Electric Guitars and Why They Are Special

Hello and welcome to all of you. For today’s blog you may not need a guitar in your hands. No need to look at the fretboard,  to check out which fingers to use ect. Nice, as you can give those sore fingers a rest. Today I will look at some of the unique features of the electric guitar, what you can do to improve the sound of your guitar, how to keep your inspiration alive and how to find out what you like about electric guitar.

                            —Brief History of the Electric Guitar—

The electric guitar as we know it today is a relatively new “invention” It was developed out of purely practical reasons: Guitar Players playing in Big Bands during the Swing Period in the 1930s wanted more volume for their instruments in order to compete with the much louder horns [Mainly Saxophones and Trumpets] Guitar Players wanted to play solos, and the sound of the single string was just to weak to be heard above the sound of those Saxohones and Trumpets. Guitar Players started to experiment with pick-ups to increase their volume. The early electric guitars were merely acoustic instruments with a pick-up attached to the body. The body of those typical early electric guitars was hollow. Turning up the volume on the ampilifier  also increased the sound to come back, this “problem” was called Feedback. To cut down on feedback guitarbuilders started to experiment with solid-body guitar shapes. We fast forward in time to stop at the late 40s and early 1950s to meet guitar player Les Paul, and radio-repairman Leo Fender. Both of them revolutionised two electric guitar types which are still the main staple of today’s music: The Les Paul and the Stratocaster

                           —Les Paul and Leo Fender—

Les Paul was a guitar player himself, apart from experimenting with  the shape of the body of the guitar he also pioneered four-track recording and discoverd how you could change the sound of music by overdubbing and adding echo and other sorts of electronic effects to the music, this all to enhance the perception of recorded music.
Les Paul’s guitar was unique in the sense that the bodyshape of his guitar was fairly small compared to the bigger acoustic models of the time. For the pick-ups he had chosen the humbuck model: A type of pick-up which creates a dark, thick sound. He created the hum-buck by sticking two single coil pick-ups together. The pick-up he created also was less noisy compared to the single coil pick-up.

At the time Les Paul came out with him guitarmodel there was another guy on the scene who was working on something similar but different, his name was Leo Fender. His vision was to create a guitarmodel which was entirely different from what was known before as a guitar. He felt that the guitar had to stand for something bigger, it had to embrace the new feel of the 1950s: A time of progress and new inventions, new standards and a new life-style for the masses. Popular Culture as we know it today started developing in the late 40s and 50s. Cars in America became cheaper and more accessible to the average person in the street. One special feature of those cars was the large wings at the back. The two Cutaways on the Stratocaster guitar were a way of saying to people how Leo Fender was inspired by the new look of those cars. The two Cutaways are of course not only a visual gimmick, they are also  a very practical devise to improve access to the higher registers of the fretboard.
Leo Fender created two guitarmodels in the early 50s, one was the Telecaster, which was fist known as the Broadcaster, his second model was the more revolutionairy Stratocaster with its two Cutaways, [also know as horns at the time] three single coil pick-ups for very bright and clear sounds and a Tremolo arm,which enabled the guitarist to mimick the bends of a pedal-steel guitar.

All in all, both the Les Paul and the Stratocaster proved to be very successful amoung guitarplayers for several reasons: Both guitars looked very different and distintive at the time, both guitars had their own sound which proved to be very usuable in all kinds of music. The Strat was a hit straight away, the Les Paul was somewhat of a success, then became less populair but came back with a vegenance during the mid 1960s and never went since then.

During the 1950 and 1960s most of the guitars produced came out of America and Europe. Some of the European models were copying the American models, some had their own take on the designs from America. From the mid 1970s onwards the Japanese started copying American guitarmodels and were very successful at it. The Stratocaster and the Les Paul were amoung the most copied guitarmodels at the time. This is still the case today.

The Les Paul and the Strat are not the only guitarmodels but they are the most popular models. In the 1960 both Fender and Gibson experimented with guitarshapes. They could do this because the shape of the guitar no longer had an impact on the sound, since the sound came from the pick-ups mainly. Some of the less conventional guitarshapes which were created at the time were the Flying V and the Explorer. Both models were designed by Gibson. Later in the 1970s BC Rich took this idea a bit futher, and Ibanez in the 1980s added some more spice to the well-known guitarmodels of the time. All in all, those guitarshapes may look very different, their sounds were still based on what Gibson [read the Les Paul] and Fender guitars had to offer.

                                 —Electic Guitar Today—

Okay so far most of you who have been reading this may not have read anything new, since most of  what I mentioned before is part of the modern history of the electric guitar. Now why is electric guitar so unique, why does it feel so good?, What does it do to music in general? [read Rock, and Pop Music] Basically the way an electric guitar functions has not changed since its invention. In a world dominated by computar- and digital technology, the electric guitar today is pretty much how it was in the early 1950s.  Yes, new models have been designed, models to improve what the older guitars had on offer. Better pick-ups have been made. Today [and this has been for quite some time now!] you can customise your stock guitar with pick-ups of your own choise, you can put different necks on your guitar to change the overal feel ect. But all of this does not really change how the guitar works: The guitar still interacts through its pick-ups with the amplifier and the pedals you will put it through.  What may be new today is the modeling guitars [one guitar which can mimick the sound of different types of guitars through the use of digital equipment] This idea is also found on guitaramplifiers, however all of this does not really change the basic idea of how and electric guitar works: Strings, magnets, speaker and electronics all interacting with each other to create a sound we know as electric guitar.

