July 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part V

Hello again and welcome back to the latest, fifth, part in the long history of the guitar, abridged and serialised for your entertainment. After the lengthy but hopefully coherent, tome of last month, I promise this one is a bit shorter and focused back on whole guitars, for easier consumption.

 

If you wish to recap on previous articles before starting with this part, the previous articles making up the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

 

The previous article (Part IV) in the series covering the guitar’s evolution looked at some essential 20th Century technological innovations without which, the electric guitar and modern music would not have evolved within the context of our current civilisation.

 

The artificial increase in volume provided by the pickup, amplifier and loudspeaker was important to enable the guitar to be elevated from just an accompanying instrument to a lead/solo instrument. This significant expansion in functionality proved massively popular across most non-classical musical genres and would change popular music forever. Crucially, the electric guitar provided a springboard for the musical revolution that occurred from the 1950s, fuelled first by jazz and blues and then by country and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘explosion’. At the same time, post‑war economic growth and social liberalisation in most western societies provided a fertile environment within which the electric guitar and the music it influenced could flourish. Part V explores how those key innovations were first introduced to the guitar world and then became an integral part of what would eventually become today’s musical landscape.

 

There were considerable challenges in turning prototypes into successful working commercial products. One of the barriers was the capability to manufacture the various elements to consistent quality in large numbers at low enough cost to match supply with demand. Another potential inhibitor was to persuade exiting dealerships and traditional musicians to adopt the new technology. One strategy was to attract big name artists to not only endorse but also to be seen using them in live performance. All of these factors were important in helping to build and then sustain long‑tem interest.

 

Scientific and technological progress in the first half of the 20th Century, it seems, was inevitable and unstoppable. Guitar builders were taking massive leaps of faith and the risks were great. If the new‑fangled popular music turned out to be a temporary fad or the features offered didn’t catch the consumer’s imagination then all the investment in time, effort and money would be wasted. Manufacturers had to get their products ‘just so’ in a timely fashion, so there was pressure to adapt, get the balance right and to do so within a relatively short space of time.

 

In hindsight, the answers to these challenges seem relatively straightforward, although it may not have seemed so at the time. As mentioned briefly in the previous part of the story there were essentially two ways to migrate from an acoustic instrument to an amplified electric one…

 

The first method was, perhaps, an obvious incremental approach achieved by simply adding one of the new‑fangled pickups to an existing hollow‑body acoustic instrument. The modified acoustic guitar could then simply be connected to a portable valve amplifier and speaker. This would be an attractive approach for many well‑established jazz/dance band musicians. However, the potential of this solution – at least initially – was limited by fact that that all that was happening was simply electrifying acoustic guitars. Not surprisingly, it worked for companies already producing credible archtop acoustic guitars, including, for example, Gibson.

 

The second method was to take a more radical approach and invent an entirely new type of instrument designed from scratch. This was technically far more difficult at the time and carried no guarantee of success. However, a bespoke approach was seen as less of a compromise and more a means of going straight to a visionary objective in one step, as well as doing so quickly without being constrained by anything that had gone before. The forward‑looking pioneers in this field believed that a purpose‑built electric guitar would appeal to a completely different audience and were prepared to take the massive risk of alienating the current generation of risk‑averse musicians in order to grow a fresh following for the new generation of guitars from a low base.

 

Arguably, both ways were important and both were needed in order to refine the inventions and for the best of both worlds to converge. Without these pioneering efforts, we would not have the diverse range of electric guitars (and other instruments) we have today. The following sections take a brief look at what happened to each of these seemingly opposing strategies and how successful they really were.

 

Generally speaking, the development of acoustic guitars had taken different courses on the eastern and western sides of the United States, so perhaps it was not surprising that the developments leading to the electric guitar also followed a rough east/west geographical split. In addition, the routes taken to get to the nirvana of the electric guitar were fundamentally different. While there were many inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs working on similar projects, this part of the story focuses on two key enterprises based in Michigan and California during the 1930s. The pace of innovation that occurred in the wake of WWII, through the late 1940s and into the 1950s will be the focus of the next part of the series.

 

Amplified Archtop Guitars

On the eastern(‑ish, actually the mid-west) side of America, Gibson being Gibson, felt that they were in control of their own destiny. They were intent on doing things their way and in their own time. Although Gibson was no stranger to innovation, perhaps predictably, they chose the ‘safe’ option, which was to add an electromagnetic pickup to their successful range of existing archtop guitars and then take it from there. This was seen as a simple, effective and relatively painless way of making the transition for an existing largely conservative and loyal user base to the new platform. Professional musicians, perhaps conscious of retaining their reputation and credibility could keep the look, feel and timbre of their existing instruments and just plug them into an amplifier to make them louder. While the approach was successful, as we now appreciate, the seemingly straightforward act of electrifying an acoustic instrument isn’t always ideal. Many initially sceptical professional musicians were, however, persuaded to embrace incremental change. They could retain their trusty, mostly expensive, high quality acoustic archtop guitars and also keep their expectant audiences happy.

 

While their upstart competitors on the west coast may have beaten Gibson to the starting gate technologically (see below), the Hawaiian lap steel market was finite and Gibson was intent on occupying what they saw as their rightful territory in the centre ground. Gibson founder, Orville Gibson had passed away in 1918, long before Gibson electric guitars became a reality. One wonders what Orville would have thought and, perhaps more intriguingly, done if faced with the same set of circumstances.

 

While acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar was employed at Gibson, he had experimented with electrostatic pickups in the early 1920s, although not very successfully. It would, however, take Gibson another 10 years to make their breakthrough. It fell to Gibson employee, Walter L. Fuller, who had joined the company in 1933 who was responsible for finalising the design of Gibson’s first pickups used on their electric metal‑bodied E150 lap steel guitars, introduced in 1935. The electric E150 was, like the early Rickenbacher Electro lap steel guitars, constructed from sold aluminium. To help entice early adopters, the E150 was offered with a matching E150 amp.

1935 Gibson E150 Lap Steel
1935 Gibson E150 Amp

 

A year later, in May 1936, Gibson introduced their first ‘Electric Spanish’ (ES) model, the hollow body archtop ES‑150. While some may dispute the circumstances, the Gibson ES‑150 is historically significant in that it is generally regarded as the first commercially successful production electric guitar. The Gibson ES‑150 employed the same pickup as used in the previous year’s E150 lap steel. Two large 5” bar magnets were hidden under the top of the guitar, as can be seen by the triangle of mounting bolts, while the hexagonal pickup with its distinctive ‘blade’ polepiece was visible, mounted near the neck. The output jack socket was positioned unobtrusively on the side of the guitar’s lower bass bout. Otherwise, the ES‑150 was a relatively unremarkable example of familiar archtop jazz guitar design of the 1930s. Interestingly, the ES‑150 wasn’t a replacement for another Gibson model; it was a new introduction, supplementing existing instruments.

1936 Gibson ES-150

 

Like the E150, the ES-150 was sold with an accompanying EH‑150 amplifier and cable. The ‘150’ of its name derived from the guitar’s introductory price of $150.

1930s Gibson EH-150 Amp

 

Importantly for Gibson, the ES‑150 was endorsed by acclaimed jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942), which helped to popularise amplified archtop guitars not only for rhythm work but also for lead/solo playing. The distinctive black and white hexagonal pickup used in the ES-150 is still known today as the ‘Charlie Christian’ pickup and is held in high regard by aficionados, despite being very low‑powered in its original form. After 1938, Gibson redesigned the pickup so that it was more powerful – it had a notch in the polepiece below where the wound ‘B’ string would go, in order to balance the output across all 6 strings. A third variation of the pickup appeared on Gibson ES-250s from 1939, perhaps indicating that development of the pickup was ‘work‑in‑progress’.

Gibson ES-150 Advertisement
Gibson Charlie Christian pickup

 

By the end of the 1930s, Gibson’s Walter Fuller was experimenting with Alnico (aluminium, nickel and cobalt) alloy magnets in pickups. Various guitars of the early 1940s featured early versions of what would become one of Gibson’s most famous pickups, the P90. These developmental designs, used on Gibson ES-250 and ES-300 guitars, were a far cry from the familiar P90 pickups that would follow. Another early version of the P90, called the P-13, appeared on Mastertone Electric Spanish Guitars from 1940, a budget brand owned by Gibson.

1940 Gibson ES-250 & ES-300 Pickups

 

Between 1943 and 1945, a substantial proportion of Gibson’s manufacturing capacity was re‑focused on supporting the American war effort. Supply of materials and tooling caused a temporary hiatus in America’s pickup, guitar and amplifier development, not only for Gibson but also for all manufacturers in the industry.

 

It wasn’t until 1946 that Gibson introduced the fully‑fledged single coil P.U.90, now known simply as the P90, on their ES-150 and ES-300 archtops. The P90 has become one of the company’s most famous and highly respected pickups, and a design that has endured almost unchanged over many decades. The P90 pickup was important to Gibson as it really established Gibson’s dominance in pickup design prior to the introduction of humbucking pickups. The successful P90 became a standard and effectively replaced Gibson’s earlier pickup designs. Although Gibson’s humbucking pickups were intended to replace the P90 in the 1950s, the P90 remains in production today as Gibson’s predominant single coil pickup, testament to the quality of its original design.

1950s Gibson P90 Soapbar and Dogear Pickups

 

Once the concept of electric archtop guitars had been broadly embraced by enough mainstream guitarists, Gibson extended the use of pickups to other guitars. In 1949, Gibson released the ES-175. Like the ES‑150 before it, the model was named after its introductory price of $175. This model was important in the historical timeline because it was designed from the start to be an electric guitar, rather than an acoustic guitar with a pickup. It was also considered a cheaper guitar than Gibson’s upmarket archtops like the acoustic L5 and Super 400. Unlike its predecessors, the ES-175’s all‑hollow body was constructed from laminated boards rather than solid wood and it was the first Gibson to feature a pointed Florentine cutaway. Initially, the ES-175 came with one and then two P90 single coil pickups. By 1957, Gibson switched to their new humbucking pickups to the E‑175.

