An electric guitar is a type of guitar that uses pickups to convert the vibration of its steel-cored strings into an electrical current, which is made louder with an instrument amplifier and a speaker. The signal that comes from the guitar is sometimes electronically altered with guitar effects such as reverb or distortion. While most electric guitars have six strings, seven-string instruments are used by some jazz guitarists and metal guitarists (especially in nu metal ), and 12-string electric guitars (with six pairs of strings, four of which are tuned in octaves) are used in genres such as jangle pop and rock.
The electric guitar was first used by jazz guitarists, who used amplified hollow-bodied instruments to get a louder sound in Swing-era big bands. The earliest electric guitars were hollow bodied acoustic instruments with tungsten pickups made by the "Rickenbacker" company in 1931. While one of the first solid-body guitars was invented by Les Paul, the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar was the Fender Esquire (1946). The electric guitar was a key instrument in the development of many musical styles that emerged since the late 1940s, such as Chicago blues, early rock and roll and rockabilly, and 1960s blues rock. It is also used in a range of other genres, including country music, ambient (or "new-age"), and in some contemporary classical music.
The earliest documented performance with an electric guitar was in 1932, by guitarist and bandleader Gage Brewer. The Wichita, Kansas-based musician had obtained two instruments from George Beauchamp of Los Angeles, California, and he publicized his new instruments in an article in the Wichita Beacon, October 2, 1932 and through a performance later that month. The first recording of an electric guitar was by jazz guitarist George Barnes who recorded two songs in Chicago on March 1st, 1938: Sweetheart Land and It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame. Many historians incorrectly attribute the first recording to Eddie Durham, but his recording with the Kansas City Five was not until 15 days later. Durham introduced the instrument to a young Charlie Christian, who made the instrument famous in his brief life and is generally known as the first electric guitarist and a major influence on jazz guitarists for decades thereafter.
The first recording of an electric guitar west of the Mississippi was in Dallas, in September 1935, during a session with Roy Newman and His Boys, an early Western swing dance band. Their guitarist, Jim Boyd, used his electrically-amplified guitar during the recording of three songs, "Hot Dog Stomp" (DAL 178-Vo 03371), "Shine On, Harvest Moon" (DAL 180-Vo 03272), and "Corrine, Corrina" (DAL 181-Vo/OK 03117). An even earlier Chicago recording of an electrically amplified guitar—albeit an amplified lap steel guitar—was during a series of session by Milton Brown and His Brownies (another early Western swing band) that took place January 27-28, 1935, wherein Bob Dunn played his amplified Hawaiian guitar.
The version of the instrument that is best known today is the solid body electric guitar, a guitar made of solid wood, without resonating airspaces within it. Rickenbacher, later spelled Rickenbacker, did, however, offer a cast aluminum electric steel guitar, nicknamed The Frying Pan or The Pancake Guitar, beginning in 1931. This guitar is reported to have sounded quite modern and aggressive when tested by vintage guitar researcher John Teagle. The company Audiovox built and may have offered an electric solid-body as early as the mid-1930s.
Another early solid body electric guitar was designed and built by musician and inventor Les Paul in the early 1940s, working after hours in the Epiphone Guitar factory. His log guitar (so called because it consisted of a simple 4x4 wood post with a neck attached to it and homemade pickups and hardware, with two detachable Swedish hollow body halves attached to the sides for appearance only) was patented and is often considered to be the first of its kind, although it shares nothing in design or hardware with the solid body "Les Paul" model sold by Gibson. In 1945, Richard D. Bourgerie made an electric guitar pickup and amplifier for professional guitar player George Barnes. Bourgerie worked through World War II at Howard Radio Company making electronic equipment for the American military. Mr. Barnes showed the result to Les Paul, who then arranged for Mr. Bourgerie to have one made for him.
Features of the Telecaster included: an ash body; a maple 25½" scale, 21-fret or 22-fret neck attached to the body with four-bolts reinforced by a steel neckplate; two single-coil, 6-pole pickups (bridge and neck positions) with tone and volume knobs, pickup selector switch; and an output jack mounted on the side of the body. A black bakelite pickguard concealed body routings for pickups and wiring. The bolt-on neck was consistent with Leo Fender's belief that the instrument design should be modular to allow cost-effective and consistent manufacture and assembly, as well as simple repair or replacement. Due to the earlier mentioned trademark issue, some of the first production Telecasters were delivered with headstock decals with the Fender logo but no model identification. These are today very much sought after, and commonly referred to by collectors as "Nocasters".
In 1954, Fender introduced the Fender Stratocaster, or "Strat." The Strat was seen as a deluxe model and offered various product improvements and innovations over the Telecaster. These innovations included a well dried ash or alder double-cutaway body design for bridge assembly with an integrated spring vibrato mechanism (called a synchronized tremolo by Fender, thus beginning a confusion of the terms that still continues), three single-coil pickups, and body comfort contours. Leo Fender is also credited with developing the first commercially-successful electric bass guitar called the Fender Precision Bass, introduced in 1951.
