The History of the Electric Solid Body Guitar

The development of the electric solid body guitar owes a great deal to the popularity of Hawaiian  music in the 1920s and 1930s. Hawaiian guitars were solo instruments played with a metal slide. Electric Hawaiian guitars were the first instruments that depended entirely on their sound being amplified electrically not just acoustically.

A key figure was Adolph Rickenbacker who originally he was to make metal components for Dopera Brothers’ National Resonator Guitars. While at National, Rickenbacker met George Beauchamp and Paul Barth who had been working together on the principle of the magnetic pick-up. Together they formed the Electro String Company and in 1931 produced their first Hawaiian guitars. Their success prompted Gibson and others to start producing electric guitars,

In the 1940s Gibson new electric models became firmly established. People began to work on ways of applying the solid body of the Hawaiian and steel guitars to regular instruments. In 1944, Leo Fender, who ran a radio repair shop, teamed up with Doc Kaufman, a former Rickenbacker employee, started K & F Company and produced a series of steel guitars and amplifiers. Fender felt the large pick-up magnets in use at the time need not be so large. He incorporated a new pick-up which he wanted to try out into a solid body guitar based on the shape Hawaiian but, with a regular properly fretted fingerboard. Though only meant to demonstrate the pick-up the guitar was soon in demand. 1946 saw the formation of Fender Electric Instrument Company and the introduction of the Broadcaster.Leo Fender

At the same time Les Paul was working in the same direction. Paul experimented with pick ups throughout the 1930s but, had experienced feedback and resonance problems and began to think about a solid body guitar after hearing about a solid body violin by Thomas Edison.. Paul was convinced the only way to avoid body feedback was to reduce pick up movement and the only way to do that was to mount it in a solid body.

Paul persuaded Epiphone to let him use workshop on Sundays, where in 1941  he built the historic “log” guitar

In 1947 Paul Bigsby in consultation with Merle Travis built a solid body electric guitar that shared certain design features with the Broadcaster that Fender  introduced in 1948. Bigsby wasn’t far from Fender operation in Fullerton and there is some question who was looking over whose shoulder

Fender was more concerned with utility and practicality rather then looks and wanted a regular guitar with the clear sound of a electric Hawaiian but, without the feedback problems. The result was the the  Broadcaster which he began  producing in 1948 later renamed the Telecaster.

In 1954, Fender began producing the Stratocaster. Along with the Telecaster and the guitars Les Paul was designing for Gibson, they set the standard for solid body guitars.

Guitar, object photograph, enlargement

From John Peden

Fender Broadcaster
with Amplifier
Fender Electric Instrument Company
Fullerton, California
1950

The Broadcaster, Fender’s first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, initially was derided by competitors as too simple and lacking in craftsmanship. Yet everything about its patented practical design, such as the bolt-on neck, was optimal for production in large quantities.

This guitar, serial number 27, was one of the first Broadcasters sold. In 1951, due to a trademark infringement claim, the model’s name was changed to Telecaster in honor of another popular invention—television.

The many famous artists who have played the Telecaster, such as Jimmy Bryant, Buck Owens, Keith Richards, and Bruce Springsteen, propelled it to the status of a classic.

Guitar, object photograph, enlargement

From Richard R. Smith

Fender Stratocaster
Fender Electric Instrument Company
Fullerton, California
1954

The Stratocaster is arguably the most successful and influential electric guitar ever produced. It is easily identified by its double cutaways, contoured body, and three pickups. It also features Fender’s vibrato or tremolo system that allows players to raise or lower the pitch of the strings. In the hands of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and many others, the “Strat” has become an American icon.

Bearing serial number 0100, this particular instrument was probably the first Strat to be shipped for retail sale. It features the standard two-tone sunburst finish used on early Fender models.

The History Of: Les Paul

The Gibson Les Paul guitar went into production in 1952 and was the first solid body electric that Gibson had made. Leo Fender, although not the first person to design or build a solid body electric, had proved that there was a market for such instruments with the commercial success of his Fender Telecaster, which had first been introduced a couple of years beforehand (albeit under a different name). Now Gibson, under the presidency of Ted McCarty, wanted to make sure they didn’t get left out of the market – so they approached player and guitar designer Les Paul with a view to collaborating on a Gibson/Les Paul branded electric solid body.

This must have been rather gratifying for Les Paul, as he had previously presented his ideas for a solid body electric to Gibson in 1945/46 and been promptly shown the door. As Les himself has said, “They called it the broom-stick with a pickup on it.”1965 goldtop

There are many different rumours and stories about exactly who designed what in respect of the Gibson Les Paul guitar – Ted McCarty, Les Paul & others have differing recollections as to who provided the design input for various aspects of the instrument.

