Hacker News new | more | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Who Really Built the First Electric Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitar? (collectorsweekly.com)
67 points by ohjeez 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

What's interesting to me (as a guitarist) isn't who was "first", because there was obviously a zeitgeist technical need for solid body guitars. Rather, it's what designs and innovations have stood the test of time, and why.

The real winner here, I think, is the Telecaster. They're still made in droves, still immensely popular, and have been the backbone of millions of recorded tracks. And it's easy to see why. They're dead simple, making them both inexpensive to manufacture and straightforward to play. And the biting, aggressive bridge pickup tone cuts through walls of other loud instruments in a way that is much harder for the round, warm tone of a Les Paul.

Bigsby guitars are a historical curiosity. Rickenbackers are still made, but are a rare exotic most guitarists will never play. Les Pauls are a pricey luxury item.

But Telecasters! Telecasters are the sound of rock'n'roll flipping a middle finger to everything that's supposed to be "good". I love them.

I have a 58 Historic Les Paul and a 58 reissue (AV) Tele, which is the brightest of the most accurate set of Tele reissues Fender ever made.

Plugged into the same amp/settings, the Les Paul is a bit brighter/more cutting than the Tele (this is generally true of the better vintage bursts w/ PAFs, they occupy tele territory), but the Tele is a fantastic and versatile guitar. The 52s are typically the ones favored by rock guitarists (most famously Keith Richards) and they're punchy as hell, but they are anything but bright with a high output lap steel pickup in the bridge and brass saddles.


I'd give the Les Paul the nod to rock. Either that or the Stratocaster.

Off hand I can name some pretty iconic rock names attached to both the Les Paul and the Strat. Hell, Angus Young even uses an SG. But I can't think of anyone who I associate with a Telecaster.

Not that they're bad guitars, just that I don't think of them when I think "rock'n'roll flipping a middle finger to everything".

Ok. Springsteen. Congratulations?

I'd still put Telecasters behind Strats and Les Pauls in terms of popularity and fame.

Telecasters are extremely common among the country artists.

Which isn't exactly "rock'n'roll".

> But I can't think of anyone who I associate with a Telecaster

Keith Richards.

>Bigsby guitars are a historical curiosity. Rickenbackers are still made, but are a rare exotic most guitarists will never play. Les Pauls are a pricey luxury item.

And yet tons of guitarists use one or more of those 3 brands. E.g:



Bigsby less mainstream, but they're hot in rockabilly circles, jazzers use them, etc.

You're missing my point. How many people have ever even seen a Bigsby guitar in person? (Not the tremolo, an actual guitar.) How many mature guitarists have never played a Rickenbacker? Only Les Pauls have real distribution at all, but there are probably ten Teles for every Les Paul out there.

Well, does "a rare exotic most guitarists will never play" refer to actual guitarists (pros) or the millions that happen to have a guitar lying around and learned to strum some chords?

In the pro circuit Rickenbackers are another tool to use, and there's also a thing as G.A.S.

Is a PRS any more "rare exotic" that a Bigsby? And yet those are perfectly common guitars...

The millions. And a lot of "learned to strum some chords" players are playing at professional levels. Being a famous musician doesn't have a great deal to do with ability, much of the time. But even there, Teles probably outnumber Rickenbackers 100:1 in professional hands.

And PRS is pretty common, especially when you throw in the import models. Actual Bigsby guitars (I'm not talking the trem installed on another brand of guitar) haven't been made in decades and are extremely rare.

> But even there, Teles probably outnumber Rickenbackers 100:1 in professional hands.

Only recently.

Rickenbackers were quite popular among the country performers at the start of the guitar era. A Rickenbacker into a Vox is the sound of the British Invasion.

Guitars are fad driven. Strats were "garbage" until Hendrix and Clapton. Les Pauls were "garbage" until Slash. And so it goes ...

Can confirm. I was a broke musician and was happily able to borrow a Rickenbacker 330 from the studio to record on, and rented a Les Paul for a week for $50 to also record on.

A friend of my dad has a plain black body 50s Telecaster, which has obviously been well-used and loved, plenty of patina and signs of countless hours of being played, the frets are worn almost flat. It has a beautiful rich sound and he says it's an absolute joy to play. He takes good care of it, but he's promised that he'll never restore it or ruin any signs of its history and personality, which I think is absolutely the right choice.

Said person also still owns his 70s Rickenbacker 4001, in immaculate condition. Needless to say, I am intensely envious ;-)

I've gone through a lot of guitars including the brands mentioned and I still love my Rick and my Gibson, but I finally found the sound I was looking for a couple of years back when I got my Telecaster.

