10 Essential Electric Guitar Design Innovators
Culled from the pages of their new book, Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar, renowned guitar journalists Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna run down the 10 key innovators who made the electric guitar the ultimate rock machine it is today.
Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar is available in bookstores and online.
1. George Beauchamp
PHOTO: Museum of Making Music | Creative Commons
The whole electric guitar idea might never have gotten off the ground had Texas-born George Delmetia Beauchamp figured out how to create a string-driven, electro-magnetic guitar pickup. He implemented the design on the first commercially produced electric, the RO-PAT-IN A-25 “Frying Pan,” which hit the market in 1932. RO-PAT-IN would eventually morph into Rickenbacker.
2. Walter Fuller
PHOTO: Guitar Player Archives (Charlie Christian)
Gibson design engineer Walter Fuller took the string-driven electro-magnetic pickup to its next evolutionary stage with a hexagonal pickup design he devised circa 1935. Less bulky than Beauchamp’s horseshoe magnet design, Fuller’s pickup was employed on Gibson’s first commercially successful electric Spanish guitar, the ES-150, introduced in 1935. Because of the 150’s association with the 1930s' foremost jazz guitar legend, Fuller’s invention would be known as the Charlie Christian pickup.
3. Alvino Rey
PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives
In a fair and just world, Alvino Rey would be just as famous as Les Paul, if not more so. An accomplished player and inspired inventor, Rey did much to popularize the electric guitar in its infancy, while also pushing the envelope on the instrument’s development. In the early 1920s, while still in his teens, he was tinkering with amplifier designs and a pickup for his first instrument, the banjo. Rey performed the first electric guitar radio broadcast in January 1933 at station KGW out of Portland, Oregon. He did early design work on the Gibson ES-150 pickup and developed the first “talk box,” a device later employed by Jeff Beck and Peter Frampton in the 1970s.
4. Les Paul
No, Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar. He didn’t invent the solidbody electric guitar. Nor did he design the Gibson Les Paul model. But he is still a towering figure in the instrument’s development and popularization. An inveterate tinkerer, Les’s experimentation on instruments such as the “Log” guitar and numerous instruments he called “Clunker” put considerable momentum behind the electric guitar’s evolution. His pioneering work with multitrack recording and sound manipulation birthed the concept of multiple, layered, orchestral guitar tracks, paving the way for the work of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Brian May and rock guitar auteurs. As a showman, Les’s extensive work in radio and TV brought the sound of the electric guitar into millions of homes on a weekly basis.
5. Paul Bigsby
PHOTO: Irish10567 | Flickr Creative Commons
A gruff, energetic ex-motorcycle racing champ, Bigsby is perhaps best known for the elegant vibrato arm tailpiece that bears his name. But he is also a key figure in the development of the solidbody electric guitar. The solidbody that he built for country picker Merle Travis in 1948 was the direct inspiration for Leo Fender’s groundbreaking Broadcaster/Telecaster design, first introduced the following year. Bigsby’s mechanical genius also did much to drive the evolution of the pedal steel guitar.