June 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part IV

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

 

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

 

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

 

Needing to be heard

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

1920s New Orleans Jazz Swing Band

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The electro magnetic guitar pickup

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

 

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

Electromagnetic Pickup Principle

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Rickenbacker Early Logo

 

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

Rickenbacker Electric Guitar Patent (1937 Detail)

 

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

Guy Hart Gibson Pickup Patent (1937)

 

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

Fender Pickup Patent (1944)

 

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

Mains Hum

 

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

Single Coil & Humbucker Pickup Construction

 

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

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

 

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

Single Coil & Humbucker Pickup Types

 

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

Audio Feedback Loop

 

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

1959 Gibson PAF Pickups Front
1959 Gibson PAF Pickup Baseplate

 

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

Guitar Pickup Types

 

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

 

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

Common Pickup Configurations

 

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

 

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

EMG 81 & 85 Active Pickups

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The electric guitar amplifier

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Amplifier

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

Simple Amp Control Panel

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Valve Construction

 

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

Valve Types

 

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

Common Valve Types

 

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

Transistors

 

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

Digital DSP Microprocessor

 

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

 

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

 

The Loudspeaker

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

Early PA System

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Moving Coil Dynamic Speaker

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Celestion Speakers

 

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

 

Guitar Amps

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

 

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

Stromberg-Voisinet CMI Catalogue (1929)

 

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

1930s Electro Combo Amp

 

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

c.1935 National Dobro Guitar Amp

 

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

Leo Fender

 

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

1948 Fender Princeton & Champion 800

 

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

1955 Fender Twin Amp

 

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

1950s Vox AC30-4

 

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

 

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

Distortion

 

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

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

 

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

 

Early Effect Pedals

 

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

Dr Jim Marshall OBE

 

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

Marshall Stacks

 

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

Roland JC-120

 

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

1970s Mesa Boogie Amps

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dumble Overdrive Special

 

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

Kemper Profiler

 

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

 

Get connected

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

Jack Plug & Socket

 

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

Telephone Exchange – New Haven Connecticut

 

End of Part IV

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 

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May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

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

 

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

 

Modern Era (1900-present)

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acoustic Archtop Guitars

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

 

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

1898 Orville Gibson Archtop

 

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

 

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

 

The Rise of Gibson Guitars

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

Orville Gibson
Orville Gibson Workshop

 

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

 

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

 

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

Gibson Mandolin US Patent 1898

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

1911 Gibson Style 0

 

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

Lloyd Loar

 

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

1924 Gibson L5

 

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

 

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

 

The Competition

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

1948 D’Angelico Excel
1930s Stromberg

 

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

1935 Gibson Super 400

 

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

 

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

 

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

2018 Ibanez Artstar Prestige AF-200

 

Acoustic Resonator Guitars

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)

 

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

Son House

 

The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

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

John Dopyera

 

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

George Beauchamp

 

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

National Resophonic Logo

 

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

National Tricone Resonator Patent
National Tricone Resonator

1939 National Tricone Resonator

 

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

National Single Cone Resonator Patent
National Single Cone Resonator

 

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

Dobro Logo

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Post-War Resonator Guitars

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

National Reso-phonic Resolectric

 

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

Epiphone Dobro Hound Dog Deluxe

 

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

 

End of Part III

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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January 2018 – The State Of The Village

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to 2018, albeit a tad belated. The previous CRAVE Guitars article (December 2017) was an introspective look back at 2017 and a tentative look forward to 2018. That article looked only at CRAVE Guitars’ personal experiences, apprehensions and aspirations. What it didn’t do was to look more broadly at the music industry landscape and to make some sort of sense of what’s going on out there in the global guitar village, hence the somewhat intentionally ambiguous title of this month’s article. The timing also coincides with the U.S. President’s annual State of the Union Address, so there is some rhyme to the reason. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my assessment (quite the contrary in fact), as it is purely a personal view of the world from the margins of the sector.

