Electric Guitar’s Unintended Consequences

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I recently interviewed guitar chronicler Tom Wheeler about his upcoming book on Fender amps, and he mentioned he was intrigued by the way guitar players have ended up using amps “in ways their designers could never have imagined.” This fascinating bit made me thing about the serendipitous life of the electric guitar.

Take the instrument itself. The amplification of the acoustic guitar in the 1930’s by Gibson and other pioneering guitar manufacturers was mainly a response to the need for orchestra guitar players to be heard in the mix. Their style was primarily a percussive style of “comping” rhythm chords, delegated to the edge of the orchestra.

Egr-Christianmorello-IgarticleThen along comes Charlie Christian, who became the first recorded artist who introduced audiences to the electric guitar’s ability to play single-line solos with the same fluidity and dynamic as the sax or trumpet, the prominent instruments at the time. Christian told Down Beat magazine in 1939 that “electrical amplification has given guitarists a new lease on life.” Christian went on to inspire the likes of Les Paul, and you know what came after that.

Look at the tube amplifier. Its designers were intent on nothing more than amplifying the natural sound of the electric guitar. And the guitar players took it from there. The exact history is disputed. But, somewhere along the way somebody cranked up an amp, way high, and there was “the sound.” Tubes weren’t capable of amplifying sound “accurately” and stay true to the sound’s original source. Instead, when turned up, tubes became alive themselves, much like the players, and delivered a beautiful and dynamic sonic quality that defined the new era of Rock and Roll. We covet that sound to this day.

Or take Leo Fender and his Stratocaster design. The first endorsers of the Strat were pop and country players whose names today you wouldn’t recognize: Al Myers, Alvino Rey, Eddie Cletro, Charlie Raye, Thumbs Carllile, Stash Clements. And then along comes Jimi Hendrix. He took the Strat, turned it upside down, played it through a fuzz pedal, played it with his tongue, burned it, and revolutionized the way rock guitar is played.

Take the Marshall amp. The 100 watt Super Lead was doing just fine in the late ‘70s. Then some adventurous crazies decided it was time to make it louder than its insides would allow, just to see what it sounded like. So, they put a variable AC transformer in it that allows more voltage from the wall to go into the amp. A young virtuoso by the name of Edward Van Halen took it home and you know the rest.

Or look at what happens when a guitar player gets asked by his band to be DJ. He doesn’t go and trade his guitar for a turntable. Instead, he figures out a way to make the guitar sound like a scratching turntable. How? For one, toggle between two pickups, one on and one off, while fretting notes on the guitar. Not to mention a dozen other tricks in his impossible-to-imitate inventory. Can you name this guitarist?

There are hundreds of other moments like these. And they signify the power of human beings. We take our gear and its intended technological, logical purpose, and we flip it a hundred times over. We create sonic beauty, which is a million times more transforming than technology itself. Our ideas, our visions, our accidents are the stuff of life. The guitar’s “new lease on life” for us never ends.

What will YOU do with guitar today?


Ig Blog, www.igblog.wordpress.com, provides all guitarists with inspiration, education, insights and ideas through the eyes of everyday guitar player, teacher and writer Ignacio Gonzalez.

Photos courtesy The Charlie Christian unofficial site and Reuters.