1949 Gibson ES-175

 

Following on from the ground breaking ES-150 and the ES-175, Gibson revisited an earlier classic creation by introducing the luxuriously appointed L5CES in 1951. The new model was based on the preceding L5 originally designed by Lloyd Loar in the 1920s. The L5CES was aimed squarely at the high end and was designed to provide the best of both worlds for discerning professional musicians. The ‘C’ stood for the single ‘cutaway’ body comprising spruce top and maple back and sides. The model was produced initially with a smoothly rounded Venetian cutaway and a pair of P90 single coil pickups, followed later by a sharply pointed Florentine cutaway and humbucking pickups. The ‘ES’ continued the ‘Electric Spanish’ nomenclature of other models. By using 2 pickups, the L5CES was intended to be used both acoustically and electrically. A notable user of the electric L5 was Scotty Moore who worked with emerging rock ‘n’ roll singer, Elvis Presley in the 1950s. There were a number of variations on the theme, including the thinline, short scale Byrdland and in the 1970s, Gibson even introduced a solid body version of the L5, called the L5S.

1951 & 1960 Gibson L5CES

 

In 1955, Gibson introduced their first production humbucking pickup, designed by Seth Lover. Early versions of the Gibson P.U.490 humbucker have become known as PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups, while ones produced after their patent was awarded in 1959 are known as ‘Patent No.’ pickups. Succeeding versions of the Gibson humbucker right up to the current day have built on the foundations of these early, now legendary, pickups. As they had done in the 1930s, Gibson launched their new pickup first on lap steel guitars in 1956 before phasing them in to replace P90s on the aforementioned ES‑175.

1960 Gibson ES-175

 

It wasn’t long before PAF humbuckers were used on many Gibson guitars. Unsurprisingly, they also began to appear in the company’s (relatively) new solid body gold top Les Paul Model and black Les Paul Custom guitars from 1957 as well as on the all‑new semi‑acoustic ES‑335 from 1958. However, that’s getting ahead of this particular part of the story. Fortunately for Gibson, their humbucking pickups proved highly successful across all types of electric guitar and have long since become an industry standard, with many 3rd party pickup suppliers creating their own versions. Even the original Charlie Christian pickups are now being replicated for enthusiasts of the unique sound they produced.

 

There have, perhaps obviously, been plenty of other electric archtop guitars over the intervening years from a wide range of manufacturers across the globe. While this part of the story recognises this diversity, it cannot do justice to the proliferation of instruments on the market today. Needless to say, many of today’s designs have been inspired by the few milestone instruments mentioned here. Arguably, progress would have taken place anyway, even without these key instruments. However, the guitars covered above are particularly notable in historical terms not necessarily because they were the first or the best but because of the part they have played in the overall heritage.

 

Again in hindsight, the addition of one or more pickups to an existing acoustic guitar may seem to be an obvious option. However, at the time, it was a significant development by a company that was known for combining innovation with traditionalism. It was a strategic decision by Gibson that achieved that clever balancing act, innovating while preserving their reputation and sustaining their user base during a time of major industry and social change.

 

When the time came to introduce their own range of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, Gibson already had plenty of experience under their belt to make informed decisions about what would and what wouldn’t work. It is not surprising that other manufacturers followed suit and the electric archtop guitars became mainstream until the 1950s.

 

The electric archtop guitar proved extremely popular with traditional guitarists looking to continue using archtop jazz guitars while also enjoying the benefits of greater volume provided by amplification. After a commercial nadir in the late 20th Century, archtop electric designs have also proved exceedingly dependable and many models remain popular to the current day, and will probably now endure well into the instrument’s future.

 

The Early Solid Body Electric Guitar

Possibly the main individual associated with the rather awkward birth of the electric solid body guitar was Adolph Rickenbacher (1886‑1976). Shortly after he was born in Basel, Switzerland, Richenbacher emigrated to America in 1891 with relatives following the death of his parents. After settling initially in Wisconsin, Adolph moved to California in 1918. In 1925, he set up the Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company, a tool and die business manufacturing metal and plastic products in Los Angeles.

Adolph Rickenbacker

 

To begin with, Rickenbacher spelled his family surname with an ‘h’, rather than the ‘k’ we are familiar with today. Rickenbacher later changed his surname, partly to ‘Anglicise’ it and partly to capitalise on the fame of his cousin and WWI flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

 

Alongside Rickenbacher, the other key person was none other than George Beauchamp, the Texan Vaudeville entertainer and inventor who had already played such a major part in the development of resonator acoustic guitars with the National String Instrument Corporation in the 1920s. In addition to pioneering resonator guitars (see Part III), Beauchamp had been experimenting with pickups and amplified instruments since the mid‑1920s but with little success (see Part IV).

 

Perhaps ironically, during the late 1920s, Rickenbacher’s company was manufacturing metal resonator guitar bodies for National, so perhaps it is not surprising that Beauchamp and Rickenbacher’s paths should cross. Rickenbacher was even a shareholder in National. According to some commentators, it was Beauchamp’s involvement with Rickenbacher that possibly precipitated the former’s ultimate departure from the newly merged National Dobro Corporation in around 1934.

 

Beauchamp’s quest for greater guitar volume had led him to explore the idea of using an electromagnetic pickup to create a signal and an amplifier to produce volume. Like many before him, Beauchamp was driven to prove the concept in a practical way and he was largely successful. Beauchamp had started designing pickups and ideas for an electric guitar while still at National and in collaboration with another National employee, Paul Barth. Beauchamp and Barth’s first successful pickup design comprised a pair of U‑shaped magnets arranged in a ‘horseshoe’ shape that housed the pickup’s wire coil and surrounded the guitar’s strings.

1939 Rickenbacher ‘Horseshoe’ Pickup

 

In October 1931, Rickenbacher, Beauchamp, Barth and a number of others became business partners and founded the Ro‑Pat‑In Corporation (short for Electro‑Patent‑Instruments), based in Los Angeles. Ro‑Pat‑In’s stated goal was to produce fully electric musical instruments. Their prototype Hawaiian electric guitar from c.1931 exhibited many of the features of the eventual production model, although it was mainly constructed from wood. This was not an acoustic guitar in any shape or form, so it had to function as an electric instrument from the outset.

c.1931 Rickenbacher Frying Pan Prototype

 

Ro‑Pat‑In became the first company to design and manufacture a production solid bodied electric guitar in 1932, way before Gibson. Finally, albeit in embryonic form, the fully electric guitar had finally arrived. These early guitars were, perhaps unkindly, nicknamed ‘frying pans’ because of their distinctive shape, comprising small circular bodies, long necks and all-metal construction. The guitar comprised a circular cast aluminium body and neck and incorporated the all‑important ‘horseshoe’ pickup and a volume control.

c.1932 Ro-Pat-In Frying Pan

 

Wisely, Ro-Pat-In changed its unwieldy name to Electro String Instrument Corporation in 1933. Confusingly, early instruments appeared with the ‘Electro’ (and even ‘Elektro’) name. Even more confusingly, the company used the Rickenbacher spelling inconsistently until it finally became Rickenbacker from around 1950.

Rickenbacker Electro Logo

 

Following the name change, the ‘frying pan’ became the Rickenbacher Electro A-22. The profile of the instrument was heightened by steel guitarist Jack Miller who played a ‘Frying Pan’ with Orville Knapp (1904-1936) and his orchestra from 1934. Although he was little‑known at the time, Miller may possibly be able to lay claim to being one of the first artists to popularise the electric guitar.

c.1933 Rickenbacher Electro Frying Pan

 

As previously covered in Part IV of the story, Beauchamp’s 1934 patent application for an ‘electrical stringed musical instrument’ incorporating an electromagnetic pickup was finally awarded in April 1937. The intervening 3‑year period allowed enterprising competitors to take advantage of the new technology and create their own versions. Rickenbacher made a conscious decision not to defend their patent in the courts, thereby effectively opening up the market to competition.

1934 Rickenbacher Electric Guitar Patent

 

Aluminium often caused tuning problems under demanding stage conditions, so Rickenbacher also experimented with other materials, including plastic and wood. From 1935, Electro released the influential Model B Hawaiian lap steel guitar. The Model B was notable for being made from cast Bakelite, a form of synthetic plastic invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) in New York. Model B guitars were originally produced with a single volume control and five decorative chrome panels before models from the late 1930s featured volume and tone controls with white enamelled panels.

1935 & 1940s Rickenbacher Electro Model B

 

Richenbacher and Beauchamp recognised that the market for lap steel guitars was relatively small and there were other opportunities to be exploited. From 1932, Rickenbacker also went on to design more traditional ‘Electro Spanish’ guitars with conventionally‑shaped acoustic wood bodies, f‑holes, a slotted headstock and neck to body join at the 14th fret. By 1935, guitarist and early endorsee Ken Roberts was honoured with a ‘signature’ model that had a neck to body join at the 17th fret, featured a vibrato tailpeice and was the first electric Spanish‑style guitar to have a 25½” scale neck.

1930s Rickenbacher Electro Spanish & Ken Roberts Model

 

Like the ‘frying pans’ before them, both the Model B and the Electro Spanish guitars used the distinctive ‘horseshoe’ pickup. In addition to guitars, Rickenbacher Electro used their expertise to develop other electric instruments including mandolins, violins, cellos and even a harp. To accompany their electric guitars and to make them usable, Rickenbacher Electro also produced guitar amplifiers.

1936 Rickenbacher Electro Amp

 

Timing of these guitar developments wasn’t ideal and market conditions were challenging for Rickenbacher. Electro String’s instruments appeared shortly after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, an event that initiated the Great Depression, a major worldwide downturn that persisted until the late 1930s. Coincidentally, during the 1930s, global political tensions started to increase culminating in the outbreak of WWII. Most of America’s industrial concerns were focused on supporting the war effort for several years and the ensuing recovery was slow. The impact on the uptake of electric guitars during depression‑era America was significant, particularly in rural areas. Despite the difficulties, Electro String Instrument Corporation persevered and had produced over 2,500 ‘frying pans’ by the time the company stopped making them in 1939.

