Hey Mom!!!! Where do solid body electric guitars and basses come from? Please don’t give me the stork story again, okay? A Les Paul is too heavy for a bird to deliver….
To begin, the electric guitar has been around near as long as electricity has been harnessed in the American home. Around 1930, most urban homes in the United States had been retrofitted from gas to electrical power. Electricity, an everyday part of life that is now taken for granted, provided power for the electric lamp, refrigeration, hot water, and fancy door bells. As time went on, more important luxuries like the electric guitar, and of course the iron (both curling and waffle varieties), came along.
The electric guitar (of sorts) was right there. One of the first electric guitars is the famous Beauchamp/Rickenbacker frying pan. Just like today, guitar players looked for a way to be louder. The well-suited for folk music and easy-to-transport acoustic guitar was not always loud enough to compete with brass instruments, the banjo, resonator steel guitar, drums, piano, or
sometimes even the voice. Amplified archtops began to transform the way the guitar was heard, and played. The louder amplified guitar could now be used as a soloist’s instrument since a single note was now loud enough to be heard over a band.
For the most part, the first electric guitars were acoustic archtop guitars retrofitted with an electrical pickup. The acoustic properties of the guitar were no longer needed if it was to be heard electrically. Some of the awkwardness that came along with the archtop design could be designed out. In fact, just about any shape or geometric figure could be used, and soon, new and different awkwardness could be designed in. The solid body electric guitar was born, and will dominate popular music for the next half century and beyond.
The Great Debate
Electric guitar players are a breed unlike any other. While they/we/me come from all walks of life, and play all kinds of different styles, there are a few things shared commonly. We all have our own ideas about what is the best, and usually for different reasons. Some may agree that the Fender Stratocaster is the greatest instrument ever built, while others may favor a Fender Telecaster. Some will disagree to the point of a fist fight. Strat lovers will not always agree what music it’s best suited for, what is the best year of manufacture, or even what color looks best. Others will like a Gibson Les Paul best, and not like the Strat, or sometimes, not even like a Strat player! This is kind of like a Yankees/Red Sox, Biggie/Tupac, Hatfield/McCoy, Star Wars/Star Trek, Ginger/Maryanne, and for some, Mrs. Howell type thing.
Of course, the reverse is true as well. Many diehard Fender players will refuse to play a Gibson. We “electric guitarists” may be a loathsome crew, but boy do we have fun playing guitar, debating about guitars, and sometimes, even playing well with others.
The truth is, most people love both schools of guitar design, but lean towards one or the other. One thing that’s an absolute undebatable truth is nearly all solid body electric guitars built today have roots in the Gibson or Fender designs from the ’50s.
Coke and Pepsi. Gibson and Fender.
Most guitars made today have elements from one or the other, or even both. Fender and Gibson are arguably the most popular and influential solid body guitar makers on the planet.
I’d like to note at this point that Rickenbacker, Mosrite, and even Valco brands were also pioneers of early solid body electric guitars, and did make some fantastic, game-changing designs. In terms of volume of sales, structural popularity, and distinctiveness, Gibson and Fender are the big boys of the solid body world.
Dang. Time out. This is not a value judgement, and in no way am I defining any one company or design as being better or worse. Okay, Time in.
The Fender School of Thought: Lets Meet Leo
Though not the first man or company to design, build, or offer production of a solid body electric guitar or solid body bass guitar, Fender was the first wildly successful man at doing so. I am talking about the now-legendary Henry Ford of guitars, Mr. Clarence Leonidas Fender (referred to as “Leo” from here out).
Time out again. Thanks. Paul Tutmarc’s horizontal bass came first by over a decade, but the teeming masses didn’t notice. Only 4 examples are known to have survived to this day. There could be other builders whose work never left the garage. Leo made it work, first. Cool? Time in.
Leo started his career as a radio repairman and Public Address System maker. By the late 1940s, this became Fender Musical Instruments. His first mass-produced electric guitar model arrived in late 1951. Leo’s solid body guitar ended up with the name “Telecaster”—a revolutionary and never-out-of-production icon.
Time out again, please. Around this part in our time together, the “evil and ill-tempered electric guitarists” I warned you about above are stomping their feet and yelling, “This idiot forgot to mention the Esquire, Broadcaster, and the Nocaster” (the early versions of the Telecaster), and, “What about Paul Bigsby, huh?” While they are right about me being an idiot from time to time, this is an article, not a book, and most all will agree that the Telecaster is the first successful mass-made solid body electric guitar. The “Model T” of the modern electric guitar, if you will. Okay, time in.
The Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass, Jaguar, Jazzmaster, Duo Sonic, Musicmaster, Mustang, electric 12-string, and more were all developed over the 13-year period that Leo owned the Fender Company.
Time out. Leo sold to CBS in 1965 because of a misdiagnosed illness that was thought to be fatal. Turned out to be a runny nose and Leo lived for another 26 years. Time In
This list is only solid body instruments, and does not include countless other breakthrough products. After all, what’s a solid body electric guitar without an amp? Because the focus here is guitars, let’s just say Leo wrote the book on guitar and bass amps. He probably pioneered the solid body guitar and bass just to help sell his amps! The 1950s Fender Co. produced some of the world’s most beloved and copied designs ever made (more on this later). Leo Fender was a lot of things, but a guitar player, he was not. He managed to change musical instruments and music itself forever, but didn’t bother to learn to play (just like some of the forum guys, OHHHH)!
