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Play It Loud

History of the Electric Guitar

Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna

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The earliest solid-body electric guitar made by Paul Bigsy, working for Fender. He already made steel guitars, some of which came with onboard ashtrays.

Les Paul had serious auto accident in 1948, and doctors originally wanted to amputate his right arm. But he got doctors to set his partially immobilized arm in such a way that it was in position to pick his guitar strings.

Leo Fender originally marketed his guitars as 'Broadcasters', but a long established drum company that owned trademark 'Broadkaster', objected, so had to change. For a while, they simply took the name off their guitars. (These 'No-casters' have become a premium seller, routinely fetching six-figure amounts.) Came up with new name, Telecaster, which, in retrospect, was much better title.

(Acoustic) bass guitars had to be big and heavy, to achieve tone. But electric guitars made it possible to achieve very low frequencies, metal frets made precise notes easy, and notes could be picked, like any other guitar, rather than bowed like a fiddle. And the Fender Precision Bass changed what groups needed.

Although the guitar industry had laughed at Fender's early attempts to make solid electric guitar, the runaway success of the Telecaster changed that. Every guitar maker came out with their own solid-body, notably the Gibson Les Paul, and they were better designed and sexier than the original.

So Fender came up with the Stratocaster, with three pickups and designed for comfort as well as good looks.

1954 Muddy Waters finally made it to the top, with two top 10 hits in the charts for 3 months of that year. But the bottom suddenly fell out of his market as Elvis led a charge of Rock n Roll built on the bones of the Blues. But it was Chuck Berry who solidified the new breed with his Johnny B. Goode character whose electric guitar was his ticket out of the backwoods.

Whereas traditional American Horatio Alger success story had hero getting there with hard work, Johnny was a bad boy who gained success through his guitar skills.

The vintage guitars of the late 50's that get huge prices - Les Pauls etc - weren't very popular when came out, and so had short production runs.

West Coast surf music was the bridge between early days of rock n roll and the more complex tunes from the British Invasion in mid 60's.

Even up to early Beach Boys and Byrds records, studio musicians - particularly the Wrecking Crew - backed the vocals in the recording studio. But the Beatles shattered that system. George Martin had replaced Ringo with a session drummer on Love love Me Do, but soon recognized that the collective energy of the group outweighed flawlessness.

And electric guitars an important part of that change. No longer needed to be able to read music or even have years of practice. Groups individuality based on the singer'(s) vocals, but also fans started to care about what the other musicians were doing. Guitars no longer just a prop, as in Elvis performances.

At first Stones refused to be categorized as a rock n roll group. They wanted to be known as R & B. "The little blues scene in London - all 400 of us - were split into two camps." Two early Stones members quit the group bc they objected to playing Chuck Berry songs.

(And of course the Stones first single was a cover of Chuck Berry's Come On) - cultural appropriation? But the Stones keen to tell their fans about the original artists, providing them with an enthusiastic new audience and a significant source of future record sales and song royalties.

The revolution will be amplified.

Well known that Bob Dylan caused a furor by playing electric guitar at Newport Folk Festival 1965. Folk music was undergoing a revival, and aligning with liberal political causes like civil rights and labour movement. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary. They played traditional acoustic instruments, and there was a strong, almost moral belief that these were 'authentic' and 'honest' tools of 'the people'.

But Dylan had a folk rep from traditionally played songs like Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain Is Going To Fall. But he had rock n roll roots as well, having played in band at school, and he was a fan of what Beatles and Stones were achieving. So, just a week before Newport, he released what was to become his first No 1 - a fully electrified 6 minute Like A Rolling Stone.

Mixed reception at Newport with boos coming from the "electric guitars represent the Man and Capitalism" demographic. But by the time he left, both Folk and Rock n Roll had been changed forever. And the guitar he used there sold for $965,000 in 2015.

Folk-rock had already begun earlier in 1965 with groups like the Byrds playing electrified versions of Dylan's songs like Mr Tambourine Man. People were beginning to listen to both the lyrics and the instruments, as opposed to just treating the music as something to dance to.

The first 'guitar hero' to emerge was Dylan's guitarist Michael Bloomfield. (Bloomfield a voracious reader - when he found a book he really enjoyed he would eat the pages, trying to really absorb its wisdom).