 

After all his vision, ambition, creativity and drive, George Beauchamp became disillusioned with the direction in which things were moving and he left Rickenbacker in 1940 to follow other pursuits, including his passion for deep sea fishing. Beauchamp died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip near Los Angeles in 1941 at the age of just 42. Beauchamp was largely unrecognised at the time for his many significant contributions to guitar evolution.

 

Following Beauchamp’s departure, Rickenbacker continued making musical instruments until 1953 when he sold the company to Californian businessman Francis Cary Hall. After the sale, the Rickenbacker company embarked on a whole new era of guitar building and commercial success under Hall’s leadership. Adolph Rickenbacker died in 1976 as a result of cancer in California at the age of 89. The company he founded in 1931 continues to thrive and still bears his name (complete with its ‘k’) today as the Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC).

Modern Rickenbacker Logo

 

End of Part V

This moment seems like another ideal stopping point, albeit covering a fairly short period of intense guitar evolution in the 1930s. Together, Gibson’s and Rickenbacker’s milestone innovations had bridged that all‑important gap between the guitar’s acoustic history and the introduction of commercially produced modern solid body electric guitars in the 1950s. From this watershed point on, nothing in the music world would ever be quite the same again.

 

It is the emergence of the modern electric guitar, and particularly the now‑familiar solid‑body guitar, as we know it that will be picked up in Part VI. The fascinating battle between industry stalwart Gibson and new‑kid‑on‑the‑block Fender was about to take place. Fender and Gibson started fighting for market supremacy in the 1950s and are still doing so today.

 

I hope you enjoyed this part of the guitar’s story and trust that you’ll come back for the next exciting instalment – same time, same channel, next month (hopefully!). Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Failure may not be an option but the risk of failure is something that most of us have to work damn hard to avoid at all costs.”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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June 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part IV

Without further ado, let’s get stuck into Part IV of the history of the guitar. As the story was left at the end of the last article during the 1920s and early 1930s, something new was needed to ensure that guitars would not only be able to compete with other instruments in a live situation but also become the catalyst for a musical revolution to mirror what was taking place in wider society. Just in case you were lulled into a sense of coherent continuity, this month’s article is a bit different from what has been covered so far.

 

This part is presented as part of a whole. If you wish to recap on previous articles in the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, you can access them here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

 

Please remember that this is written purely for entertainment purposes and is not intended as an academic tome. While I have tried to be diligent in my research, there are undoubtedly improvements that could be made, so corrections and clarifications are genuinely welcomed. This is quite a long article, so I hope you are sitting comfortably.

 

Needing to be heard

The problem for guitarists in the 1920s was a simple but fundamental and frustrating one. The amount of volume that could be attained from purely acoustic guitar designs had got as far as it was likely to get at the start of the 1930s. Guitarists were still struggling to be heard in noisy live music environments as part of jazz, swing, big band and dance orchestras. Despite the strengths of steel strung folk guitars, archtop guitars and resonator guitars, the lack of volume continued to be a problem for guitarists throughout the early part of the 20th Century. A number of clever innovations attempted to help acoustic guitarists cut through the mix but they didn’t really capture mainstream attention and passed into obscurity, leaving demanding musicians still yearning for louder instruments.

1920s New Orleans Jazz Swing Band

 

Creative inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs were determined to find a workable solution. Perhaps the biggest game‑changing watershed in the entire history of guitar building was about to take place in America in the 1930s. The transformation depended on coincidental and mutually dependent developments; the magnetic pickup, the portable valve amplifier and its associated loudspeaker(s). Undoubtedly, the amplifier came first, simply because it could be driven by other inputs, such as early microphones, while the pickup followed to take advantage of the opportunity. Logic suggests that the converse would make little sense, as a pickup without some means of manipulating the signal s essentially redundant.

 

By the end of the 19th Century, early microphones were being used in telephone, broadcasting and recording industries. In 1916, the first condenser microphone was invented and in 1923, the first moving coil and ribbon microphones were developed. Given the timing, it seemed logical to experiment with microphones to capture the sound from acoustic guitars. However, the results weren’t particularly successful and the microphone proved to be a dead end for guitarists at the time. A more practical and reliable alternative was required to capture the physical energy produced by a stringed instrument and convert it into a usable electrical signal that could then be amplified and output.

 

Before starting to look at the early electric instruments that changed modern guitar music forever, it is worth taking a temporary detour to look at the catalysts that led to the step change. Once the technical inhibitors had been overcome and the various elements combined, electric guitars became a realistic and achievable proposition.

 

The electro magnetic guitar pickup

By the 1920s and 1930s, the science of using magnetism and wire coils to induce an electric current had been understood for several decades. It would, however, take some ingenuity to apply the various scientific principles involved to overcome the specific practical problems experienced by guitarists of the time. Within this context, we need to go right back to basics as a starting point.

 

An electromagnetic guitar pickup is basically a passive transducer that uses Faraday’s law of induction, named after English scientist Michael Faraday (1791‑1867), to produce an electromagnetic force. The physical movement of the vibrating steel string of a strummed or plucked guitar disturbs the magnetic field and induces a small voltage of between 100mV and 1V through the coil. This differs from a simple microphone, which works by converting pressure variations in the air (sound waves), into the mechanical motion of a diaphragm, which in turn produces an electrical signal (depending on the type of technology used).

Electromagnetic Pickup Principle

 

A simple electromagnetic guitar pickup is generally constructed from one or more permanent magnets, wrapped many thousands of times in a coil made of fine copper wire. Most early guitar pickups comprised only one magnet and coil, hereafter referred to as single coil pickups. The weak electrical signal is then passed down an electrical lead to a separate amplifier where the signal is multiplied many times to drive a passive loudspeaker that reproduces the original signal at greater volume.

 

Unlike a microphone, the electromagnetic pickup does not reproduce the actual acoustic sound waves emanating from the guitar. The natural resonance of the instrument may cause the strings to vibrate in a certain way and this variation is picked up by the transducer, which may explain the differences in sound between two instruments using the same pickup, electrics, amplifier and speakers. As a result, at least in the early days, the characteristics of the pickup combined with the rest of the signal chain probably had more to do with the sound that audiences heard, rather than that of the actual instrument itself. There are innumerable permutations in which the basic components of magnets and wire can be configured to produce different outputs and over the years, pickup designers have used these variations to differentiate their pickups from those produced by others.

 

Gibson employee, Lloyd Loar had experimented with stringed instrument pickups as early as 1924, shortly before he left the company. Loar attempted to produce an electrical signal from vibrations passed from the strings through the bridge to the magnet and coil. Loar’s work did not lead to a successful product and guitarists had to wait a while longer.

 

American inventor and musician, George Beauchamp, who had been involved with the National String Instrument Corporation and the development of their resonator guitars, was also involved with another resourceful enterprise at the beginning of the 1930s. He teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacher to form the company was originally called Ro Pat In Corporation, which later became Electro String Instrument Corporation and later still, Rickenbacker, a name that most guitarists will recognise. Ro-Pat-In was instrumental in taking a fundamental new approach to electric guitar design.

Rickenbacker Early Logo

 

Through Electro String, Beauchamp filed a patent in June 1934 setting out his pickup design as part of a complete ‘Electrical Stringed Musical Instrument’. Beauchamp’s ‘horsehoe’ pickup design comprised two ‘U’‑shaped magnets encircling the strings. Beauchamp’s application was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1937. The patent was important because it was for a solid body electric guitar using a magnetic pickup, not just the pickup on its own – the development of the instrument will be covered in the next part of the story so, for now, the focus is solely on the pickup.

Rickenbacker Electric Guitar Patent (1937 Detail)

 

Ironically, in February 1936, Guy Hart filed a patent on behalf of Gibson for an ‘Electric Musical Instrument’ and this was awarded by the Patent office in July 1937, just 28 days before Beauchamp’s earlier patent application was confirmed.

Guy Hart Gibson Pickup Patent (1937)

 

Although unknown at the time, another single coil guitar pickup patent was filed in September 1944 by American inventor and entrepreneur Leo Fender. That application was for a ‘pickup unit for instruments’, which was awarded in December 1948. Although not as historically significant as other pickup patents, it was a clear indication of the direction that Leo Fender was heading prior to founding the company that would bear his name.

Fender Pickup Patent (1944)

 

Another important principle of basic physics caused a significant problem for early pickup designers, and it still does even today. In addition to the desirable characteristic of electrical induction for guitar pickups, electromagnetic coils also act as directional antennae. As far as musical instruments go, this unwanted ‘feature’ means that single coil pickups not only pick up string vibrations but they also pick up interference from alternating mains current used by electrical appliances. Depending on position of the pickup in relation to other electrical equipment, of which there are usually many in a live music venue, the interference manifests itself as a continuous and insistent hum, which is then in turn amplified by a guitar amplifier.

Mains Hum

 

One ingenious solution to the problem of mains‑induced hum was to invent a guitar pickup that still produced a signal from string vibrations while eradicating the interference from nearby electrical equipment. The clever answer was the invention of the ‘humbucking’ pickup, which uses two magnets, each with a coil of wire wound in opposite directions. Electrically induced mains interference affects both coils equally and, because each one is wound in opposing directions, the interference is cancelled out, thereby eradicating (or ‘bucking’) the hum. More importantly, not only do the coils still induce a voltage, they output a stronger signal because there are two coils instead of one. As the problem is all but removed at source, there is no hum to be amplified.

Single Coil & Humbucker Pickup Construction

 

Arguments persist as to who invented the humbucking guitar pickup. Many commentators give the accolade to Seth Lover (1910‑1997), who was an electronics designer working for Gibson at the time and filed a patent in June 1955. Lover’s closest competitor in the race to be recognised for the humbucking pickup came from Joseph Butts, who later worked for Gretsch. Butts filed another humbucking pickup patent some 18 months later in January 1957. It was Butts’ application that was awarded first in June 1959, while Lover’s patent was awarded in July 1959. As far as many working musicians were concerned, the invention was successful and that was all that mattered.

Seth Lover
Seth Lover Humbucker Patent (1959)
Joseph Butts Humbucker Patent (1959)

 

Generally speaking (but not always, especially if obscured by a cover), it is relatively easy to spot the difference between slim single coil pickups and their larger dual‑coil humbucking counterparts. The latter normally have two coil bobbins traditionally mounted side‑by‑side. Within these two broad types, there are many, many different makes and styles of pickup to suit most needs.

