September 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VII

Welcome back to the latest in a long series of articles chronicling the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. Last time, we covered the advent of production solid body electric guitars during the guitar’s ‘golden era’ from c.1950-1965. That article also covered some relevant later events, but the essence was about a period of intense invention and creativity, hence why it deserved a separate article dedicated to it, even though much of the content would be familiar to many.

 

This month’s article mostly focuses on ‘what happened next’ between c.1965-1987, although it does also cover the subsequent period up to the current day, albeit in less depth than the earlier years. Depending on how the rest of the story is covered, this 7th part is likely to be the penultimate episode.

 

If you’ve been following the various twists and turns along the way, you’ll know that I have tried very hard to strike a balance between light entertainment for the general reader and the level of detail that would appeal to the needs of the nerdiest of guitar geeks out there. As previously stated, this is not an academic thesis – I just don’t have the time or resources to reference every element along the way, so it probably will never make it into book form, which is a bit of a shame but ç’est la vie. However, once the 3,500 year history has been finished, I may try to bring it all together as a ‘box set’ feature on the web site, so it will be easier to find and come back to than monthly instalments. It also provides the opportunity to correct the content. I may also add a bit off the original longer version back in (!!) and to balance the various parts as a more coherent whole.

 

You may wish to recap on previous articles before starting here at Part VII. If so, the previous segments of ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

 

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and will stick with it for just a little longer. For me, it has certainly involved a huge amount of hard work researching and learning along the way. There is an enormous amount of information that had to be excluded in order to make it digestible in an online format. As always, while I have been diligent, some errors and omissions will inevitably have crept in. Not only do I apologise if that is the case but also, I welcome feedback from readers in order to correct or clarify. I would also encourage readers who might wish to look at things either from a different perspective or with a different level of detail to explore the fascinating world of guitars for yourselves.

 

There are not many pictures this month, as the subject matter is largely narrative‑driven. Sorry about that, photo fans.

 

Post-Modern Reconfiguration, Rejuvenation and Consolidation

It has become generally accepted that the electric guitar’s so‑called ‘golden era’ started at the beginning of the 1950s with the introduction of Fender and Gibson’s solid body electric guitar models and ended in the mid‑1960s around the time that Leo Fender sold up in early 1965, followed by Gibson in 1969.

 

On the face of it, the years immediately after the mid‑1960s would appear to be of little historic interest, particularly as far as investors and ‘serious’ collectors are concerned. While the 1950s and early 1960s have been very well documented in countless learned tomes, the subsequent years have tended to be characterised by vociferous opinion and anecdote in a relative vacuum, rather than subject to objective scrutiny.

 

The Internet has, perhaps unsurprisingly, encouraged many already polarised opinions to become even more extreme. Assertive and often throwaway hyperbole of many self‑appointed ‘experts’ has possibly been consistently exaggerated to the point that they have gained some sort of historical validity. Widely read ‘unpopular opinion’ is often misinterpreted as indisputable definitive evidence. It isn’t gospel; there was more to it than what many would have you believe.

 

This version of the ‘facts’ is arguably simply that and, while every effort has been made to remain impartial, it should be read with a degree of realistic scepticism. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some ‘smoke without fire’, just that the flames may have been fuelled by circumstances and intensified by ill‑informed prejudgment.

 

The music industry wasn’t alone in coming in for acerbic over‑criticism; the American automotive industry was also subject to similar issues during 1960s and 1970s. The parallels extend beyond the superficial with the demise of many historic car brands and the inexorable rise of Japanese competition. As with guitars, some of these old models are now becoming highly sought after. The guitar industry during the latter part of the 20th Century, it seems, was symptomatic of wider deep‑seated socio‑political problems in the world’s largest capitalist economy.

 

Actually, ‘what happened next’ is an equally fascinating tale and one that is worth spending a little while looking at. At the same time, it’s also worth standing back and looking at the bigger picture as events unfolded. While it’s all a matter of degree, what transpired was rife with intrigue and machination. The appeal of these transitional years is one of the reasons that CRAVE Guitars tends to focus on ‘forgotten underdog’ and quirky cool American electric guitars from between around 1960 and 1989, although not exclusively.

 

Was that all‑too‑brief 15‑year ‘golden era’ the end of the story? Will guitars built in the ‘dark ages’ between 1965 and 1987 remain ignored most as gross errors of judgement? Will there be another defining period of electric guitar evolution or will musicians spend their lives experiencing mediocrity by default while harking back to that unobtainable time viewed through rose‑tinted spectacles? Perhaps digital technology will deliver the next step‑change with some Darwinian mutation that future writers will look back upon and write about. OK, enough of the rant, on with the story…

 

The Catalysts

The trouble really started once both Fender and Gibson been acquired by faceless corporations used to running commercial businesses, rather than important customer‑led operations. Despite post‑war prosperity and growth, the period between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s could possibly be described aptly as eventful and tempestuous. In hindsight, whichever way you look at it, the sale of the industry’s ‘big guns’ was a 20th Century watershed for guitar building.

 

Firstly, let’s take a quick look at what actually happened immediately after the ‘golden era’ drew to a close circa 1965. The subsequent corporate merger & acquisition activity impacted directly on American musical instrument manufacturing up to the end of the 1980s. A few choice examples may help to illuminate the significant strife that befell the industry for a couple of decades (in rough chronological order)…

 

Rickenbacker – The only one of the major American brands that didn’t ‘sell out’ during the 1960s was Rickenbacker. They had, in some ways dodged that particular bullet, as Adolph Rickenbacker had already sold his company to music industry businessman Francis C. Hall in 1953. In retrospect, the move to transfer the undertaking and to keep it in safe hands seemed both pre‑emptive and positively prophetic. Arguably, the timing enabled Rickenbacker to capitalise on 1950s creative growth and become more resilient to what was to come. RIC (short for Rickenbacker International Corporation) has remained under the ownership of the Hall family since 1953 with John C. Hall as CEO at the time of writing.

Modern Rickenbacker Logo

 

Fender – After Rickenbacker, Fender was the first of the big names to capitulate to big business ambition. In 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) for just over $13m. The reason often given for the sale was Leo Fender’s health, although an injection of capital funding probably was also contributory. Other perspectives cite Leo Fender’s desire to pursue new ideas, which he possibly couldn’t do while running the company. CBS started making changes almost immediately and expanded capacity at Fullerton to increase supply. By agreement, Leo Fender was prohibited from setting up another music instrument company for 10 years, after which he went on to found Music Man (1974) and then G&L (1980). After 20 years under CBS control and on the brink of total collapse, division president William Schultz bought the company, forming Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) in 1985. What followed was a period of intense restructuring, with guitar production temporarily moved to Japan for approximately two years before resuming full American manufacturing with the launch of the American Series guitars in 1987. U.S. manufacturing was moved from Fullerton to Corona, California and its headquarters were relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. Fender was once again back on the path to success as an independent company and has remained so ever since.

CBS Logo

 

Danelectro – Danelectro was originally formed by entrepreneur Nathan Daniel in 1947. Daniel built his business on the back of large scale, low cost department store and mail order demand for electric guitars, often branded as Silvertone and Airline. This enabled him to start building instruments under the Danelectro brand from 1954. By 1966, Daniel sold Danelectro to industry giant MCA (Music Corporation of America). MCA tried unsuccessfully to introduce the Coral brand and to restructure its distribution network. The outcome was that Danelectro ceased production altogether just 3 years later in 1969. The brand was resurrected by the Evets Corporation in the late 1990s and, after several faltering attempts to recapture market share, Danelectro remains in operation as a successful American company with overseas manufacturing based in China and Korea.

MCA Logo

 

Gretsch – Gretsch was originally founded by Friedrich Gretsch in 1883. Two years after Fender and one year after Danelectro, Fred Gretsch sold the family business to the Baldwin Piano Company in early 1967. After many organisational troubles including relocation, factory fires, Chet Atkins withdrawing his endorsement, and misjudged model decisions, Baldwin finally ceased production of Gretsch instruments by 1981. Fred W. Gretsch acquired what little remained of the company in 1985, basically just the Gretsch name and rights ownership. After a number of abortive efforts, consistent output was eventually re‑established in Japan. Rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer became a key endorsee for Gretsch in the 1990s and consumer interest in the brand was rekindled. Retaining family leadership, Gretsch has been under the patronage of Fender since 2002 and the famous brand is once again a significant player in the guitar industry.

Baldwin Logo

 

Gibson – Gibson was really the last of the large American names to succumb to corporate ownership. Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) followed the competition in 1969 when Gibson was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then subsumed by Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. Gibson survived cost‑cutting, relocation to Nashville and general mismanagement largely intact, although its hard‑earned reputation was severely tarnished. Gibson eventually returned to private ownership in 1986 through a consortium management buyout. Despite a major financial crisis and bankruptcy protection initiated in May 2018, there are signs of a positive future for the company.

Norlin/Gibson Logo

 

These were just some of the big players who were able to weather the economic storms during the second half of the 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In addition to the big names, plenty of other well‑known American companies failed to survive, including:

  • Valco merged with Kay in 1967; a move that included familiar names such as Supro and Airline. However, the newly combined company went bust in 1968
  • National Dobro merged with Mosrite before the latter went bankrupt, also in 1968
  • Harmony lasted until 1975 before it ceased trading

 

Those that survived the volatility would continue to fight for survival at best. Overall, when viewed in hindsight, it proved a disastrous phase for American guitar making and collectively one that isn’t widely documented, other than in individual circumstances. The ‘golden era’ was, seemingly, definitely over.

