The birth of the electric guitar created a new musical genre: rock’n’roll. But the inventors who developed the solid-body electric guitar, Leo Fender and Les Paul, could hardly have imagined the chain of events that the instrument would trigger. While Fender designed the guitar for country musicians, Paul was a talented guitarist and a fan of jazz. So when rock adopted their inventions, they weren’t thrilled.
“It wasn’t the sound they wanted; they were alienated and shocked, ”explained music journalist Ian S. Port, author of“The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the pioneering guitar rivalry that shaped rock’n’roll. “” It was shocking to me how innovators sometimes cannot understand what effects they are releasing in the world. ”
So what prompted Paul and Fender – whose names would eventually be inscribed on the guitars themselves – to create the instrument? In the 1920s and 1930s, Paul was an aspiring young musician from Wisconsin. As a teenager he performed at a local barbecue stand, where he received a note from an audience member who said, as Paul later recalled, “Your voice, your harmonica, and your jokes are okay. , but your guitar is not strong enough. ” Paul brought this back home and played with his acoustic guitar, a phonograph needle, and a radio. He eventually succeeded in amplifying the sound produced by his guitar, essentially creating the first raw version of the electric guitar.
Fender, on the other hand, didn’t play any instruments, including the guitar. Instead, his ideas and inspiration for the electric guitar came from the technical skills he had developed repairing radios and amplifiers for customers who visited his small store in California.
At first, these two innovators were friends, who shared ideas about sound, amplification, speaker design, voltage, and improvements to the electric guitar. Later, when the solid body electric guitar became a commercial product, their rivalry grew.
During this time, American audiences were starting to get used to hearing rock music underpinned by electric guitar. When Bob Dylan launched his new electric sound at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, many spectators had none of it. Later, in one of the most famous ruckus in history, Bob Dylan has been tagged “Judas” by his British fans when he pulled out an electric guitar at a concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. Some fans felt that Dylan was exhausted and that rock music was not as serious or intellectual as folk music.
But by the time Dylan went electric, the world of music had changed. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys all played electric guitars. Artists like Jimi Hendrix would get creative with the instrument in a way Les Paul and Leo Fender could not have imagined. Eric Clapton was known for cranking up his amplifier to its maximum volume to create a powerful, bluesy sound. Hair metal bands of the 1980s played with the shapes and designs of the guitar and pushed technology to challenge the sounds and music they were able to create.
Ultimately, Port believes that the greatest importance of the introduction of the electric guitar is that it empowered individual musicians in a way that has never been done before. In the 1930s and 1940s, as a professional musician, you were often one of the many members of a band. But with rock’n’roll, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, each musician has been able to create a unique identity around the music they have created. The legacy left by Paul and Fender was an instrument that forever changed not only the sound of music, but also the way it was created and consumed.
Nadia Lewis is an intern at Innovation Hub.