The guitar as an instrument has been around for a long time in the well-known figure-eight guitar body shape, complete with a sound hole on the flat top, a neck of at least 12 frets, and a method of tuning the six gut strings to a standard tuning sequence. The country most identified with this instrument is Spain, where it featured in Flamenco music. Later, after the classical period, when music became classed as Romantic — and influenced by folk traditions, the guitar, as well as the folk Spanish flavours were embraced by composers for orchestrated and chamber works.
Musical instruments always evolve and change, and with the Industrial Revolution came steel strings. Steel strings were later used for guitars made in the USA. However it was discovered that the neck had to be strengthened by a metal truss rod to cope with the tension, and a pick or plectrum was used to save the fingernails from wear.
The two big steel-stringed guitar making companies in the USA were Martin and Gibson. Gibson led by Lloyd Loar, played around with various designs, including arch-tops with f-holes, while Martin produced flat top guitars in varying sizes according to the amount of volume needed. Gibson introduced the first adjustable truss rod (invented by Ted McHugh) between the world wars, as well as the invention of the ES (Electric Spanish) guitar that used a device called a pick-up coil. The magnetic coil picked up the steel string vibrations and sent them to be amplified enough to drive a loudspeaker.
Suddenly, the guitar could be as loud as desired or required — but an amp and speakers were part of the kit.
The Gibson ES guitar was a strange beast, design-wise. It had the characteristics of the older, acoustic instrument and the characteristics of the new technology, and the old and new were strange bed-fellows.
With a pick-up coil, the acoustic box size, the overall dimension, became unimportant — the instrument could be thinner, smaller. The sound hole created feedback, so the f-holes were a good solution and retained links with traditional stringed instruments, such as the violin.
Meanwhile, Thomas Edison had invented a solid body violin to great acclaim. Electricity was becoming evermore available, and Hawaii was between being an American territory and a fully-fledged State (Hawaii became the 50th State after WW2, in 1959). As a result of the attack on Hawaii (Pearl Harbor) by Japan, there was great interest in these islands by the mainland Americans, especially after the war, as a romantic holiday destination. Hawaii provided distinctive music using a bottleneck or slide on steel strings. The instrument was called a guitar, even though it was played flat on the lap or on a table, and was immensely popular. The Hawaiian guitar was the first commercially produced instrument that depended entirely on electrics to be heard — they needed an amp and speakers because they were solid and had a big pick-up coil.
The first solid body electric guitar was in the early 1940s with an Epiphone f-hole acoustic which had been opened up down the middle (by guitarist Les Paul) and filled in by inserting a block of solid maple in which was mounted two single coil pickups. Les took his ideas to the Gibson company, but they were not interested in what is now known as the “Les Paul Log”.
Leo Fender noticed Edison’s solid violin too, and like Les Paul he wanted to reduce feedback by mounting the pickup in wood to reduce movement. He designed the first available electric guitar — The Broadcaster — which came into production in 1948.
The guitar was solid, but the neck was bolted on because Fender thought it was the part most likely to need replacing. The removable neck was a design feature borrowed from the banjo. Maple, ash and alder were in plentiful supply at the time and place. The bridge was adjustable using three bolts to change the scale length of pairs of strings. The guitar was flat and began resembling the figure-eight traditional guitar shape, but then the lower part was cut away to allow the playing hand reach more of the fingerboard — resulting in what we now know as a distinctive “electric guitar shape”. The Broadcaster’s name was later changed to the Telecaster and is still in production today.
As a result of The Telecaster’s sales popularity, Gibson sought out Les Paul to develop a rival instrument, and in 1952 the Gibson Les Paul went into production. It differed from the Telecaster in that it had a curved top and weighed a lot more (being made from solid mahogany). It had a bass and a treble pickup (Humbuckers), The pick-ups were wired such that they could be on either pick-up, both or none (off). The strings were not fed through from behind, but through a new floating bridge where each string’s scale length could be adjusted minutely. By arching the body and designing the bridge and saddles in this way, Les Paul created a guitar that did two really important things, (a) it sustained a note for a long time and (b) it could have very low frets and a very low action — it was incredibly easy on the fingers.
Fender’s response was in 1954 with the Stratocaster. Although still a solid flat top, it had a contoured double cut-away body and all the edges were rounded and softened to make it more comfortable to play. In response to Les Paul’s two pickups, Fender introduced THREE pick-ups and two switches to give the musician greater tone choices. Finally, the bridge was redesigned to allow individual scale length adjustments as well as incorporating an entirely revolutionary concept — the tremolo arm.
The tremolo was invented by Paul Bigsby back in 1947, but Fender’s design was by Floyd Rose (which maintained the tuning better). The Floyd Rose Tremolo system was so successful that by the beginning of the 1990s, every major guitar manufacturer fitted it to their guitars under licence.
Solid body electric guitars can be (and have been) almost any shape, but the design classic is the Fender Statocaster. It remains in production still. There has always been great rivalry between Les Paul players and Strat players. But at the end of the day the designs can be compared:
The Strat is lighter and more comfortable, has its own distinctive sound, a wider tonal range, a tremolo arm, tilting, replaceable neck and costs considerably less than the Les Paul. And even though the Les Paul has a lot more sustain and a lower action, these are not enough, and while the Les Paul deserves classic and iconic design status, if there has to be a winner, that winner undoubtedly is the Strat.
The Strat is made in a wide variety of locations outside of the USA, and from a wide variety of materials too. There have been slight design adjustments, but nothing seems to alter the recognition of the design classic that is the Fender Strat — the body shape and the headstock immediately identify the instrument as the archetypal electric guitar.