How the Working Man’s Guitar Became a Dominant Force in Music—Part One

Thanks for reading The Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music's weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.

At Sunfield Guitars, 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.

Volume, Volume, Volume

When modern players select pickups for their electric guitar, they’re doing so with a broad range of factors in mind--from clean tonality to overdriven characteristics, to output level. But the original guitar pickups were chosen with a far simpler goal in mind: stage volume.

In the early 20th century, the guitar was a successful instrument in the United States, but it didn’t possess anything close to its modern perch in popular music consciousness. While a popular living-room and street-corner folk instrument, the acoustic guitar was confined to background rhythm in public performance contexts.

Why?

MandolinOrchestra

The "Mandolin Orchestra" was one of many unsuccessful attempts to solve the volume problem.

In a world without quality PA systems (or, often, without PA systems at all), the acoustic guitar simply cannot compete with the volume output of big band and jazz instruments like the trumpet, trombone, drums, and even clarinet. While strummed chords can just be heard in the rhythmic mix, unamplified acoustic guitar lead lines are simply not audible outside of the smallest performance venues and quietest bands. The guitar appeared destined to sit alongside the banjo and mandolin as a popular niche instrument.

And, even as a rhythm instrument, the guitar was distinctly overshadowed by the piano in the blues and jazz bands of this era.

Charlie Christian: Strapping On A Magnet

Instrument makers began experimenting with “electrifying” guitars as early as 1933. Of course, at this time, no one knew what electrifying the guitar would actually mean. The first device resembling a “pickup” attempted to detect vibrations from the top of the guitar, rather than the strings (it was largely unsuccessful, though modern acoustic Piezo pickups work in similar fashion). The first ever electromagnetic guitar pickups were employed on lap-steel by the famous Rickenbacker company’s George Beauchamp (see the "Frying Pan" below). The sound of electrified lap steel remains integral to country music to this day. Soon, the broader potential of this technological approach became apparent.

Frying Pan Lapsteel
The "Frying Pan" style lap steel has a "horseshoe" style magnet over the strings.

 

In 1935, Gibson, already famous for it acoustic instruments, commissioned what would become the first ever under-string electromagnetic pickup for the electric guitar. This bar-style pickup sports a hexagonal shape. Though still aimed squarely at the lap-steel market, it was designed to be attachable as an accessory to an acoustic guitar. And it would be used by Charlie Christian to put the electric guitar on the launching pad to the stratosphere.

Mr. Christian was not the first musician to ever utilize the electric guitar. But by demonstrating its potential as a jazz soloist’s instrument, he set the electrified guitar on the path to becoming a featured instrumentElectricity put the guitar in a fair fight with the trumpet and saxophone. 

Charlie Christian was a jazz musician who emerged on Oklahoma City’s vibrant 1930’s music scene. Even as it was slammed by the famous “dust bowl,” Oklahoma produced a legendary crop of musicians who would provide the foundations for much of the century’s music: Bob Wills' orchestra for country, Count Basie for Jazz, and T-Bone Walker for Blues.

While Rickenbacker and other companies had produced extremely limited runs of electric “Spanish Guitars” (this shape and size was just starting to become the default for the guitar), Gibson produced the first commercially successful electric guitar with its ES-150 model (the ES stood for “Electric Spanish”). Charlie Christian picked up his first ES-150 in 1936, and he never looked back.

GibsonAd

An early advertisement for the ES-150, with Amp (then billed as a "Tone Generator").

Birth of a Tone Monster

Featuring a new-fangled tone control, the ES-150 was an unprecedently versatile instrument that had the volume and clarity to compete with brass in a jazz band. That said, the technology was far from perfect. The pickups didn’t yet have separate pole pieces for each string—creating wildly inconsistent string-to-string volume. In fact, the ES-250 would try to improve by cutting a notch in the pickup under the B-string, which was wildly louder than the other strings. 

These innovative bar pickups were also totally unshielded, resulting in single-coil hum like you wouldn’t believe. But it was enough for Charlie Christian to breath some unprecedented life into the soul of the guitar.

CChristian

John Hammond, a legendary talent scout, heard Christian in Oklahoma in 1939. He was blown away and arranged for Christian to audition for bandleader Benny Goodman. It was a long shot: Goodman led perhaps the most respected jazz band in the nation. And he was famous for his distaste for guitar players; he didn’t think their acoustic comping sat well in the jazz mix.

But Goodman was an innovator, and he had already been instrumental in pioneering racially integrated jazz music. He knew talent when he heard it. And he heard Christian’s talent right away—talent channeled through magnets and amplifier.

Imagine the scene, as the soul of the electric guitar burst onto the national stage.  A white bandleader of one of the most buttoned-up jazz outfits in the nation brought on an African-American country boy from Oklahoma, playing an instrument most people had never heard of.

Christian was offered a spot in Goodman’s band and would play as a featured soloist from 1939-42 before he died—at the age of 25—from tuberculosis. Despite Charlie's tragically young death, the experiment was a smashing success. Christian introduced an entire new soloing vocabulary to jazz—and delivered it in smooth electric tones that were unlike anything anyone had ever heard.

Like other early guitar legends like Robert Johnson, no footage of Charlie Christian playing the electric guitar exists. But you can check out his playing in the recording below, and hear a trailblazer setting the stage for decades of stunning guitar music. 

With guitars in hand, a new generation of working men from places like Oklahoma was ready to pick up Christian left off. 

 

Charlie Christian was a revolutionary even in his own time, despite dying at a young age. But even he could never have guessed what a force the electric guitar would become.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the birth of the solid-body, and the electric guitar’s ascent to glory.

Stay tuned to the Guitar Sun as we keep working to keep the spirit of the music alive at Sunfield!