Single Coil & Humbucker Pickup Types

 

Hum is not the only affliction that electric guitar builders have to deal with. All electromagnetic pickups, even those produced today, are prone to audio feedback, which is often heard as an undesirable high pitched shriek or howl. Feedback is a phenomenon called the Larsen Effect after the Danish scientist Søren Absalon Larsen (1871-1957) who discovered it. Audio feedback is caused by a sound loop that exists between an audio input such as a pickup or microphone and an audio output such as an loudspeaker fed by an amplifier. The electrical signal from the input is amplified through a loudspeaker and is then picked up again by the input and so on, continuously. The sound of the feedback is shaped by the resonant frequencies and proximity of the various components in the loop, including room acoustics. Most of the time, feedback is considered problematic and often unpredictable. However many guitarists have learned to harness and control feedback in a positive musical way to create additional sounds.

Audio Feedback Loop

 

Some contemporary pickup manufacturers go to great lengths to replicate the authentic tonal characteristics of vintage pickups. One of those widely imitated pickups is also probably the most famous of humbucking pickups. Used on Gibson guitars from the late 1950s, the PAF (Patent Applied For), named after the black sticker on the baseplate, has come to define Gibson’s sound for many guitarists. The PAFs are particularly revered, as they were used in sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standards from 1958‑1960, often regarded as the ‘golden years’ for Gibson.

1959 Gibson PAF Pickups Front
1959 Gibson PAF Pickup Baseplate

 

Today, many independent pickup builders not only pay homage to vintage designs but also strive to create their own distinctive reputation. Third party pickup builders may make OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and aftermarket pickups in a huge range of types. Such companies include Seymour Duncan, Di Marzio, EMG, Lollar and Bare Knuckle, among many others. Pickup choice in the 21st Century is very much down to personal preference and the options are nigh on infinite – very different from the 1930s.

Guitar Pickup Types

 

The sounds generated by single coil and humbucking pickups are noticeably different. Not only do single coil pickups tend to produce a weaker signal, they sound thinner and cleaner, while more powerful humbucking pickups tend to sound fatter and warmer. Guitarists noticed this variation and took advantage of the differences to shape their own playing style and develop their distinctive tone. In addition, humbuckers are often considered better suited to overdriving pre‑amplifiers, thereby adding some controllable, distinctive and desirable harmonic distortion, making them popular in higher gain rock music.

 

By the 1950s manufacturers were commonly using two or more pickups on a guitar for added tonal versatility, initially adding a second or third pickup of the same type, for instance commonly used configurations include 2 humbuckers (e.g. Gibson Les Paul) or 3 single coils (e.g. Fender Stratocaster). Many guitar makers today mix different types of pickups on one guitar to broaden the range of sounds available.

Common Pickup Configurations

 

Some pickup arrangements also allow pickups to be engaged in series or parallel or in/out of phase to give musicians a greater number of tonal options. Since the 1970s, pickup designers have enabled the signal from the two coils of a humbucking pickup to be ‘split’ (NB. not ‘tapped’). By using a switch, guitarists may enable a split humbucker to sound either like a traditional humbucker or to emulate the distinctive sound of a single coil pickup. All these various techniques provide guitarists with greater flexibility from their pickup(s).

 

Simplistically, guitar pickups may also be described either as passive or active. Passive pickups are the basic devices that have been described so far, while active pickups incorporate some form of electronic circuitry in the guitar to modify the signal, normally powered by an on‑board battery. Outwardly, there is often little to distinguish whether pickups are active or not. Putting active electronics into a guitar has been around since at least the 1960s and can range from a simple pre‑amp to boost the pickup signal to elaborate on‑board effects or even low powered amplification.

EMG 81 & 85 Active Pickups

 

Since its inception 1930s, the humble guitar pickup has been adapted into many diverse forms. The majority of pickups in the early 21st Century remain passive single coil or humbucking types. However, there have been other pickup innovations along the way diverging from the norm. These alternative technologies include, amongst many other pickup types; hexaphonic (that feed individual string signals to MIDI/synthesizer controllers), piezoelectric (using crystals to induce current), microphonic (converting sound wave vibrations to electricity), electrostatic (using a capacitor to vary electrical capacitance), optical (interrupting a beam of light detected by a sensor), etc.

 

The understanding of the science behind pickup materials and dynamics between the components has been improved and refined significantly since the 1930s. However, the basic principles behind the passive transducing electromagnetic pickup remain pertinent today and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Magnetic pickups are, by far, the most common type used by electric guitars in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. This may be about to change.

 

With the digital revolution, there are numerous innovations occurring today that will lead to radical new pickup designs in the future. Future musicians can expect many new ways of converting the vibrations from humble plucked guitar strings into electrical signals that can be manipulated in ways we cannot yet contemplate. The possibly unstoppable migration from analogue to digital technology will continue. We can only speculate as to how far digital processes will encroach into the hitherto staunchly analogue domain of the guitar. Already, we have seen digital devices that enable the output from a guitar’ pickup to ‘model’ other types of guitar and even other instruments by modifying the signal digitally. We have also seen guitars as being a source trigger for external synthesis and various guitar synths have been around since the 1970s. It seems somewhat ironic that the digital age is enabling ever more accurate simulations of the earliest analogue pickups including the original’s crude and accidental inconsistencies.

 

While this section of the story is about guitar pickups, it is worth remembering that pickups have also been used successfully on many other types of stringed instrument.

 

Once the concept had been proven, the next step was to apply actual real‑world pickups in a practical way. There were essentially two methods of implementing an electromagnetic pickup for use on a guitar. One way was to add a pickup to existing acoustic instruments and the other was to invent an entirely new type of guitar with the pickup as an integral part of the design. How these two approaches came about will be covered in the next part of the story.

 

The pickup on its own, however, is of little use in isolation. Another crucial part of the equation was to take the weak signal from the guitar’s pickup and manipulate it electronically to make it much louder, which is where a completely different solution was needed.

 

The electric guitar amplifier

Possibly the major challenge with introducing guitar pickups was to turn the tiny voltage produced by the pickups into a sound that provided practical real‑world volume and tone for working musicians playing in noisy bands on the road.

 

The essential piece of equipment actually comprises two crucial components, the electrical amplifier and one or more loudspeakers. Amplifiers largely fall into two broad categories – either as discrete units comprising the electronics in a ‘head’ unit with loudspeakers installed in a separate cabinet, or with both amplifier and speaker(s) integrated into a single ‘combo’ amp. It is worth looking at the origins of both the electronics and the loudspeaker separately.

 

For travelling musicians from the 1930s on, amps also needed to be portable, so size and weight were particular considerations, as was electrical safety, durability and reliability. In addition, some degree of industry standardisation to enable interchangeability between instruments, electronics and venues was important.

 

The Amplifier

In the early days, amplifying a signal from a pickup was all that a guitar amp was really required to do. Controls were very basic, usually just a single input channel with a volume and, maybe, a tone knob. It would take some time before more flexible electronics were added to these basic amplifier circuits. Nowadays, the diversity of amps ranges from the very simple to the incredibly complex. The latter often including, just for starters, multiple switched channels, gain controls, effects loops, digital modelling alongside advanced EQ, flexible on‑board effects and digital interfaces. However, the fundamental principles of amp utility haven’t really changed that much since amps were first invented in the 1920s and when guitarists started to use them in the 1930s.

Simple Amp Control Panel

 

Put very simply, an amplifier is made up of active electronics that are designed to take an input signal, multiply it many times in strength and output it to a loudspeaker at a volume that is considerably louder than the original input. The electronics of an amplifier comprise essentially two discrete parts, a pre‑amp that controls the incoming signal and shapes it ready to be boosted and output by the power amp section that then drives the loudspeaker(s). It is these two amp sections that determine the overall character and volume of the audio output.

 

Amplifier output is usually measured in watts and provides a crude indication of power output (volts x amps = watts). The relationship between watts and sound pressure levels heard by the human ear is logarithmic. Generalising, it takes ten times the output power in watts to double the perceived audio volume. In addition, it takes considerably more amplifier power to reproduce low-frequency sound, especially at high volume, so bass amps tend to have higher power output ratings.

 

While early amplifiers were configured to the environment in which they were most likely to be put, such as practice, studio or stage amps, many modern amps use various techniques to minimise this artificial distinction, such as master volume controls, power attenuators or circuits used to modify amplifier stages to suit.

 

Up until the 1970s, thermionic valves – also known as vacuum tubes – were a principal electronic component and one that contributed significantly to both the power and sonic character of the amplifier. A valve is a relatively simple device used to control electrical current between its electrodes. The first valve was invented in 1904 by English electric engineer John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945).

 

At its most basic, a valve comprises an external glass container used to maintain a vacuum is attached to the valve base. Inside the valve there is a heater, an electron‑emitting cathode/filament and an electron‑collecting anode/plate. Electrical current, in the form of negatively charged electrons, flows through the vacuum in one direction only from the cathode to the anode. An electrical grid can be used to control the current and is the one often used for amplification because the grid can be used to vary the number of electrons reaching the anode and, thereby, controls the amount of gain. Valves are often described by the number of electrodes, for instance; diode, triode, tetrode  or pentode valves (2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively). The humble valve has been used in many applications, such as amplification, rectification, switching, oscillation, and display.

Valve Construction

 

Valves come in many shapes and sizes and vary according to the function they are required to perform in the amp stages. Generally speaking, pre-amp tubes tend to be smaller, while power amp valves tend to be larger.

Valve Types

 

There are numerous alternatives and variations of valves and there isn’t room to cover the range of technical differences. Thankfully, there has been a degree of commonality in amplifier design over the decades. Typical valves used in pre‑amps include models such as the 12AX7/ECC83. Typical valves used in power amps include models such as the EL-34, EL-84, KT66/77/88, 6L6/5881 and 5150. Valves impart a characteristic ‘natural’ sonic signature and tend to be sensitive to a guitarist’s playing dynamics, which is why they are still widely favoured by many musicians to this day. While technically outdated and obsolete, there is a notable modern‑day industry built around valve production, amp manufacturing and valve amp maintenance.