Over the last 6 weeks I've assembled a telecaster from some pieces - a 1979 Tokai Breezysound body I found online for $60, a $200 Allparts TEO neck, Tonerider TRT pickups etc, graphite nut, Gotoh locking tuners etc, Gretsch knurled strap pins because hey I'm classy like that.

It really has been an enjoyable and relatively stress free experience. They are almost impossible to mess up, and that's saying something, since my skills with both woodworking tools and a soldering iron are completely underwhelming.

Lucky you! My #1 electric is a 1980 Tokai Breezysound. It's just amazing. I've modded it with EMG T pickups + SPC tone control (don't worry, it still sounds very Tele, just without hum and with a mid boost when needed), and a Wilkinson half bridge. It stomps just about every other electric I've played.

Is yours extremely light? Mine is, I'm talking almost 2/3's of the weight of my American Special Strat. I'm not sure if that's because the body I got was really dried out though.

I'm on my second set of pickups now, first ones I put in were the Texas specials used on the MIM 50' reissues. Wasn't super impressed with those. Next I tried the Tonerider TR2, they are sounding much nicer, but the hum is still bothering me.

I was considering trying the Fender Gen4 noiseless next, then maybe the GK Gristle-Tone ones, but I might have to try a set of those EMG T's first if you are recommending them.

> The real winner here, I think, is the Telecaster.

I don't know about this. Most "telecasters" I see in the wild are actually telecaster-shaped guitars with pretty much everything else altered.

I'm honestly not sure what you're talking about. There are a lot of tweaked and lightly modernised Teles on the market, but Fender will happily sell you a period-correct Tele, design flaws and all. When does a Tele cease to be a Tele? If it has a compensated three-saddle bridge? If it has a six-saddle bridge? If it has a truss rod that actually works? If it has a humbucker in the neck? I dunno.

Given how hugely inconsistent the early Teles were, it's hard to definitively say what a "real" Tele ought to be like. The Blackguard necks were all shaped by hand, with the only commonality being a thickness at the 12th fret of about 1". There are a huge range of profiles, thicknesses and fingerboard radii on vintage Teles. They used whatever body woods were cheap - ash, alder, poplar and pine, often switching woods within the same year. The Tele has always been a crude, cheap working man's guitar, so I see no sense in being a purist about what is fundamentally a mongrel.

> I'm honestly not sure what you're talking about.

To illustrate my point: https://dk1xgl0d43mu1.cloudfront.net/user_files/esp/product_...

The majority of Teles I've seen are like this. Hard to say it "stood the test of time" if there's no agreed upon definition of it.

Here's the "T Style Guitars" section on Thomann, Europe's largest guitar dealer. There are certainly a few bonkers ESP and Schecter shredbeasts, but the overall range is overwhelmingly represented by relatively traditional Teles, perhaps with a six-saddle bridge or a neck humbucker.


I don't know where you're looking, if that's what the majority of Teles looks like to you. The borders are definitely fuzzy, but "Telecaster" to me means having enough Tele-like traits... the simple slab body, bolt-on neck, 6-on-side tuners, twangy single-coil bridge pickup, controls on a separate plate away from the bridge. It doesn't need to have all of these.

Most Teles made by Fender/Squier and most of their copiers follow this template. They're not just metal-oriented guitars with a Tele shape.

Honestly, my biggest problem with telecasters are the sound of the pickups. I know they're easy to swap out, but those stock 'lipstick' ones on pretty much every Fender or knockoff i've tried just seem to have kind of a hollow lifeless sound. The bridge pickups sound like the neck pickups on other guitars and the neck ones just seem to have a hollow twanging sound I've never really liked. It does seem like swapping pickups on telecasters is pretty common.


In all the years I've played I've just never really had any strong desire to own one.

The Tele is a strange beast. There's a magic to the Tele that I've never been able to fully understand; a good Tele is more than the sum of its parts. It responds to vibrato and dynamics in a way that is quite unlike any other solid-body guitar. The overwhelming brightness can be difficult to tame, but it can also produce and extraordinarily open and harmonically complex tone if you work at it.

It's worth bearing in mind that the Telecaster was designed for the heavy flatwound or pure nickel strings that were the norm in the 50s. A modern light gauge set of nickel-plated roundwound strings will sound exceptionally bright on a Tele. A plain third string won't intonate properly on a three-saddle bridge either.