 

As is often the case, the causes of American guitar manufacturing woes between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s are quite complex, based on deep‑seated structural flaws. Looking at the circumstances strategically, there were probably, amongst many other contributory factors, five key issues…

 

  1. Industry structure and stability – Inward investment and backing of large business should have provided a positive commercial injection to guitar companies who were either struggling with financial difficulties or were unable to grow quickly enough with existing management structures. What actually happened was that big businesses, as is their wont, were looking to cut costs and increase profit, seemingly unaware of the impact that they were having. The large companies tried to stimulate demand by experimenting and introducing new products without assessing whether what they were making was adequately meeting consumers’ needs. For small agile companies, risk taking was a vital part of the creative process, while the bigger firms focused on large scale, efficient production methods, conversely heightening the risks of failure. Remote and disconnected governing bodies tended to dictate business decisions based on balance sheets and shareholder return, rather than customer satisfaction. Arguably, though, the businesses were in dire need of ‘better’ rather than ‘different’ management both before and after takeover.
  2. Industrial relations – Strict operational disciplines, controlled production processes and rigorously applied policies are a fundamental requirement of larger bureaucratic organisations. These management styles were generally not part of the music industry’s ‘way of doing things’ at the time. Companies needed to be managed effectively rather than efficiently and, unfortunately, the pendulum swang too far towards the latter. Business managers exhibited a flagrant disregard for the expertise and skills required to make consistent, high quality musical instruments. Production facilities were relocated, often giving long‑term highly experienced luthiers a ‘move or go’ ultimatum. In addition distribution and dealership networks were changed with little regard for what went before. Unhappy employees and belligerent trade unions led to heated industrial disputes (and worse), thereby causing significant leadership and management problems. Decades of accumulated knowledge, skills, expertise and, perhaps importantly, attitude were lost to the industry in a short space of time – something that would take years to rebuild. The outcome was that quality fell, exacerbating existing deficiencies elsewhere in the industry.
  3. Industry culture – New corporate owners did not fully appreciate or take the time to understand why the guitar industry worked as it did, resulting in fundamental mistakes internally and externally. The latter disenfranchised those involved in the supply chain from distributors to dealers and, ultimately, impacting on paying customers. Crucially, working musicians’ requirements were not being met and, with that dissatisfaction, brand loyalty diminished as professional guitarists looked elsewhere for alternatives. In addition, musical tastes were rapidly changing and short‑lived fads required nimble organisations that knew how to adapt to changes quickly and appropriately. Smaller companies that were better‑tuned into what was going on could flex more easily. The larger corporations, however, were unable to spot change and respond, leading to mismatches and time lags between demand and supply. Many commentators suggest that it was because musicians weren’t running the show. However, guitarists don’t necessarily make good business people (or vice versa!), which might have contributed to the difficulties. Significantly, two of the most influential guitar innovators – Leo Fender and Ted McCarty – didn’t play the guitar at all. Nevertheless, they were effective leaders because they ensured that professional artists were closely involved with business decisions. Importantly, the time when musicians were listened to and relationships were actively cultivated had fallen by the wayside.
  4. Supply problems – Availability of consistent materials, particularly the all‑important tone woods, created challenges for large‑scale American production. Variable density and therefore weight of some imported tone woods meant that it was difficult to manufacture to dependable standards. Depending on the combination of materials, the shortage of quality inputs affected builders to different degrees. Around the same time, sustainability and environmental factors were becoming an issue, leading to further supply issues. Manufacturers started looking to alternative materials including metal (e.g. Kramer, Travis Bean), plastics (e.g. Ampeg/Dan Armstrong) and composites (e.g. Gibson) that were intended to improve consistency and streamline manufacturing processes. Other moves included building guitars not from single pieces of difficult to acquire, expensive wood but from cheaper, smaller, more available cuts. Consumers saw such actions as negative and symptomatic of other perceived underlying problems. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, customers were not impressed by ‘good intentions’ and the changes were seen as cost‑cutting measures taken a step too far. Many consumers saw through superficial claims and resented the big companies for making what they felt were false marketing claims.
  5. Far Eastern competition – Enterprising Japanese companies, revitalised by post‑WWII recovery and able to observe from outside, spotted that American labour and manufacturing costs were contributing to a combination of poor quality and high prices – an equation that would present opportunities to penetrate a previously U.S.‑dominated market. Companies such as Ibanez and Yamaha did two crucial things. The first was to use their structural advantages to make high quality instruments at lower cost, and to produce them in large enough numbers to compete with American products on their own ground. The second thing they did was to brazenly copy iconic American designs, presenting consumers with recognisable products built to (generally but not always) higher standards and sold more cheaply than the American ‘classics’. There is more on the Japanese competitive assault on American guitar makers below. They also used rapidly changing music trends to create openings for entirely new products, including their own designs, thereby beginning to build a strong and more ethical reputation of their own. When the inevitable backlash came (see below), the marketplace had already changed fundamentally.

 

Lawsuit Guitars and Trademark Protection

During the post‑1965 period, sales of major American brand guitars was in decline and the home industry was in disarray. This provides a broad background against which American companies had to contend. Generally speaking, the way in which the industry and marketplace was organised was not favourable for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker and many others.

 

The takeovers and general (mis-)management of American firms left the U.S. industry weakened and susceptible to aggressive business manoeuvres. American labour, tooling and material costs didn’t fall, so prices for finished instruments generally remained high for guitars that were increasingly poorly made. It is relatively easy to understand why the 20‑year period between approximately 1965 and 1985 was crucial to reshaping the global guitar making industry.

 

One particular Japanese guitar maker, Hoshino Gakki Gen, saw an ideal opportunity to enter the fragile American market. Cleverly, Hoshino recognised the potential animosity towards Japanese‑sounding products after WWII and adopted the Ibanez moniker. Incidentally, the Ibanez name was derived from Spanish guitar maker Salvador Ibáñez, who made classical guitars and sold them to Japan from the 1920s. When Ibáñez, failed during the Spanish Civil War (La Guerra 1936-1939), Hoshino acquired the rights to use the name, dropping the accents in the process. Hoshino’s next step was to take over an American company, Elger, which had already been importing Japanese guitars into the U.S. This move gave them ready access to the American territory, initially as Hoshino USA and then Ibanez USA. From 1970, Ibanez began systematically targeting and imitating popular American guitar models, particularly from Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacker.

Ibanez Logo

 

Initially, Fender and Gibson chose not to challenge these foreign copies unless they were identical to the originals, i.e. deliberate forgeries. Perhaps they didn’t see the early copies arriving in relatively small numbers as a significant threat and therefore not worth the lengthy and expensive battles through the American court system with no guarantee of success. Perhaps naively, they may have seen the copies as providing entry‑level experience that would lead consumers to trade up and purchase the ‘real thing’. Nobody really knows for sure. However, by taking their eye off the proverbial ball, the already struggling American brands were storing up a hornet’s nest of latent problems.

1970s Ibanez Advert

 

The relatively cheaply made Japanese copies often used bolt‑on necks, cheap materials and inferior hardware. Having said that, they were often reasonably well made for what they cost the consumer. The slavish copies appealed to many novice guitarists wishing to have guitars that, at least visually, looked like the more expensive American counterparts without the accompanying high price tags. Notably, and perhaps pertinently, Fender’s own low cost ‘student’ guitar lines (the Mustang ‘family’) and Gibson’s budget models (the Melody Maker) didn’t resemble their upmarket pro‑level instruments, further exacerbating the weaknesses in the eyes of customers.

1975-1976 Ibanez Les Paul Copy

 

The Japanese picture at the time is typically complex and confusing, particularly when trying to differentiate the production companies from the brands they made and the importers they used. Some of the companies such as Tokai, Greco, Yamaha and Suzuki followed Ibanez’s lead and jumped on the cloning bandwagon, making relatively faithful copies of American guitars.

 

The huge Kawai Teisco company was a mass producer that made guitars under many names, including Apollo, Domino, Kent, Randall, Sterling, Victoria and Winston. One brand, Antoria was actually a German company (Framus) that imported Japanese Guyatone (Suzuki) guitars that included replica Stratocaster copies. Others, such as British firm CSL (Charles Summerfield Limited) originally rebranded imported Ibanez guitars. Columbus was another brand that simply imported Japanese‑made guitars under its own name. Hondo was an American company that imported Japanese copies, giving them some home‑grown legitimacy. The Spanish‑sounding Fernandes, on the other hand, was a wholly owned Japanese company that also used the name Burny. Many companies made guitars for other companies, so the picture is further obscured. There were many, many Japanese manufacturers that were largely unknown outside the country but were indirectly contributory to the assault on America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, including Fujigen Gakki, the aforementioned Hoshino Gakki Gen (who also used the Tama brand), Matsumoku, Moridara and Tombo.

 

So… just what were all these Japanese companies actually targeting? In particular, Gibson’s Les Paul and SG models, as well as Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster came in for ubiquitous copying. Popular Martin, Guild and Gibson acoustics also came in for replication, as they were the world’s most recognisable acoustic instruments at the time. Acoustic copies including names like Takamine, Morris, Pro Martin and Ventura. Even the fonts used for headstock logos often mimicked the original American brand styles.

Fender Stratocaster Genuine & Copy Headstocks
Martin Genuine & Copy Headstocks

 

As volumes increased, the wave of imports understandably caused problems for the original manufacturers and it was only a matter of time before there was a defensive response. That reaction was based largely on Gibson’s famous Les Paul and particularly the outline shape of the headstock.

Genuine Gibson Les Paul Custom Headstock
Gibson Les Paul Copy Headstocks

 

In June 1977, Gibson’s owners at the time, Norlin, filed a legal case against Ibanez/Hoshino for copying the Gibson ‘open book’ headstock outline. The case was settled out of court by February 1978, by which time Ibanez had already changed their headstock shape. However, since 1974, Ibanez had been astute enough to foresee the complication and had been developing and improving its own unique Artist guitar designs, thereby circumventing any further rights issues. From 1978, once the lawsuit was behind them, Ibanez focused purely on its own designs.