Looking across the whole industry, it is in a good enough state considering the severe difficulties experienced by just about every sector of the global economy over the last decade. Business has been, is now, and will remain very challenging and it will only get harder for manufacturers to achieve competitive advantage in rapidly changing markets. Things are looking positive though; maybe not everywhere but there are certainly areas of buoyancy and there is reason for optimism, generally. Yes, there are always ups and downs and it is often a case that firms need to be adapting continuously in order to stay current and relevant. There have been fundamental, structural changes taking place in the way people experience music and the likelihood is that those changes will not only continue but also accelerate as technology enables new and better ways to get into the groove. Generally, the industry is both driving innovation and meeting the needs of musicians, which is a good sign for manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Music is the law

The thing that I keep being reminded of is that people are still actively making music and people are still listening to music; something that I believe is a universal constant that will not change. I have covered the science of music in previous articles and, as music is subject to the physical laws of the universe, it is essentially necessary for the continuation of the human condition. How and where people experience music changes but the basic (and I believe, elemental) human need for music ensures that demand will be sustained, although I hesitate to use the word ‘forever’.

“Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life” Keith Richards (1943-)

Keith Richards

“Music is the universal language of mankind” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807‑1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe” Laozi (6th Century BCE)

Laozi

The challenge for the industry in the developed world is that music, as an artistic and cultural pursuit, is discretionary and people’s ability to access music is a matter of individual choice, subject to inevitable economic constraints and lifestyle priorities. Fortunately, at least in the western countries, personal freedoms mean that music is an integral and essential part of most people’s lives. Furthermore, most post‑industrial societies recognise the value of art and culture to the well‑being of its citizens as well as being a principal contributor to the national economy – music earns a great deal of money and thereby raises a considerable amount in taxation.

An appreciation of this ‘macro’ context is important in order to evaluate what is happening on the ground at the ‘micro’ level.

Shiny, shiny new gear

That’s the ‘big picture’ set out. Now let’s start with what’s happening with new gear out there. At the time of writing, Winter NAMM 2018 in Anaheim, California has just ended and there is plenty to be excited about. NAMM is the trade show where the major manufacturers in the business sport their wares for the coming year.

NAMM January 2018

Although my primary focus and main interest is with vintage guitars, as well as vintage analogue effect pedals and vintage valve amps, it may surprise to you to know that I still have a keen interest in modern gear as well. OK, so I don’t spend my meagre lucre on new musical equipment any longer but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate exciting, shiny new‑fangled stuff. Like most eager G.A.S.-obsessed guitarists (you know who you are and what that acronym stands for), I am not alone in that I have the frequent pangs of lust for whizzy modern gear. I may not have the intimate knowledge of new equipment that others do, so my comments are therefore largely general and observational.

First off, the quality of equipment coming onto the market these days is extremely high and many leagues ahead of the sub‑par stuff that was available in most guitar shops when I was young, eager and willing. For people who are starting the journey of guitar discovery, it is very easy to buy a very high standard of instrument these days, even on a tight budget. The baseline is that there are very few poor guitars in today’s market. That doesn’t mean that poor examples don’t exist, of course they do. Sometimes, though, consumers can be critical of what is on offer, although this may be result of not being clear about what they need and then not making informed choices of gear. This mismatch may cause as much disappointment as bad gear per se. I regularly hear the “piece of cr*p” argument levelled at the tools of our trade and I feel that this is possibly more to do with assertive conceit to cover up a poor experience in the first place, rather than an objective evaluation of the kit itself.

Part of the reason for the bar continually being raised is the influx of mass‑produced equipment from the Far East, particularly the growth in products from China. Chinese output is in turn exerting pressure on other Pacific Rim producers, such as Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia to up their game in the face of stiff Asian competition. Japan has suffered economically for many years and is now facing many of the commercial squeezes that America faced several decades ago, including increasing labour, regulatory and raw material costs and increasing inability to compete on price in a saturated global market. Let’s face it, there are only so many guitars that can be sold, so if there is over‑production, this places downward pressure on costs and therefore effectively capping retail prices. Improved quality and low prices are good for the consumer but cause many headaches for many manufacturers trying to earn a living.

As a result of global trading arrangements, established American brands like Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS and Danelectro will continue to take advantage of offshore production in order to compete at the lower‑cost, higher‑volume end of the market.

The over-supply of generic products at the budget end of the market does, however, open up all sorts of opportunities for the niche guitar makers who are small, agile and able to meet individual customers’ needs for something different. The boom in independent luthiers from all over the globe is a healthy phenomenon of the early 21st century. These custom builders are producing innovative and appealing guitars like never before. There are way too many small‑scale builders to mention but just take a look and you’ll discover a plethora of superb bespoke equipment just waiting to be tailored to your individual requirements. There is even a guitar show specifically showcasing small luthiers – the annual Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, Germany.