Time out. Just kidding guys, have a sense of humor (I did mention we are a loathsome set of folks, didn’t I?).Time in.
Leo did do a lot of listening, though—no, not to guitars, but instead, to guitar players. His concept of guitar building was fresh, new, hip, and utilitarian all at the same time. Having no lifetime of ideas about what a guitar was supposed to be, Leo was free to break the mold and think in new directions. He designed the electric guitar from the upper left-hand corner, so to speak—a blank slate.
Leo’s guitars were designed to be, well….disposable (ouch). That’s right…disposable. This is a concept that’s totally inconceivable to today’s guitarists. However, if you told Leo that his first few years of the Telecaster would be a household icon and a pricey collectable, he’d have probably laughed a hole in your shirt. The never seen in production “bolt-on” neck design was factored in so a player could replace his entire neck when the frets wore out, rather than find a technician to perform a costly and careful repair job. It has since become the accepted and traditional way to build this type of guitar. This is why your Strat, Tele, P-Bass, J-Bass, Ibanez, Tom Anderson, Glendale, Music Man, Charvel, Schecter, or “whoever built” has a bolt-on neck. It was not because someone thought it would sound better, or because it was the accepted method. In 1950, there was no accepted method. In fact, the hard-rocking iconic Strat (and Tele) was invented and produced before there was a thing called “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Rock ‘n’ Roll was nothing more than slang for what people occasionally did on a date in the back seat of a sizable Packard at the drive-in.
With all this in mind, Leo was trying to simply build something that was well suited to amplify, (again, after all, Leo was an amp builder) not something that was well-suited to satisfy the tastes of his guitar customers. Leo had no solid body customers in 1950. Nobody did.
Okay, back to the Tele!
The Telecaster (first called the Broadcaster, and no, I’m not telling that story here) was the guitar that defined solid body guitars, and the Fender sound.
A simple utility design, the Telecaster is beautiful, but far from fancy. The silhouette of the instrument is kind of like a boxed-off acoustic guitar, with a simple cutaway for easy upper fret access. The body was just a slab of ash with no contour, just a beveled edge. Ash was not commonly used in guitar making until the Tele. It could have easily been chosen more for its beautiful grain pattern than tonal factors. Much of the sound of the Tele was a happy accident. It sports a simple design layout electronically. The Tele featured two microphones (known simply as “pickups”) that were strategically placed on the guitar’s body. The neck pickup, or sometimes called rhythm or bass pickup, is as close to the neck as the body will allow. This was one of the few things about the Tele that was not a new idea. Placement of the pickup under a part of the string that is far away from the bridge created what was thought of as a more natural, mellow sound.
The Tele also had something unusual—a luxurious 2nd pickup. The placement of the 2nd pickup is close to the bridge, and the end of the strings travel from the tuners. When the string is plucked in this area, the guitar has a very sharp, bright sound, and that’s exactly what the pickup “hears” and sends to the amp. The pickup is tilted at an angle so the low strings are “picked up” slightly away from the most extremely bright sounding area. This was not a brand new idea, but it was usually only seen on lap
steel and pedal steel guitars—a subject Leo was well-versed in having cut his teeth on building lap steels alongside the ampsdesigned for them. A plate of steel seats the pickup, and houses the string saddles as an all-in-one bridge, tailpiece, and pickupring group. A silver cap covers the whole unit. Leo was ashamed or had an irrational phobia to show the guitar’s “mechanisms”. Metallic covers for the pickups (on bass models) and bridges (on guitars and basses) hid away the naughty bits. However, the covers are incompatible with comfortable playing, not to mention, with technique. Many players (uh, more like all) took the covers off and found other uses for them. They excel at holding tiny screws, and smokers found them to be exceptional for holding a cigar or cigarette, in fact, they are still referred to as ashtray bridges to this day. I don’t even know the proper name.
Even more groundbreaking was the solid body electric bass. Maybe it was because Leo was not a guitarist, but he was able to think outside the box so well. Maybe
it was over cornflakes, or I’d like to think it was while waiting for the waffle iron to warm up when the inspiration came. “Why not make a bass version of the guitar?” Indeed… why not? After 60 some odd years, I think this idea is safe to qualify as a smashing success.
The un-electrified, hollow body bass that was in use before the advent of the Fender Precision Bass (P-Bass going forward) was the double bass or standup bass. At over 6 feet tall, over a foot deep, and a couple feet wide, this instrument was near impossible to efficiently amplify. The double or “standup” bass was better suited for sitting down and playing “bow style”. The electric bass changed the game forever. On rare occasions, or for effect, you will still see some nostalgic acts play rockabilly, old-school country, western swing, sometimes jazz, or instrumental blues with a standup bass fiddle, but 99% of the time, it’s a solid body electric bass. Up until the ’70s, any make or model bass was commonly referred to as a “Fender bass”. It was a new instrument. The solid body electric bass owed more to the electric guitar than it did to the standup bass, but it did the job of the upright bass in contemporary music with far greater efficiency.
The fretted bass (a serious innovation) was as portable as a guitar, and amplified very easily thanks to its pickup, and of course, Fender’s new line of amps to go along with the re-invented bass. Like the Tele, it was a simple slab body design with one single-coil pickup, and came out about the same time (late ’51 with production beginning in ’52).
Leo wanted a little more “oomph” out of his bass models and decided to redesign the enormously-successful P-Bass. In the fall of ’57, Leo updated the P-Bass from looking like the Tele’s big brother to more of a relative of the Strat. The P-Bass was still basic in design, but the body now had comfortable contours, along with a more Strat-like pickguard and headstock. The simple single-coil pickup was gone, and the split-coil offset P-Bass pickup as we know and love it today made its first appearance.