Common Valve Types

 

The valve is the technological precursor to modern semiconductors. Semiconductors are often made of silicon, although they can be made from other materials, such as germanium. A transistor is a solid‑state semiconductor that roughly performs the same function as a valve and is commonly used for amplification. Transistors are smaller, cheaper, lighter, run cooler, are more reliable and more resilient than valves. Some manufacturers produce hybrid amps that aim to take the best characteristics of both valve and transistor technologies.

Transistors

 

Taking things even further away from archaic valve technology, electronics using complex digital microprocessors are commonplace. Not only can DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chips produce their own sounds but also they enable a single unit to model a multiplicity of amplifier models that would be impossible using traditional technology. In addition, they can also emulate multiple effects, speaker cabinets, microphone placements, studio interfaces, and so on. Reliable and robust digital processing amps able to be used equally well at home, in the studio and on stage are once again attempting to usurp territory previously held by archaic analogue amps.

Digital DSP Microprocessor

 

Specialist amps are made to make the most of other, albeit similar, electric instruments. For instance, electro‑acoustic guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups) produce a wider frequency range and tend to be ‘cleaner’ sounding than electric guitar amps, which has led to increasingly elaborate amp electronics to cater for the particular needs of acoustic guitar players. Bass amps and speakers are also engineered specifically to provide for the demanding amplification used by bass guitarists. There are no hard and fast rules, the lines are not always clearly drawn and there is inevitably some interchangeability between the general types.

 

One of the keys to success is to match the characteristics of the amplifier stages to the loudspeakers, so it is worth looking next at the humble loudspeaker and the important part it plays in the guitar sound’s signal chain.

 

The Loudspeaker

The latter part of the 19th Century was ripe for invention in the field of sound reproduction. As with other sections, only a few of the key milestones can be covered here. Prior to the invention of the modern loudspeaker, megaphones and bulky ‘radio horns’ had been used to increase acoustic volume. However these proved impractical because of their size and weight, limited frequency range and low sound pressure levels.

Early PA System

 

German teacher, Johann Philipp Reis was, perhaps, the first to develop a rudimentary type of experimental electric loudspeaker in 1861. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent his loudspeaker design in 1876 for use in his telephone, shortly followed by Ernst W. Siemens who patented his ‘magneto-electric apparatus’ in 1874. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were also experimenting with sound around the same time. By 1898, Horace Short was working with compressed air drivers and Oliver Lodge was developing a ‘dynamic’ speaker using magnets and moving coils with horns to amplify sound. Danish‑American engineer Peter L. Jensen (1886-1961) is often cited as co‑inventor of moving coil speakers in 1915 and he started applying the technology for use in real world situations. Jensen founded his company, Magnavox, in 1915 to market products for telephones and public address (PA) systems. Magnavox is now part of the massive Philips corporation.

 

Things changed considerably in the 1920s with the introduction of the first amplified moving coil loudspeaker using a conical paper speaker diaphragm, which was invented in 1925 by Edward W. Kellogg and Chester W. Rice, both of whom worked for General Electric in New York, USA. Their research was important as it established both the principle of the amplifier to boost a signal and a speaker able to reproduce a wide and uniform frequency range. Rice filed a patent for the electrodynamic direct radiating ‘loud speaker’ in 1925, which was awarded in April 1929. Their speaker was introduced to the market under RCA’s Radiola brand in 1926.

Kellogg & Rice (1925)
Kellogg & Rice Patent (1925)
1920s Speaker (Kellogg & Rice)

 

Early speakers used powered electromagnets, as permanent magnets were scarce at the time, although Jensen released a fixed magnet speaker in 1930. Lightweight Alnico alloy magnets became available after WWII, making the technology more accessible enabling further innovations to take place. Other inventions along the way included, for example, 2‑way systems using a crossover to separate frequency bands (1937) and coaxial speakers (1943). Once the concept of the moving coil speaker had been proven in practical applications, it has become the de facto standard within the music industry for nearly a century.

 

The loudspeaker, as we know it today, is essentially a mechanical electroacoustic transducer that serves the opposite function to a microphone in that it converts an electrical signal into sound waves. A traditional moving coil speaker is passive in that it relies on an already amplified signal being fed to it and it doesn’t require its own power supply. The incoming amplified signal is fed into a coil of wire, known as the voice coil, suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. The voice coil is attached to the apex of a conical diaphragm known as a speaker cone, originally made of paper. The outer edge of the cone is mounted within a fixed metal chassis, usually within a cabinet. The electrical signal makes the voice coil move back and forth rapidly within the magnet thereby pushing on the cone to produce sound waves. The more air that the moving speaker cone displaces, the louder the perceived sound is. Different sizes and types of speaker are used to deliver different sound frequency ranges. Generally, larger speakers are used to deliver lower bass frequencies and smaller ones used for higher treble frequencies.

Moving Coil Dynamic Speaker

 

Loudspeakers are usually attached to a flat panel (baffle) with circular holes cut into it such that the sound waves produced by the speaker cones can escape directly into the listening environment. The baffle with its speaker(s) is normally mounted inside either an open‑back or closed‑back wooden cabinet.

 

Like amplifier outputs, speaker output is usually measured in watts, which is the electrical power needed to drive the speaker. More watts generally, although not always, indicates greater volume. Like all electrical devices, a speaker provides some opposition to the signal being fed into it, called impedance, measured in ohms. Some speakers are ‘hard to drive’ and have a low impedance, which means that it requires greater current from the amplifier to result in the same output level than a high impedance speaker. As a result, it is important to match a speaker’s characteristics to the amp that is driving it.

 

Most loudspeakers, even those produced today, are relatively inefficient devices with only about 1% of the electrical energy being converted into acoustic energy. Most of the remaining energy is converted into heat. The sensitivity of the speaker describes how much relative electrical energy is converted into sound pressure level, measured in decibels.

 

The other important factor for loudspeaker performance is its frequency response. Human hearing generally covers the range 20-20,000 Hertz (cycles per second). People’s sensitivity to frequencies is not uniform and it varies depending on pitch. Human hearing is usually most sensitive in the 2,000-4,000 Hertz range.

 

Famous names in the field of loudspeaker manufacturing today include Celestion, Jensen, Weber, Electro Voice, JBL, Bose, Fane, Altec Lansing, Mackie, and Peavey amongst many others.

 

Celestion Speakers

 

Despite its many drawbacks, the moving coil loudspeaker was (and generally still is) the most effective mechanism for the job and they remain in very wide use today. Speakers come in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes and are used in so many different ways. However, like the pickup and amplifier, the basic principles of speaker design can be traced back to the early part of the 20th Century.

 

Guitar Amps

Initially, bulky battery‑powered valve amps and speakers were used in PA systems and in movie theatres of the time. Because of their bulk and relative fragility, these early systems tended to be fixed installations. From c.1927, portable AC mains‑powered amps became available and musicians started to adopt the technology.

 

In 1928, Stromberg‑Voisinet advertised the first electric instrument and amplifier package. However, it was not a commercial success and no verified examples exist today. In 1929, Vega introduced a portable amplifier to be used with banjos.

Stromberg-Voisinet CMI Catalogue (1929)

 

It wasn’t until 1932 when the Electro String Instrument Corporation – later to become Rickenbacker – was formed to bring the electric guitar to market that things really took off. Electro launched a ‘high output’ guitar amp to accompany their new solid body electric lap steel guitars, as Hawaiian music was highly popular at the time across America. The first commercial solid bodied electric guitar and amplifier made by Electro String essentially established the format for early combo amps comprising an electronic amplifier mounted inside a wooden cabinet along with a speaker. The new combo amp also had a carrying handle to make it portable and, shortly after, the company added metal corners to protect the cabinets in transit.

1930s Electro Combo Amp

 

In 1933, Dobro introduced the first guitar amp combo with twin 8 inch speakers. By around 1935, the demand for amplified electric guitars became unstoppable and the electric guitar music revolution had begun. Other companies such as National, RCA Victor, Audio-Vox, Vivi‑Tone, Premier, Vega, Kay, Valco and Volu‑Tone, promoted their own amps to musicians, with varying degrees of success during the 1930s and 1940s. Gibson was also experimenting with amplifiers in the early 1930s although none were made commercially available at the time. Most of the early valve amplifiers were low powered by today’s standards, usually less than 10-15 watts and using small speakers, often of 10 inches or less in diameter.

c.1935 National Dobro Guitar Amp

 

In 1938, American electronics technician, Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) established Fender Radio Service to repair a wide variety of electronic equipment. He found that musicians would come to him for PA and amplifier repairs and rentals. Seeing the potential of the music industry and started to focus more on musical equipment manufacture. Fender began a short‑lived venture in 1944 with Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, a former employee of Rickenbacker called K&F Manufacturing Corporation with the intention to build Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amplifiers.

Leo Fender

 

In 1946, after Kauffman and Fender parted company, Leo founded the company with which he will forever be associated, Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. Shortly thereafter, they introduced the first guitar amps carrying the Fender name. Early Fender combo amplifiers included the Fender Princeton (1947-1979) and Champion 800 (1948-1982).

1948 Fender Princeton & Champion 800

 

In 1952, shortly after Fender introduced their Broadcaster guitar which would become the legendary Telecaster, the company introduced what would be, perhaps, its most celebrated combo amp, the famous Fender Twin. The Twin moniker derived from its dual 12 inch speakers. The Twin has been released in many versions over its long history, with its power output ranging from its original 25 watts to a high of 135 watts in the late 1970s. The perennial Fender Twin remains in production today and has become an industry standard.

1955 Fender Twin Amp

 

Meanwhile, based in Kent, England Tom Jennings (1918-1978) founded British company Vox in 1947 to produce musical equipment. It wasn’t until 1958 that Vox released its first guitar amp, the 15‑watt AC15. A year later, at the request of The Shadows’ guitarist Hank Marvin, Vox introduced its most famous model, the AC30, intended to compete with America’s powerful Fender Twin amp. The AC30 proved to be a very successful product and in updated form, it remains in production today.