Ted‘s version is that he and various Gibson staff had already finished designing the guitar that became the 1952 Les Paul even before they approached Les about an endorsement deal. In this account there were only two aspects of the production line 1952 Les Paul that derived from Les himself; the trapeze bridge/tailpiece and the name ‘Les Paul‘. In other words, the only reason that Gibson approached Les was to give the new guitar they had already designed and built added credibility by having it associated with a famous player.

Les Paul himself has said that when Ted approached him he, that is Les, quote, already ‘…had in mind the Gold Top standard and the black Custom.’ Les refers to Gibson giving him the ‘final say’ on every aspect of the guitar’s design. This account doesn’t entirely square with the story – told later – of how Gibson had implemented his trapeze tailpiece design incorrectly.

Nor does it square with Les recalling how, when he first examined a Gold Top and a Custom, he was displeased that the Gold Top had a maple top and told Gibson that this was not what he had intended. According to Les, the Custom was supposed to have the mahagony body with maple top, whereas the Gold Top was supposed to just have a mahagony body with no maple top at all. Gibson never implemented this idea on the Gold Top.

Whatever the uncertainties about who designed what in relation to the Les Paul guitar one thing is clear – the solid body combination of maple for the top and mahogany for the back proved to be a winner.

The 1952 version of the Les Paul had a gold top nitro-cellulose lacquer finish, no serial number, a Trapeze tailpiece (designed by Les), Kluson tuners, a pair of P90 pickups, and retailed for $210. Les Pauls began to be serial numbered (on the back of the headstock) in 1953.

These guitars were officially simply called ‘Les Paul‘ models, but quickly became known as Gold Tops due to the finish. Although most Gold Tops have exactly that, a gold coloured maple top with natural back, a few were made that had the gold finish all over. The gold finish was produced using a coat that contained bronze powder, as a result of which a greenish hue can be seen on many Gold Tops where, over time and with wear, the bronze particles in the finish have become oxidized. Two quirks of the very earliest Les Paul models are that they had fretboards with no edge binding and also lacked the rhythm/treble plastic surround on the pickup selector switch.

Les PaulLes Paul

The Trapeze tailpiece was a rather impractical design for two reasons. If the unit was knocked the guitar could go out of tune; additionally, the strings fed underneath the tailpiece, not over it, thus making the technique of palm muting with the right hand impossible. Les himself has said in relation to this latter design flaw that when he saw the first production models with this feature he did call Gibson to tell them they’d got it wrong. He apparently explained that the strings were supposed to wrap over the bar, not under it, and that the neck was supposed to join the body at a different angle to accomodate this difference in action at the bridge. But Gibson countered that it was not practical to change the neck join angle for technical reasons, so the wrap-under design had to stay.

In 1953 the Trapeze tailpiece was changed for a new, combined wraparound bridge/tailpiece and, contrary to the account from Les of what Gibson had previously told him, the neck join angle was also changed. This made for a much better instrument all round – the action was better (i.e. lower), the tuning more stable and the previous problem of the awkwardness of right-hand palm muting was solved.

But although this was an improvement on the previous design, it still had its limitations in respect of intonation and was replaced the following year with the separate tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece that have remained a feature of the most popular Les Paul models ever since (though some vintage Les Pauls were fitted with a Bigsby B7 vibrato). The tune-o-matic bridge, designed by Ted McCarty, allowed for individual intonation adjustment for each string.

In 1954 Gibson also launched two additional versions of the Les Paul – the Les Paul Custom ($325) and the Les Paul Junior ($99.50).

The Les Paul Custom had an ebony fretboard as opposed to the Gold Top‘s rosewood, more elaborate bindings on the guitar body and headstock, gold plated hardware and a black finish, acquiring it the name ‘black beauty’ amongst some players. It was also actually the Custom that was first fitted with a tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece, these units only later being added to the Gold Top. The Custom was also sometimes called the ‘fretless wonder’, due to the fact that the fret wire used was flatter and wider than on the Gold Top, which, combined with an ebony fretboard, made it seem easier to play.

The Custom was fitted with a standard P90 pickup in the bridge position but a newly designed single coil pickup in the neck position. The new pickup was visibly different from a P90 in that the polepieces were rectangular; it was also louder than a P90. Known as the Alnico pickup due to its use of aluminum/nickel/cobalt alloy, the unit was designed by Seth Lover.

Les Paul Junior Faded DC, Worn TV Yellow, New, Inc. Gig Bag The Les Paul Junior was more of a budget version of the Les Paul, having a flat, uncarved mahogany body with no binding, a single P90 pickup, plus the old wraparound combined bridge/tailpiece that would continue to be used on the Junior even after it had been dropped from the Gold Top.

