Guitar history: from spanish and classical to electric guitar

Guitar history: from spanish and classical to electric guitar
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History of the guitar: birth, evolution and changes. Most iconic brands and models and their characteristics and much more information.

Guitar, the musical instrument

Guitar is a musical instrument of the string instrument family and today it is the most widespread instrument in the world.

String instruments have been widely used in a large number of cultures. Among these cultures is the Arab one that invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, precisely the cradle of the guitar, Spain. The Greeks also had an instrument similar in appearance to the current guitar, although with straight edges and 4 strings that was later adopted and modified by the Romans, who brought it to Spain around 400 BC. On the other hand, there are even older documents that show that at the time of the Hittites, 1,300 BC, there was already a 4-stringed instrument that had curved edges. And another example is the Egyptian culture, who had a guitar-like instrument with smooth and curved sides.

Types of guitars

There are several types of guitars. The best known are the Spanish guitar that includes classical and flamenco, the acoustic guitar that includes the electro-acoustic and the electric guitar that not only includes solid body guitars, but also hollow or semi-hollow body guitars.

Beginnings of the guitar: the Spanish guitar

The modern classical guitar as it is known today appeared in the 19th century. Also called Spanish guitar for its origin, it was the base from which the modern electric guitar arises.

What is the guitar?

Spanish or classical guitar
Spanish or classical guitar

The guitar is a plucked string musical instrument, composed of a resonance box, generally with an acoustic hole in the center of the top, from which the sound is amplified, a neck on which the fingerboard or fretboard, and six strings at least, but it can have seven, eight or more single strings, or six double strings, that is twelve strings.

Characteristics of the classical or Spanish guitar

The classical guitar, also known as the Spanish guitar, with nylon strings, is the traditional, historical and most popular version. There are also variants such as the flamenco guitar, but at first glance they are very similar instruments.

History: The predecessors of the classical or Spanish guitar

To start talking about the history of the guitar, we must start with its predecessors. The instrument derives from the vihuela and the Spanish guiterna of the 15th and 16th centuries, from which the baroque guitar of the 17th and 18th centuries later emerged and then the modern or Spanish classical guitar of the mid-19th century.

Below you can see a Spanish guitar -top left-, a vihuela -lower left- and a baroque guitar -to the right-:

The ancestry of the classical guitar: Spanish guiterna, vihuela and baroque guitar.
The ancestry of the classical guitar: Spanish guiterna, vihuela and baroque guitar.

Antonio de Torres Jurado, the inventor of the Spanish or classical guitar

Antonio de Torres, known as the “Father of the guitar”, is recognized as the luthier inventor of the current guitar, that is, the Spanish guitar, both flamenco and classical. He is the luthier comparable to Antonio Stradivari on the violin.

Vicente Gómez Martínez Espinel

Better known as Vicente Espinel, he was a Spanish priest, writer and musician of the Spanish Golden Age, in 1500 AD, responsible and famous for giving the guitar its fifth string, adding a lower string to the four existing at that time.

Classical guitar construction

Guitar does not have a single nail and all the pieces are joined using glue. The body is made up of a top, back and sides. The rings are soaked and with heat it is given that curved shape so characteristic of the instrument. To reinforce the soundboard, a fir pine bracing is made. The bracing also serves an acoustic function by helping to ‘drive’ the vibrations within the soundboard producing the characteristic sound. Likewise, the background is prepared by placing the cedar bars which give a slightly convex shape to this part of the guitar.

Spanish or classical guitar interior.
Spanish or classical guitar interior.

Neck that has five pieces placed under a specific configuration to form the socket and the appropriate angle of the head. The fingerboard can be made of ebony.

Top of the body is joined with the neck, and the guitar begins to be assembled by stuffing the rings and joining the rings with the soundboard using sockets -small triangles of spruce pine-. Bindings and rosette are added. Really a meticulous and artisan work.

What woods are classical guitars made of?

They are usually made with woods such as cedar and rosewood, ebony, and spruce but you can also find instruments made of cypress, walnut, coco bolo, palo rojo, nazareno, ziricote or maple among others.

What material are the strings of the classical guitar made of?

Historically, the first three strings – the finest – were made of ram gut, these are simple strings. The other three are wound strings, they were metal staffs wound on a silk thread.

The casing was used until the 20th century, when nylon was introduced. Regarding the bordones, a metal thread wound on a silk or synthetic material core is still used.

Acoustic guitar

The acoustic guitar is very similar to the classical guitar, but instead of having nylon strings, all of its strings are metal. Another difference between the two instruments lies in the size of the soundboard. The acoustics are usually larger, and there are several models depending on their size. The body is wider than that of the acoustic guitar. On the other hand, the neck of the acoustic is a little narrower than that of the classic.

