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Who invented the electric guitar?

electric guitars

The electric guitar has been iconic for musicians from a variety of genres for decades.  Peaking in the 1960s and 70s, the electric guitar found its place in music history among the greatest guitar players of the time, including Les Paul, Keith Richards, Van Halen and Eric Clapton – not to mention the never ending debate: who is the greatest electric guitar player of all time? Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page?

There are a number of myths surrounding the original invention of the electric guitar.  Although many attribute its creation to Les Paul, that’s not actually the case.

The rightful credit for the invention of the electric guitar is shared by musician George Beauchamp and electrical engineer Adolph Rickenbacker.

 

Beauchamp and Rickenbacker created the first commercially viable modern amplifiable electric guitar.  Although others had attempted this feat before them, none had been entirely successful.

Many had struggled to amplify the sound whilst maintaining quality – some resorted to using carbon button microphones found in old telephone handsets.  Inventing the electric guitar was very much a process of trial and error, with many different contributors along the way.

Electric guitar timeline

Adolph Rickenbacker is credited with inventing the first modern amplifiable electric guitar in 1931 (although he’d been working on it throughout the 1920s in Los Angeles, California).

The first solid body electric guitar was invented by Les Paul in 1941.  However, it bore little resemblance to the Les Paul’s you see today.  Mainly a solid wooden body, square shaped, with 6 steel rings on its neck.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Gibson company teamed with Les Paul to create the Gibson Les Paul that we’d recognise today.

Les Paul with guitars
Lester William Polsfuss aka Les Paul – surrounded by guitars

 

In the 1940s, Leo Fender invented his version of the electric guitar.  Although he originally gave it the name “Broadcaster”, it wasn’t long until it was renamed “Telecaster”.  Later on, an upgrade was developed, known as the “Stratocaster”.

George Beauchamp designed his very first electric guitar in his own home.  Beauchamp played Hawaiian guitar.  Hawaiian music and musicians working in the Hawaiian genre in general have been attributed with influencing the development of the electric guitar.

Previously, musicians had attempted to amplify the sound by attaching microphones etc… to the hollow body of wooden guitars with very poor results.  It wasn’t until the Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar was electrified that things began to move forward.

Hawaiian lap steel guitars are so-called because they are placed over the musician’s knees and played at a horizontal angle. They were much louder than traditional wooden guitars.

George Beauchamp met Adolph Rickenbacker at a guitar manufacturer in Los Angeles and they agreed to work on an creating an electric guitar together.

After an extended period of experimentation, Beauchamp and Rickenbacker finally invented an electromagnet which picked up the vibrations of the guitar strings with precise clarity.  These electromagnets converted the vibrations into an electrical signal to be amplified and played through speakers.

Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp
Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp with their lap-steel guitar with an electromagnetic pickup

 

In 1931, they installed the electromagnetic pickups on a new lap steel guitar designed by Harry Watson.  This was the first prototype of the electric guitar we know today.  Manufacture began in 1932 by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation, later renamed the Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company – and the first commercially viable electric guitar was produced for sale.