And even the amps became a focus. Marshall amps were built by a guy who was a friend of Pete Townshend's dad. He started as a drum shop but Townshend convinced him to start selling guitars as well bc all the traditional shops sneered at rock n rollers. Fender amps very expensive in Britain, so started making their own. Then Pete Townshend and John Entwistle tried to out do each other by adding more speakers, which then required a bigger amp to drive them. Hence the jump from 15-watt amps in the early sixties, to 100-watt versions by 1965.

Jimi Hendrix got his first Strat while playing Greenwich village. Donor was Linda Keith, who at the time was dating Keith Richards (and was said to be the inspiration for 'Ruby Tuesday'). She moved out, moved in with Hendrix, and took Keef's white Stratocaster with her when she went.

When other guitarists saw Hendrix's act, similar reaction. Michael Bloomfield said "I thought I was it. Then I went and saw Hendrix and in front of my own eyes, he burned me to death." Townshend conversation with Eric Clapton "When I first saw Jimi play I wanted to go and kill myself." Clapton said "I did too." Jeff Beck too, initially felt like packing it all in when he saw Hendrix's uncanny mix of showmanship and musicianship. "Any of us could be fantastic and stand there like a bunch of librarians. Regardless of great music, that's still pretty boring to look at. But as it turned out, there was actually enough room for all the talent.

MTV next major step, forcing bands to pay lot more attention to how they looked on screen. So a boring old black Les Paul wasn't going to cut it. So a market for outrageous instruments and clothes. But of course after binging on excess of the 80s, rise of gritty, tattoed bands like Guns n Roses and Metallica, or Soundgarden and Nirvana in conservative flannels.

Vintage guitar market. George Gruhn was selling out of his apartment in Knoxville when he got a call from Hank Williams in Nashville, who wanted some old Martins. He listened to the description and said "I'll be there in 4 hours". Well there was no Interstate between Nashville and Knoxville in 1968, it was all winding mountain roads. But Hank had an E-type Jag and he got there in 4 hours. He bought 3 guitars, bc that was all he had room for in the Jag. But he came back the next day with a Cadillac and bought as many guitars as that car would hold.

Eric Clapton funds his Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation facility, which he founded 1997, by auctioning his guitars. 1998 auction netted $5.1 million, 2004 %7.4 million, and 2011, $2.2 million.

In '70's rock radio became more corporate and standardized. Every station played a much narrower range of music designed to appeal to the widest demographic. Bands like Boston, Journey, Toto, Pablo Cruise etc, were specifically tailored for the 'corporate rock' format.

The pushback to all this was punk rock, which emerged in New York and London in late 70's. Bands like the Ramones were dedicated to pure rock n roll, and none of that 'hippie shit' or blues.

But contrast 1978: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols,prob the most impt punk rock album of the era, didn't even make the top 100 of American Billboard charts, where the Bee Gees sound track to Saturday Night Fever stayed on top of the charts for 24 straight weeks.

Van Halen described as the musical equivalent of "a six-pack of beer, cruising down the highway with a big-breasted woman while running over small animals."

Patti Smith covered the Shadows of Knight/Them 'Gloria', Sex Pistols covered Monkees 'I'm Not Your Stepping Stone' (Paul Revere and Raiders also did a version), and the Ramones did Trashmen's 'Surfer Bird'.

Glenn Branca mid-70s 'guitar armies': highpoint 'Symphony No 13: Hallucination City' an orchestra of 300 electric guitars.

The Doom and Gloom prophets: Internet means "an increasing number of highly gifted artists are finding that music making has been downgraded from a profession to a hobby." David Byrne predicted that "the inevitable result will be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left."

The Optimists: Yes we're reverting to the pre-1960 model, where musicians made their living from live performances. But the Internet is also providing both a publicity machine for aspiring musos, and a source for cross-fertilization ideas.

Gibson Les Paul Goldtop and Standard Sunburst

Gibson Les Paul Standard - Eric Clapton's Beano

Gibson ES-335,345,355

Gibson Flying V, Gibson Explorer

Gibson Firebird

Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster

Patti Smith Fender Duo-Sonic

Fender Jazzmaster and Fender Jaguar

Gretsch Duo Jet and Silver Jet

Eddie van Halen's Frankenstats

Steve Vai JEM


Valco Res-o-glass, Airline, National Greenwood

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