The losers in this more volatile and fickle arena tend to be the mid‑sized producers of classic instruments who are constrained by their history and a certain amount of preconceived public expectation.

Gibson, in particular, has had a number of difficulties over recent years. Strategically, they are caught between a rock and a hard place with their traditional customer base being eroded by competition while not being able to create a loyal new following. The introduction of the Modern Double Cut is evidence of how Gibson continues to split opinion (NB. for what it’s worth, I like them). It may seem that Gibson doesn’t know where it is going. I would argue, though, that whatever direction it goes, it is likely to struggle, so I don’t envy the company executives who have very difficult jobs at the moment. Gibson’s custom shop is producing excellent wares but the size of that niche is limited to a relatively few well‑off discerning customers. It is Gibson’s Memphis division though, responsible for its semi‑acoustic products, that is a shining light. The Memphis plant is producing some exciting, beautifully made instruments in relatively low numbers. If they can replicate the success and reputation of their Memphis division in other areas, they may well experience a resurgence in fortunes. In the meantime, Gibson’s absence from U.S. industry trade show NAMM 2018 in favour of CES may be symptomatic of their problems. Sadly, the words ‘shoot’ and ‘foot’ spring to mind.

Gibson Les Paul Standard Modern Double Cut 2018
Gibson Memphis ES-335 Figured 2018

Conversely, Fender seems to have fared better in keeping things afloat. They have done this by rejuvenating some of their lesser known instruments (e.g. the updated offset Duo‑Sonic and Mustang, as well as the semi-acoustic Coronado) to a customer base that wasn’t generally aware of the originals. The Jaguar and Jazzmaster are also proving to be popular and very cool, especially with alternative and indie musicians. Fender is also tweaking its classics, the Strat and Tele. Fender’s, current ranges have an exciting freshness at keen price points that are attracting young players wanting to differentiate themselves from the old guard. Fender also has an advantage in material sourcing, as they generally use woods that are less exotic and therefore more available and sustainable. Compared with Gibson, Fender also has a highly lucrative amp and bass guitar business, both of which provide industry standard products. The Gretsch brand (part of the Fender empire) is also producing some very fine instruments across its key lines.

Fender Duo-Sonic 2018
Fender Telecaster Thinline Super Deluxe

Fender therefore seems to have the upper hand of the ‘big two’ at the moment, although this could change easily and rapidly. Like Gibson, Fender could do with some credible, long‑standing all‑new guitar and bass designs to reinforce their reputation and ensure their long-term prosperity.

When this article was published, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations prohibiting, or at least severely limiting, the international trade in rosewood will have been in place for a whole year. The full long‑term impact of this has still to be felt. However, most guitar makers are urgently seeking viable alternatives – easier said than done. Ebony is likely to be next and who can predict what will follow after that (mahogany?). The import burden imposed by CITES has pretty much stopped CRAVE Guitars from purchasing instruments containing rosewood from outside the EU. As if importing from North America wasn’t bad enough (including dire currency exchange rates), Brexit will probably impose further barriers to buying products from the near continent. These burdensome trading restrictions are definitely not good for small enterprises like CRAVE Guitars.

Will online selling result in the disappearance of physical off‑high street guitar shops? Internet sellers will try to gain market share and brick‑built emporiums carrying expensive display stock will struggle in the same way as many other retailers grappling with the same conundrum. However, as with other parts of the retail sector, it will probably result in a mix of retail and online channels providing customers with choice about the way they buy their gear.

I always advocate actually playing something before buying but it doesn’t always suit everyone and sometimes it just isn’t possible. As an example, some of the guitars in CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’ simply couldn’t be sourced locally and many had to be acquired over the Internet, usually in eBay or Reverb, many from across the Atlantic or in Europe. There is obviously a risk in doing so but these can be mitigated to a degree by doing one’s homework. Diligence should always rule over desire when making unseen purchases. Even so, I have made many costly mistakes but on the whole, one develops a nous for buying guitars this way, especially when there is no alternative option.

The fad for ‘modding’ guitars is as strong as ever with many 3rd party after‑market companies producing just about anything you could ever want for your guitar, effect pedal or amp. In particular, the evolution of quality after‑market pickup manufacturers seems to have followed the growth of luthiers, focusing on quality, tone, character and individuality. Small changes can have a significant improvement to an otherwise bland, generic instrument (but realise that it may devalue a vintage piece of equipment).