9 June 1977 Gibson Law Suit Letter

 

Despite appearances, there was, in fact, only one landmark lawsuit at the time and it only related to the design of the headstock on Gibson guitars. Presumably, other American manufacturers were watching and waiting for the outcome of the Gibson case. Not looking for potentially damaging confrontation in the courts, other Japanese companies sought to avoid the wrath of the American companies and changed their designs just enough so as not to fall foul of further litigation.

 

Ironically, some of the Japanese ‘lawsuit’ guitars have since become collectable in their own right. Although many copies that claim to be subject to the lawsuit aren’t, they are just guitars made during the ‘lawsuit era’ of the late 1970s. Generally speaking, Japanese guitar making – having made its mark for better or worse – went on to plough their own furrow in the multinational market, establishing a successful business model on which they could build.

 

The imitation game hasn’t gone away completely though. Many ‘knock off’ guitars in the 21st Century are emanating from China, where there is little effective means of legal challenge. While some of the guitars originating from China replicate American designs and are produced in large volumes, some of the fakes are appearing in small quantities as very convincing forgeries of rare and valuable vintage instruments.

Fake 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard

 

Also, somewhat ironically, the big American brands struck back by strategically shifting manufacture of lower cost instruments off‑shore. Fender made guitars in Japan from 1982, only later changing the name to Squier to differentiate them from the American originals. Similarly, Gibson started Far Eastern manufacture of Epiphone guitars in Japan in the early 1970s, then in Korea from 1983, before relocating production again in 2003 to a dedicated Epiphone factory in Qingdao, China.

Squier Logo
Epiphone Logo

 

In 1984, PRS guitars was established by luthier Paul Reed Smith and has since become one of America’s major guitar manufacturers. To cater for all price points, PRS also introduced Korean production facilities for its SE‑branded guitars in 2003. While on the subject of lawsuits, after PRS had released the PRS Singlecut in 2001, Gibson filed a trademark infringement claim against PRS for allegedly copying the Les Paul design. Gibson’s lawsuit failed at appeal and PRS resumed production of the Singlecut, albeit slightly altered, from September 2005.

2001 PRS Singlecut

 

Fender now actively defends its trademarks, which exist in perpetuity, unlike patents that have a limited duration. To illustrate the issues, Fender’s defence of its trademark headstock design reads as follows, “The headstock is the key source-identifying feature of the modern electric guitar. In particular, the shape of the headstock (which, in the types of guitars at issue here, is part of a single piece of wood that also includes the guitar neck) is nonfunctional and primarily serves to identify the brand and model of the guitar. Fender owns trademark rights and federal registrations for the shapes of its headstock designs. These marks are instantly recognizable to generations of musicians and music fans as indicators of the source of Fender’s products and of the immense history and goodwill associated with Fender.”

 

Furthermore, Fender lost a 2009 application to trademark its guitar designs retrospectively. Opponents stated that consumers had had decades of unopposed exposure to those shapes from a wide variety of other guitar makers. This particular ruling opened the door to many look‑alike guitars, bar the familiar and distinctive headstock shapes.

 

Rickenbacker, unlike many of its counterparts, trademarks its important designs and vigorously protects them through the courts, hence why there are generally fewer Rickenbacker copies on the market compared to Fender and Gibson clones.

 

The whole issue of who owns what and how owners’ rights can be protected in a global market rife with replicas is a hugely complex issue and the nuanced legal debates are not for this story, so it is time to close this particular case and move on.

 

The Fallout and Time for Objective Re-assessment?

The Gibson law suit was, however, a wakeup call for American guitar building, as it proved beyond doubt that they were vulnerable to competition. While it may seem a relatively small isolated incident, it was contributory to the way in which guitar making, distribution and sales had to change. It was time for a shake‑out. By getting back to the basics, the rebuilding of American production that took place from the mid‑1980s resulted in vastly improved fortunes, even though it would take years for several companies to return to prosperity. Gibson and Fender were back in private ownership, Rickenbacker had sustained its business and, although Danelectro and Gretsch would find success, it took some time to regenerate historic popularity.

 

Despite what naysayers, respected journalists and wealthy vintage guitar collectors will delight in telling anyone who will listen, not all guitars built between 1965 and 1987 (when Fender introduced the landmark American Standards) are bad. Yes, there are many examples of poor quality instruments produced during those ‘dark ages’ but, let’s be honest, that has always been the case. Just look at some of the cheap and nasty instruments from the 1950s and early 1960s produced during the ‘golden era’.

 

Being a bit provocative and controversial, it is the author’s considered belief that there were many very good instruments built in the 1970s but these tend to be overlooked and caught up in the sweeping generalisation that ALL instruments from that period are sub‑standard. Some unique and interesting models only appeared during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the drive for experimentation. Some of these experiments were often made for relatively brief periods before they disappeared again. As a result, many of these rare examples are highly likely to be of interest to collectors in the future. As vintage prices of 1950s and 1960s guitars are rapidly increasing beyond many enthusiasts’ ability to purchase them, 1970s and 1980s guitars are also creeping up in value and are likely to become the ‘next big thing’ in the vintage marketplace. When they do eventually become desirable, which they will, that critical labelling of ‘poor quality’ is likely to be conveniently forgotten as the wheat is separated from the chaff.

 

Generally speaking, with the introduction of automated and computer controlled construction technologies, instruments from c.1990 onwards are generally consistently well‑made. This means that poor quality instruments are fewer and further between. Value‑for‑money since the 1990s has never been better with some very good guitars available at relatively low prices compared to the past. Broadly categorising the ensuing years between, say, 1990 and 2000 as a period of rejuvenation, resurgence and consolidation in the face of significant and multifarious challenges including economic downturn. The dawn of the new millennium saw further change including diversification, growth and a degree of reconfiguration. The reality, perhaps obviously, isn’t simply a case of general classification though, so such broad descriptions may best be regarded as a bit of artistic licence on the author’s part.

 

It may seem strange but it was often the inherent manufacturing variations and inconsistencies that have led to the handmade ‘golden era’ guitars becoming so desirable in the first place. As the idiosyncratic traits of the past have been ironed out, consumers have had ready access to consistent, reliable and higher quality guitars at virtually all price points. However, the increase in standardisation means that many modern mass‑produced guitars are often described as ‘generic’, samey and bland. It is also that lack of variation that has led to the boom in boutique, custom and modded guitars in the 21st Century.

 

Only time will really tell whether some of these maligned 1970s guitars will be re‑evaluated and achieve better recognition. Good examples will undoubtedly become increasingly sought after and collectable.

 

Recovery and Rejuvenation

Musical tastes continued to change and the 1980s and 1990s were no different. One trend was a move away from guitar music to highly produced electronic keyboard music. Japanese giant Roland (owner of BOSS effect pedals) tried to popularise the guitar synthesizers on the back of the electronica trend, as did consumer electronics company Casio who were more famous for calculators rather than guitars.

Roland GR-300, GR-500 & G-707 Guitar Synthesizers

 

Another trend in musical taste was the explosion in popularity of glam, hard and ‘shred’ rock. Ironically, it was companies like Ibanez, once the scourge of copy guitars, which was ideally placed to cater for the trend with some cleverly designed genre‑appropriate instruments, such as their Destroyer, Iceman and Jem guitars.

1980s Ibanez Destroyer, Iceman & Jem

 

Ibanez had cleverly repositioned themselves and continued to do so in order to sustain competitive advantage. In another canny move, Ibanez courted the new breed of virtuoso instrumental rock musicians, which proved successful. American guitarists such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani were regularly seen using and advertising the Ibanez brand. Other Japanese companies followed suit, such as Yamaha and ESP/LTD. American brands such as Dean, Jackson and BC Rich also exploited the growing market for pointy rock alternatives to the old‑hat rock shapes such as Gibson’s Explorer and Flying V. Times had moved on and the traditional industry stalwarts were once again looking tired, on the back foot and at a strategic disadvantage.

Steve Vai & Joe Satriani
Steve Vai & Joe Satriani Ibanez Adverts

 

By the time that some sort of equilibrium was restored from the late 1990s, the music and guitar landscape was very different from the end of the ‘golden era’. There was room for big music companies to grow, such as Peavey and Ernie Ball, the latter having bought out Leo Fender’s Music Man in 1984. The ‘big four’ brands were still there – Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and Gretsch, who continued to expand their ranges into high‑value custom shop as well as low‑priced models. In addition, once the barriers to entry were lowered, there were many small, opportunistic companies that sought to grow market share on their own terms, such as PRS. There was also a whole thriving boutique sub‑industry that focused heavily on producing custom instruments built to individual guitarists’ requirements; a healthy trend that continues to flourish well into the 21st Century.

 

The 2000s saw a reversal of fortunes with synth‑based dance and pop music becoming clichéd and well‑worn. This change of fortune facilitated a major resurgence in guitar music across a whole range of musical genres but specifically the burgeoning indie/alternative music scene. Indie music also triggered a renewed interest in retro‑styled instruments often evoking quirky designs from the past. This revitalisation enabled many gone but not forgotten guitars to experience a new lease of life. In addition, metal, progressive/contemporary, alt‑country and blues/rock genres have also seen rejuvenation and/or revivals, together with relevant instruments to suit. Even the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Danelectro and Rickenbacker have benefitted through reissues of previously defunct models. All in all, many guitar‑based musical styles continue to flourish and guitar sales benefit from the 21st Century appetite for diversity.