While guitar construction has many variations, in terms of the materials used for the body, the shape of the body, and the configuration of the neck, bridge, and pickups, there are features which are found in almost every guitar. The photo below shows the different parts of an electric guitar. The headstock(1) contains the metal machine heads, which are used for tuning ; the nut(2), a thin fret-like strip of metal or plastic which the strings pass over as they first go onto the fingerboard; the machine heads (3), which are worm gears which the player turns to change the string tension and thus adjust the tuning; the frets(4), which are thin metal strips which stop the string at the correct pitch when a string is pressed down against the fingerboard; the truss rod(5) , a metal cylinder used for adjusting the tension on the neck (not found on all instruments); decorative inlay (6), a feature not found on lower-end instruments.
The neck and the fretboard (7) extend from the body; at the neck joint (8), the neck is either glued or bolted to the body; the body (9)- in this instrument, it is made of wood which is painted and lacquered, but some guitar bodies are also made of polycarbonate or other materials ; pickups (10), which are usually magnetic pickups, but which may also be piezoelectric transducer pickups; the control knobs (11) for the volume and tone potentiometers ; a fixed bridge(12)-on some guitars, a spring-loaded hinged bridge called a "tremolo system" is used instead, which allows players to "bend" notes or chords down in pitch or perform a vibrato embellishment; and a plastic pickguard(13), a feature not found on all guitars, which is used to protect the body from scratches.
Some hybrid electric-acoustic guitars are equipped with additional microphones or piezoelectric pickups (transducers) that sense mechanical vibration from the body. Because in some cases it is desirable to isolate the pickups from the vibrations of the strings, a guitar's magnetic pickups will sometimes be embedded or "potted" in epoxy or wax to prevent the pickup from having a microphonic effect.
Because of their natural inductive qualities, all magnetic pickups tend to pick up ambient and usually unwanted electromagnetic noises. The resulting noise, the so-called "hum", is particularly strong with single-coil pickups, and aggravated by the fact that very few guitars are correctly shielded against electromagnetic interference. The most frequent cause is the strong 50 or 60 Hz component that is inherent in the frequency generation of current within the local power transmission system. As nearly all amplifiers and audio equipment associated with electrical guitars rely on this power, there is in theory little chance of completely eliminating the introduction of unwanted hum.
Double-coil or "humbucker" pickups were invented as a way to reduce or counter the unwanted ambient hum sounds. Humbuckers have two coils of opposite magnetic and electric polarity. This means that electromagnetic noise hitting both coils should cancel itself out. The two coils are wired in phase, so the signal picked up by each coil is added together. This creates the richer, "fatter" tone associated with humbucking pickups. Optical pickups are a type of pickup which sense string and body vibrations using infrared LED light.
With the expiration of the Fender patent on the Stratocaster-style tremolo, various improvements on this type of internal, multi-spring tremolo system are now available. Floyd Rose introduced one of the first improvements on the vibrato system in many years when in the late 1970s he began to experiment with "locking" nuts and bridges which work to prevent the guitar from losing tuning even under the most heavy whammy bar acrobatics.
The materials used in the manufacture of the neck have great influence over the tone of the instrument. Hardwoods are very much preferred, with maple, ash, and mahogany topping the list. The neck and fingerboard can be made from different materials, such as a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. In the 1980s, exotic man-made materials such as graphite began to be used, but are pricey and never really replaced wood in production instruments. Such necks can be retrofitted to existing bolt-on instruments.
There are several different neck shapes used on guitars, including shapes known as C necks, U necks, and V necks. These refer to the cross-sectional shape of the neck (especially near the nut). There are also several sizes of fret wire available, with traditional players often preferring thin frets, and metal shredders liking thick frets. Thin frets are considered better for playing chords, while thick frets allow lead guitarists to bend notes with less effort. An electric guitar with a neck which folds back called the "Foldaxe" was designed and built for Chet Atkins by Roger Field (featured in Atkins' book "Me and My Guitars."). Steinberger guitars developed a line of exotic instruments without headstocks, with tuning done on the bridge instead.
In the 1970s, as effects pedals proliferated, their sounds were combined with power-tube distortion at lower, more controlled volumes by using power attenuators such as Tom Scholz' Power Soak as well as re-amplified dummy loads such as Eddie Van Halen's use of a variac, power resistor, post-power-tube effects, and a final solid-state amp driving the guitar speakers. A variac is one approach to power-supply based power attenuation, to make the sound of power-tube distortion more practically available.
By the 1980s and 1990s, digital and software effects became capable of replicating the analog effects used in the past. These new digital effects attempted to model the sound produced by analog effects and tube amps, to varying degrees of quality. There are many free guitar effects computer programs for PCs that can be downloaded from the Internet. By the 2000s, PCs with specially-designed sound cards could be used as digital guitar effects processors. Although digital and software effects offer many advantages, many guitarists still use analog effects.