Gibson acoustic guitar.
bson acoustic guitar

The electric guitar

The electric guitar is a metal string guitar that uses the principle of electromagnetic induction to convert the vibrations of its metal strings into electrical signals.

Its appearance is due to the need of musicians, according to some more precisely the jazz bands of the United States during the 1920s, to have greater volume so that it does not get lost in front of the rest of the instruments, and in this way that will gain more relevance.

History of the electric guitar

Its origin takes us back to the 1930s, when George Beauchamp, an American inventor of musical instruments, began looking for new ways to increase the volume of the guitar.

As early as 1925 Beauchump had been experimenting with the use of phonograph needles to produce an electric guitar, and he knew that if a device could “pick up” the vibrations of each individual string, and convert those vibrations into a proportional variation in electric current then the sound could be amplified.

The first manufacturer of electric guitars

After many months of trial and error Beauchamp, together with Paul Barth developed a prototype guitar with horseshoe magnets. The guitar strings were passed through the magnets with each pole positioned so that an independent magnetic field was concentrated on each string.

Beauchamp, prototype in hand, went to Adolph Rickenbacher, an electrical engineer, to make the metal bodies of the resonators. From this meeting, later the founding of the famous company “Rickenbackers instruments” emerged.

Rickenbacher “Frying Pan”, the first “Lap steel guitar”

The company began to manufacture the first Lap steel guitar, called “Frying Pan”, which quickly gained popularity. In this way it was the first manufacturer of electric guitars in the history of the guitar.

Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the first Lap Steel electric guitar.
Rickenbacker Frying Pan

Lloyd Loar and Vivi-Tone

In the early 1920s, Lloyd Loar, a legendary acoustic engineer for Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co, Ltd. for his contributions to the design and development of the mandolin, had experimented with amplification in guitars. Thus it was that in 1933 he founded, together with Lewis A. Williams and Walter Moon, a company called Vivi-Tone.

Although the company came up with many innovative ideas in instrument design, it was ultimately not commercially successful. The company produced guitars, mandolins, an electric keyboard, and at least one amplifier.

Vivi-Tone Guitars and Mandolins.
Vivi-Tone Guitars and Mandolins

Gibson and his first Spanish electric guitar, the ES-150

Despite the failure of Vivi-Tone, Gibson capitalized on Loar’s failed experience to create an electric guitar that would revolutionize the market and mark a milestone in the instrument’s history, the Gibson ES-150.

The ES-150 was launched in 1936. The name of this guitar was the abbreviation of Electric Spanish -Guitar- and the 150 was for the retail price that was USD 150.

This guitar, based on the historic L-5, which was the first guitar made by Gibson. The ES-150 was a great commercial success, receiving great acceptance among jazz and other guitarists. However, the instrument still had some features to improve. The hollow-body vibrations were picked up and amplified and generated feedback problems, distortion and undesirable connotations.  

Gibson ES-150 and ES-250 Advertising Brochure
Gibson ES-150 and ES-250 Advertising Brochure

Les Paul and “The Log”

Lester William Polsfuss, known as Les Paul, was a famous American jazz, country, and blues guitarist and virtuoso. He was a very important character in the development of electric musical instruments and recording techniques.

The musician believed that the solution to the problems of contemporary electric guitars like the ES-150, was to use a solid body instead of the hollow.

In 1940, Les Paul created a prototype instrument, a guitar called “The Log”. This guitar was built with a solid wooden body. The Log was built at the Epiphone Guitar Factory.

"The Log- by Les Paul
“The Log” of Les Paul

It consisted of two single built magnetic pickups, mounted on a 4 x 4 wooden plank, gluing the two solid body halves as “wings” to the sides. The result was a good sounding jazz instrument with no unwanted feedback.

The first solid body wood electric guitar?

Many believe that “The Log” was the first solid body guitar, however it is difficult to say that this is the case. During those years some examples of solid body instruments appeared – not so popular – and it is difficult to confirm with certainty that “The Log” was the first of all. There was even an Audiovox electric bass from Paul Tutmarc in 1936.

“The log” would be used by Les Paul both in his live performances and for his studio recordings with other artists such as Bing Crosby or The Andrew Sisters.

In 1946, Les Paul contacted Gibson who had just been acquired by Chicago Musical Instruments. He presented his guitar with the goal of making a solid body guitar. But Maurice H. Berlin, president of the company at the time, rejected the Les Paul idea, referring to the guitarist’s prototype as “that broom”. Decision that they would later regret. In 1951, seeing the success of Fender guitars, they changed their minds and Ted McCarty, president of the Company and great inventor, together with Les Paul would develop the Gibson Les Paul.

