars, each with a sound rep­re­sen­ta­tive of its era. Even if you don’t know them by name, they’ll all sound famil­iar from a vari­ety of musi­cal con­texts.

The inven­tion of the elec­tric gui­tar made pos­si­ble the birth of rock and roll, which shows no few signs of frailty even here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. The ear­li­est mod­els pro­duced are ever more high­ly val­ued for their sound, their feel, and their appar­ent sim­plic­i­ty, a qual­i­ty many rock­ers hold in the utmost regard. But despite long adher­ing to the same basic form, the elec­tric gui­tar has incor­po­rat­ed a great vari­ety of inno­va­tions — in its pick­ups, its vibra­to sys­tems, and much else besides — whose com­bi­na­tions and per­mu­ta­tions have giv­en rise to entire sub­gen­res like surf, heavy met­al, rock­a­bil­ly, and grunge. Like rock itself, the elec­tric gui­tar arrived hav­ing already attained a kind of per­fec­tion, but pos­sessed too much vital­i­ty to stand still.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold the First Elec­tric Gui­tar: The 1931 “Fry­ing Pan”

The World’s First Bass Gui­tar (1936)

The Sto­ry of the Gui­tar: The Com­plete Three-Part Doc­u­men­tary

Oxford Sci­en­tist Explains the Physics of Play­ing Elec­tric Gui­tar Solos

All of the Dif­fer­ent Kinds of Acoustic Gui­tars, and the Dif­fer­ent Woods They’re Made Of: The Ulti­mate Acoustic Gui­tar Guide

Learn to Play Gui­tar for Free: Intro Cours­es Take You From The Very Basics to Play­ing Songs In No Time

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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