In 2002, Gibson announced the first digital guitar, which performs analog-to-digital conversion internally. The resulting digital signal is delivered over a standard Ethernet cable, eliminating cable-induced line noise. The guitar also provides independent signal processing for each individual string. Also, in 2003 amp maker Line 6 released the Variax guitar. It differs in some fundamental ways from conventional solid-body electrics. For example it uses piezoelectric pickups instead of the conventional electromagnetic ones, and has an onboard computer capable of modifying the sound of the guitar to model the sound of many instruments.
One of the first solid body guitars was invented by Les Paul. Gibson did not present their 'Les Paul' guitar prototypes to the public, as they did not believe it would catch on. The first mass-produced solid-body guitar was Fender's Broadcaster (later to become the 'Telecaster') first made in 1948, five years after Les Paul made his prototype. The Gibson Les Paul appeared soon after to compete with the Broadcaster.
Seven-string electric guitars were popularized among rock players in the 1980s by Steve Vai. Along with the Japanese guitar company Ibanez, Vai created the Universe series seven string guitars in the 1980s, with a double locking tremolo system for a seven string guitar. These models were based on Vai's six string signature series, the Ibanez Jem. Seven-string guitars experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 2000s, championed by Korn, Fear Factory, Strapping Young Lad, Nevermore, and other hard rock/metal bands. Metal musicians often prefer the seven-string guitar for its extended lower range. The seven-string guitar has also played an essential role in progressive rock, and is commonly used in bands such as Dream Theater and by experimental guitarists such as Ben Levin.
George Harrison of The Beatles and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds brought the electric twelve-string to notability in rock and roll. During the Beatles' first trip to the US, in February 1964, Harrison received a new "360/12" model guitar from the Rickenbacker company, a 12-string electric made to look onstage like a 6-string. He began using the 360 in the studio on Lennon's "You Can't Do That" and other songs. Roger McGuinn began using electric 12-string guitars to create the jangly sound of The Byrds. Another notable guitarist to utilize electric 12-string guitars is Jimmy Page, the guitarist with proto-heavy metal and rock group Led Zeppelin.
There were also some double necks that had two six-string necks with different pickup configurations. The most popular 6 and 6 were made by Ibanez in the early 1980s, which were copies of the Gibson SG style 6 and 12, and were also referred to as the "pre-lawsuit" guitars. Ibanez stopped production when they lost a lawsuit to Gibson. The Gibson 6-string and 12-string was also popularized by the Eagles song "Hotel California". English progressive rock bands such as Genesis used custom-made double-neck instruments produced by the Shergold company. Rick Nielsen, guitarist for Cheap Trick, uses a variety of custom guitars mostly made by Hamer Guitars, many of which have five necks, with the strap attached to the body by a swivel so that the guitar can be rotated to put any neck into playing position. Guitarist Steve Vai occasionally uses a triple-neck guitar; one neck is twelve string, one is six string and the third is a fretless six-string. In the 2000s, a small number of boutique guitar makers produce specialty instruments with up to six necks on a guitar, consisting of various guitar necks with different stringing and/or "drone" strings which are designed to vibrate sympathetically.
In the most commercially available and consumed pop and rock genres, electric guitars tend to dominate their acoustic cousins in both the recording studio and the live venue, especially in the "harder" genres such as heavy metal and hard rock. However the acoustic guitar remains a popular choice in country, western and especially bluegrass music, and it is widely used in folk music.
When jazz guitar players improvise, they use the scales, modes, and arpeggios associated with the chords in a tune's chord progression. Jazz guitarists have to learn how to use scales (whole tone scale, chromatic scale, etc.) to solo over chord progressions. Jazz guitar improvising is not merely the recitation of jazz scales and rapid arpeggios. Jazz guitarists often try to imbue their melodic phrasing with the sense of natural breathing and legato phrasing used by horn players such as saxophone players. As well, a jazz guitarists' solo improvisations have to have a rhythmic drive and "timefeel" that creates a sense of "swing" and "groove".
Jazz guitarists typically favor hollowbody instruments; solidbody guitars are also used.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of composers (many of them composer-performers who had grown up playing the instrument in rock bands) began writing contemporary classical music for the electric guitar. These include Shawn Lane, Steven Mackey, Nick Didkovsky, Scott Johnson, Lois V Vierk, Tim Brady, Tristan Murail, John Rogers, and Randall Woolf. Yngwie Malmsteen released his Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in 1998, and Steve Vai released a double-live CD entitled Sound Theories, of his work with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra in June 2007. The American composers Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham have written "symphonic" works for large ensembles of electric guitars, in some cases numbering up to 100 players, and the instrument is a core member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars (played by Mark Stewart). Still, like many electric and electronic instruments, the electric guitar remains primarily associated with rock and jazz music, rather than with classical compositions and performances. R. Prasanna plays a style of Indian classical music (Carnatic music) on the electric guitar.