From Outer Space: The Stratocaster
Not one to stay idle, Leo kept listening to players telling him what they wanted. Leo began redesigning the Tele, but soon decided to leave the Tele as it is, and start from scratch again. A few prototypes later—directly from outer space—came another groundbreaking 20th century icon: the Fender Stratocaster. So many new features and luxuries came along in that chilly (maybe it was mild, I don’t know for sure, call it author’s liberty) October of 1954, when Strats first hit the walls of music retailers. The Stratocaster (Strat from here on out) had a double cutaway body with an offset waist, which helped with the guitar’s ergonomics and balance. Also on the cutting edge of design, the Strat featured a tremolo system unlike anything the world had ever seen, a big pickguard that dominated the guitar body, and no less than three (yup, count ‘em THREE) pickups. If the Tele was basic and utilitarian, the Strat was flashy and loaded with features and some serious curb appeal. The Strat was a “muscle car” to the Tele’s pickup truck.
Leo was of course far from done. The year 1960 brought forth the most popular and most widely-copied bass the world will ever know. If the P-Bass was the first car, then the Jazz Bass was the first Cadillac Coupe Deville. The J-Bass had a more radical offset and contoured body. It was sexy and more comfortable. It featured two pickups, a stacked volume and tone knob, and a thinner neck width (a very popular feature). The P-Bass was great for laying down the foundation, and so was the Jazz Bass, but with its wide tonal girth and bright treble position pickup, the J-Bass was well-suited for soloists, and was applicable to more types and styles of music.
Originally intended for the jazz player (yeah, it is called the Jazz Bass, but I’m getting someplace, stick with me), the Jazz Bass was designed to not distort the sort of cuddy bass amps Fender was making (ducking again). Many things made by Leo were before their time, or better yet, made new styles of music possible. Leo might have fallen over if he could look about a decade ahead and see John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin rumbling 60 thousand people to the sound of the low E string droning on “Communication Breakdown”.
Fender’s bass amps didn’t find favor with bass players due to their tendency to overdrive and distort, but the guitar players from Bakersfield, California sure loved the sound. Far away in England, a young Jim Marshall sure took note of them, and started a little company called (no points awarded if you got it right) Marshall Amps that made some of the most coveted amps ever built. Mr. James “Loud” Marshall based his first creations on the Fender Bassman circuit. To a large degree, Mesa Boogie started from humble beginnings upgrading Fender Bassman amps, same as the legendary Dumble, Fuchs, and countless more.
In short, even Leo’s mistakes were a fantastic success! Ol’ Leo was no dummy. He may not have looked like a 1950s So-Cal hipster, but he was more than just on the cutting edge, he defined the cutting edge. Leo’s products were the very definition of the West Coast new-school coolness, and a giant 6-foot middle finger to the old-school establishment. Nobody, even Leo, could know what people would think when they saw the Strat for the first time. It must have looked like a prop from a Roger Corman film, more than a guitar. It was the Strat, and it was here to stay.
At the very crest of the wave, Leo and his new-school approach made him a “man of the century” not just an innovator. He made history by adding new applications to an old idea. He made people look at, play, and listen to music in a whole new way. He did most of his trailblazing work with simple designs that were just plain different. Leo’s designs offered a whole new school and new design of guitar making, which gave birth to new styles of music and players, from Ike Turner and Buddy Holly to Muddy Waters, Jimi (still the king) Hendrix, and literally tons of British musicians.
The “Big Four” for Fender’s original line up, the Tele, Strat, P-Bass and J-Bass, have all been in production from the time of their inception to today. It is impossible to count the variations, copies, and guitars designed with most of the same features. Not many people or companies can enjoy such a boast.
The Gibson School of Thought
Gibson was already a huge and influential company before Leo Fender was born. By the time Leo started looking at girls; Gibson already got their second wind. In order to understand the differences between Fender and Gibson schools of design, we need to start the narrative long before the birth of the solid body electric guitar age.
Orville Gibson made mandolins in his Michigan home while working at a restaurant to pay the bills. Orville was brilliant, but totally “crackers”. Orville’s wacky but not entirely unusable idea was making mandolins with a top, back, and sides cut out of a solid block of wood. It owed more to the violin than the popular bowl back design. Orville’s improvement and design was a brilliant, but non-practical solution. Making the side for a mandolin required a block of wood large enough to cut the side from one piece, without carving or shaping. About 98% of the block was waste. On the strength of Orville’s growing reputation, as well as his new designs and construction methods, the Gibson Company was founded in 1902. Orville Gibson had less and less to do with the company that bore his name over the next 8 years, and by 1908, he was gone from his namesake company. By all accounts, he was very ill, paranoid, and was creeped out by most people, including his investors and business partners. Actually, he sounds pretty normal by today’s standards. By 1908, Orville’s company bore his name, but not much else. Sadly, Orville died in a home for the mentally ill in 1918, having not been to the factory his ideas gave birth to for over 10 years.
It is quite possible that his illness forced him to think outside the box. While his methods didn’t catch on, his concepts of design sure did. The A and F-style mandolins were a smashing success, and were louder, warmer, and richer than the bowl back design that dominated the past 500 years. Orville’s designs not only outlived its creator, but will likely outlive our grandchildren, as well.