Specialisation and differentiation is increasing in the accessories market as well, which includes anything from strings, leads, picks, pedalboards, cases, straps, merchandise, and just about anything else you can think of. In a similar vein, front‑of‑house concert tech such as mixing, PAs, monitoring and lighting are all evolving very rapidly.

One downside of a market flooded with cheap imported product is the resurgence of copies, knock‑offs and fakes affecting both old and new guitars. Long gone are the days of winnable ‘lawsuit’ cases, so replicas are rife. The topic of 1970s and 1980s ‘lawsuit’ cases against Japanese copies is fascinating (not for this article though). Many cheap lookalikes sail close to infringing trademark violations.

As the value of rare vintage gear rockets, there is a temptation to capitalise on reproductions that are so well done that even experts can be fooled. There have always been fakes of course but the stakes seem to be so much higher now. The origin of fakes seems to be from countries over which there is little or no jurisdiction, therefore bringing those accountable to justice is nigh on impossible. Few companies have the resources to track the forgers down, enforce their rights and drive them out of business. Even if they are successful, it is only a temporary sticking plaster, as the culprits simply disappear underground, only to pop up again somewhere else with an alternative ruse to rid the unwary honest of their cash. Beware!

Another massive growth trend over the last few years is in boutique effects. This is, I believe a reaction to the trend towards multi-effects and digital modelling products where major companies crammed so much versatility and functionality into these boxes that it became difficult to make music without embarking on an engineering degree. The back‑to‑basics approach of the small specialist effect makers has mirrored the boutique guitar and pickup makers. Their tactic was to take the best of the past and bring it up to date without falling into the trap of over‑cramming. The quality is excellent and the only problem for the consumer is possibly the abundance of choice (and sometimes price). Great examples from 2017 include pedals from Keeley, Electro‑Harmonix, Orange, Digitech, Way Huge and Earthquaker Devices. If you want full-featured effects, well you can have that too if you want.

Electro-Harmonix Canyon Looper/Delay
Way Huge Effect Pedals

One unforeseen benefit to the explosion of stomp boxes is that it has stimulated a boom in power supplies and clever pedalboard switching systems. Following the established GigRig (now in G2 form), Japanese giant Boss has jumped on the bandwagon with their highly successful MS-3. There is a negative to complexity in that the level of tinkering needed to find THAT killer tone is considerable and it can actually distract us guitarists from actually playing guitar! Not a good thing in my view.

The GigRig G2
BOSS MS3

Another idea spun off from effects is for crossover tech such as ‘amps in a pedal’, frequently used in a modern amp’s effects loop to push an amp’s power stage by bypassing the amplifier’s pre‑amp. These intriguing boxes of tricks are just emerging onto the market – expect them to be popular in 2018.

Amp manufactures, like luthiers and effect builders have followed a similar track by diversifying and honing in on specifically what 21st century musicians’ need. Live gigging has changed massively and so has the business that supplies it. Apart from arena bands, the crowded backline of insanely powerful amps and stacked speaker cabs has pretty much gone by the wayside. There is still a place for muscle amps but tone quality has largely replaced volume quantity in the modern gigging environment. The move towards ultra-high quality and often low output boutique valve amps (e.g. Two Rock, 633, Bad Cat) and cute/cool ‘lunchbox’ amps has been particularly notable, with many established amp manufacturers following suit at the next level down (e.g. Victory, PRS, EVH). The choice of amps for the budget conscious is impressive with some great options (e.g. Fender, Vox, Orange, Blackstar, BOSS, Yamaha). The change is revolutionary and on‑going. It will be fascinating to see where it leads. Archaic valves still seem to be beguiling the affection of serious musicians, so we won’t see the imminent end of those pretty glowing glass vacuum tubes just yet. It may well happen, just not soon.

PRS MT15
VOX MV50 High Gain and Boutique

All in all, gear‑wise, it’s been a fascinating 2017 with lots of exciting new product hitting the scene. The growth in small‑scale companies suggests that a shakeout may occur at some point, with larger corporates buying out smaller entrepreneurial companies. The big companies do this to acquire successful new products without having to do all the R&D and testing and the risks that go with it. This process of rationalising the supply chain is quite common in post-recessionary periods of economic growth, so expect some announcements of mergers and acquisitions. The flood of imports from Asia is likely to increase further in 2018 and will continue for the foreseeable future, echoing the massive growth of Japanese brands in the 1970s and 1980s. As long as the standards are good and the prices reasonable, consumers will keep spending money.

