How the Working Man’s Guitar Became a Dominant Force in Popular Music—Part Two
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At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at prices accessible to gigging musicians and garage band virtuosos
The electric guitar was never supposed to be a fashion statement that hangs on the walls of a lawyer’s office. They were built as music machines with unprecedented volume projection, versatility, and reliability in a wide variety of playing contexts. They were built to establish prestige through playing, not through collectability.
These deeply practical roots aren't just handy for a marketing slogan—they're a matter of history.
From a Crazy Idea to Working Man’s Music on an Industrial Scale
Last week, we took a look at how Charlie Christian put the electric guitar on the map. He wasn’t the first user of the “Electric Spanish” guitar, but he was the first to dramatically demonstrate its newfound potential as a “lead” instrument in the hands of a skilled soloist.
Music would never be the same. For the first time ever, the guitar had the volume to project over saxophones and trumpets—and to fill auditoriums.
As we noted last week, these early electrics were still very rough by today’s standards. Heavy feedback and inconsistent string to string volume were the norm as the electric guitar awaited a second generation of engineering geniuses to perfect its design.
Before we dive into the details of the impending sonic revolution, let’s pause for a moment to consider how out there these music machines were in their own time. Who’s to say that sound made from strapping a magnet under guitar strings will make a pleasant sound at all, much less sound resembling a guitar?
Meanwhile, the entire tonal premise of the acoustic guitar lies in the resonance of its hollow body. Imagine yourself as a guitar player in the 1940’s; your radio tech buddy is impressed with your ES-150. He suggests strapping similar pickups to a block of wood with no hollow at all. How easy would it have been to laugh him out of the room? Yet a crazy idea that for what then would have felt like a laughably cheap guitar would change the instrument forever.
Suffice it to say, Leo Fender, Les Paul, and other progenitors of the solid body electric guitar were laughed out of a few music stores trying to pitch their futuristic new tone slabs. As we all know, they had the last laugh.
Birth of the Greatest (Guitar) Generation
Within 20 years of Charlie Christian’s death in 1942, the collection of basic electric guitar designs that dominate the market to this day were in production. This engineering feat can’t be lauded enough. Imagine if a 1952 Chevrolet was still one of the most popular cars on the road.
The solid body concept wasn’t totally without precedent. Early electric lap steels were solid body, and they proved the workability of the design. Rickenbacker, along with a few other companies, issued limited runs of solid-body electric guitars starting in 1935, but they never caught on commercially.
While the solid body waited until around 1950 to take off, it had sprouted in the imaginations of a new generation of guitar masterminds far earlier.
Les Paul is truly an all-time gearhead. In addition to being one of the earliest independent inventors of multitrack recording, he pioneered the use of tape delay and phasing in the studio. You may also have heard of his electric guitar design. Add one more accomplishment to his record: he rigged himself up an early electric at the age of 12.
A 12-year-old Les Paul strapped the pickup needle from his parents’ phonograph directly to the neck of his acoustic and wired it to a telephone mouthpiece, which he jammed under the strings. He wired this contraption to the radio amplifier. It worked, but the feedback was unbearable. So, naturally, he filled his guitar with plaster of Paris. At the age of 12, he had arrived at the fundamental insight that would drive he and Leo Fender to create the “greatest generation” of electric guitars: you can minimize microphonic feedback by minimizing the vibrations of the pickups themselves.
Within a few years, he was tinkering with his “log” design: a solid 4x4 plank mounting the pickups and neck, with chambered f-hole wings attached to the sides—mostly for the good of an audience accustomed to beautiful jazz archtops.
Gibson’s ES-150/250 and other early designs were created almost purely with the practical concern of volume in mind. But when tinkering with the log, Les Paul was—really for the first time—interested in the unique tonal properties of an electrified solid body instrument. His instincts, honed by years of tinkering, told him that a solid-bodied instrument could be brighter and clearer than ever before. And it even had a tremolo!
Paul shopped his log design around to the guitar makers of his day—including Gibson—in the late 1930’s. But they didn’t see a market.
Glorious Tone—Mass Produced
World War Two put a damper on instrument manufacturing as the nation’s industrial capacity (particularly for electronic components) was focused squarely on the war effort. However, the war also contributed the final ingredient necessary for the coming solid body revolution: a broad awareness of mass production manufacturing techniques.
Make no mistake, when Leo Fender drew up the designs for the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitars in history, he was doing it with mass production in mind. That fact shouldn’t ruin the romance of these designs. In fact, the reality that they were designed to make music-making more accessible than ever before is the romance of this great working man’s instrument.
Country legend Merle Travis, working with Paul Bigsby (of the famous tremolo-bridge design), came up with a guitar with many of the features that Fender would popularize. Note, in the image below: the cutaway, the tuners on one side of the headstock, and the aluminum alloy bridge. Unlike the ES series, the pickup is bridge mounted—now emphasizing rather than trying to hide the bright tone inherent to the electric guitar. It still featured a set neck design.
With beautiful inlays, it was a stunning piece of workmanship, but the Travis-Bigsby electric was never mass produced, with only a few dozen ever made.
Leo Fender set out not just to build a bright, clear-sounding instrument, but a cheap guitar that could be mass produced like never before. If magnets and a solid-body had begun separating the electric guitar from the acoustic as an instrument, the bolt-on neck finished the job.
From his radio repair shop, Leo Fender had been scheming about a solid-body design since the early 1940’s. Joined by designer George Fullerton, Fender had the prototype for what would become the Telecaster completed (pictured below) by 1949. In a hint of its coming success, the prototype was frequently lent out to local Southern California country musicians, beginning a love affair between country music and T-style guitars that lasts to this day.
Released widely in 1950, the Fender Esquire featured only a bridge pickup. The design still had some serious flaws. It lacked a truss rod completely, and many of the original Esquires were returned with bent necks. Fewer than 50 Esquires were made when, later that year the “Broadcaster” emerged as a replacement for the Esquire—now featuring a chrome covered neck pickup. Fender was famously sued by the Gretsch company (who would later create some famous guitars of their own), who produced a “Broadkaster” drum kit.
After a brief run (around 500) of Broadcaster-style guitars with no name at all (the “Nocaster”), the Telecaster name was coined in summer, 1951. With a truss rod added shortly thereafter, the fundamentals of the solid body guitar designs that dominate until this day were all there.
Interestingly, even after perfecting the Telecaster design, Leo Fender was intent on offering a cheap guitar, a beginner’s guitar, at the lowest price possible. So he re-released the Esquire in 1951. Arriving with only a bridge pickup to minimize cost, these later Esquires still had a neck pickup cavity hidden under the pickguard—Leo was envisioning beginners upgrading by swapping out the pickguard. Cheap, mod-ready guitars were vital to Leo Fender’s vision from the very beginning.
Once the Telecaster was fully formed, the rest of the designs that would define the sonic landscape for rock and roll fell into place relatively quickly. Later in 1951, Fender came out with the P-Bass (then shaped like a Telecaster), the first commercially successful solid-body electric bass
Shocked by the commercial success of the Telecaster, Gibson reconsidered Les Paul’s vision and hired him in 1952—his original Les Paul model (gold with P-90 pickups) came out later the same year. In 1954, Fender announced what it intended as a permanent replacement to the old Telecaster design: the Stratocaster.
Stay tuned to the Guitar Sun as we keep working to keep the spirit of the music alive at Sunfield!