The brightness can be tamed just by rolling off the tone control. If I'm playing a passive-pickup Tele (my #1 Tele has EMGs and behaves differently), I'll usually roll both the tone and volume knobs off at least a bit, to tame it. It's very easy for guitarists to just turn the knobs up all the way and leave them there, but the Tele controls are a whole new world of magic.

Another solution is to use a hotter bridge pickup (which will be necessarily darker), and replace the neck pickup with, heck, almost anything else.

If Land Rover built guitars, it would be a Telecaster.

Basically, their simple construction makes them as simple to modify; when you pick up a Telecaster in the gig shop, you’re just getting started; tuning it to your preference is an ongoing process some people take lots of pleasure in. (Whereas others, as with Land Rovers, curmudgeonly quip that it is a pity Fender didn’t just get it right in the first place; the latter group are IMHO missing the point. :))

thats because teles are too easy to mod

I love Telecasters, as well. Tone and feel aside - they also kind of look so simple that one might call them ugly. I don't know why, but it is a quality that I really like.

Yeah, the utilitarian look is a real selling point for me, too. Weirdly, I also like the "uncomfortable" chunky body, more than the smooth ergonomic curves of a Strat. With that hard edge digging into my torso and forearm, I know exactly where my arm is relative to the strings. I have to attend to other, more distracting cues to understand my position on a Strat.

Also telecasters do not have stupid vibrato bridges that I didn't realize would make changing strings a living hell until far too late.

You can always fit a Bigsby B5 to one and change all that!

Worst I've seen is the non-string-thru Bigsbys on your average Gretsch. You have to thread the ball end of the string over a tiny peg which is on the _bottom_ of the bar, wrap the string around the bar, and then thread it through your tuning peg without it popping off at the bridge end. It's a nightmare - some people use a wedge of rubber or polystyrene to try and wedge the ball end onto the peg until the string is at decent tension.

Me too, dedicated Telecaster player. Incredibly flexible despite having so few apparent options.

Although the Fender Esquire was the first popular solid-body electric guitar, it was far from the first. That accolade almost certainly belongs to George Beauchamp while working for Rickenbacker - he has a patent for a solid-body instrument dated 1932. Lloyd Loar released a number of popular semi-hollow instruments through the Vivi-Tone company in the mid-1930s.



Yes, I thought this article was going to be some real investigation of who was first instead of just talking about Fender and Paul.

For those interested in the electric guitar, and who will be in the Phoenix, AZ area, might I suggest a visit to the MIM?


The electric guitar first entered the music scene in the '20's. At that time, it started to appear in the Jazz, Country, and Big Band scenes. Even spanish-style electric guitars (that is, solid body Telecaster/Les Paul style guitars) pre-date the R'n'R phenomenon.

Oh, and the Hawaiian music scene (that haunting 4 note tune everyone associates with Hawaiian music is often done on a steel guitar).

> The original color of the >1954 Fender Stratocaster was a three-toned sunburst.

Two-tone, surely.

The two-color sunburst finish became a three-color sunburst finish in the first half of 1958 with the addition of an “in between” red hue.[1]

[1] https://www.fender.com/articles/gear/the-history-of-the-fend...

Beautiful playing by Buddy Merrill ("Buddy's Boogie" on his Fender Stratocaster) in that link (direct link to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJXjV6UY9lc)! :-D

You are correct.

What's interesting to me is how quickly the solid body electric guitar reached its technological optimum. The Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Les Paul represent the iconic forms to this day (No offense towards metalheads, who tend to prefer pointier models). There have been many refinements and anti-refinements among the icons along the way, but in my opinion, no new form has become mainstream since 1960.

Guitarists (and musicians in general) tend to be quite conservative. There are objective advantages to a modern design like the Strandberg Boden, but there's no history attached to such instruments. Metal players are happy to embrace new technological developments and have been early adopters of digital modelling technology, but most other players have an image of the guitar that's locked in a previous decade.


More offended that you think that metalheads don't still use those styles of guitar

gojira: http://www.charvel.com/guitars/artist/joe-duplantier-signatu...

Mastodon: Rythm guy plays a les paul.

SOAD: Daron favors a les paul as well.

Les Paul, stratocaster, and telecaster style guitars are very very common in metal as well.

I think he's just saying that things like the Flying V or Explorer are seen more in metal.

If you see someone playing a Les Paul, it could be anything. If you see someone playing an Explorer, good bet it's metal.

That is what I meant, without any intention to disparage. Both Flying V and Explorer arrived in 1958 and promptly flopped until the age of metal. They are definitely icons of metal as the prototypical "pointy guitars". The classic Les Paul was discontinued around 1960 as tele-strat twang ruled that era, until revived around 1968 as heavier guitar sounds emerged.