1950s Vox AC30-4

 

It wasn’t until the 1950s that mass produced guitar amplifiers really became commonplace and incorporated many of the features now expected from an amp including, for instance, multiple tone controls, tremolo and reverb.

 

In addition, contemporary popular music of the time was developing rapidly and guitarists began to experiment by overdriving their amplifiers to distort the guitar’s sound at much higher volumes. From the mid‑1960s guitarists sought to control the level of overdrive and distortion (also known as clipping) as a creative tool. One particular characteristic of natural valve distortion is that clipping also tends to compress the signal as the volume is increased, meaning the output tends to sound ‘thicker’, rather than louder, emphasising the guitar’s sustain.

Distortion

 

Guitarist Dave Davies of English band The Kinks is often credited with popularising guitar distortion. On one occasion, Davies himself admitted to slashing the speaker cone of his Elpico AC55 ‘little green amp’ with a razor blade out of frustration and in the process of doing so, he made it sound distorted and nasty. The Kinks’ song, ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964) is often cited, rightly or wrongly, as the first hit record featuring heavy guitar distortion (using a Vox AC30).

Dave Davies (The Kinks) 1967
Elpico AC55 ‘Little Green Amp’ c1956

 

The search for new guitar sounds in the 1960s helped to ignite the drive for compact guitar effect pedals, initially with simple fuzz and wah effects. A whole industry developed during the late 1960s and 1970s including brands such as Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, Maestro, Boss and Ibanez, amongst many, many others. Effects have ever since been used to complement guitars and amps as an integral part of a musician’s signal chain. The market for effect pedals has grown into a massive industry in its own right.

 

Early Effect Pedals

 

The development of guitars, amps and popular musical styles of the 1950s defined the template on which succeeding generations of guitarists would build incrementally. Many modern amps and amplifier innovations hark back to the best examples of this ‘golden’ period. Driven by the success of the 1950s, particularly the popularity of Fender amps, the quest for more volume seemed unquenchable. The first 100 watt amps were made by Leo Fender for surf guitarist Dick Dale, while Jim Marshall of legendary British amplifier manufacturers Marshall did the same for Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of rock band The Who.  Dr. Jim Marshall OBE was affectionately nicknamed, ‘the father of loud’.

Dr Jim Marshall OBE

 

High power, high gain valve guitar amps became the norm at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. It was not uncommon to see large stages filled with gargantuan ‘stacks’ of loudspeaker cabinets powered by banks of high powered amps. Marshall is the brand most associated with the classic guitar stack, which at its simplest comprises a 50 or 100 watt amp on top of two 4×12” closed back speaker cabinets, thanks again to Pete Townshend of The Who as well as the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. The guitar stack has since become inextricably linked with hard, heavy and metal rock music. Music and its essential components very much reflected the cultural and social changes of the times.

Marshall Stacks

 

There have been several technological challenges to the humble valve. A concerted trend away from vacuum tubes towards solid state transistor amps occurred in the 1970s, led by companies like Roland, Peavey and H/H. Other manufacturers adopted a best‑of‑both‑worlds approach by making hybrid solid state/valve amps, led by Leo Fender during his time with Music Man.

Roland JC-120

 

Arguably, Fender, Marshall remain the two predominant and recognisable amplifier brands and, respectively, have come to define the ‘American sound’ and ‘British sound’ respectively. Notably, unlike Fender, Gibson has never had much commercial success with building guitar amps, despite producing some credible models along the way. There are now a myriad of other amplifier manufacturers including famous brand names such as Mesa Boogie, Peavey, Ampeg, Randall, Rivera, Bogner, PRS and Supro in America, and Vox, Orange, Blackstar, Victory, Hi-Watt and Laney in the UK. Outside the USA and UK, there are many successful brands including Hughes & Kettner, Engl, Line6, Roland, Yamaha, BOSS, etc. In order to keep production costs down, many budget models are now produced in the Far East, while the majority of small boutique amp builders cater for the high‑end, being manufactured in limited numbers in America and Europe.

1970s Mesa Boogie Amps

 

Many other famous brand names have passed into history, such as Traynor, Sunn, Multivox Premier, Univox, WEM/Watkins, Sound City, H/H, Selmer, Cornford and Carlsbro although, to be fair, some of these continue to operate in some form or other and may well be rejuvenated at some point. There are far too many brands, past and present, to mention here.

 

Ironically, there is increasing interest in capturing the retro sound and looks of the earliest guitar amplifiers. Many companies are now recreating classic analogue models of the past, often incorporating modern adaptations for reliability, safety and convenience to meet the demands of today’s guitarists. There are many boutique amp builders looking to take the best of old and new and present something different from the current mainstream manufacturers.

 

At this point, no article focusing on guitar amps would be complete without mentioning Dumble amplifiers. Dumble amps are made in very small numbers by Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble in L.A., California, often by request of well‑heeled professional musicians. The Dumble Overdrive Special is widely regarded as the zenith of limited production boutique amps and, as a result of their quality and rarity, new or used examples have gained almost mythical status and demand extremely high values on the open market.

Dumble Overdrive Special

 

Despite the remarkable sustained popularity of valves, digital modelling technology is now making major inroads into the tube’s traditional territory. As the technological advances behind digital modelling processors that began with the iconic Line 6 Pod through to ever‑improving digital advances from companies like Fractal and Kemper. The audible difference between the ‘antiquated’ originals and modern digital recreations is rapidly diminishing to the point where professional musicians see a competitive advantage in moving to a digital platform.

Kemper Profiler

 

Despite stiff competition from solid state and digital circuits, the valve guitar amp currently remains the de facto standard for many discerning professional guitarists, despite the decidedly old-world technology involved. It will be interesting to see how long genuine valve amplifiers will continue to prosper in the face of the digital revolution. Only time and hindsight will tell. It is likely that valve, analogue solid state and digital technologies will be able to coexist for many years yet.

 

Get connected

Guitars need to be connected to an amp in order to work, often with effect pedals in between. Before wireless and/or digital technology takes over completely, the venerable guitar lead has been the necessary link between input and output since the 1930s. At each end of a traditional interconnecting lead is a remarkable piece of analogue kit that most guitarists rarely think about but cannot live without. Similarly, guitars, amps and effects also have the other part of the same connection.

Jack Plug & Socket

 

The essential connector in question is the ¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and its associated socket, which originally dates from c.1878. The first jack connector was invented by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manual switchboard at the telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. It is astonishing that, after nearly 1½ centuries, this enduring piece of industry standard equipment is still in ubiquitous use today, long after it became obsolete in telephone systems.

Telephone Exchange – New Haven Connecticut

 

End of Part IV

This has been a self‑contained article that departs from the usual topic of guitars per se. While it might seem a lengthy, in‑depth examination, it only just scratches the surface. As I don’t have the space, knowledge or resources to write comprehensively on the subject, I highly recommend that readers wanting to delve into the historical detail take a look at the innumerable resources available on the ever‑present hinterwebby thing. NB. Credit to all original photographers for images used from Google Images.

 

Arguably, without the complementary inventions of the electromagnetic pickup, the dedicated valve amplifier and the moving coil loudspeaker, the revolution in guitar technology that started in the 1930s and which really took off in the 1950s would not have been possible. It is notable that the scientific principles underpinning today’s electric guitars are still relevant nearly a century later. It is, at least to me, remarkable that, technically, we haven’t really evolved a great deal over the intervening decades. Advances have been incremental refinements, rather than ground breaking. Digital technology may change all that. Watch this space.

 

At long last, in Part V, the story will finally unleash the breakthroughs that led directly to the early electric archtop and solid body guitars. The next revolution in guitar music making was about to happen. Who could possibly have anticipated the impact that the congruence of the three seemingly innocuous bits of music technology covered above would have when brought together.

 

I hope you have enjoyed the journey thus far and thank you for reading. I also hope that you’ll come back and join me on the next part of the guitar’s long journey to the current day. Time to get some vintage gear out and plug in. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Excess in any form does not indicate wisdom; rather it evidences the lack of it”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

Here we are again with the 3rd in a series of articles telling the long story of the guitar. Part I (→ read here) started over 3,500 years ago, emerging in the Middle East and gradually developing before dispersing across continental Europe and Asia. Eventually, the embryonic guitar found a home in Europe during the early Renaissance where it began to exhibit the characteristics and features that we recognise today. Part II (→ read here) expanded on the humble beginnings and evolved the acoustic instrument into a (generally) standardised form that we are familiar with, as well as focusing on some key 19th Century innovations in acoustic guitar design. This instalment looks at key 20th Century developments that will ultimately lead to the widespread introduction of the electric guitar.

 

The story from c.1900 is not only reasonably well-documented elsewhere but also fairly involved, so the pace slows compared to previous parts and also becomes richer in content. I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in guitar heritage to explore the hinterwebby thing for further information, along with all the usual caveats about the accuracy and believability of what’s out there.

 

Modern Era (1900-present)

At the end of the 19th and during the early part of the 20th Century, before the introduction of the electric guitar, musicians sought ever‑louder instruments, leading to various creative adaptations to the basic construction of the acoustic guitar. While the acoustic guitar continued to be popular for classical and traditional folk music, many guitarists were struggling to be heard as the trend for ensemble, ‘big band’ or swing orchestras became popular at the time. The issue with volume in a group context meant that the guitar essentially became consigned to a rhythm, rather than lead role, especially when competing with percussion and horns. In order to adapt to demand, a radically new approach to guitar design was needed. Thus, the fundamental divergence from traditional nylon strung classical and steel-strung acoustic ‘folk’ guitars had begun.

 

Guitars at the beginning of the 20th Century were, though, still entirely acoustic instruments. However, two key innovations were about to take place in America that would bridge the gap from acoustic to amplified electric guitars, which would began to appear in the 1930s. The first development involved the emergence of the acoustic archtop guitar on the east coast while, on the west coast, the second invention to appear was that of the resonator guitar.

