The History of the Electric Guitar Solo: A Seven-Part Series


No instru­ment is more close­ly iden­ti­fied with rock and roll music than the elec­tric gui­tar, and no form of per­for­mance is more close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the elec­tric gui­tar than the solo. You can hard­ly dis­cuss any of those three with­out dis­cussing the oth­ers. Hence the broad sweep of Axe to Grind, the new sev­en-part video series from Youtube music chan­nel Poly­phon­ic on the elec­tric gui­tar solo, a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non that can’t be explained with­out telling the sto­ry of a vast swath of pop­u­lar music through prac­ti­cal­ly the entire twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and con­tin­u­ing on into the twen­ty-first.

Like any prop­er full-scope rock his­to­ry, this one begins with the blues, trac­ing the styl­is­tic devel­op­ments that emerged among gui­tarists on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta with the advent of new tech­nolo­gies like elec­tric­i­ty.

Axe to Grind’s first episode cov­ers such ear­ly elec­tric gui­tar play­ers as Char­lie Chris­t­ian (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), Fay “Smit­ty” Smith, Mud­dy Waters, and Junior Bernard, who was “one of the first to real­ize that if you cranked vac­u­um-tube ampli­fiers up to max­i­mum vol­ume and played as loud as you could through them, the vac­u­um tubes would com­press the sig­nal so they did­n’t explode. The result was a new sort of grit­ty tone that came to be known as over­drive.”


The sec­ond episode cov­ers the nine­teen-fifties and the rise of rock and roll itself, a broad musi­cal church that came to encom­pass musi­cians from Chuck Berry, Junior Walk­er, and B. B. King to John­ny Wat­son, Link Wray (who record­ed the only instru­men­tal song ever banned from the radio), and Bud­dy Hol­ly. Then comes the nine­teen-six­ties, the pow­er of whose transat­lantic pop-cul­tur­al explo­sion still comes through loud and clear in the elec­tric gui­tar solos on the records by the Rolling Stones, the Bea­t­les, Led Zep­pelin, the Byrds, Cream, Jimi Hen­drix, and many oth­er acts besides. The fourth episode, still to come on Youtube, is already avail­able on the sub­scrip­tion stream­ing plat­form Neb­u­la. How­ev­er you watch Axe to Grind, rest assured that it will leave you not just with a deep­er under­stand­ing of the elec­tric gui­tar solo’s evo­lu­tion, but a much deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of the “John­ny B. Goode” scene from Back to the Future.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

How Fend­er Gui­tars Are Made, Then (1959) and Nowa­days (2012)

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

Hear the Bril­liant Gui­tar Work of Char­lie Chris­t­ian, Inven­tor of the Elec­tric Gui­tar Solo (1939)

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

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 or on Face­book.

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