Gibson chugged along gaining customers and worldwide recognition when a designer just as brilliant as Orville came along in 1919. Lloyd Loar’s arrival to Gibson assured the company’s future, their reputation for new ideas, and the first quality instruments. Under Loar’s short stay came the improved F-style mandolin (none other than the famed F-5, the one all others have to call “daddy”), the improved A-style mandolin (still popular today, as a more affordable model), and the new standard for arched top guitars, the luxurious and functional L-5.
With the introduction of the L-5, a newer and much higher bar was set for what acoustic archtops could be. Gone were the oval sound holes of the Orville era, which were replaced by the old-school Stradivarius-style F-holes. A much louder acoustic instrument was born, making the guitar a more viable alternative to the plectrum banjo. The L-5 offered so much volume that it could even be played in ensembles with brass instruments and still be heard. Loar was most likely not crackers, but like Orville, he did not care for his partners. In a short 6-year run, Loar hit the high road. His inventions/improvements are still felt today.
Bill Monroe, the king, president, ruler, and father of bluegrass all rolled into one adopted one of Loar’s first Gibson F-5 mandolins. The L-5 guitar found its way to the embrace of one of country music’s matriarchs and living legend (at the time, anyhow…) Maybelle Carter. Soon, no self-respecting bluegrass man would be seen without an F-5. In the guitar world, the L-5 [and later on the L5C, and L5CES (C for cutaway, and CES for cutaway electric Spanish) is as popular as it ever was amongst archtop enthusiasts. Competitive companies and luthiers like John D ’Angelico, Charles Stromberg, and rival Epi Stathopoulo (yup, Epiphone) also made world-class instruments. Some may argue that D ’Angelico and Stromberg made equal or superior-quality instruments. Opinions will always vary, but Loar’s Gibson L-5 has been in production from its inception. It is the only guitar of its kind that has enjoyed longevity to today’s marketplace. The L-5 has been undoubtedly played by more jazz, western swing, and country artists than any other premium archtop the world has ever known.
As the guitar began to gain in popularity beyond the 4-string banjo, Gibson’s popularity and influence grew alongside the guitar’s growth. Breakthroughs and standards were set with flat-top acoustic guitars like the Advanced Jumbo and the Super Jumbo 200 (yup, the SJ-200 or J-200 we know and love to this day). The SJ-200 was a full-blown showboat of a guitar, with plenty of bells and whistles—a Gibson that would surely stand out from the crowd. Some of the more inexpensive and common models will share at least some of the show-stopping high-end model’s appointments. The J-45—the Gibson “workhorse” acoustic flat top—gained popularity for its sweet tone, its obtainable price tag, and of
The Gibson L Series (Loar) archtops came in many shapes, sizes, and budgets, from the affordable L-3, L-4, L-37, L-50, L-48 (and many more) up to the L-5. Flat-tops from the L-1 (Robert Johnson, anyone?), the L-0, and the L-00 evolved into the more modern Jumbo “J” Series acoustics, which included the J-45, J-50, and J-200. Archtop and flat-top guitars are the establishment. Solid body? At this period in history, there is no solid body guitar. There is no electric blues, there is no rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is give or take 25-30 years away, and you will have to wait even longer for frozen waffles and an iPhone. Gibson continued to adapt archtop guitars to be electrified, including the ES-300 with its 5-foot-long slanted pickup (alright, it’s not 5 feet long but geez…look at the thing). The Charlie Christian pickup helped the guitar become a viable soloist instrument, as it could be electronically amplified to audible levels.
The world-famous P-90 pickup was introduced around 1946, and it was big, loud, noisy, and full of tone. This became Gibson’s addition to most archtops. Now they could fill the role of a soloist’s instrument, as well as a rhythm instrument. While the sound and versatility was groundbreaking, the guitars themselves looked like models made generations ago. Electrified Gibsons may have been great guitars, but they were your dad’s, or even granddad’s guitar. Most Gibsons (even the newfangled electronic pickup models) looked about the same as guitars without electrical capability. In 1950, Gibson’s mind set was to build in the traditional Gibson way. Leo’s mind set was to offer the world something brand new, just about to jump from local popularity in Southern California to the stages and studios of planet Earth.
Solid Body Showdown
The solid body electric guitar, the electric bass guitar, guitar amps, and bass-specific amps… things were about to change, and change FAST. Squaring off for the dollars of pro and aspiring musicians were the stalwart Gibson Company, and the new wave of solid body guitars from Leo. The stage was set for two soon-to-be legendary captains of industry: Gibson’s Ted McCarty and Leo Fender. At a feverish pace that would nearly rival the coming space race, Leo & crew and McCarty & company were about to reinvent the whole machine.
By 1950/1951, Leo’s solid body Broadcaster/Nocaster had not yet lit the world on fire; however, it did catch the attention of Gibson. Newly-elected Gibson president Ted McCarty decided it was time to add a solid body to the catalog. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it was a risk. Gibson had a strong reputation, and the solid body guitar was looked upon with disdain by the old guard (change of any kind is nearly always unwelcomed). It is said that the Gretsch Company asked of Gibson, “How could you build one of those wooden slabs of garbage? ANYONE can make something like that! ”
Many guitarists called the new solid body “small” or “little” guitars. Though close to, or the same scale length, the big ol’ hollow body guitars were actually hard to reach around for a person with a smaller frame. A Telecaster must have seemed like a pea shooter compared to someone used to playing a Gretsch Country Club, or a Gibson Super 400.
Anyway, back to Ted McCarty’s venture into solid body guitars, okay? Okay.
