The electric guitar came into existence mainly because the desire to have “louder music” was in the forefront of the mind of many of the guitar makers. It was the 1920’s when dance music became more popular. Although different from what dance music is today, it was the height of the flapper girls and the club scene and everyone wanted their music loud but weren’t sure how to do it. The concert settings were becoming larger as well and even musicians wanted louder and more powerful instruments. You could see the guitars changing in style with new technology to get the larger sounds but no one had yet thought to amplify the guitar itself.
Before the innovation happened though you can trace the need for electric guitars back well before the 20th century. Around 1800 the Spanish style 6-string guitar was introduced which was already louder than previously made guitars. It was the 1850’s that the guitar body was reinforced and the guitar began to have a flattop design to it. In 1890, Orville Gibson came out with a carved body guitar that made it even louder and set standards for the future arch top guitar.
Then you got to the 1920’s when the needs intensified. With big band music and commercial radio, everyone was trying to think of the next great guitar invention. Some companies decided to go with larger sizes and metal bodies, but the true modern guitar inventors started to focus on electricity to make their guitars louder. John Dopyera went one better and designed a steel body guitar with a resonator amplifier that was similar to what you could find with banjos at the time. It was built into the top of the guitar.
Then in 1923 Lloyd Loar, an engineer who worked with Adolph Rickenbacker, developed a pickup that sensed the vibrations in the soundboard of many different string instruments. Rickenbacker is sometimes said to be the one that really was behind the manufacturing of the electric guitar, because he equipped it with tungsten pickups but it really is up to debate as to which was the actual first electric guitar. The guitars that he incorporated these into were unsuccessful though. Then in 1931 George Beauchamp created an electromagnetic pickup which created a field which amplified the strings movements and vibrations. It was a simple invention that included a current passing through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet. It was known as the “Frying Pan” guitar. This was the first commercial electric guitar that was useable by the common player.
By the late 30’s, there were many other guitar makers jumping into the electric guitar game, many of which came out with new technology. However, there were trouble with distortions, feedback and overtones for the most part. It was famed guitarist and inventor Les Paul who was the first to work on the sound difficulties that were facing most inventors. It was in 1940 that Les Paul mounted the strings and pickups on a solid block of pine to stop some of the body vibrations. Along with his guitar made of one piece of wood and no sound holes, this electric guitar may not have been anything great to look at, but it certainly paved the way for some of the most famous electric guitars in the world.