 

Interestingly, in the 2000s and 2010s, with the renewed interest in both retro and vintage designs, many of the old American brand names that went out of business in the 1960s have since re‑emerged, including Supro, Valco, Airline, Harmony and Kay.

 

The global recession that started in 2008 has been the longest and deepest since the 1930s severely dampened demand for discretionary purchases such as musical instruments. However, the desire to own and play the world’s favourite instrument endures, despite regular proclamations of the ‘death of guitar music’.

 

Modern‑day guitarists have learned to become fickle and much more discerning. No longer could a few privileged brands expect musicians to be loyal or for their products to be accepted as the default ‘go‑to’ solution. While slower to adapt, the American ‘big four’ fought back and, although often constrained by their past, were forced to innovate and compete or die. Not all of those experiments have been successful but the point is that they are trying to adjust to the inevitability of the brave new world.

 

Looking at the bigger picture, the diverse structure of the guitar industry is healthy for both producers and consumers. While things will change again, the fragmented nature of the marketplace in the 2010s means that risks of major step change are reduced. For the long‑established brands, the asset value of the ‘classics’ is now cemented and, to some extent, can once again be relied upon in terms of quality and value. The reliance on industry standards also creates a problem for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, as it inhibits what they can do in a way that consumers will accept, witness Gibson’s failed attempt to move into consumer and lifestyle electronics.

 

Ultimately, nothing is set in stone and there is very little that can be considered genuinely ‘new’. The only certainty is that change will be continuous and necessarily incremental. Digital music technology will continue to be both a threat to, and an opportunity for, manufacturers. The hybridisation of analogue instruments and digital technologies is still in its infancy and only time will tell, which companies will respond positively and which will fail to adapt and fall by the wayside (again).

 

That brings us pretty much up to the current day, at the time of writing (2018). As English punk rock pioneer Joe Strummer of The Clash once said, “The future is unwritten” and how true that is. We are nearing the end point of the guitar’s long story… except that the story will continue in perpetuity. All that is really left to do is to describe the current position (again at the time of writing) and to speculate, somewhat idly, about what that unwritten future may hold.

 

End of Part VII

Here we are at the end of yet another episode in the guitar’s extended tale. We are pretty much up‑to‑date and therefore almost at the end of the journey, with (I think) just one more article to go. I hope that you’ll join me, hopefully next month for the conclusion… as far as there can be one.

 

I am now beginning to deliberate about a companion series of articles for next year (2019). Before that happens, I need a rest from this massively resource intensive exercise. I can’t yet reveal what that new series is, as I am thinking about things I haven’t thought of yet (if you get my drift). I will have to consider how it might be done in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere up to now – I need to bring something new to the subject matter, otherwise it is just regurgitating what others have already done. Watch this space… In the meantime, I have to start planning what I’m going to fixate upon for the remainder of this year.

 

Right now though, it’s time to stop writing about guitars and to start playing one of the darned things, so I’m off to plink my plank! Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Whatever was pre-modernism like?”

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI

Hello again, guitar history fans and welcome to August 2018’s article in the series on the history of the guitar. There is no point in beating about the bush, it’s time to dive right back in where we left off last month with the birth, and now – to extend the analogy – the growth of the electric guitar from early years to adolescent hood.

 

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

 

The Modern Solid Body Electric Guitar

This part of the guitar’s story covers the period of fundamental and rapid innovation as well as pragmatic entrepreneurialism that starts around the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period of intense creativity that would come to define the modern electric guitar. Once the essential foundations were laid by Rickenbacker, Gibson and a few others, the popularity of the guitar was about to explode.

 

Since the time of the guitar ‘big bang’, instruments would continue to be improved and refined; an incremental process that continues unabated up to the current day. However, nothing like the level of creativity that heralded the ‘dawn’ of the electric guitar era. It was the start of a so‑called ‘golden era’ that would last about 15 years.

 

While acoustic guitars continued to develop after the 1930s, they were just about as loud as they were going to get without some form of amplification. Electric archtop and early solid body electric guitars had started the ball rolling during the first half of the 1930s and guitarists were buying into the increasing trend for electric guitars of one sort or another.

 

While not alone in influencing guitar development, today’s ‘big two’ companies – Fender and Gibson – have between them, been responsible for, or at last instrumental (sic!) in, many of the major innovations and landmark electric guitars since the 1950s. Therefore, the focus here is predominantly, but not exclusively, on the contribution from these two major manufacturers.  Much credit though is due to the vast number of other guitar builders – way too many to mention them all by name – that have played their part in developing the musical landscape over the decades, and which we enjoy today. Without their competition to keep the ‘big two’ on their toes, the quality and price equation might have gone too far in opposite directions. Thankfully, there is no monopoly in the guitar market – far from it in fact – and that fact, as it turns out, is a very good thing for musicians all over the world.

 

However, before the story moves on to Fender and then Gibson, we need to take a short diversion before getting back on track…

 

Bigsby Guitars

No history of the formation of the electric guitar would be complete without some mention of Paul Adelburt Bigsby (1899-1968). P.A. Bigsby was a motorcycle racer, inventor, designer and builder based in California. Bigsby has often been quoted as saying confidently, “I can build anything”.

Paul Bigsby

 

Historically, Bigsby might be better known for his iconic Bigsby vibrato systems. Less well known is that Bigsby was also responsible for pioneering solid body electric guitars as well as for revolutionising pedal steel guitars.

1957 Bigsby Vibrato (ES-175)

 

Bigsby collaborated with lap steel guitarist Earl ‘Joaquin’ Murphey (1923-1999) of Spade Cooley’s orchestra in the 1940s. Murphey helped to persuade Bigsby to start making guitars in the first place, in around 1946/1947. Bigsby built Murphey several steel guitars by 1947, with two or three necks. Murphey’s successor in Cooley’s band, another steel guitarist called Speedy West (1924-2003), not wishing to be outdone, also commissioned Bigsby to build him a custom pedal steel guitar in 1948.

Joaquin Murphey & Speedy West

 

Around the same time, successful country and western artist and good friend, Merle Travis (1917-1983) asked Bigsby to fix a wayward vibrato on his Gibson L-10 guitar. Bigsby subsequently went on to build a complete solid body electric guitar for Travis, based on a sketch Travis had made. Travis’s Bigsby guitar attracted a lot of attention and other artists queued up for Bigsby to make further custom guitars, including for acclaimed session guitarist with the ‘Nashville A-Team’, Grady Martin (1921‑2001).

Merle Travis & Grady Martin

 

Bigsby’s guitar designs not only seem familiar, but also seem well ahead of their time for 1948, especially when compared to anything else on the market. The Bigsby Merle Travis guitar has a single cutaway body not dissimilar to Gibson’s Les Paul models and a neck/headstock outline that bears a notable resemblance to Fender’s Stratocaster. Bigsby’s design predated both the Les Paul (1952) and the Stratocaster (1954) by several years. Many have contended that Gibson and Fender plagiarised, rather than simply being influenced by, Bigsby’s original designs. Hindsight provides the opportunity to speculate but the truth is shrouded in idle debate and misinformation.

Bigsby – Fender & Gibson Comparison

 

Partly because he wanted to make most of the parts himself, Bigsby only produced a very small number of finished custom‑built instruments up until 1956, where after he concentrated on the vibrato business. However, as his guitars never entered full production, his legacy consists of a few unique examples of his craftsmanship. Unfortunately, Bigsby kept no records of his creations. The company he founded undertook extensive research and can document 47 steel guitars and only 6 standard guitars, along with a few other custom instruments surviving to the current day. Others may yet come to light at some point to be authenticated.

1948 & 1956 Bigsby
1949 Bigsby Mandolin

 

Bigsby’s name is now synonymous with his ubiquitous vibrato tailpieces, which have adorned countless guitars since the 1950s. Bigsby sensibly filed a patent for his ‘tailpiece vibrato’ in November 1952, which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in March 1953. The rest, as ‘they’ say, is history.

Bigsby Vibrato Patent

 

When his health started to fail, Bigsby sold his company to retired Gibson president Ted McCarty in 1966. Paul Bigsby died 2 years later in 1968 at the age of 68. Subsequently, Gretsch bought the Bigsby enterprise from McCarty in 1999. Bigsby Guitars is now making limited edition guitars under the patronage of Gretsch.

Bigsby BY48T-600

 

Many of those aware of Bigsby’s pioneering work feel that he should be given greater credit for his contribution to guitar history. One might only wonder at the course of modern guitar history had Bigsby capitalised on his creative designs. Bigsby may have been first in a lot of areas but it was other companies that catered for the market and it is the commercial success brought about by mass production which is where the story then continues.

Bigsby Logo

 

Fender Solid Body Electric Guitars

Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) was an electrical engineer by trade. He started out in business as Fender Radio Service in 1938, repairing radios, phonographs and valve amplifiers. Recognising the growing demand for his skills from the music industry, Fender looked to use his growing expertise in that area. Along with business partner and former Rickenbacker employee Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, Fender co‑founded the short‑lived K&F Manufacturing Corp in 1945. K&F’s intention was to manufacture musical instruments and amplifiers, including lap steel guitars that were particularly popular at the time.

1945 K&F Lap Steel & Amp

 

By 1946, Fender had parted ways with Kauffman and established the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. The company, known to most simply as Fender, has become one of the pre‑eminent and most widely recognised manufacturers of electric guitars, basses and amplifiers in the world. Historically, Fender is particularly important because of its ground breaking role in making electric instruments and amps accessible to mass markets eager for the new‑fangled technology in the 1950s.