Ted McCarty (Ted from here on out) knew that he could manufacture a more refined and less disposable (Leo’s words, not mine, okay?) solid body than the pesky upstart Leo could. The Tele was not much more than a flat plank of wood. The new-for-’54 Strat was more or less a plank with some contour and belly camphor—same as the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass. It was sexy, but as flat as the top of Boris Karloff’s head.
Ted set out to make a more traditional solid body, with lots of appointments that Gibson customers would recognize from previous popular models. He also equipped his new solid body with an arched top, like every previously electrified Gibson, and even sharing kinship with the F- and A-style mandolins that served as Gibson’s cornerstone. Ted used trapezoid inlays for his new guitar—a familiar feature found on many previous mid-priced and higher-end archtops. Just about every inch was much more luxurious than Leo’s stark but potent Telecaster. The headstock had the familiar Gibson pitch, and retained the 3-on-a-side tuner layout and headstock shape. Two of Gibson’s new P-90 pickups adorned the new solid body. This was a feature that was previously reserved for Gibson’s higher-end archtop models. Most student model electrics had only one P-90, and intermediate offerings like the ES-175 could be equipped with two P-90s by special order. Though somewhat sleeker and with a narrower waist, the new solid body had roughly the same silhouette as the ES-175, L-5, ES-125C, and just about any archtop that Gibson manufactured that featured a cutaway.
Okay. A BIG time out goes here….The electric solid body guitar owes a lot, if not all, of its lineage to the already well-developed flat top and archtop guitars, but it was something completely new and different. The first instrument that relied entirely on electricity, outside of the theremin (don’t get me started on that crazy thing—I have one set up in the basement to scare away unwanted guests). Many things will rely on amplification in order to reach larger audiences, but the electric guitar relies on electricity, for even the player to hear it. It’s not an electrified “something” (like a voice and a microphone). The electric guitar’s tonal shape does begin like a traditional guitar, but the overall volume and a good deal of the tone come from the other 50% of the total electric guitar experience-the guitar’s amplifier. Without one, an electric guitar is about as audible as the day after eating White Castle burgers next to kick starting a motorcycle.Okay. Back to the mystery guitar Ted and his crew are sweating over.
Gibson’s general shape, bound neck, familiar inlay on familiar rosewood fingerboard, world-famous Gibson logo on traditional 3-on-a-side tuner headstock, a mahogany body and neck, a familiar arched maple top, standard Gibson scale length and nut width, and a pair of premium P-90 pickups. What else do we need? How about the endorsement of a famous and influential musician, who just so happens to be keenly interested in solid body guitar development and cutting-edge tech? Oh yeah, and he has his own radio and TV show? Well heck, Ted must have thought over a similar waffle iron as Leo’s that one fine morning: let’s get that Rhubarb Red fella, or whatever he calls himself now….Les Paul…that’s the guy!
Les Paul was a monster player in his youth. He was keen on what electronics and music could do when used together. His collaborations with singer and wife Mary Ford were far ahead of their time, and just plain good songs. “Tico-Tico” and “Vaya con Dios” (as well as MANY others) featured double speed and pitch guitar licks, with the help of a sped up tape machine. “How High the Moon” featured multi-layer harmonies of Mary Ford’s voice—sounds nobody ever heard before—thanks to electronics. Ted must have been beside himself to get a star like Les Paul to lend his name to his answer to Leo’s simple-by-comparison Tele. Okay, time out? Thanks.
Some say Les Paul himself had all to do with the design on the Les Paul guitar. He does have one patent (for a tailpiece that was used only on the first year of production). The Les Paul tailpiece rendered the Les Paul guitar nearly unplayable. The first-year-of-issue Les Paul guitars are not the collectors’ items that the following year Les Paul models had become because of this flaw. Nearly every feature of the Les Paul was seen on previous Gibson models in one way or another. You can believe Les Paul if you like, or Ted McCarty if you like. They both claim to have designed the instrument. I don’t want any part of the middle of this debate. I will leave that to the guys that were there. If you were 25 years old in 1950, you are 93 years old now. Happy Birthday! Well…. we all love the Les Paul model right? Right. Moving on.
The Les Paul seemed destined to be the solid body guitar that Gibson hung their hat on during the 1950s. They did make several versions of the Les Paul model in those years, including the Les Paul model in 1952, with an improved tailpiece and neck angle in ’53. Also, towards the end of 1953, the Les Paul Custom came to be—a gold-hardware, triple-bound, highly-appointed version of the Les Paul model. This was the first Les Paul to feature the stopbar tail/Tune-O-Matic bridge combination that would come to be a hallmark and strength of the model right up to today. The year 1954 gave the world a more affordable Les Paul model, the Les Paul Junior. The Les Paul Jr. offered a simple slab body with one P-90 pickup. In 1955, Gibson gave the world the Les Paul Special, which was a model up from the Les Paul Junior, offering the same exact specs except for two P-90s instead of one.