Some of you reading this here may be interested in the how and why the electric guitar works the way it does. Then there are the people who respond to how the electric guitar sounds: It can sound very gentle [Think Hank Marvin and the Shadows, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits] On the other hand the guitar can also sound very agressive [but sweet at the same time!] Think of Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, the Clash and countless other Punk Bands. Then there is Metallica and host of other Metal bands who use a guitarsound which is based on a more agressive sound.

                        —You and Your Guitar: How You Use It and Your Taste—

Now we have come to the more interesting part of this blog, the part why you started reading this blog in the first place. Yes I needed all that information mentioned before to get to this point: What do you like in music and what would you like to do? How do you get there?
I meet a lot of students in my work, some of them have a clear vision of what they like soundwise and what they would like to learn, but most of them simply want to get better at playing the guitar and do not have a strong vision of what they like.

                        ~~Electric or Acoustic?~~

Most people get either one or the other, for the ones who simply play acoustic I would suggest: Try an electric guitar, play it for a little while, whack it, experiment with the amplifier. Change the controls on the amp and listen to how the sound changes. Try playing just with the sound, turn the controls on your guitar up and down and listen to what happens. Listen to the artists you like, ask yourself what guitars they play, what kind of sounds do they make? Do they use a clean sound or mainly a distorted sound?. Familize yourself with the main brands and makes of electric guitars. Get to know what these guitars sound like. Educate yourself through the use of internet and numerous guitarmagazines on offer, about electric guitars and related equipment. Read interviews which feature your favourite guitar players, see what they have to say about their guitars, amplifiers and guitarpedals.

Once you have made your choise on what electric guitar is for you, you need to become curious, curious in what you do not own and curious in what you hear on the albums you listen to. If you are an absolute beginner I would suggest you need to play simple musical things to get yourself going. Experiment with what you can do and keep on playing. The goal is to become familiar with what you know, to get to know the fretboard, your guitar, music and your amplifier. Keep on checking out the music you like, find out how you need to play that kind of music, but do not stop there: It is better to learn a whole lot more than what you really need!!

If you have been playing guitar for a long time, but only own One Amp and One Guitar, aks yourself why this is? “Are you really into guitar?”  Having different guitars around  [and amps] can add a huge inspiration factor. You do not need a whole lot of equipment to keep yourself interested in the guitar for the rest of your life. It does help if you have a few guitars and a few bits and bobs. Cannot afford to buy anything yet? You probably do know a few friends who play guitar,  borrow their equipment, see how different their instruments feel and sound compared to you own guitars. Go to your local music shop, check out the gear, even if you do not intend on buying. You will still educate yourself on what is available, and you get and idea of the variety of musical gear what is on offer.

                       —Keep Changing—

Have been using the  same type of guitar and amp for years? See if you can change them, keep the one you have and get another one! What about your strings? Have been using same string gauge for years? Change it, go up in gauge, see what it does to your tone. Have a look at your taste and the ideas of what you like. I meet people who say they do not like Blues. Their idea is based on thinking that playing Blues is about a format to play twelve bars with three chords using a particular rhythm. I cannot blame them, I used to be the same, thinking a lot of Blues music does sound the same. How wrong I was!!  To get over this attitude it helps to check out a particular genre of music, to check out how it is made, what kind of people play that type of music and what their attitude is towards playing and life in general. Sounds like a lot of work? Yes it is, but all this work will reward you with a deeper understanding of the music, and  it may want to you to play it and get deeper into that style of music.

Over the years of experimenting I have discovered that small amps, combined with the right choise of pedals can create very powerful sounds. Most of the sounds I hear on albums I can duplicate with just the use of those amps. It is partly about wanting to be creative with sound and a curiosity about how each amp reacts with particular guitars and pedals.


I cannot help feeling that you need to fall in love with guitar, it is the one thing you need to do to get further into the musical landscape, the bands you listen to and the things you want to do musicwise. I do love guitar as much as I was introduced to it in the beginning, I am still as much surprised by the sound the electric guitar can make as I was when I was starting out. Yes, today I understand, before I even plug into a particular guitar, pedal or whatever it is, its sound, but still the feeling of amazement and being overwhelmed remains.

For next time a special about Small Guitar Amplifiers and Pedals.
Next to the lessons you are already used to reading here, I also plan to create specials about bands such as AC/DC, Steppen Wolf, Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler. The blogs will be like a listening session to particular songs where I will analyse the sounds and the song. It will be more a talking session rather than a guitar playing session where I will take you through the solos and chords. Knowing what you hear is as important as being able to play what you hear. We listen all the time to music and during our listening we learn a lot, but you need to know how to listen.

Hope you enjoyed this blog and hope to see you around next time.
Happy Playing