 

Fender Fullerton Factory 1959

 

Leo Fender’s vision had less to do with building small numbers of bespoke instruments and more to do with commercial large‑scale manufacture of instruments using tried and tested production methods. Fender wanted the electric guitar to be straightforward to manufacture as well as easy to service and maintain. Leo Fender asked George William Fullerton (1923-2009) to join the company in 1948. Fullerton’s appointment was important, as he would become a long‑term business associate not only at Fender but also in subsequent post‑Fender enterprises, including Music Man and G&L (an acronym standing for George & Leo).

 

Even though Fender had introduced amplifiers in 1947, Fender’s business began focusing on guitar designs and in c.1949 the company started making prototypes of what would eventually become the iconic Telecaster. The early prototypes used a body largely designed by George Fullerton. The first prototype exhibited a 3‑a‑side lap steel‑style headstock, while the second attempt looked more Fender‑like. Both prototype headstock designs bore a similarity to those seen on Bigsby’s guitars.

1949 Fender Broadcaster Prototypes #1 & 2

 

Fender offered the first mass-produced Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar to the public in 1950. The initial few guitars were single pickup models called the Esquire, although confusingly, a small number of Esquires were also ordered with two pickups.

1951 Fender Esquire

 

The production dual pickup model was originally named the Broadcaster until Gretsch objected to the use of the name, as they had produced drums using the Broadkaster name since the 1920s. Fender complied and for a short period between February and August of 1951, the guitar appeared with no name on the headstock, leading to the popular nickname ‘Nocaster’ to describe its curious temporary anonymity.

1951 ‘Nocaster’ Headstock

 

Fender filed a patent for the Telecaster design in April 1951, which was awarded quite quickly by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1951. The familiar twin pickup single cutaway guitar, now formally named the Telecaster was made available to the public from mid‑1951 and has, remarkably, remained in continuous production ever since.

Fender Telecaster Patent 1951

 

Although instantly recognisable nowadays, the Telecaster was unlike anything that had come before. The way they were put together was revolutionary; using a modular construction comprising a single cutaway slab body of solid ash wood and a removable maple neck secured by four screws on the back of the body. The simple and sturdy design proved not only resilient but also efficient and relatively cheap to manufacture using established assembly line techniques of the time.

1952 Fender Telecaster

 

While there have been many variants of the Telecaster over the years, including the Custom, Deluxe, Thinline and Elite, the original fundamental design elements have remained largely unchanged over many decades.

Fender Telecaster Variants

 

Not content with the success of the Telecaster, Fender and this team went on to design and market the enormously popular Stratocaster in 1954. Unlike the Telecaster, the Stratocaster employed a futuristic double cutaway ash body with deep rib and forearm contours for player comfort, 3 single coil pickups and a clever floating vibrato system. Fender retained the bolt‑on maple neck, albeit with a shapelier headstock than the Telecaster and eerily reminiscent of Bigsby’s earlier design. Fender filed a patent application for the Stratocaster’s ‘tremolo’ (a misnomer – it is actually a vibrato) design in August 1954, which was subsequently awarded in April 1956. The Stratocaster, like the Telecaster before it, became phenomenally successful with consumers and has been in continuous production since its launch.

Fender Stratocaster Patent 1956
1953 Fender Stratocaster Prototype
1954 Fender Stratocaster

 

Just as revolutionary for bass players, Fender also pioneered the commercially successful electric solid-body bass guitar. The Precision bass first appeared shortly after the Telecaster in 1952 and before the Stratocaster. Before the Precision, bass players had to contend with cumbersome acoustic, hollow body, fretless upright basses. The Precision was an ergonomic godsend, especially for travelling musicians. Like a guitar, the Precision featured a fretted neck making the instrument much more accessible to neophytes wanting to jump on the bandwagon of popular electric guitar music in the 1950s and 1960s. The 34”‑scale fretted neck gave practical credence to the new bass’s name – Precision. Fender filed a patent for the bass guitar in November 1952, which was awarded in March 1953.

Fender Precision Bass Patent 1953

 

Initially, the Precision took many design cues from the Telecaster before updates in 1954 and 1957 gave it the now‑familiar characteristics more akin to the Stratocaster. Not resting on their laurels, Fender followed up the hugely successful Precision with the twin‑pickup offset Jazz bass in 1960.

1954 & 1959 Fender Precision & 1960 Fender Jazz

 

These four models – Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision and Jazz – represented the enduring ‘core’ models around which Fender experimented with other designs. It is very unusual in industrial design history to ‘get it right’ first time and then for those products to remain relevant for over six decades (… so far, and counting). However, Fender seemed to have achieved just that. Fender, however, not content to stand still, kept innovating.

 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Fender also introduced two luxury contoured offset‑waist body models; the 25½”‑scale Jazzmaster in 1958 and the shorter 24”‑scale Jaguar in 1962. Both models used entirely new single coil pickups and both had separate, complex ‘rhythm’ and ‘lead’ circuits. The controls were not intuitive, which put off some players. The high‑price of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar may also have deterred customers and both models failed to attract the intended target audience – traditional jazz guitarists wedded to the competition’s archtop designs. However, both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar gained a significant boost from an unexpected source. Popular west coasts surf musicians including The Beach Boys and The Ventures adopted the new offsets and gave them some legitimacy. Ultimately though, poor sales led to Fender discontinuing the Jaguar in 1975 and the Jazzmaster in 1980. Wisely, Fender has subsequently successfully reissued both models for newer generations to discover.

1959 Fender Jazzmaster & 1962 Fender Jaguar

 

One of the key success factors for Fender was the introduction of custom colour options in addition to the limited standard blonde and sunburst finishes. Custom colours were based on popular automobile paints made by DuPont during the American car craze of the 1950s. Customers could custom order new guitars from a range of exciting colour finishes for an additional 5% upcharge. Fender was also open to accepting standard colour guitars for factory refinishing in the custom colours. Popular names for the custom colours included Olympic White, Lake Placid Blue, Daphne Blue, Sonic Blue, Shoreline Gold, Burgundy Mist, Sherwood Green, Surf Green, Foam Green, Fiesta Red, Dakota Red, Candy Apple Red, and Shell Pink. Early models with genuine custom colours are relatively rare and have since become highly desirable with vintage guitar collectors; some guitars fetching a hefty premium on the vintage market compared to the standard colours. Many of those original custom colours phased out by 1969 to 1972 have now become very popular again as standard colours in the 21st Century.

Fender Custom Color Chart 1960

 

Strategically, Fender tried to cover all bases by also introducing a range of short-scale (initially 22½” and then 24”) ‘student’ models including the Musicmaster (1956), Duo‑Sonic (1964), Mustang (1964) and Bronco (1967). To differentiate the ‘student’ instruments from the pro‑level models, Fender designed hardware and finishes that was unique to these models. The Musicmaster and Bronco had single pickups, while the Duo‑Sonic and Mustang had two pickups. The Mustang and Bronco also featured bespoke vibrato systems while the Musicmaster and Duo‑Sonic had fixed bridges. While these budget models have found a strong following by those in the know, they have had chequered histories, all having been discontinued and reissued over the years. Seen as peripheral to the ‘core’ classics, the high volume low cost guitars undeservedly attract a lower profile and lower resale values on the vintage collector market despite being made at the same factory, by the same staff, using the same materials and tools.

1959 Fender Musicmaster, 1963 Duo-Sonic,1964 Mustang & 1968 Bronco

 

In the minds of most guitarists, Fender was a solid‑body guitar maker. After the failure of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar to persuade traditionalists to change brand, Fender attempted to compete with Gibson’s popular ES range of semi‑acoustic guitars. Fender introduced the fully hollow‑body Coronado in 1966, designed by German luthier and Rickenbacker guitar designer Roger Rossmeisl. The Coronado retained Fender’s ‘bolt‑on’ maple necks with six‑a‑side headstocks, although the pickups used were unusually DeArmond single coil models. Unfortunately for Fender, the ill‑fated Coronado proved a commercial failure and was discontinued in 1972. After a short‑lived venture into archtop jazz guitars with the rare Montego and LTD models between 1968 and 1972, Fender tried again in1976 with the introduction of the upmarket semi‑hollow humbucker‑equipped Starcaster. Like the valiant attempts before it, the Starcaster met with the same consumer resistance and proved equally unsuccessful, resulting in it being summarily discontinued in 1982. Notably, both the Coronado and Starcaster models were reissued by Fender in 2013 and continue in production today.

1967 Fender Coronado II 1972 Montego & 1976 Starcaster

 

There have been many other Fender solid body electric guitars over the years including the Bass V & VI, the Electric XII, Bullet and Lead amongst numerous others.  In addition, there were many variations on a theme, for instance the Coronado came in Antigua, Wildwood, XII and bass versions. Similarly, the Musicmaster and Mustang also had short‑scale bass models. Other examples include parts‑bin oddities like the Swinger and Maverick. Many later experiments were undertaken by the Japanese arm of Fender without any risk to the company’s ‘Made in USA’ standing. Japanese‑only models include the Performer, Katana and the Gibson‑like set neck Flame. Many of these low volume under‑the‑radar guitar models are often described as ‘forgotten Fenders’.

 

As covered in Part IV of the story, Fender has also sustained a very successful line of guitar and bass amplifiers dating from the late 1940s right through to the current day, including landmark valve amps such as the Princeton, Champ, Bassman and the mighty Twin Reverb (among many others). Like Marshall and Vox from the UK, Fender amps have become synonymous with modern electric guitar music.

 

The successful honeymoon period for Fender was, however, not destined to last forever. In early 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), reportedly for $13m. Despite investment and efforts to diversify the product lines, manufacturing quality varied considerably due to poor management and cost cutting, particularly during the 1970s. Industry reputation and credibility waned and Fender sales suffered significantly, especially in the face of aggressive competition from Japan. One of the strategies adopted by Japanese companies at the time was, despite the existence of U.S. patents, to flagrantly copy American guitar designs. Japanese companies produced large numbers of guitars built to high standards and sold at low prices. This shameless targeting of American products placed an already struggling Fender under considerable pressure. By 1981, Fender had brought in Dan Smith from Yamaha as Marketing Director to oversee selective guitar redesigns and, along with Fender luthier (and founder of the Fender Custom Shop) John Page, to breathe new life into Fender’s fortunes.