 

Guitars weren’t the only ubiquitous chordophones at the start of the 20th Century; far from it. The mandolin, banjo, harp and violin also had periods of great popularity and fashion. However, it was during the first quarter of the 1900s that the guitar started its elevation from just another part of a band or orchestra into being the pre‑eminent instrument it is today. Arguably, in addition to the standardisation of classical and steel strung acoustic guitars, it was the introduction of archtop and resonator guitars that contributed towards that success. As is often the case in these matters, the path to success was more complicated than it seems at first and it would be far from a smooth transition with many pitfalls along the way.

 

Acoustic Archtop Guitars

The acoustic archtop guitar incorporated some of the basic components of the steel string acoustic guitar with a body style that bore some design and construction similarities with classical orchestral stringed instruments. An archtop guitar may be defined as, a stringed musical instrument with a convex curved top, formed either by carving a solid piece of tone wood or by heating a sheet of laminated wood in order to  mould it into the curved shape.

 

Most flat top acoustic guitars up to the end of the 19th Century used a single integrated bridge/tailpiece mounted to the surface of the top soundboard, meaning that the strings exert not only significant horizontal pull but also lift because of torque. In order to prevent the bridge from lifting and/or twisting, particularly with the greater tension required by metal strings, the thin flat acoustic soundboard required strong internal bracing. Heavily braced tops had the effect of reducing resonant vibrations and inhibiting overall volume. One solution was to make guitars bigger, an approach used by C.F. Martin in the 1930s with the introduction of the company’s sizeable X-braced D-series dreadnoughts, as covered in the previous part of this series of articles. Archtop guitars took an entirely different approach.

1898 Orville Gibson Archtop

 

Unlike acoustic guitars, most orchestral stringed instruments had a long history of using a carved arched top featuring a separate moveable bridge and fixed tailpiece. The main advantage of using separate structures is that they serve different functions. The non-adjustable tailpiece is used to anchor the strings at that end of the instrument and deals only with the longitudinal stresses caused by string tension. The separate ‘floating’ bridge (meaning that it was not fixed and could be repositioned if needed) supports the strings and is used only to control string height (action) and intonation. The solid carved top of the soundboard was arched upward, as on a violin or cello, in order to counteract the downward pressure that the strings exerted on the bridge, thus providing a stable and resonant structure. The major benefit of this type of design is that it needs less internal bracing which allows the instrument’s soundboard to vibrate more freely, thereby producing a noticeably louder sound.

 

It was therefore not really surprising that, at some point, enterprising guitar builders would seek to exploit some of the characteristics of other instruments and incorporate the best of these into guitar design. While there may have been numerous examples of experimentation before this time, the enduring convergence of classical stringed instrument construction and acoustic guitar design resulted in the advent of the acoustic archtop guitar from the beginning of the 20th Century.

 

The Rise of Gibson Guitars

Although not the only innovator in guitar design at the turn of the 19th Century, certainly one of the key pioneers that popularised early archtop guitars was American luthier Orville H. Gibson (1856-1918), who was born in Chateaugay, New York. Gibson started making mandolins in his home workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894 as ‘O.H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments’.

Orville Gibson
Orville Gibson Workshop

 

Gibson himself was, by all accounts, somewhat unconventional, being described as an obsessive, eccentric genius as well as an extreme perfectionist. He apparently held other, more traditional, instrument makers of the time in contempt and he was determined to do things differently and in his own way. Orville Gibson, the person, remains somewhat of an enigma and appears to have suffered from mental illness throughout his life, spending several periods in mental institutions before his death in a psychiatric asylum in New York.

 

Gibson started out by adapting European violin designs for use in mandolins and then, subsequently, guitars. By 1897, Gibson had made his first hollow archtop guitar with a relatively thick carved solid wood top, back and sides, cello style tailpiece, floating bridge and steel strings. His early designs retained the traditional acoustic guitar sound hole, although oval in shape. He used spruce wood for the top for its resonance and maple for back and sides for strength and density. Unlike traditional flat top acoustic guitars of the time, Gibson’s archtop guitars did not use internal bracing, as he felt this would hamper both volume and tone. When played hard, Gibson’s relatively un‑stressed design was more capable of projecting the loud, bright and ‘percussive’ acoustic volume that guitarists were seeking at the time.

 

Orville Gibson submitted his only patent application in 1895 for an archtop mandolin design (also applicable to the guitar), which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in February 1898. The patent covered archtop construction comprising carved, tops and sides cut from solid wood, rather than the acoustic guitar’s braced flat top and bent wood sides. While earlier guitar/mandolin patents by James S. Back in 1893 and A.H. Merrill in 1896 may lay claim to the first archtop designs, it was Gibson that converted his own visionary concepts into a successful business enterprise.

Gibson Mandolin US Patent 1898

 

On 11 October 1902, Orville Gibson, along with five local business partners founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo. The company soon started building archtop guitars using the techniques Gibson had patented for the mandolin. However, Gibson was paid a $2,500 lump sum and monthly income to step back from day-to-day business where his overt, pedantic idiosyncrasies tended to affect production.

 

While the Gibson F-2 mandolin was a major milestone in the instrument’s history and is now considered a classic landmark design, mandolins generally were beginning to lose favour with musicians. In addition, Gibson had initially followed the trend for tenor banjos in the late 1910s before guitars became the mainstay of the business. Gibson was also known to make complex but not widely used harp guitars, such as the Style U.

Gibson Stationery Logo (1906)
Gibson Mandolin Label (1902)
1900s Gibson F2 Mandolin
1907 Gibson Style U Harp Guitar

 

Gibson’s Style 0 archtop guitar design proved better suited to the jazz and swing orchestras of the time than the flat top acoustic guitar. As a result, Gibson guitars became very popular in the early part of the 20th Century up to the 1920s, particularly amongst the jazz fraternity. The Style 0 archtop, which retained the oval sound hole beneath the strings, is often referred to as the direct precursor to the archetypal jazz acoustic archtops that followed. The hand‑carved guitars were, however, very resource intensive to build, so supply fell short of demand and there was a growing need for an instrument that was quicker, easier and cheaper to build.

 

Orville Gibson finally left the company he founded in 1916 to live in upstate New York until his death in 1918 at the age of 62.

1911 Gibson Style 0

 

In the same year, 1918, composer, musician and engineer, Lloyd Loar (1886-1943) was hired by the Gibson company as acoustic consultant and advisor. After a break to entertain WWI troops in Europe, Loar re-joined Gibson in 1919. Loar went on to design many of the company’s new instruments in an attempt to turn around disappointing sales. While Loar wasn’t a luthier by trade, he led a design and construction revolution at the company during the 1920s, growing the company’s enviable reputation for building fine professional guitars, mandolins and other stringed-fretted instruments.

Lloyd Loar

 

One of Loar’s first and best‑known guitar designs, released in 1923, was the Gibson L5 ‘Master Model’. The L5 is widely recognised as the first commercially produced ‘jazz’ guitar. In 1923, the L5 featured all the fundamental characteristics that we recognize in a ‘jazz’ guitar; a carved archtop fully hollow body, separate tailpiece and floating bridge, etc. It was also the first commercial archtop guitar to employ f‑holes that are now synonymous with the style of guitar. The L5’s neck incorporated other innovations, including an adjustable truss rod, designed to counteract string tension, and the body used an adjustable bridge to set the height of the strings above the fingerboard. These key improvements enabled guitars to become more streamlined and therefore easier to play. The L5 was a trendsetter and gained a strong following in the jazz community. Early adopters included the popular guitarist Eddie Lang, comedian/singer George Gobel, and jazz virtuoso guitarist Wes Montgomery.

1924 Gibson L5

 

The L5 is now considered to have been pivotal in acoustic archtop guitar design. As if to evidence its standing, the perennial L5 remains in production well into the 21st Century, proving the soundness of Loar’s original concept. Lloyd Loar did not stay long at Gibson, leaving in 1924. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson became the leading manufacturer of archtop guitars. The perennial Gibson L5 will resurface again later in the guitar’s story.

 

Gibson archtop guitars remain in production today, including some faithful reproductions and improvements on the classic designs that began in the 1920s.

 

The Competition

Gibson wasn’t alone in the market and its competitors included Stromberg, Epiphone, Gretsch and Hofner were also making high quality instruments. In addition, from 1932, American luthier John D’Angelico (1905-1964) started producing very fine archtop guitars from his workshop in New York City. In 1965, his apprentice of 12 years, Jimmy D’Aquisto (1935-1995) took over D’Angelico’s work and continued to produce fine acoustic archtop guitars after his master had passed away. Original examples of these guitars are seen by many to represent the pinnacle of the jazz guitar era.

1948 D’Angelico Excel
1930s Stromberg

 

In order to provide ever‑increasing demand for volume, the size of archtop guitar bodies increased from the 16” L5 up to 18” or even 19” measured across the lower bout. Gibson’s reaction to competition was to produce one of the brand’s most famous archtop guitars, the classic Super 400 in 1935.

1935 Gibson Super 400

 

Arguably, classic archtop guitar designs provided a strong link between traditional steel strung acoustic guitars, through hybrids (electric archtops) to the emergence of later solid body electric guitars. The introduction of electric archtop guitars in the mid‑1930s enabled the transition from acoustic to electric guitars and is covered later in the story.

 

With the widespread uptake of electric guitars allied to the massive growth of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s, the pure archtop guitar with its strong jazz association struggled to remain popular. Manufacture and sale of archtop guitars fell dramatically and suffered a nadir in the 1990s. However, in the 21st Century, many guitarists are rediscovering the aesthetic and sonic qualities of classic ‘jazz boxes’. Sales of new archtop guitars have picked up due to a new generation of musicians either seeking an alternative to mainstream instruments or wishing to recreate the sights and sounds of the past with a degree of authenticity.

 

Many current‑day archtop guitars incorporate pickups to make them more usable in contemporary situations. Modern manufacturing processes including CNC machines used to carve the tops also help to reduce cost and make archtop guitars relatively affordable. Alternatives to solid wood are also abundant today, including the use of formed laminates to create the curved tops.