Gibson made four solid body guitar models called “Les Paul” in the ’50s. Each went under subtle to extreme changes each year, but all bore the name “Les Paul”. Gibson also introduced the EB-1 electric bass in 1953 to chase some of Leo’s money. Although a fine instrument, its popularity would never approach Leo’s Precision Bass and soon-to-be Jazz Bass. The 1950s were a 3rd golden age for Gibson. The year 1958 brought the way, way, way ahead of its time Flying V and Explorer models. That same year brought the last great guitar design to date—the semi-hollow body guitar. Looks like an old-school F-hole guitar, but its backbone is more of a solid body. This was a hybrid born out of a hope to boost sales of the solid body design to the old-school player. Of course the Flying V and Explorer were for the beyond adventurous. Several ES (Electric Spanish) and older Loar model guitars were electrified, like the L5-CES and the Super 400. Electric solid bodies, though? Nah. Not yet. Okay, have to add this part…
The years 1957 and 1958 brought the Les Paul to its ultimate design. Humbucking pickups (oh yes, more on this later) were added to the model in 1957, and the Sunburst finish made its inaugural appearance in 1958. This incarnation of the Les Paul was discontinued in 1960 and nobody cared… yet. Solid body guitars caught on with a lot of country players, but most “jazz” and “pop” players of the time did not want to give up the hollow body. The Les Paul was more or less extinct in 1961 (along with Les Paul and Mary Ford’s marriage and TV shows), after a complete redesign in 1961 of the instrument that was later dubbed the SG (short for “solid guitar”). By 1962, Les Paul’s endorsement was taken off the guitar. He wasn’t making hits. Stores had a hard time selling the Les Paul. During the ’50s, the Les Paul was seldom seen unless Les Paul was holding it. Quite frankly, it was a bomb.
What was Fender up to? Fender was enjoying sales of his Precision Bass, amplifiers, lap steels, pedal steels, and some Strats & Teles. Americans took note of Fender’s solid bodies a bit more than Gibson’s. Sales of Gibson hollow body guitars and electrified hollow bodies are what kept them afloat.
The decade that produced the world’s most beloved guitars had not yet produced a guitar hero on the solid body. Chuck (the true king of rock ‘n’ roll – come at me Elvis fans, I double dog dare you) played a Gibson electric, but it was an electrified hollow body ES-350. Buddy Holly played a solid body Fender, but his life was too short to catapult the Strat into the nation’s consciousness. The first so-called “rock ‘n’ roll” record “Rocket 88” was released in 1951, well before Ike Turner would become famous for upgrading to a Fender Strat.
So…why are Gibson’s Les Paul & ES-335 and Fender’s Strat & Tele the world’s most played, valued, copied, influential, and frankly, venerable guitars on this Earth?
It was an accident. A mistake. Luck. Serendipity.
Someone needed to be louder. Some say he was in Bakersfield. Some say it was London. Maybe EVERYONE needed to be louder. Everyone was about to be, that’s for sure. Anyway, that someone had a solid body guitar. Legend has it that a certain someone turned up a Fender Bassman’s volume control up to ten, and things would never be the same. No feedback in the conventional way, and the powerful humbucker drove the amp’s tubes to compress and produce a wonderful, rich harmonic distortion. The story goes back just a few years before this Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment. Remember?
As promised, here is some more on those humbucking pickups I mentioned earlier (I know you are undoubtedly thrilled that I remembered). Gibson and Gretsch came out with a brand-new “Patent Applied For” pickup in ’57. The “humbucker” was designed to help eliminate the hum that came along with single-coil pickups. It works by adding a 2nd coil to the pickup. It is wired in a magical way that eliminates the 60 cycle hum that makes single-coil guitars so noisy. This “malfunction” helped produce a pickup with a lot more power and girth. The extra output of the Humbucker was especially useful on Gibson’s version (not because it was any less noisy or sweet-sounding than Gretsch’s humbucking “Filter’Tron” pickup, but because it was mounted on the solid body Gibson Les Paul). The result was unintended: the sustain that was never before thought possible from a plucked string (the power of Gibson humbucker, and the guitar’s inherent design are both huge factors). It was a brand new sound. It was the solid body electric guitar’s potential, unveiled. This was a REALLY HAPPY accident.
As stated above, during the ’50s, the Les Paul model was not a smashing success, nor was any solid body Gibson. If the Les Paul was a bomb while it was originally offered, it morphed into an atomic fireball with a turned up tube amp. In the hands of Yardbirds’ guitarist Eric Clapton, it knocked the world on its ear. The sound of rock ‘n’ roll was morphing also. The ’50s rock ‘n’ roll records mainly featured piano, a sax section, and a bit of guitar. Elvis’ guitar player, the great Scotty Moore, used whatever the King bought him (mostly pricey electrified hollow body archtops). Bill Haley’s guitar man, Danny Cedrone, played the infamous “Rock Around the Clock” (1954) solo on a Gibson ES-300 (an electrified hollow body Gibson). He may have become a solid body guitar devotee, but we will never know, as he shuffled loose the mortal coil a month after he recorded the world-famous tremolo picked solo that would become his legacy. Another forward thinker and pioneer of electric guitar (hollow, solid body, or whatever he could win in a game of cards) was Link Wray. Wray was amongst the first to experiment with distortion, but it was a busted up old amp that got him there, not a humbucker.
Fender, for the most part, stayed with the single-coil pickups. The single coil can drive a tube amp to distort and compress without feedback like the humbucker-equipped Gibson, but not quite as fiercely. The Fender guitar’s signature sound is a twangy, slinky, bright tone. Most models have some kind of tremolo bar, a bolt-on neck, and offset body. On the other hand, Gibson featured the fat-sounding humbucking pickups on nearly all non-student-level guitars. Nearly all Gibson models feature a laminated neck joint and stoptail bridge. As a result, the sound is very different from the Fender trademark “twang”. Gibsons are known for powerful, darker, thick tones and the capability of great sustain. The one trait both Gibson and Fender solid body guitars shared was the way they worked with, rather than against, the guitar’s amplifier. The sound of the solid body caught fire (though it took nearly a decade) in the early ’60s. The “new” rock ‘n’ roll and now “electric blues” would never sound the same. In 1955, 90% of electric guitar players used a hollow body, by 1965, it was closer to 25%. By 1975, the number was probably closer to 99% in favor of the solid body.