Dan Smith

 

After making considerable improvements across the business, 20 years after being sold to CBS, a management buyout was initiated by CEO William Schultz (1926‑2006). In retrospect, Schultz is now widely regarded as ‘the man who saved Fender’. Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company was acquired from CBS by its own employees in 1985 and the newly privatised company was renamed Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC). The sale did not, however, include the existing Fullerton factory, so Fender was forced to construct a new plant at Corona, California which started limited manufacturing in late 1985.

William Schultz

 

After two years of restructuring the business, the post‑CBS Fender American Standard Stratocaster was introduced in 1987. While superficially similar to previous models, the American Standard was a significant model that signified the company’s return to form and commercial prosperity. In the same year (1987), Fender set up their in‑house Custom Shop (nicknamed ‘The Dream Factory’), based at their Corona facility in California. The aim of the Custom Shop was to showcase just what Fender’s master luthiers were capable of building.

1987 Fender American Standard Stratocaster
Fender Custom Shop Logo

 

Fender’s headquarters are now based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with North American manufacturing facilities in Corona, California, and Ensenada in Mexico. Off-shore production of budget Squier guitars and basses is based in Korea and Japan. Fender has continued to innovate, introducing ‘custom shop’, ‘vintage reissue’ and ‘relic’ instruments and a range of electronics to a market hungry to recapture the ‘golden years’ of pre‑CBS Fender instruments and amps.

 

We have become so familiar with the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision, that we sometimes forget just how revolutionary these designs actually were back in the 1950s and what they, perhaps unwittingly, came to represent. Looking a little more broadly helps to put things into context. Loud and brash electric guitars undoubtedly helped to define the musical uprising brought about by the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, a western social and cultural transformation was taking place in the wake of post‑WWII austerity and despite prevailing conservative Cold War political paranoia. Affluent and often puritanical middle class values allied to consumers’ relentless drive to satisfy materialistic aspiration were fuelled by media, film and television. Opposing the status quo was a growing urban resentment, an angry youthful rebellion boosted by emerging anti‑conformist liberalism and radical demands for greater personal freedoms. Fundamental change was, arguably, inevitable. The turmoil created in the 1950s began to reshape the fabric of society in both the U.S. and the UK and this, in turn, propelled musical experimentation and creativity at a pace never seen before. Fender’s electric guitars not only enabled that particular wave to be ridden with verve, passion and a certain degree of teenage angst, but also came to symbolise many defining events for a frustrated generation, a subversive movement that would last well into the 1960s. When Marlon Brando was asked the question in the film ‘The Wild One’ (1953), “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” he retorted disinterestedly “whadda you got?” For a while at least, it was hip to be cool and cool to be hip.

 

If there are any guitars that qualify for the terms ‘iconic’, ‘classic’ and ‘industry standard’, these original Fender models have to be up there with the best and most enduring industrial design wonders of all time. In particular, the timeless design of the ‘Tele’ and the ‘Strat’ have persisted in the minds of guitarists over many decades, and will surely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

 

Those ‘new’ guitars back in the 1950s are now hugely valuable vintage instruments and are part of our collective music heritage. Vintage Fender guitars, basses and amplifiers are much sought after by collectors, musicians, dealers and enthusiasts alike, with many key models originally made prior to the CBS takeover in 1965 now reaching high vintage guitar market values. Authentic vintage instruments associated with successful artists (and with documented provenance) attract an even higher price premium on the collectable market, for instance, Eric Clapton’s famous c.1956 ‘Blackie’, which was sold for $959,500 to Guitar Center at Christie’s in New York in 2005.

Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ (c1956)

 

Gibson Solid Body Electric Guitars

The history of Gibson guitars is much longer than that of its main current‑day rival Fender and much of this has already been covered elsewhere. The crucial part that Gibson played in this stage of guitar evolution is picked up again here in the mid‑20th Century.

 

During the 1940s, popular American jazz guitarist, performer and musical inventor Les Paul (1915-2009) – born Lester William Polsfuss – had become increasingly unhappy with the compromises experienced by electric acoustic archtop guitars. In an attempt to overcome the shortcomings, Les Paul had been actively experimenting with guitar design from around 1939. A famous early prototype electric guitar assembled by Les Paul out of hours at the Epiphone factory around 1940 was nicknamed ‘the log’, which was essentially a solid piece of 4”x4” pine timber running the length of the body, providing the base for the strings, bridge assembly and pickups. To make the design appear more guitar‑like, Les Paul attached a traditional guitar neck and two hollow guitar ‘wings’ from an Epiphone archtop on either side of the ‘plank’.

Les Paul & The Log

 

Les Paul had originally approached Gibson as early as 1941 but no interest was shown by the company.  He tried again in 1945 or 1946 and his ideas were once again rejected. It wasn’t until 1950 that newly‑appointed Gibson president, Theodore ‘Ted’ McCarty (1909-2001) brought in Les Paul to act as a consultant in response to Fender’s newly launched solid body electric guitars. Like Leo Fender, McCarty could not play the guitar, so he worked very closely with those who could.

Ted McCarty

 

In 1951, Gibson began producing prototypes of a solid body electric guitar designed by McCarty in consultation with Les Paul. One of the many prototype designs (shown following restoration below) is relatively close to the final production in all but detail.

1951 Gibson Les Paul Prototype

 

Gibson was already losing ground, and business, following the introduction of Fender solid body guitars that appealed to young musicians exploring new musical ideas. To many consumers, Gibson’s models were seen as staid and, compared to the modernistic Stratocaster, frankly old fashioned, tired and boring. For Gibson, it was important that any sold body electric guitar design would be all‑new while also remaining consistent with the values, quality and reputation of the company. It was also crucial that the new instrument would be quite different from Gibson’s competition, whether existing or emerging. Crucially, before the new guitar was launched, McCarty agreed a deal with Les Paul for it to carry Les Paul’s name on the headstock and for him to be an integral part of Gibson’s advertising campaign.

Les Paul Headstock Logo
1952 & 1953 Gibson Les Paul Adverts

 

In July 1952, Gibson launched the now-iconic solid-bodied guitar, the Gibson Les Paul Model, finished in metallic gold, equipped with dual P90 pickups and a trapeze tailpiece similar to those found on the company’s archtop guitars. For a number of years, the Les Paul Model and its variants were the only solid body guitars made by Gibson. The range was extended from the basic ‘gold top’ to the upmarket black and gold Les Paul Custom in 1953 featuring a standard bridge, one P90 pickup and a unique Alnico V ‘staple’ pickup at the neck, a unique design intended to appeal to jazz guitarists.

1952 Gibson Les Paul Model & 1953 Les Paul Custom

 

To broaden appeal, Gibson introduced two affordable slab‑body single cutaway Les Paul models, the Junior with a single P90 pickup in 1954 and Special with dual‑P90 pickups in 1955. These rather utilitarian models retained the body outline but with few of the upmarket features of the carved‑top Les Pauls.

1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior & Special

 

By 1957, the Les Paul’s P90 single coil pickups began to be replaced with Gibson’s PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucking pickup. The process started with the now‑iconic 3‑pickup Les Paul Custom ‘Black Beauty’.

1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty

 

1958 saw the Junior and Special updated to a new double cutaway body and the option of cherry or outrageous TV Yellow, a colour allegedly designed to show up well on black & white TV screens of the time.

1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior and 1961 Les Paul Special

 

Following poor sales of the original Les Paul ‘gold top’ model, the guitar was rejuvenated in 1958 by renaming it the Standard. The Standard’s specification was changed substantially – a cherry sunburst finish was applied to a maple‑capped mahogany body, the PAF pickups became the norm and a tune‑o‑matic bridge and ‘stop’ tailpiece were standardised. Some, but not all, of the tops exhibited an attractive matched 2‑piece ‘flame’ maple top. Around 1,700 of the now‑legendary ‘Burst’ Les Paul Standards were produced between 1958 and 1960 and all have become highly collectable on the vintage guitar market. The original sunburst Standards have become the aspiration of many guitar enthusiasts. These rare instruments are widely regarded as representing the epitome of Gibson guitar’s ‘golden age’.

1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard

 

The Les Paul models weren’t the only new instruments aiming to establish Gibson’s electric guitar credentials. The late 1950s saw a number of new guitar designs including the McCarty‑designed ES-335 semi‑acoustic, which first appeared in 1958. The ES‑335 was significant because of a solid centre block running through the body and on which the pickups and bridge were mounted, essentially much like Les Paul’s ‘log’ experiment. The semi‑hollow body construction was important in reducing acoustic feedback in high gain situations compared to fully‑hollow archtops. Gibson also released a lower cost hollow‑body ES model with dual P90s, called the ES-330 and two upmarket siblings, the ES‑345 and ES‑355.

1958 Gibson ES-335

 

The late 1950s was a period of intense innovation at Gibson. In addition to the Les Paul and the ES series, Gibson designed two ‘modernistic’ guitars intended to compete with Fender’s popular solid guitars, the Explorer and Flying V, both of which were introduced in 1958. A third ‘modernistic’ series model, the Moderne, was patented and prototypes might have been constructed but no actual verified examples have ever come to light, let alone reached the vintage collector market. The Moderne has become something of a myth and an original 1950s example is seen by many collectors as the ‘Holy Grail of guitar collecting’. Gibson (re‑)issued a Moderne in small numbers in the early 1980s and again occasionally since.