The electric guitars of Paul Bigsby Merle Travis and others

Most musicians are familiar with the famous Bigsby Vibrato system, but not many are aware of the groundbreaking guitars that Paul Bigsby built in the 1940s. Bigsby, responsible for developing and refining the pedal steel guitar. Additionally, he built the first modern solid-body electric guitar for Merle Travis in 1948, predating Leo Fender’s Esquire, released in 1950, and Gibson’s Les Paul, released in 1952. 

1948 Paul Bigsby Merle Travis Guitar
1948 Paul Bigsby Merle Travis Solid Guitar

Looking at the guitars of Paul A. Bigsby is evident the influence on the development of the modern electric guitar. Not only Fender and Gibson, but other guitar makers as well, drew and inspired the construction and design techniques of Paul’s guitars. 

In 1948, Paul A. Bigsby built a custom solid body instrument for Merle Travis, a well-known country musician. In 1949 he built one for the Les Paul, although Les kept it a secret for many years.

Paul Bigsby guitar made with Maple Bird's Eye from 1949
Solid Paul Bigsby guitar made with Maple Bird’s Eye from 1949

Fender Telecaster, the first series production electric guitar

Contrary to what most believe, the first predecessor of the telecaster was the Fender Esquire. This is the first model manufactured and marketed by Fender and the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar. Its launch was in 1950, and it was a resounding success.

1951 Fender Esquire, the first series production electric guitar.
1951 Fender Esquire

The Esquire is the same as a Telecaster but it only comes with a single bridge pickup. During the same year, 1950, Fender added a two-pickup version of the Broadcaster. But shortly after a dispute with Gretsch who had a drum set with the same name, Leo had to stop using it, thus starting the 1951 “Nocaster” stage. It is so named since it did not have a model name on the decal of the guitar.

In 1952, the Fender two-pickup guitars left the factory again with the model name on the decal, the name would be definitive: Telecaster.

1952 Fender Telecaster.
1952 Fender Telecaster

Main Specifications and Features of the Telecaster

The Telecaster normally has an Ash or Alder body, but pine, basswood, mahogany and other woods are also used. The neck is bolted to the body, unlike previous guitars that were glued. In this way it facilitates construction, reduces time and makes production cheaper. The neck and fingerboard are made either in a maple single piece neck or maple neck with a rosewood fretboard.

The tone of the Fender Telecaster is characterized by its Twang. A guitar with a lot of attack, percussive, with good brightness, and enough mids. It is an ideal guitar for Country and Rock, and also used for Blues and Jazz in its traditional configuration. But it is a very used guitar to modify, there are different versions with different configurations of pickups, bridges and even Thinline, which means that you can see a Telecaster being played by a guitarist of any style.

Gibson Les Paul: Gibson’s First Solid Electric Guitar

As we said previously, Gibson, mindful of the success of Fender, contacted Les Paul to launch a solid body guitar that would bear the artist’s name.

Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop

The first model was the Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop released 1952. With a body built in mahogany with a carved top solid maple, to give more shine and definition to the more medium mahogany. The top was in line with the “arch top” guitars popularized by Gibson. Curved top was proposed by Maurice Berlin, luthier of the firm. Gold finish was chosen by the Les Paul himself.

The neck is set in mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard and included an adjustable neck. Two P-90 single coil pickups made by Gibson since 1946.

Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop, Gibson's first solid body electric guitar.
Gibson Les Paul Standard Goldtop

Gibson Les Paul Custom

Shortly after, in 1954, Gibson would modify some things on the guitar, such as the bridge and tailpiece and changes in the pickups. In addition, he made a new model, the Gibson Les Paul Custom. Which was called “The Black Beauty”, which in addition to having aesthetic differences, such as block inlays, instead of the trapezoid, and double valance on the body and upper, came equipped with an ebony storage box.

Gibson Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty"
Gibson Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty”

Later, in 1955, Seth Lover, a Gibson designer and inventor, invented the humbuckers known as PAFs. The name comes from the labels affixed with the acronym of Patent Applied For, since the patent application had been made.

Gibson Les Paul Standard

In 1958, the Gibson Les Paul Standard appeared, with a sunburst finish that consists of a translucent caramel base that allows you to see the grain of the maple. In the first year of production, the maple tops were not as showy, just in 1959 the tops tend to be more showy with flamed maple.

Gibson Les Paul Standard 1959 "Burst". One of the most coveted electric guitars.
Gibson Les Paul Standard 1959

The “burst”, as the Les Paul Standard of the early years are called, are the most desired, especially those from 1959, which is considered the best year. The paint with which the edges were painted with cherry red color had the peculiarity that when they were exposed to the sun, they faded. This is the reason for the different new finishes today, which do nothing more than replicate the finishes that vintage instruments were taking when exposed to sunlight. This is how “Tea burst”, “Dessert burst”, “Lemon burst”, among others, emerged.