Fender, Gibson, Supro, Mosrite, thinline Rickenbacker, thinline Gretsch, Hofner, and later, many more companies would become top picks of the new generation, of rock ‘n’ rollers and electric blues players.
Gibson and Fender are the forerunners, and arguably, the most popular, best-selling, and most widely recognized brands of solid body electric guitars in the world. Nearly any brand that will follow leans towards the Gibson or Fender school of design. Some even try to bridge the gap and borrow traits from each company.
If you’re a guitar player, you already know how to identify the sound of a Strat or Les Paul-type guitar on the radio without seeing it actually being played. Yes, this was back in the dark ages, before YouTube, and even before MTV (MTV played video clips of the hits, often featuring the band playing their instruments, before developing extra-reality shows like “Break the House Rules” and the “Jersey Beach Summer Rental Incident
A conversation between two guitar players listening to the radio may sound something like this:
“Sure sounds like a Strat to me, Sam!”
“I don’t know, Mike. It might be a Tele, but one thing is for sure: It’s a Fender tone, not a Gibson.”
For those of you that don’t play, you still know the sounds. They are part of the popular consciousness. You may not recognize the guitar by name, but the sound? Yes. You have the sound ingrained.
Slash’s Les Paul in the opening riff of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
Ed King’s twangy Strat starting up “Sweet Home Alabama”.
Jimi Hendrix with his tremolo bar explosions in “The Star Spangled Banner” or shimmery, dreamy dive bomb on “Little Wing”—all played on one of his many beloved Strats.
Jimmy Page holding long, sustained notes in “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, or sonic wall of sound in “Whole Lotta Love” (Jimmy says this was his Black 1960 Les Paul Custom).
Think how much sound changed is such a short time—this nearly all rests on the back of the solid body electric guitar. In 1957, the great Buddy Holly topped the charts with “That’ll be the Day”. Ten Years later, the master of the Fender Stratocaster James Marshall Hendrix unleashes Electric Ladyland on an unsuspecting planet Earth. If Buddy Holly could have heard “Purple Haze” back in the late ’50s, he may not have recognized the main instrument in the song as a guitar. He may have said something like “Great Caesar’s ghost! What the heck instrument makes that sound? It’s making the dogs go crazy and the cats’ eyes spin!” Of course, Jimi primarily played the same type of guitar that Buddy had, but its potential had not yet been realized. Jimi fixed that, “but real good”.
From the R&B, C&W, and dang near Barbershop-influenced rock of the ’50s through the explosive new sounds of the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond, we owe most of the growth to the solid body guitar. It made new sounds at new volume levels not only possible, but accessible.
Remember, next time you hear an electric guitar (for many of us, that shouldn’t take too long), that It all started with a guy named Leo Fender who wanted to sell some amps, and a clever CEO of Gibson Ted McCarty that was not going to let a changing world render his established company go the way of the Betamax.
Of course the talented, forward-thinking, innovative new school of players helped keep the solid body alive, and turned it into something aside from a disposable electrified archtop. Anyone that ever enjoyed a rock record of any genre owes a debt of gratitude to these guys, just as much as to Leo and Ted.
The early sound would join the electric solid body, but the foundation was laid in the early ’50s. It would be unfair to not mention the founders, just because they didn’t have a solid body electric guitar to help craft the sound. Rhythm and blues, blues, pop, folk, doo-wop, rockabilly, and even jazz melded together. Rock ‘n’ roll has DNA from all these sources and even more. The right tool was waiting, and the rest is history.
Ike Turner was ripping it up with “Rocket 88” in 1951, and “covered” by Bill Haley in ’54.
Bo Diddley rocked “Sixteen Tons” hard with his thinline Gretsch Roundup (shaped like a Les Paul) in ’55.
Ray Charles and Fats Domino rocked a piano, up one side of “Blueberry Hill” and down the other side of Arkansas.
Little Richard’s piano could make your knees freeze and your bladder splatter.
Jerry Lee Lewis was raw power even before Iggy Pop picked up the ball and ran face first into the fray.
Country and rockabilly great Carl Perkins donned “Blue Suede Shoes” and an early Les Paul while Johnny Cash’s main guitar man laid it down on “I Walk the Line” on one of Leo’s Esquire model.
Link Wray? Rock ‘n’ roll rebellion royalty. He poked holes in his speakers to make them distort, and was more than just a littleahead of his time. He also managed to get an instrumental song banned from the radio. Anyone who has ever seen Pulp Fiction knows the rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar masterpiece, “Rumble”.
The King of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, and his right hand (no, not Col. Parker) man, Scotty Moore, helped bring rock ‘n’ roll to the nation’s consciousness.
Roy Orbison, anyone? Yes, please!
Let’s not forget the president, sultan, and father of rock ‘n’ roll guitar—the mighty Chuck Berry. He and his thinline hollow and semi hollow Gibson models were groundbreaking. He is probably the most influential rock guitar player that ever stomped earth. Today, there are guitar players that are using recycled Berry riffs, without ever needing to hear a single Chuck Berry record. His influence is far and wide. As far as the early sound goes, nobody was within a parsec of Berry’s masterful double stop riffs and string bends. He was rhythm, lead, writer, and singer. Stand back man… Chuck is coming through.