 

While the futuristic Flying V and Explorer models were well ahead their time, sales of these radical instruments was very poor. In 1958, Gibson sold only 81 Flying Vs and 19 Explorers. The following year (1959), only 17 Flying Vs and 3 Explorers were sold. It is hardly surprising then that both models were withdrawn by 1959-1960. A few further examples were constructed in the early 1960s from parts. As only small numbers of the original release Explorers and Flying Vs were made, they have become very highly sought after and valued. Gibson, however, would return to these original designs and has successfully reissued both the Flying V and Explorer many years later.

Gibson Modernistic Series Patents 1958
1958 Gibson Explorer & Flying V
1982 Gibson Moderne

 

Like Fender, Gibson recognised that they had to cater for the lower end of the market in order to attract new and younger players to the fold. In order to make budget guitars accessible without affecting sales of their premium models, Gibson introduced a range of simple low cost ‘student’ guitars, called the Melody Maker, from 1959. The basic Melody Makers, featuring distinctive narrow headstocks, slab bodies and all‑new Fender‑like narrow single coil pickups, were produced in large numbers at Gibson’s Kalamazoo plant alongside the classics. The Melody Maker’s body shape went through four incarnations during its lifetime, with only 2 bearing a similarity to existing Gibson electrics. Although the Melody Makers proved very popular and sold in large numbers, they were nevertheless withdrawn by 1971. Gibson has re‑used the Melody Maker name on a number of occasions since the original models.

1960, 1964, 1965 & 1967 Gibson Melody Makers

 

Despite the now‑legendary reputation of the Les Paul Standard, sales of the model remained relatively stagnant and, in 1961, Gibson were forced to take action. Effectively, production of the Les Paul ceased and a new design was introduced in 1961, even though it retained the ‘Les Paul’ moniker.  The new model was another design shift with a thin double cutaway mahogany body with contoured upper bouts and pointed ‘devil’ horns. Allegedly, Les Paul didn’t favour the guitar’s design and no longer wanted to be associated with it. In addition, Les Paul separated from his wife Mary Ford and the divorce settlement may also have been a pecuniary factor in his decision to drop his name from the guitar. By 1963, after Les Paul’s name was removed, the model was re‑designated the Gibson SG (standing for ‘Solid Guitar’). The Gibson SG has remained in continuous production since 1961 and, ironically, it has become the company’s most commercially successful model in Gibson’s long history. Like the single cutaway Les Paul before it, the SG model came in a number of variants, the single‑P90 Junior, the dual‑P90 Special, dual‑humbucker Standard and 3‑humbucker Custom.

1961 Gibson Les Paul Standard (SG)

 

The single cutaway Gibson Les Paul may have gone but it was not forgotten. It reappeared in 1968, and then only after second hand guitars became popular at around the time of the British blues explosion, led by guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green, as well as other contemporary musicians of the time, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff. The Les Paul has had numerous variants over the years including notable models such as the Les Paul Deluxe, Professional, Recording, Artisan and Studio models, and many guitarists have had signature models released to celebrate the artists’ association with the company.  Since its reintroduction in the late 1960s, the Les Paul has remained in continuous production and, along with the Fender Stratocaster, it has become one of the most recognisable design icons of modern‑day guitar music.

Gibson Les Paul Recording & Deluxe

 

Gibson continued to innovate into the early 1960s, introducing more convention‑busting designs. McCarty, hired famed car designer Ray Dietrich (1894‑1980) to cash in on the American automotive craze of the time. The new model was called the Firebird, which featured a more rounded‑off Explorer‑like outline, through‑body construction and rear‑facing banjo tuners. These first Firebirds, produced in 1963‑1964, were known informally as ‘reverse’ bodied because the upper treble bout was more pronounced than the bass bout. Again, due to poor sales and high manufacturing costs, Gibson simplified the fundamentals and ‘flipped’ the body to produce the ‘non‑reverse’ Firebird, made between 1965 and 1969, when it was withdrawn. As with many of other unsuccessful early Gibson solid body designs, the company has reissued the Firebird in both ‘reverse’ and ‘non‑reverse’ formats since. Other variants were made including the 12‑string Firebird XII and the Thunderbird bass.

1964 Gibson ‘Reverse’ Firebird III & 1966 ‘Non-Reverse’ Firebird V

 

McCarty stood down from Gibson in 1966 and became president of Bigsby Guitars. McCarty later collaborated with, influenced and mentored up‑and‑coming ambitious American luthier Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars. Smith honoured McCarty’s contribution to guitar building by dedicating him with a PRS McCarty model. McCarty died in 2001 at the age of 91.

 

As with competitors, Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, the 1970s was a period of controversial experimentation while under ‘corporate’ ownership. Gibson produced many other solid body electric guitars than have been mentioned so far. Among the many ‘forgotten Gibsons’ of the period, there are some notable examples, including the Challenger, Corvus, Firebrand, Invader, L6-S, Marauder, RD series, S‑1, Sonex‑180 and the Victory.

 

While Gibson may have had considerable success with guitars, it has never quite found the same formula for basses, amps and acoustics as some of its competitors, including Fender. That doesn’t mean to say they haven’t made notable examples; they have, it’s just that they haven’t had the popular impact and longevity to warrant mainstream success alongside the recognised ‘classics’.

 

After McCarty’s departure, Gibson came under increasing commercial pressure. Things came to a head in 1969, when Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. In the same year, Norlin shifted production of Gibson guitars from its long‑term home in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. In 1984, Gibson finally closed its old factory at Kalamazoo.

Gibson Kalamazoo Factory

 

Following a similar pattern to Fender’s travails at the time, Gibson underwent a period of poor quality control and severe financial difficulties, often blamed on corporate interference by executives who knew little about, and cared little for, the company’s pedigree and its customer base. Ultimately, as happened with Fender, the company returned to private ownership in January 1986 to focus on its core business. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was close to liquidation when it was bought by three businessmen, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman and Gary A. Zebrowski. Under the new management, the business was once again repositioned as a maker of high quality professional musical instruments.

Henry Juszkiewicz

 

While production of Gibson’s sold body guitars remained in Nashville, further production plants were also opened in Memphis, Tennessee (1984) for semi‑hollow models, as well as Bozeman, Montana (1989) for acoustic guitars. After having bought out its main American competitor Epiphone in 1957, Gibson strategically repositioned Epiphone as a budget brand and relocated production of Epiphone guitars to Japan in 1970 and then to Korea in 1983, mainly producing low‑cost versions of famous Gibson models.

 

In order to cater for the more exclusive end of the market, Gibson produced select instruments under an in‑house Custom Shop operation. Juszkiewicz built on the internal Custom Shop operations, the roots of which date back to around 1984 (3 years before Fender established its Custom Shop), and which became a separate facility based in Nashville from October 1993.

Gibson Custom Shop Logo

 

The Gibson Guitar Corporation, still a private company, has its headquarters based in Nashville, Tennessee and continues to develop and produce high quality instruments into the 21st century. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Gibson. In May 2018, after a period of unsuccessful diversification into peripheral consumer electronics products and rapidly rising debts, Gibson entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. The widely anticipated move was intended to give the company sufficient time to restructure the business, with Henry Juszkiewicz still as CEO. Gibson intends to focus on profitable core musical instrument products, while divesting itself of the remainder of its ill‑fated and loss‑making lifestyle ventures. It is likely that Gibson’s rationalisation programme will succeed and the company will avoid liquidation. Like the phoenix symbolised on its Firebird guitars, Gibson will surely rise again from the ashes and achieve long‑term financial security.

Gibson Factory Sign

 

Many vintage Gibson solid body electric guitars are highly regarded by collectors, musicians and enthusiasts alike, with many key models reaching high or very prices on the vintage guitar market with the 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard is held in particularly high esteem. It will be interesting to see if a resurgent Gibson will be able to recapture the pinnacles of past glory. Watch this space…

 

Other Major American Electric Guitar Brands

While it might seem from the previous two sections that Fender and Gibson were the only companies responsible for all the key milestones in the solid guitar’s evolution, this is in fact far from reality. There have been innumerable manufacturers from around the globe that have been highly influential in shaping the market.

 

Epiphone – Epiphone’s illustrious history dates back to 1873 when the Stathopoulo family emigrated from Greece, via Turkey, and arrived in New York in 1903. The family set up a business in America making banjos and mandolins. By the end of WWI, the company became ‘The House Of Stathopoulo’, then changed its name to the ‘Epiphone Banjo Company’ in 1928, the same year that they started producing acoustic guitars. The name Epiphone derived from a combination of owner Epaminondas Stathopoulo’s nickname, ‘Epi’, and the Greek word ‘phon-’ meaning ‘sound’ or ‘voice’. In addition to musical instruments, Epiphone started producing amplifiers in 1935. Epiphone was Gibson’s main competitor in the production of high‑quality instruments, particularly archtop guitars in the 1930s and 1940s, such as the De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models. It was only after World War II that Epiphone began to struggle, eventually resulting in its acquisition by Gibson in 1957. Initially, the new generation of Epiphone guitars were still made in Gibson’s American facilities, even though many of their instruments were re‑branded Gibson models. During the 1960s, Epiphone’s Casino, which was effectively their version of the Gibson ES-330, became particularly famous because of an association with English pop/rock band The Beatles. In recent decades, the Epiphone brand has come to represent the affordable end of Gibson’s output, complementing the parent company’s product lines. In the early 1970s manufacturing was migrated to the Far East, first in Japan, then Korea and, since 2004, Epiphone guitars have been made in a dedicated factory in Qingdao, China. Other well‑known model Epiphone names from their past include Emperor, Riviera, Sheraton, Olympic, Wilshire and Crestwood.