Live and recorded music

Live music seems to have overtaken recorded music in terms of significance to the sector. It appears that consumers are increasingly demanding the immediacy and exclusivity of the live concert experience. This also seems to coincide with the fact that it is also where management and bands are making their money. The demands of touring make for a great deal of hard work for professional musicians – it isn’t the endless rock ‘n’ roll party of sex and drugs that naïve outsiders think it is (or would maybe like it to be). The key to success for artists is to achieve longevity, rather than the harsh spotlight of overnight success followed by the abyss of obscurity.

Like many, I am trying hard to work out where the guitar heroes for the next generation are coming from. There are so many very good guitarists out there and it is tricky trying to determine what it will take to stand out from the crowd. Once they do get attention, will they then have the credentials to stay in the frame for decades to come? Personally, I would dearly love to be able to record my music. At the moment, I don’t have the time, patience, resources or equipment to do it.

Like live music, the way that music is recorded and distributed has also been revolutionised with major recording studios being replaced by modest home recording environments using impressively powerful DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). Never has it been easier and cheaper to record music. The quality of the music recorded, though, is another matter. The regretful tendency towards the celebrity‑driven vacuous and generic is an enduring concern. Thankfully, there are still enough leftfield artists with integrity to keep the cauldron of creativity bubbling. Britain and Europe seem to be pushing the boundaries more than America, although this may be a perception based on local exposure, rather than reality.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The abundance of people who believe that they know best how to make, record and sell music also has an effect on what the consumer hears. We have a situation where the OCD can delight in correcting every last flaw in the production process and, perhaps unknowingly, they rob much modern music of its vitality and rawness in the process. There is also a tendency towards uniformity and conformity that I can only put down to ‘artists’ seeking short‑term fame and success, rather than producing excellent new music for the long­‑term. Having said that, the ability to create and distribute music has enabled musicians to get their music heard in a way that they wouldn’t have done in the past, as well as for listeners to find new artists.

The investment in time and effort required to master recording technology is immense. Even then, the technical skills and expertise may dominate over the ability to create something worthwhile. However, this is no different to putting a novice at the controls of a traditional studio desk. Those who can and do master the technology have my respect, not only for learning and being able to do it in the first place but also in keeping up to date, which must be a complete nightmare. Having worked in IT for over a decade, currency of knowledge is essential and it is the same with recording technology.

Distribution of recorded music has been transformed by downloads and streaming services like iTunes and Spotify, rather than tangible product or traditional media broadcasting. The benefit is that it provides greater choice and diversity. The issues around licensing and royalties are lagging behind the technological changes, meaning that predatory lawyers will no‑doubt benefit from the inevitable wrangling over rights ownership and originality for years to come.

So… what of the consumer? UK sales of music in 2017 were higher than for any year in the previous 20 years. Streaming (excluding YouTube) accounted for just over 50% of all music consumption in the UK, equating to 68.1 billion songs and contributing £1.2bn to the economy! Vinyl still accounts for about 3% and grew in absolute terms in 2017. Both CD sales and downloads have been declining in percentage terms for the last 5 years, which is a bit sad. All this indicates that entertainment industry scare stories about the Internet and streaming killing off music have proved quite the contrary, given the evidence.

Unlike music sales, there are some areas where innovation is certainly lacklustre, for instance in music videos. For most bands, music videos are still an essential medium but there is little in the way of ‘must watch’ material, compared to the past (think 1980s video). It’s difficult to see what could rejuvenate the platform. If it were me, I’d be looking to work with successful video game producers for an injection of much‑needed new ideas and talent.

Digital rules… or does it?

The analogue versus digital debate would seem to raise its head at this point but to many observers, the lines are currently reasonably clear. There is a place for both and both have their well-argued positives and negatives. Put bluntly, digital is here to stay; get used to it. However, many musicians remain wedded to analogue gear and it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Heck, we can’t even eradicate vinyl records after decades of digital ‘supremacy’, so the best of analogue will be around for a while yet.

Thanks to the likes of the Line6 Pod before it, innovative digital products like the Fractal FX-II, Line6 Helix and the Kemper Profiler have proved hugely successful. This is notable, mainly because of the way these products replicate or emulate the tone and dynamics of decades‑old valve amps. This suggests that new music technology may be more likely to succeed when imitating old technology. The same applies to many new digital effect pedals that strive to reproduce the lo‑fi characteristics of clunky old analogue pedals. Go figure!