The new solid body sound: you know it, and if you have read this far, you love and live it. This is far from a complete list, but a good example of some famous players and famous riffs on Fender or Gibson solid body electric guitars.
- “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” feature Buddy Holly and his ’50s Strat.
- The Shadow’s Hank Marvin with his Fender Strat on “Apache” (the whole band was outfitted with Strats and a P Bass).
- The ironically-named “Fendermen” play the 1960 hit “Mule Skinner Blues” on Strats and Teles.
- “Walk Don’t Run” starts the surf rock sound with The Ventures and their Fender guitars (later on, the Mosrite guitar will be a mainstay of the band).
- “Let’s Go Trippin” with Dick Dale is rippin’ on a Strat.
- “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris. Yup, that’s a Strat, and a great idea of what a clean Fender guitar sounds like.
- The songs “Till the End of the Day” and the infamous “All Day All Night” riff, both played by Dave Davies of the Kinks with his Gibson Flying V.
- In “Time Is On My Side”, the infamous Keef of the Rolling Stones plays a Bigsby trem-equipped Sunburst Gibson Les Paul. Keef Richards is known for playing many guitars including a Telecaster with a Gibson pickup that is often seen live, but the massive hit “Brown Sugar” was recorded on a Gibson SG Custom!
- “My Generation” by The Who may have been played on a thinline hollow Rickenbacker, but the drive came from a Fender Bassman amp. Live versions soon after the recording featured a Fender Strat.
- The Beatles George Harrison gave up his thinline hollow body guitars in time for the “Revolver” album. A Gibson SG Standard model was frequently used along with a 1961 Sonic Blue Strat on the “Nowhere Man” solo. The same Strat got a psychedelic paint job just in time for the fold out of the Magical Mystery Tour. The same guitar would be used 22 years later for the guitar solo of the Tom Petty classic “I Won’t Back Down”.
- The Yardbirds’ Eric Clapton played a Fender Tele during most of his time with the group. Clapton shifted gears and made the world reconsider the Gibson Les Paul and overdriven Masrhall amp on the John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers Beano
- The Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck ripped the world a new…”elbow” with his Fender Esquire on “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”.
- The Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page played his Dragon painted Tele on “Happening Ten Years Time Ago”.
- Jimi Hendrix freaks out Clapton and every other guitar god with the sounds that he can coax from a Fender Strat. Those who dared would pick up a Strat and try to copy Jimi. “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”… you know….that Jimi Hendrix!
- The Beatles classic, ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps”, is performed by Clapton, with a borrowed Les Paul of George Harrison.
- The Allman Brothers’ Dwayne Allman and Dickey Betts lashed out on dual Les Pauls… an all-out assault on the Live at the Fillmore
- The Who’s Live at Leeds defines massive, loud, and over the top “crunch”. The axe of choice is Pete’s SG Special, bought at the world-famous Manny’s Music on 48th in Manhattan, New York.
- Manny’s Music would also supply the “Black Strat” used by guitar tone master David Gilmour of “Pink Floyd” for a lot of his most admired work, including the “Comfortably Numb” guitar solo and most of the Dark Side of the Moon album that you probably have on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, and on your iPod (Just like The Beatles’ White album).
- Pete Townsend explodes 3 massive power chords on anthem “Baba O’Riley” with massive Les Paul crunch on live performances. In the studio, he used a P-90-equipped Les Paul Junior.
- Mick Ronson rocks a Les Paul as one of Bowie’s “Spiders from Mars”.
- Charles Pitts “whaka whakas” his Strat into history with Isaac Hayes on “Shaft”.
- Curtis Mayfield and his Fender Strat would “Super Fly” into the world’s ears for decades.
- “Sweet Home Alabama” performed by Ed King and his Strat.
- ABBA with… never mind, just kidding.
- Peter Frampton makes his Les Paul Custom talk on Frampton Comes Alive!
- Out of Texas, ZZ Tops’ Billy Gibbons gets tone to die for on “La Grange” on his Les Paul.
- AC/DC’s Angus Young gets high-voltage tone from his Gibson SG.
- Boston’s Tom Schulz used an electronic tech degree and a Les Paul to create massive distortion on “Foreplay/Long Time” and “Don’t Look Back”.
- The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones’ basic but furious playing absolutely burns on “Never Mind the Bollocks” with his infamous white Les Paul Custom, which was rumored to be acquired with a 5 finger discount dash, and the “original” Les Paul is said to be sold every time Jones needed some ready cash. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s a great, big, massive, in-your-grill, tidal wave of Les Paul. “Never Mind the Bollocks”… indeed.
- Eddie Van Halen turns it all upside down again with a modified Strat, which had elements of both the Fender Strat and the Gibson Les Paul. Parts from each were used to make a hybrid. This was all the rage until…
- Slash shows up with Guns ‘N’ Roses to scare the hairspray and spandex off the pop-inspired “Heavy” metal ’80s Super Strat players. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” makes the world safe for Les Paul players again.
Cycles of Gibson and Fender domination ebbed and flowed, but neither of them has ever fallen out of popularity. Many great electric guitar manufacturers will arrive and prosper—some domestic and some from overseas. Just about every solid body guitar that was made after 1950 owes some or most of its design or components to Gibson or Fender, or both.
I imagine that as long as people play, listen to, and admire the solid body electric and the music it helped give birth to, the Gibson/Fender influence will “Not Fade Away”.