Disclaimer: I'm an LP person, but I've an equal number of Strats and Teles. I love them each for their unique qualities.

There's not much to a (solid-body) electric guitar since the body isn't that involved in the tone. Basically you have a string vibrating between two points, the pickup type and position is just about the only thing that matters.

Even the more radical shapes like the Explorer or Flying V back to that time.

I am not a writer, so forgive the prose, but I put this together after losing yet another aged rocker last year. Players will have fun looking through the guitars:


I still credit the Rickenbacker "frying pan" as it predated Fender's black log by over 10 years.

But the Esquire was the first mass-produced electric solid-body guitar designed to be played like a regular acoustic, standing up with a strap.

edit: mass-produced. Paul Bigsby's solid-body predated Fender's but were custom made.

Just curious as to what difference the amplifier makes?

[1] has a collection of circuit diagrams /schematics for Fender amplifiers. The Champ circuits look very simple with basically a volume control.

[1] https://www.thetubestore.com/early-fender-guitar-amp-schemat...

A lot.

Many of the early amp designs were either cribbed from radio amp or ham amp power stages--these are "clean".

"Distortion" wasn't a thing until much later. For instance, the whole reason why "fuzz" pedals came into existence is that a volume control on the preamp wasn't a common thing at that point--and were talking the mid 60's at that point.

Some of the earlier users of distortion concocted various home-grown tricks, before dedicated distortion equipment was manufactured. The Kinks would feed one fully-cranked amplifier into a second or third layer to pile on the distortion caused by over-cranking them all, giving them the "you really got me" sound in '64, arguably the first heavy metal hit.

Another musician said he'd poke holes in the speaker with a pencil. And another said the "drunk band" dropped the amplifier while loading it, damaging it, but they liked the damaged sound and kept it.

The original 1950s amp designs are FILTHY. Fender had to develop the whole blackface line to try to get loud, clean sounds. A Champ or a Tweed Deluxe cannot hit enough volume to play with other instruments without some distortion. The sound of rock records is often the sound of old 1950s small amps, cranked up.

I have a 1950s Supro 5 watt (similar to a Champ) that hardly has a clean sound in it. By the time the volume is at noon, it sounds like what you imagined a wall of Marshalls sounded like when you first saw a picture. Fantastic recording amp. It's that sound, the sound of rock.

I'd rather have a great amp and a crap guitar than a great guitar and a crap amp. The amp has as much impact on the sound as the guitar itself, probably more.

Fender was by far the most important innovator for amps, too. Most tube amps today are derived from early Fender designs like the Champ and the Twin (although they're often two or three generations removed at this point).

Ironically, it was arguably the Fender bass amp that had the biggest long term impact on rock and roll. The basic Bassman circuit was ripped off by Marshall (who were then ripped of by Hi Watt, Orange, etc), Mesa Boogie... almost all of the high-gain amps have a least a bit of bassman in them.

A lot. It's half the instrument.

Of that, the loudspeaker(s) and the cabinet it's in are as important as the circuit.

Answer: Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender and a friend named Clayton “Doc” Kaufman had taken a solid plank of oak, painted it glossy black, attached a pickup at one end, and strung its length with steel strings.

I've sometimes wondered how the "trem bar" acquired that incorrect name [1], since it's really vibrato [2]. Reading this piece makes makes me wonder if it's intentional on Fender's part, an attempt to obscure that the idea is lifted from Bigsby.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremolo

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibrato

'Rock 'n' Roll' was arguably a white commercialization of Rhythm and Blues, for which there was a lot of amplification of resonator guitars and harmonicas for live performance and recordings. There's a natural progression here of who started mass manufacturing instruments as opposed to who built the first ones....

It goes further than that—

The banjo, probably one of the instruments most closely associated with country and southern American music was derived from instruments brought over by slaves from Africa.

It's pretty damned hard to escape African/African-American influence on any folk music traditions in the Americas, if that's even possible at all.

Drummer Steve Smith did a great dvd called "History of the American Beat", where he argues that all American music is derived from African rhythms. Swing, shuffle, and backbeat grooves are all expressions of a three-against-two polyrhythm, the simplest possible polyrhythm, and the essential character of west African music is polyrhythmic, while polyrhythms are rare in European music. If it rocks, swings, or shuffles, it's African in nature.

It shows up in melody, too. Anything blues-derived, as opposed to diatonic, has African roots. Diatonic harmony was Europe's contribution to American music. Blue thirds and sliding sevenths were Africa's contribution.

Thanks, I'll have to check that one out. That all sounds about right to me.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact