Given the electric guitar’s popularity, it’s surprising that there isn’t one person who’s closely associated with its creation. Alexander Graham Bell has the telephone, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but who discovered guitar? For one thing, it wasn’t as if guitars didn’t exist one day and then the next they did. The history of the guitar is a gradual development, and several people made important contributions along the way.
Before guitar’s were electrified, the instrument itself was used very differently. In the context of bigger bands it was in the background, as the instrument wasn’t loud enough to sufficiently project single notes. Players had to strum hard to be heard, so its use was rhythmic in nature. Before single notes can be infused with gain, distortion, reverb, and all the other exciting effects, it took many developments from people who weren’t even really working together.
In 1924, Loyd Loar, an employee at Gibson, invented the first magnetic pick up. The pick up is the thing that separates acoustic from guitars. Still, it wasn’t totally put together yet, and more work was needed in development. In 1931, a version of the guitar emerged, but not quite what we picture today. Created by, amongst others, legendary luthier Adolph Rickenbacker, the ‘fry pan’ aluminum guitars sat on the players knee, and a slide was used. The first acoustic-electric guitar most similar to those of today is the Gibson EL150. This debuted in 1936. It wasn’t a solid body, but this was a crucial stage of development in between.
In of 1941, Australian inventor Harland Bernard Bodkin was credited with patenting the ‘electric guitar’. Of all the people who contributed to the guitar’s creation, none of them have certifiable proof like Bodkin. The prototype still exists, and it’s exhibited in a museum in Australia. It didn’t take off, but any discussion about the guitar’s invention can’t exclude Bodkin.
In the 1940s, after Les Paul designed ‘the log,’ Gibson employees Merle Travis and Paul Bigsby created the solid-body guitars we picture today in our collective imagination. It was heavy and would be developed further still, but it was truly the beginning of guitars.
In the 1950’s, Fender released the famous Telecaster, and thus produced the image of a solid body guitar with curves! This was followed quickly after by the Gibson Les Paul. From this point on, the world had guitars! Improvements and styles and fads would come and go, but these two were the first real guitars. In fact, I’m sure most contemporary musicians would love to own either of them today! They’re worth a small fortune, but not only for their historic value. It’s crucial to understand that the guitars made then were excellent by today’s standards. The possessor of 50’s Fenders and Gibsons might opt to keep them protected, and indeed it’s necessary to keep their instruments in good shape. But it’d be a tremendous shame for them not to be played!
To understand the history of guitars is to understand that it wasn’t the work of one person in isolation. Let’s be thankful to all those who have given us such a beautiful instrument!