I remember back in the 1970s when solid state tried to oust the vacuum tube in amplifiers – it failed. I also remember solid state (analogue) effects replacing, for instance, tape echoes – it succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of mileage in transistor amps and they are very good at what they do. At the risk of repeating myself, there is a place for everything in the right context. The future will undoubtedly feature a mix of both analogue and digital domains, each suited to their strengths.

I foresee a whole area for growth in hybrid ‘cyber’ guitars, ones that balance traditional characteristics with digital tools that appeal to new age tech‑savvy musical pioneers. While many companies have toyed with the idea, it hasn’t taken off yet but I reckon the flood gates will soon open and they will push the sounds guitarists are able to create to new levels. Where digital excels, for instance, is in the recording environment where it is almost universally standard. Will digital guitars completely replace our beloved instrument? Not in my lifetime.

Guitars will undoubtedly accommodate and adapt to digital technology but digital won’t make what we have now obsolete. After decades of electric guitars, we are devoted to the beauty and tone of our instruments. Will new generations demand an all‑digital guitar and will such an instrument be able to replicate the best of the old tech? I don’t believe that it can but you never know. Counter‑intuitively, electronic music has only made guitar music stronger since the 1980s, when synths and ‘electronica’ attempted to eliminate ‘old‑fashioned’ guitar‑based music. It failed then and it would almost certainly fail again now. I think we’ll be sticking to our traditional woody guitars, the essence of which hasn’t changed since the 1930s (for electric hollow body guitars and the early 1950s (for solid guitars). I think we will see an increase in hexaphonic pickups, i.e. ones that are able to send separate signals for each individual string to external digital processors/controllers. This is actually nothing new!

Future Guitar – Hyper Touch

Therefore, some sort of mutual co-existence will probably exist for many decades to come, without an ultimate resolution to the digital versus analogue debate. In the end, it’s all about compromise. Fine by me, I’m happy to sit on a fence and continue playing my vintage guitars without them becoming totally obsolete.

Trivia: The original ​¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and socket, the ubiquitous industry standard for connecting electric guitars to effect pedals and amplifiers originally dates from c.1878. An early type of the humble jack connector was created by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manually operated switchboard at the telephone exchange he created in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Note: Other connectors have been tried in the past, including a few companies that attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace the jack plug/socket with the common DIN connector. I will wager that the digital USB port, currently being fitted to a few guitars these days will not endure for the next 140 years in the same way as the jack plug/socket has. You’ll have to wait until the 2120s to collect any winnings on that particular bet.

Jack Plug

Mobile devices

Where do our mobile phones and tablets sit in this brave new world? Like other electronic visual interfaces, it is simply a different way of looking at the same thing. They have their place but it will probably remain at the margins of music production, largely due to the effects of continual progress and obsolescence. I would suggest that guitarists, generally being quite a conservative bunch, probably won’t adopt mobile technology in quite the way many companies might like. While portability and convenience is undeniable, standardisation and compatibility need to be established before they become commonplace.

Apple Garage Band on Mobile Devices

Vintage vibrations

Moving onto things vintage… The ‘investment’ boom years between 2000 and 2008 came to an abrupt end with the financial crash and the subsequent recession that followed it. Many commentators point to a 30% loss in value across the vintage guitar market. The market has just about recovered to the point that it was before the crisis. There are always exceptions to the rule of course. Some aspects, particularly the affordable low end of the market remain very problematic with prices varying wildly and with considerable inconsistency.

The upper end of the market did, and probably always will, ride out short‑run economic fluctuations relatively unscathed. The wealthy are far better equipped to ride out commercial ups and downs and that’s where the big profits are likely to end up. Pecuniary speculation may be rewarding for the well‑healed musician or collector but for everyone else it is challenging and I can’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. My usual bleat of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ still holds true, especially as I am firmly in the latter category – apologies, this is just the chip on the shoulder of sour grapes talking (no apologies for intentionally mixing metaphors).

Some things still surprise on the vintage front. As a simple example, a relatively modest original early‑1980s Ibanez TS9 overdrive pedal seems to have certainly bucked the trend. I bought one for a reasonable market price about 18 months ago, now you can’t find one offered at less than four to five times what I paid. What the heck is going on there? Crazy. It may be riding on the back of its scarce and collectable predecessor, the venerable TS-808, but that’s no guarantee of anything. Other prices, for instance late 1970s/early 1980s Fender Stratocasters, seem to bouncing along in a very unpredictable fashion compared to similar guitars from the early 1970s, the prices of which are beginning to climb steeply.

