Learn the Anatomy of the Electric Guitar
A Little History
Just as with the resonator guitar, the electric guitar was initially created to allow lap steel guitars to compete with the volume of the rest of the band. George Beauchamp, who had previously worked with John Dopyera on the resonator guitar, developed a magnetic pickup that could convert the vibrations of strings into electrical signals that could in turn be amplified and played through a loudspeaker. In 1931 he teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacker, who used to provide components to National, to form the Rickenbacker brand and build the first commercially available electric guitar, albeit a cast aluminium lap steel guitar (Hawaiian music was still all the rage at the time), dubbed The Frying Pan.
Semi Acoustic Guitar
Hollow Body Guitar
Two years after developing the Frying Pan, Rickenbacker added a pickup to a stock acoustic guitar creating the Electro Spanish semi acoustic guitar. A few years later in 1936, Gibson, an already well established manufacturer of guitars and mandolins, released their own semi acoustic guitar, the ES-150. This too was a hollow-body archtop guitar featuring f-hole style sound holes and a single pickup. With the help of an upcoming jazz guitarist, Charlie Christian, the ES-150 became a huge success.
The increased volume of these instruments helped establish the guitar as a lead instrument, not just part of the rhythm section. As the popularity of these electric guitars grew, players were plagued with acoustic feedback problems due to the hollow bodies of their guitars. This was caused by the guitar's amplified sound from the loudspeakers entering back inside the guitar via the sound holes and causing unwanted interference on the pickups resulting in a painful screeching noise.
Semi Hollow Body Guitar
By 1958 solid body electric guitars (see below), which resolved the acoustic feedback problems of hollow body electric guitars, had been available for several years. Not everyone was happy however with some players still wanting the warmers tones of the hollow body.
In an effort to find a middle ground between the two, Gibson produced the first commercially available semi hollow bodied electric guitar, the ES-335. It was thinner than its hollow bodied cousin and had a solid block of wood inside running the length of the guitar. This greatly reduced acoustic feedback, created more sustain, and kept some of the warmth of a full hollow body guitar.
Solid Body Electric Guitar
Around 1940, a guitarist by the name of Les Paul came up with a prototype of the world's first solid body electric guitar affectionately known as The Log. It consisted of a guitar neck attached to a length of 4 x 4 solid wood and of course, a pickup. To make it look the part, Les also attached two halves of a hollow body guitar to the sides. When he showed it to Gibson, they were not impressed with the concept.
Today of course there are hundreds, if not thousands of different electric guitars available from many different manufacturers. But many share the same core features such as multiple, switchable pickups with tone and volume controls, adjustable saddles and bridge, an adjustable truss rod in the neck with typically around twenty one to twenty four frets, joining at the body somewhere between the seventeenth and twenty second fret. However, even with all that choice, there are some classic iconic guitars that are still to this day the most popular and sought after guitars in the world.
Fender Esquire / Broadcaster / Telecaster
In the late 1940's, whilst having built lap steel guitars for a few years, Fender were still considered a relative newcomer to the industry. However, that didn't discourage its founder Leo Fender from innovating. By 1949 he had developed a solid body guitar which went into production the following year named the Esquire. It was a limited production run but the Esquire is considered the first production solid body guitar. Unfortunately many of these first guitars were returned due to issues with the neck bending.
Fender resolved the issue by inserting a steel truss rod in the neck and adding another pickup for good measure. This improved version was named the Broadcaster. Unluckily for Fender another instrument manufacturer, Gretsch, already had a “Broadkaster” banjo and drum kit available and asked Fender to change the name. Fender agreed and the guitar was renamed once more to the Telecaster. The guitar became hugely popular and is still in production today.
Gibson Les Paul
It is arguable if Gibson were already working on a solid body guitar at this time. But having seen the success of the Fender Telecaster, in 1952 Gibson decided to work with Les Paul, who was extremely famous by this point, to build their own solid body Gibson Les Paul with a goldtop finish. The guitar unfortunately wasn't that popular and 2 years later Gibson released the Les Paul Custom which sported a different bridge, a thicker neck and gone was the fancy goldtop in favour of black.
There were more changes a few years later with the change to three new humbucker pickups, an innovation simultaneously developed by Gibson and Gretsch to cancel the hum caused by mains wiring that single coil pickups are sensitive to. These changes, and the release of the Les Paul Standard in 1958, were still not enough to increase the popularity of the Les Paul and production was stopped in 1960 in favour of Gibson's new flagship, the initially named Les Paul SG. During the British Blues Boom of the mid to late 1960's, various famous guitarists took to playing these 50's Les Pauls and popularity surged. The Les Paul came back into production in 1968.
The Fender Telecaster had always been designed with simplicity of construction in mind with its bolt on neck and flat body. With the release of the more opulent looking Gibson Les Paul with its carved top and set-in neck, Fender felt the need to raise their game. Based on received feedback of the Telecaster, in particular from Bill Carson and Rex Gallion, Fender got to work on their next guitar, the Stratocaster. When completed in 1954, the Stratocaster came packed with improvements and innovation. The guitar was comfortable to play, both seated and standing, thanks to the contoured, double cut-away body. It came with three switchable, single coil pickups as standard, all mounted onto a single pickguard along with the tone and volume controls. It also included the first sunburst finish of any Fender guitar.
However, it was the hugely innovative bridge design that really put the Stratocaster into a class of its own. After tone and sustain issues with his first design, it was actually Leo's second attempt that made the grade. The result was a floating bridge that offered a smooth tremolo (vibrato really) system which pivoted on six screws. Sustain was ensured via a solid inertia block attached to the underside of the bridge and sitting inside the body, which was in turn held in place by three springs attached to a spring claw screwed into the underside of the body. This not only allowed for more creative and expressive playing but was also adjustable to the players taste via both the claw and bridge screws. If that wasn't enough, every string was given its own saddle that could be individually adjusted both in height to adjust the action, and in length to finely adjust the intonation.
Incredibly, even with all these features, the uptake of the Fender Stratocaster was relatively slow at first. It would take three years and the adoption of the Stratocaster by the likes of Buddy Holly and Hank Marvin to really get things moving. The rest as they say is history and the Stratocaster went on to become the world's most popular and best selling guitar of all time.
Other Types of Guitar
There are of course many other manufacturers and models of electric guitar. Some are variations on the theme of one or another of the above iconic designs. Others take a very different approach to body shape, moving completely away from the regular curves of the traditional Spanish guitar shape such as the Gibson Flying V. Some have seven, eight, nine or more strings. Others don't even have a headstock like the Steinberger GT-Pro. Then there are the double necks like the Gibson EDS-1275 made famous by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Don't forget the different combinations of pickups, bridges, tremolos, etc. Basically, there are plenty of options to choose from out there with something to suit everyone's taste.
Amps and Effects
The guitar alone doesn't make an artist's tone. And whilst some might argue "tone is in the fingers", another large factor is the choice of amplifier and effects pedals and processors you choose to plug your electric guitar into. Of course this is one of the great advantages of an electric guitar and the main reason it has become one of, if not the most expressive of all instruments. This is however a huge topic and one to be discussed in several other sections.
If you want to dig a little deeper into the history of the guitar or just learn about acoustic guitars in general, check out our Anatomy of the Acoustic Guitar. Also, if you are completely new to some of the terms we have just used or maybe you just feel a little rusty, why not check out our free Fundamentals of Music Theory course.