2018 Ibanez Artstar Prestige AF-200

 

Acoustic Resonator Guitars

While the concept of archtop guitars was one response to the need for louder instruments a discrete branch of guitar evolution was taking place on the west coast of the U.S.A. In the time before amplified guitars, manufacturers had to respond to the demand for greater acoustic volume during the golden ‘jazz age’ of the ‘roaring twenties’. This particular alternative to the archtop guitar is broadly categorised as the resophonic or resonator guitars. Hereafter they are called simply resonator guitars for brevity.

 

A resonator guitar in this context is still a hollow acoustic guitar. Resonator guitars differ from previous designs because of the way that mechanical string vibrations are transferred not to the guitar’s sound board but via the guitar’s bridge to one or more spun metal cones incorporated within the guitar’s body. It is these resonating metal cones that produce a louder sound than the traditional wooden sound boards of flat top or archtop acoustic guitars. Musicians also favoured the flexibility of resonator guitars over banjos, which were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.

 

The unique construction of resonator guitars also produced a very distinctive thin, bright, metallic sound with little sustain, very different from other acoustic guitars. The distinctive resonator sounds were adopted by blues, bluegrass and country guitarists of the time and have produced many of the characteristic sounds of rural American music over many decades, especially when played with a bottleneck slide. It should be noted that, while resonator guitars are widely associated with the blues, and particularly with Mississippi delta blues guitarists, they have been used in a diverse range of musical genres.

 

General resonator guitar designs tend to fall into two separate types: square-neck Hawaiian lap steel resonators tend to be played horizontally with a slide and round‑neck resonators that can be played either horizontally, lap-steel fashion, or conventionally. The height of the strings above the fingerboard varies considerably depending on whether the guitars are used for slide, hybrid or regular fingerstyle use. In addition to lap‑steel and Spanish‑style guitars, resonators have been used in many diverse instruments including, ukuleles, banjos, basses and mandolins. Resonator guitars remain popular today, principally for their unique sound and the musical styles they inspired. English guitarist, Mark Knopfler’s iconic 1937 National Style 0 resonator was famously featured on the sleeve of their classic studio album, ‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985).

Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)

 

Some famous guitarists are associated with resonator guitars, including Tampa Red, Son House, Bukka White, Bo Carter and Blind Boy Fuller.

Son House

 

The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

Probably, the most significant contributor to the development of the resonator guitar was a Slovakian immigrant to the U.S., John Dopyera (1893–1988). The Dopyera family moved to California in 1908 and John followed in his father’s footsteps, starting a business in the 1920s making and repairing musical instruments.

John Dopyera

 

The crucial catalyst in resonator progress was provided by a Texan Vaudeville performer and musical experimenter, George Beauchamp (1899-1941). Once Beauchamp (his surname was pronounced ‘Beechum’) had moved to California, he approached John Dopyera in 1925 to design a guitar loud enough for use in a dance orchestra. Beauchamp had seen examples of some sort of external megaphone‑style horn arrangement to project a guitar’s volume. Dopyera’s initial prototype, involving a stand‑mounted amplifying horn proved far too bulky and was considered a failure. Undaunted, Dopyera and Beauchamp’s creative solution was to invent the resonator guitar.

George Beauchamp

 

Recognising the potential of the new resonator guitar design, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp founded the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927, based in Los Angeles, California to manufacture resonator guitars and other instruments under the National brand.

National Resophonic Logo

 

National’s first major instrument was a metal‑bodied guitar using three inward‑pointing suspended spun aluminium cones connected by a metal T‑shaped bracket to the bridge. The arrangement was, perhaps unsurprisingly, called a ‘Tricone’. String vibrations were acoustically amplified by the cones, acting like passive loudspeakers, giving the guitar its distinctive resonator sound. Dopyera filed a patent application for the Tricone design in April 1927, granted in December 1929. The ground breaking early National Tricone resonator guitars from the late 1920s are now highly collectable. The first engraved metal bodies were made of copper and zinc alloy (often called ‘German silver’ or ‘white brass’) before changing to traditional brass which was cheaper and more plentiful, then finally to steel.

National Tricone Resonator Patent
National Tricone Resonator

1939 National Tricone Resonator

 

John Dopyera was concerned about the manufacturing cost and retail price of the complicated tricone design and proposed a cheaper, simpler single cone alternative. When the new design was presented to National’s board, it was rejected. His new single-cone design comprised an arrangement where the strings passed over a bridge that sat on a small circular wooden mounting disc (called a ‘biscuit’) that was in turn attached to the apex of the inward‑pointing spun metal cone. Although it wasn’t taken up at the time, Beauchamp, through National, went on to patent Dopyera’s single cone ‘biscuit’ resonator design, filed in March 1929 and granted in June 1931.

National Single Cone Resonator Patent
National Single Cone Resonator

 

John Dopyera, having become frustrated by National’s internal politics, left the company in 1928. Crucially, to keep his options open, Dopyera remained a major shareholder in National. Along with his four brothers (Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis), John Dopyera founded the Dobro Manufacturing Company to compete with National. The Dobro name comprises the ‘Do’ from the family’s surname and ‘bro’ as a contraction of ‘brothers’. The term ‘dobro’ has over the years come to be used as a generic term in common parlance when talking about single resonator guitars. Conveniently, and perhaps intentionally, the word dobro also means ‘good’ in Slovakian, leading directly to the company’s early motto using a play on words, “Dobro means good in any language”.

Dobro Logo

 

As National owned the resonator patents to-date, early Dobro resonator guitars had to differ from the single cone design made by National. The new Dobro guitars used a wooden body and a single inverted (outward‑facing) resonator cone with guitar strings passing over a bridge attached to an 8-legged cast aluminium ‘spider’ (resembling a spider’s web) that in turn was attached to points around the edge of the spun metal cone. Unlike the National single cone design, the Dobro cone projects outwards, thereby increasing volume. Dobro filed a patent in February 1932 for Rudi Dopyera’s resonator design, which was granted in February 1933. National objected to Dobro’s resonator design, resulting in several contested law suits between National and Dobro, which lasted for several years.

Dobro Resonator Patent
Dobro Single Cone Resonator
1932-34 Dobro Model 175 Deluxe Special

 

The advantage for guitarists was that the Dobro was both louder and considerably cheaper than the complex and costly National Tricone design. In addition, Dobro cleverly licensed their designs to brands such as Regal to extend their reach into an eager customer base. National responded to competition from Dobro by introducing their lower cost resonators, the Triolian in 1928 and Duolian in 1930. Also in 1930, National released their nickel-plated, steel‑bodied, round necked Style 0 resonator guitars, which featured Hawaiian scenes sandblasted into the guitar’s finish and are now considered iconic. In an attempt to cover all bases, both companies also produced resonator mandolins.

1930s Dobro Model 27
1930s Regal Dobro Model 27
1931 National Triolian
1935 National Duolian
1930s National Style 0

 

In 1932, with National in financial difficulty, the Dopyera brothers secured a controlling interest in both National and Dobro companies. The companies subsequently merged in 1934 to form the National Dobro Corporation, thereby ending the feud and eliminating the fierce competition between the two. Beauchamp was fired by the new company for his involvement with newcomers, Rickenbacker, who were developing new ideas for electric guitars. The National Dobro Corporation moved operations to Chicago in 1936 where it manufactured resonator guitars until it ceased production in 1941, shortly after America entered World War II. Aluminium was needed to support America’s war effort, making the raw material for resonator cones scarce and the demand for tooling machinery high.

 

Post-War Resonator Guitars

The remnants of the pre‑WWII National Dobro Corporation were later reorganised to become Valco in 1942, which eventually reintroduced resonator guitars under the National brand in the early 1960s. American company Mosrite bought the Dobro brand in 1966 before going bankrupt themselves in 1969. A new company, National Reso‑Phonic Guitars was formed in 1989, based in California, to produce resonator guitars based on original pre‑war designs as well as some all-new designs, including electro-acoustic resonator guitars.

National Reso-phonic Resolectric

 

Taking a different direction altogether, Emile and Rudy Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI), based in California in 1967 to make resonator guitars using the brand name Hound Dog. In 1970, OMI secured the Dobro brand name from the bankrupt Mosrite, which meant the Dopyera family could once again manufacture Dobro guitars using their original name. OMI was subsequently acquired by The Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993 and they currently produce Dobro branded resonators, including Dobro Hound Dog budget models through their Epiphone operation in China. In an attempt to secure the heritage, Gibson has stated that they will defend their exclusive right to use the Dobro name.

Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe

 

While many variations of resonator guitars have been manufactured by a large number of companies over the years, National and Dobro, along with Dobro-licensed Regal, are the names most associated with pre‑WWII resonator production. The influence and legacy of these brands is significant in historical terms and 21st Century popularity of resonator guitars suggests that they are here to stay with a bright future ahead. Many modern resonators now incorporate either electro‑magnetic or piezo‑electric pickups, enabling them to be amplified, just like other electric guitars, while retaining their distinctive acoustic tone. Given the reason why resonators were invented in the first place – to increase acoustic volume – the concept of electric resonators seems a touch ironic today.

 

End of Part III

I will stop at this juncture, just before the dawn of the electric guitar. In terms of the overall amount of material, Parts I-III cover about half the story I have to tell.

 

I must mention that this part of the story proved particularly convoluted and I apologise if it comes across confusingly. It was a major challenge to untangle the web of misinformation and distil a meaningful chronological narrative. I hope that you are able to make some sense of the various interweaving threads. The information for the next part proved even more tortuous and I’m still trying to simplify and condense it for the serial article format. As with previous parts, I am happy to amend any factual errors that may well have crept into the timeline thus far.

 

Before we get back to the next decisive milestones in the guitar’s long story, Part IV will be both a temporary and necessary diversion from the core subject matter. The next episode focuses on two key innovations upon which the electric guitar is entirely dependent. You will have to wait a while to see what unfolds. There is a great deal of background material to wade through, so it will be a challenge to cut down the full version in order to keep the story moving. However, once that contextual reference material is in place, the modern electric guitar in all its splendour can finally be unleashed, hopefully in Part V and thereafter.

 

Thank you or looking in. As interesting as the story may be, it’s now time for me to stop typing and get back to more important matters; playing (vintage) guitars. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Dancing, even in silence, is literally the embodiment of music.”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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