Les Paul main specs and features

The Les Paul is a guitar that is characterized by having a rich tone in mids and bass. The maple top is to brighten the low and mid tone of the mahogany. Guitars with a rosewood fingerboard -Standard- have a rounder audio since it is a wood that is rich in mids. While guitars with an ebony backboard tend to have more brightness and definition and less mids. The latter is often used a lot for heavy styles, but it works very well for clean audios. While that of Palisandro, is the most traditional, it is more used to play traditional styles.

Fender Stratocaster

The Stratocaster is the world’s best-selling guitar model. Designed in 1954 by Leo Fender, Bill Carson, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares. The Fender Stratocaster was intended to be the natural evolution to the Telecaster.

The most relevant changes are: 1) a more ergonomic body with a softer contour and recesses in the belly -Belly cut- and forearm -arm cut- that allow the instrument to fit better to the body; 2) Tremolo bridge that on the one hand allows for vibrato and at the same time, gives it a less aggressive sound and that has a natural reverb due to the springs it uses. This gives it a rounder audio compared to its predecessor; 3) Three pickups with a new design, which give two more audio possibilities -five against the three of the Telecaster- and a rounder and smoother sound.

Fender Stratocaster in Olympic White.
Fender Stratocaster

Stratocaster Main Specifications and Features

Strato, like the Tele, normally has an ash or alder body, but basswood, mahogany and other woods are also used. The neck is screwed to the body and can be made from a single piece of maple with a rosewood fingerboard.

Holy Trinity of guitars

Thus, the first three models launched successfully: the Telecaster, the Les Paul and the Stratocaster, make up a unique trilogy of electric guitars.

Fender Telecaster Butterscotch blonde, GIbson Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" and Fender Stratocaster "Blacky".

Other important historical models

Then, during the following years other important models have appeared. The most important are:

  • Gretsch 6120, is a German hollow body with “F” holes presented in 1955.
  • Gibson ES-335 “DOT” was the world’s first commercialized semi-hollow body guitar, released in 1958.
  • Rickenbacker 325, a small guitar -scale 20.75- and semi-hollow. Launched in 1958. It was one of John Lennon’s first guitars.
Rickenbacker 325
Rickenbacker 325
  • Gibson Flying V, the first line was marketed only two years, in 1958 and 1959. Its main feature is its arrow-shaped design. Along with the Gibson Explorer and Moderne it was part of a “futuristic” line launched by Ted McCarty.
  • Fender Jazzmaster, was a model thought as the top and most expensive version of Fender.
  • Gibson SG, the acronym stands for Solid Guitar. It is a model presented to the market in 1961. Initially as Gibson Les Paul. Its goal was to replace the Les Paul due to the drop in sales it had suffered. It was conceived looking to make a cheaper and lighter instrument, since the Les Paul was very heavy and expensive for the market.
  • Fender Jaguar, introduced in 1962, is based on the Jazzmaster, with the same body and tremolo system but a shorter 24 ″ scale.
Fender Jaguar
Fender Jaguar

Best known brands of electric guitars

There are countless manufacturers and brands. Here, we show you the best known brands of electric guitars are:

  • Fender
  • Gibson
  • Ibanez
  • Paul Reed Smith -PRS-
  • Gretsch
  • Yamaha
  • Jackson
  • ESP
  • Epiphone
  • Squier
  • Musicman
  • Fano
  • Sammick
  • SX

The best guitarists in history

Jimi Hendrix in action with his Fender Stratocaster at the Woodstock Festival
Jimi Hendrix in action with his Fender Stratocaster at the Woodstock Festival

Below we show you a list of the most recognized and influential guitarists in rock history and their favorite guitar and amplifier -if he used many, he took the most representative-:

  • Jimi Hendrix: Fender Stratocaster and Marshall Super Lead
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan: Fender Stratocaster and Fender Super Reverb
  • Steve Vai: Ibanez JEM and Carvin Legacy
  • John Lennon: Rickenbacker 325 and Vox AC30
  • Pappo: Les Paul and Marshall JCM800 and Rivera amps
  • Slash: Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Silver Jubilee
  • Angus Young: Gibson SG and Marshall JTM-45
  • Tony Iommi: Gibson SG and Laney Iommi
  • Frank Zappa: Gibson SG and Carvin X-100B
  • Gary Moore: Gibson Les Paul and Marshall JCM2000
  • Eric Clapton: Fender Stratocaster and Fender Twin or Marshall Bluesbreaker

You can read in other articles more truthful, objective and quality information about everything related to the electric guitar, ranging from its care, calibration, choice, adjustments, reviews and advice on the best electric guitars in the world.

For more information, head over to Fender and Gibson.

Related Articles: Les Paul: “If you don’t do something Fender will take over the world”.

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