Solid Body Electric Guitar: The birth of Fender and Les Paul
The story of the solid body electric guitar begins in the 1920s. During this time, Hawaiian music was very popular in America. Hawaiian guitars are solo instruments played with a slide, not dissimilar to a “bottleneck”. Their round body makes it look like a banjo.
Electric Hawaiian guitars were the first commercially available electric guitars that depended on the sound being amplified. Created by Rickenbacker, these types of guitars simultaneously produced sound acoustically.
Adolph Rickenbacker went into business with George Beauchamp and Paul Barth to work on the principle of the magnetic pick-up. They formed the Electric String Company and in 1931, released the first electric Hawaiian guitars.
A22 and A25, also known as the “frying pan”, were made out of solid aluminium and had a very powerful magnetic pick-up. Their idea worked and the success of these guitars prompted other makers to create an equivalent for their instruments.
The birth of the Solid Body Electric Guitar:
By the 1940s, Gibson had firmly established their electric-acoustic (“hollow body”) guitars. Meanwhile, a radio repairman named Leo Fender teamed up with “Doc” Kauffman (an ex-employee of Rickenbacker), and they formed the K & F Company. They produced a series of steel guitars and amplifiers. Leo Fender had always felt that the huge pick-ups being used on hollow body guitars did not need to be so big. Rightly so, he had a smaller pick-up he wanted to try out.
For demonstration, Fender put this pick-up into a solid-body piece, based on the Hawaiian guitar shape. Connected to it was a regular guitar fretboard. Although it was only meant as a demonstration for the pick-up, these guitars became hugely popular amongst local country musicians. When Leo and Kauffman parted in 1946, he opened the Fender Electric Instrument Company. Two years later he released the famous Fender Broadcaster (pictured above).
In the meantime, Les Paul was moving in a similar direction. Les heard about a solid-body electric violin made by the inventor Thomas Edison and he started thinking in the same way about guitars. A problem with hollow body electric guitars at the time was feedback. Les Paul was in search of a cure and he became convinced that the only way to reduce feedback was to reduce pick-up movement – and this could only be achieved by mounting the pick-up on a solid piece of wood. Now there was not only a ‘want’, but a ‘need’ for it too.
Les Paul persuaded Epiphone to let him use their workshop. It was here he began building his unique “log” guitar, in 1941.
Les Paul later said, “You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding”. Such was the amazing sustain that these guitars produced. Today, sustain has become a trademark of his (Les Paul) guitars and other Gibson guitars, respectively.
However, the “log” guitar was not a pure solid-body. Les simply cut an Epiphone f-hole acoustic in half and replaced its centre with a 4×4 solid piece of maple, upon which the pick-ups were placed. This tackled his feedback issues, which was adequate enough for the time. Les Paul didn’t work for Gibson until almost 10 years later. He tried to join them earlier, but they shunned his log guitar, calling it “the broomstick with a pick-up on it”.
For me, like its counterparts, the solid body electric guitar has an impressive background. It’s nice for a guitar player to know the history, which will result in a deeper respect for the instrument and its makers.
Thank you, Leo, thank you, Les, and to all your comrades, thank you too! Just think what could have happened if the two of them teamed up!
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