For my first feature, I’ve decided to write a piece about a subject I am obviously very passionate about…the ELECTRIC GUITAR and its legacy as the essential musical instrument in popular music. What is it about the electric guitar that has made it the dominate musical sound of popular culture over the last century? Heck, even the video gamer generation has taken its legacy to another level. If you think about it and break the electric guitar’s design down to its simplest ingredients, we are talking about some wires and wood assembled together to make an object that hasn’t changed much in design since its birth in the late 1950s. However, the electric guitar has proven to be the most versatile and expressive musical instrument ever made.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the electric guitar is the unlimited musical expression it offers me as an artist, and the sound it produces relies purely on how I decide to approach it at any given time. This can depend on how loud I turn up the amplifier, how aggressively I touch the strings, or simply what mood I’m in! The possibilities of sounds are endless, and the greatest electric guitar players are the ones who figured out how to create their own signature style that the listener can instantly recognize as their own sound by their touch and technique.
For instance, the 1957 Gibson “Les Paul” electric guitar put in the hands of original Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts will sound completely unique and recognizably different from the sound of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin playing his Les Paul, even though they are the exact same model electric guitar.
The Gibson “Les Paul” and “SG” models remain the same iconic electric guitars that were designed decades ago. Despite being the same simplistic instruments as they were then, as well as the Fender “Stratocaster” and “Telecaster” models, these electric guitar designs are still used on current modern recordings by artists you hear today almost 60 years after their invention. Even though the instruments have the same design specs as their original prototypes, they produce sounds that are ever changing, depending totally on the new players’ hands and the changing trends in popular music styles.
AN ERA OF INNOVATION
It’s amazing how the 1950s era ultimately proved to be an innovative period for the electric guitar when Gibson produced the “humbucker” pickup, the “tune-a-matic bridge,” and the “stop bar tailpiece.” Meanwhile, Fender was inventing the Tremolo Bar and twangy-sounding single coil pickups. These basic developments have stood the test of time, and both guitar manufactures still utilize these basic solid body designs.
Many changes have been attempted in the electric guitar’s design over the years, but none have proven superior to the inventions of the 1950s. A few years later in the 1960s era, wah wah pedals, fuzz boxes, and high-powered amplifiers were being developed and introduced to guitar players. However, it was still the players’ unique touch that separated the sounds of Jimi Hendrix from Eric Clapton, despite the use of the same gear by both guitarists.
PUSHING THE LIMITS
Think about it: it was barely 10 years after the first electric guitar was conceived that Jimi Hendrix blew everyone’s mind at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with those other worldly sound effects coming from his guitar! It was Jimi’s unique personality and style that set him apart from all the other six-string soldiers. The variety of sounds produced by the electric guitar from every decade since it was conceived is mind-boggling as the styles changed from surf music to heavy metal.
When I discovered the electric guitar as a 10-year-old kid in 1976, it was at a time when the instrument was being pushed to the limit with innovative sounds like Peter Frampton’s use of the talk box gadget and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s unsurpassed pull off guitar solos on “Free Bird.” In my opinion, this era was an awesome time for the electric guitar. Guitarists were focused more on songs than flash, and every guitarist was unique to their own sound that came from their own styles or backgrounds. For example, Carlos Santana sounded nothing like Joe Perry, who sounded nothing like Ted Nugent, who sounded nothing like Mick Jones, yet they all played the same Les Paul model guitars and tube amplifiers. The late Ronnie Montrose, a true Bay Area electric guitar legend, told me that he felt the electric guitar was literally a “portable orchestra” with its versatility and potential to allow each person the freedom to play it in his own way. He was right. That’s the difference between the guitar and a grand piano. Within a mere six strings and a neck with 22 frets, any person can spend time learning, practicing, and creating any desired sound, ranging from sonic explosions to orchestrated music arrangements. Within the midrange musical notes of low E to high E, there lie textures, harmonics, distortion, melodies, and an endless amount of sounds yet to be discovered.
Every decade has produced new players and musical genres with the electric guitar being the lead voice of the music. The 1980s gave us the flashy pyrotechnic skills of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads; the 1990’s gave us the grunge tones of Kurt Cobain and Jerry Cantrell. The turn of the new century brought about young players like Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamossa, and John Mayer, who prefer a more traditional influence of the blues; and now the current times showcase the fuzzy tones of Jack White and progressive speed metal players. Whether the music is derived from the sounds of blues, jazz, classical or the more modern sounds of metal, angst and punk rock, the electric guitar still remains the lead voice of popular music, and it will remain for centuries to come.
next article: “The Electric Guitar Legacy, Part 2 “THE AMPLIFIER!”