1981 Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer

I am concerned that the vintage guitar market is increasingly at great risk of repeating the pre‑recession ‘boom and bust’ cycle. Anything ‘classic’ from the 1950s is already at a premium, while most models from the 1960s are likely to increase in value significantly until they are equally out of reach. Gear from the 1970s, 1980s and newer is still not fashionable… for now. If the climate changes dramatically, which it could, the probability of the bubble bursting (again) will increase. It will happen again; it’s a case of when, rather than if. Looking at the long-term, the vintage guitar market will survive for as long as there are vintage guitars to be bought and sold.

One thing I’ve noticed over the decade‑long slump is that sourcing specific guitars, effects and amps has become so much more difficult. The same also goes for vintage parts that are needed to conserve vintage instruments for the future. There used to be much broader choice and availability for punters. Now, particular items are either unavailable or very hard to find. This lack of supply linked to sustained demand would suggest an inevitable increase in market value (one of the basic laws of economics) but that only seems to apply piecemeal. I’ve said it before and it still holds true, the vintage guitar marketplace remains a bit of a minefield at the moment.

Another thing I’ve observed is that my UK online feeds for vintage gear are being flooded by items from Japan, the Russian Federation, China and Australasia. I would urge extreme caution if considering long-distance purchases from these underdeveloped territories. Prices are high, the exchange rates into the UK are poor, import duties, taxes and charges are disproportionately exorbitant, and the regulations are increasingly onerous (CITES again). It is not difficult to deduce that it just ain’t worth the risk.

Moreover, be aware that many Japanese items are not owned by the actual seller. They list the item and only when a customer clicks ‘Buy it Now’ do they then try to source the original and, if it has been sold in the meantime, you may either not receive the item at all or you may get a substitute that can be very different from what you believe you ordered. As if to corroborate this, it is not unusual to see the same item being offered by different sellers. Do you think you’d have any sort of come back in the event of an issue? Nah, forget it. Never has the contract law principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (literally from the Latin, ‘let the buyer beware’) applied more. If you do risk it and end up getting burned, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you are interested in gambling on vintage guitars to make a return on investment (not my thing, I reiterate), the trick is to anticipate what might be ‘the next big thing’ just before it takes off. Do I have any advice on this front? Yep, but I’m keeping it very much to myself. Why? Not because I want to profit from my hard‑earned insights (which would be nice) or because I hate greed (which I do), it’s because of the numerous uncertainties involved. I would hate to suggest something only for that advice to implode (i.e. my sort of luck). I really don’t want to be held to account for giving poor advice… or for pricing myself out of a purchase because I end up competing with someone who took my advice.

Summary and conclusion

So, there you have one person’s view of the ‘state of the village’. The market for new music gear continues to evolve in a positive way. With western economies emerging from the deepest, harshest recession ever, the industry will thrive, innovate and change providing a wealth of choice and options for guitarists of every age, level of competence, income bracket and musical style. The vintage market, while currently erratic, will always remain relatively niche as supply and demand is limited – expect vintage market values to escalate in the year (or two) ahead.

The operating environment for manufacturers and retailers will continue to be challenging and they will need to adapt to meet musicians’ fickle needs while appealing to traditionalists and neophytes alike. The firms that will survive will understand both the external pressures affecting them while also engaging actively with what guitarists most value in their diverse gear-focused world. A much‑needed injection of authentic customer service would be welcome too.

The future looks exhilarating as the technology continues to evolve and challenge existing preconceptions about what music‑making is all about. The business is not going to go away but it will change and do so more rapidly than it has in the past.

I am optimistic that the best of the past and the best of the future will find a sustainable equilibrium where there is something for everyone. More importantly, the products that we use on a daily basis, whether created in the past, the present or the future will continue to inspire, motivate and enable more of us to produce some fantastically creative music. That music will, in turn, hopefully excite and evoke deep emotions for millions of listeners of both recorded and live music all over the world. Music is a wonderfully powerful medium that has the potential to change individual lives, communities and societies to create a better, more peaceful world. Now that’s an ambitious agenda. Sign me up!

CRAVE Guitars Logo

Whatever transpires, I’ll watch with great interest. Wanna play? I do, so I’m off to plink my planks (despite badly hurting my little finger on my fretting hand). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “The best way to keep music alive is to keep music live.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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