 

Epaminondas ‘Epi’ Stathopoulos
Epiphone Logo

 

Gretsch – Another famous manufacturer with a long history dating back to 1883 is Gretsch. The company was founded by Friedrich Gretsch (c.1856-1895). Gretsch arrived as a 17 year old German immigrant to the United States in 1872. By 1883, aged 27, Gretsch was manufacturing banjos, tambourines, and drums from a modest shop in Brooklyn, New York. It wasn’t until the big band era of the 1930s that guitars became part of Gretsch’s core business with models like the Synchromatic and Electromatic. Gretsch became hugely successful with the explosion of blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s. The man behind many of Gretsch’s iconic designs including the flamboyant White Falcon was guitarist Jimmie Webster (1908‑1979), who worked as sales and demonstration representative for Gretsch. NB. Webster was known as the inventor of the ‘Touch System’ of playing in the 1950s, popularised by Van Halen as ‘two‑hand tapping’ in the late 1970s. The demand for Gretsch guitars during this period enabled Gretsch to compete head on with Gibson and Fender. Gretsch’s association with guitarist Chet Atkins propelled their now‑iconic 6120 from 1955 to massive popularity. Like many other companies in the 1960s, Gretsch struggled and was bought out by Baldwin Pianos in 1967. By 1981, after a period of significant decline Baldwin finally wound up production of Gretsch instruments. Fred W. Gretsch purchased the brand name in 1985 and several attempts were made to restart production, including manufacturing in the Far East. Gretsch has been under Fender patronage since 2002 with Fender having the controlling interest and the Gretsch family retaining ownership. A rejuvenated Gretsch company, with Fender’s support and endorsement from rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer has, once again, become successful. Well‑known model Gretsch names from their history include the White Falcon, Country Gentleman, Tennessean, Viking, Anniversary, Jet and Corvette, often carrying obscure and confusing numerical model numbers.

Friedrich Gretsch
Gretsch Logo

 

Rickenbacker – Rickenbacker’s history is shorter than some of its competitors and has been widely covered in other parts of the guitar’s story. Rickenbacker only emerged in the early 1930s first as Ro‑Pat‑In then as Electro before formally adopting the Rickenbacker name. Rickenbacker was crucial in the early development of the electric guitar. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Rickenbacker’s fortunes found a new lease of life and took a major upturn that would lead to the current day. In 1953, Adolph Rickenbacker sold his company to music industry businessman F.C. Hall (1909‑1999), founder and CEO of media company Radio-Tel. Under Hall’s ambitious leadership, the company introduced a number of innovative guitar models, which proved popular with many bands during the nascent rock ‘n’ roll era. In an inspired move, Halll hired illustrious guitar maker Roger Rossmeisl (1927-1979) in 1954. Rossmeisl was responsible for the design of Rickenbacker guitars including a number of iconic instruments released in the late 1950s, including the ‘Capri’ 300 series guitars from 1958 and the equally influential 4000 series basses from 1957. Both of these designs, along with a number of others, are still in production today. Rickenbacker’s artist association with, particularly, The Beatles and The Byrds in the 1960s, cemented the brand’s rightful place in guitar history.

Adolph Rickenbacker
Rickenbacker Logo

 

Danelectro – While it may not be an obvious choice for coverage, it is worth mentioning Danelectro. The company was founded in 1947 by Lithuanian immigrant Nathan ‘Nat’ Daniel (1912-1994) and based in New Jersey. The company started out by making guitars, basses and baritones for other companies including Silvertone models for the Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order, and Airline models for Montgomery Ward. The strategy enabled Danelectro to start making guitars using its own name by 1954. Daniel innovated by using unorthodox materials and construction techniques, at least hitherto unusual in the guitar building industry. The resulting instruments have a distinctive look and sound that also enabled the company to produce no-frills instruments at competitive prices for the mass market. In a clever move under the Silvertone brand, they produced guitars with a valve amp built into the guitar case, so customers could buy everything they needed in one convenient, portable package. The brand is important historically because it enabled many young aspiring musicians to buy instruments at low cost. The unique approach also attracted many professional players to use Danelectro instruments, including guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page and Beck. Like many other American companies, including Fender and Gibson, Danelectro struggled in the 1960s and was sold to industry giant MCA in 1966, only for the factory to be closed down in 1969. The brand was resurrected and started making guitars again in 2006.

Nathan Daniel
Danelectro Logo

 

PRS – Compared to some of the well established brands that have been around much longer, PRS Guitars is really the new‑kid‑on‑the‑block, founded by American luthier Paul Reed Smith in Annapolis, Maryland in 1984. In a relatively short period of time, PRS has gained an enviable reputation for high quality instruments and amps, cleverly finding a niche in the market that is different from their competitors. Taking design influences from Fender and Gibson amongst others and adding something new and fresh of their own, PRS managed to build substantial market share rapidly from seemingly nowhere.  Having guitarist Carlos Santana on board from the start and bringing in ex‑Gibson president Ted McCarty as Smith’s mentor didn’t harm the company’s credibility either. PRS introduced stunning instruments, starting with the Standard and Custom, recognised for their immaculate craftsmanship. Many PRS instruments have distinctive features including exquisite highly figured tone woods, superbly engineered hardware and distinctive unique ‘bird’ fingerboard inlays. The company grew swiftly; relocating to a major new American factory in 1996 and from 2003 PRS established a range of more affordable SE (standing for ‘Student Edition’) models manufactured in Korea. PRS’s success demonstrates that the industry’s barriers to entry are not insurmountable and with the right strategy, it is still possible to enter the market and to grow market share despite well‑established competition, and without being straightjacketed by historical constraints.

 

Paul Reed Smith
PRS Guitars Logo

 

 

Other Guitar Brands From Around the World

Guitar design, production and sales are not restricted to just a few large American companies. In America alone, there are many thousands of guitar manufacturers past and present. Many names will be familiar, such as Ernie Ball/Music Man, Peavey, Guild, Jackson, Dean, BC Rich, Ovation, Supro, National, Kay, Harmony, etc., through to innumerable custom and boutique luthiers. Some of these manufacture instruments in the U.S. while others are American companies that source part or all of their guitars from the Far East. A quick look around the globe highlights many other fertile guitar making territories…

 

Europe – Particularly following World War II when embargoes and tight trade restrictions limited exports of guitars from America, a combination of high demand for guitars and low supply provided an opportunity for some enterprising European companies to fill the gap. Many of these guitars followed the influence of American designs in the knowledge that young people in Europe aspired to emulate their American counterparts. Britain and continental Europe have produced many guitar brands over a long period of time including from illustrious companies such as Burns, Duesenberg, Eko, Framus, Hagstrom, Höfner, Hohner, Patrick James Eggle, Shergold, Gordon Smith, James Trussart, Vigier, Vox, Warwick, Watkins, Zemaitis, etc.

 

Far East – The Far East isn’t only responsible for producing low cost guitars for American and European guitar brands. During the 1970s, Japanese firms were producing affordable, high quality copies of American guitars, taking advantage of high labour prices and poor quality control in the U.S. However, there has also been a notable history of guitar manufacture in its own right, including some very quirky and idiosyncratic models. Many of the big names from Japan include, Aria, ESP/LTD, Ibanez, Italia, Teisco Tokai, Yamaha, etc.

 

Eastern Bloc – While not widely recognised as a guitar‑making region, largely because of its nationalistic political regime and economic protectionism, the Eastern Bloc countries have produced a diverse range of instruments over an extended period of time. There is a vast array of models bearing many unfamiliar names such as, Aelita, Formanta, Jolana, Migma, Tokina, etc.

 

As you might expect, the fascination with the world’s favourite instrument is genuinely global and they have been made in every corner of the world, including Australia, Canada, South America and, to a lesser extent, the middle east (where the guitar’s story began after all!) and Africa.

 

Other Factors

Although this section focuses on electric guitar production, it is worth remembering that acoustic guitar manufacturing is also thriving in the 21st Century with famous specialist brands such as Martin (based in Pennsylvania since 1833) and Taylor (based in California since 1974) at the forefront of innovation and technological development. Of the major American electric guitar makers, it is only really Gibson that also has a reputable range of professional acoustic instruments. Elsewhere, Yamaha has a strong range of Far Eastern acoustic guitars. There are numerous other manufacturers to be found producing fine acoustic guitars at all price points in the market.

 

The 21st Century landscape of guitar production is one of global diversity and differentiation. Modern guitars may have been hugely influenced, if not defined, by a small number of American companies but it is by no means a monopolistic industry; quite the opposite in reality. The long‑term viability of guitar making is inextricably linked to the music industry and what happens will rely heavily on musical trends and influences.

 

There have been many challenges to the dominance of the electric guitar, notably during the 1980s and 1990s with proliferation of synthesizers and in the 2000s as home production of electronic music became affordable and accessible. However, the popularity of the guitar seems (relatively) assured, despite many cynical commentators regularly proclaiming ‘the death of guitar music’. Digital technology is bringing a new challenge to guitar makers, so it will be up to countless luthiers around the world to rise to the challenge, seek new opportunities, adapt the guitar and make it truly a universal instrument and secure its future success for generations to come.

 

End of Part VI

Over these last six instalments, I have covered the guitar’s history from its vestigial beginnings in the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ to the birth and proliferation of the electric guitar. There is just a little of the long and winding path left to travel and I hope you’ll join me for the remainder of the story. The next article has yet to be written, due to personal circumstances. While I hope to publish it next month, it is by no means certain. Fingers crossed. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Contrary to popular opinion, great minds most definitely do not think alike. Similarly, great musicians do not play or sound alike.”

 

© 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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