Some Les Paul Juniors were made with a blonde/yellow finish instead of a sunburst, and these Juniors were referred to as the Les PaulTV‘ models – perhaps because they were supposed to look good on black and white television. A further variant on the Les Paul Junior was introduced in 1955: the Les Paul Special ($182.50) – basically a two pickup version of the Junior, but otherwise identical. In 1956 a smaller version of the Junior was manufactured – the Les Paul Junior 3/4. This guitar had a scale length (distance from bridge to nut) 2 inches shorter than that of a standard Les Paul (24 3/4 inches).

In 1957 another design change took place with the replacement of the single coil P90 pickups for the hum-cancelling ‘humbucker’ pickups. These were designed by the engineer Seth Lover, who sought a way of eradicating the 50/60 cycle mains hum and other interference that single coil pickups like the P90s, the Alnico and the Fender pickups all produced.

His design idea, like many great ideas, was essentially very simple; take two pickup coils instead of one and wire the two coils in series and out of phase so that the hum cancels itself out. The result of producing a pickup in this way was, however, not merely that the hum was gone, but also that the sound was different. Humbuckers generally produce a higher output signal and also a mellower tone with fewer treble frequencies.

The Seth Lover designed humbuckers fitted to the 1957 Les Pauls came to be known as PAFs; this was due to the fact that they were designated as ‘Patent Applied For‘ pickups. The patent for these was applied for in 1955 and granted in 1959, but Gibson still continued to label these as ‘PAFs‘ for at least another three years.

Gibson seemed to be in no hurry to apply the patent number to their pickups even after the patent was granted in the USA. And when they did finally get around to showing the patent number on the sticker underneath the pickup, they quoted the wrong number! Even in 1962 a Gibson humbucker with patent number sticker bore the number 2,737,842.

The correct patent number for the Seth Lover designed humbucking pickup was in fact 2,896,491. The number shown on the pickup is actually a patent for a Gibson bridge, not a pickup at all. It might be deduced from this that Gibson were not about to help the competition to copy their pickup design by telling them which patent to go and look up at the US Patent Office!

Although the first Les Paul Customs had two pickups, a P90 and an Alnico, when P90s were swapped for PAFs on Gold Top and Custom models the Custom was then made with three of the new PAFs, the guitar acquiring an additional middle pickup.

Original PAFs from the 50’s can vary signficantly in terms of their tone and output. Arguments rage as to the reasons for this, but one credible explanation is that the machines Gibson used to wind the coils around the pickup’s magnets did not have an automatic cut off at a set number of turns. Consequently, the machine’s operator would manually stop the process when they judged that it was ‘done’, causing some PAFs to have more windings than others. Differing effects of the passing of time on the magnets could also be a factor.

Although the PAFs were now being fitted to the Gold Top and Custom Les Pauls, P90s continued to be used on the Juniors, TVs and Specials. These latter guitars underwent some cosmetic modification when, in 1958, the Junior acquired a double cutaway body, and in 1959 the same change was made to the Special.

The neck pickup on the double cutaway Special was later moved further away from the neck after it was realised that with the neck pickup cavity so close to the new top cutaway the neck join area had been seriously weakened.

Another version of the Special was also made available in 1959 – the 3/4 size version. This had the same reduced scale length of the 3/4 size Junior.

A further change would take place to the Les Paul Gold Top‘s design in 1958; the gold top finish was replaced with a cherry red sunburst. This produced what have subsequently become the most sought after (and expensive) Les Pauls of all time: the ‘bursts’.

Often referred to as ‘Les Paul Standards‘, this description is not technically correct. At the time this model was named by Gibson simply as a ‘Les Paul‘; the description ‘Standard’ was never used by Gibson in any official literature until at least 1960. To call a 50’s Les Paul Sunburst a ‘Les Paul Standard‘ is, strictly speaking, to use an anachronism. However, as with the use of the term ‘Gold Top‘, it does provide a convenient label.

Many of Gibson‘s late 50’s red Sunbursts were sprayed with an ultra-violet sensitive dye and over time with exposure to sunlight often faded to a uniform brown known to collectors as ‘unburst’. The tendency for the red dye to behave in this way is the reason why late 50’s Les Pauls can now be seen in a variety of red and brown sunbursts.

1974

1974, hand-numbered two-pickup cherry sunburst model.1974, hand-numbered two-pickup cherry sunburst model.

1974, hand-numbered #2, two-pickup Gold top model. 1974, hand-numbered ,

The extent to which the Sunbursts faded to brown depended not just upon how much UV exposure they’d had but also when they were made. The models from circa 1959 tend to have the red dye that was most susceptible to this effect; models from around 1958 can also be seen faded to brown but less so than those from the following year. Most 1960 models were finished with a red dye that was almost impervious to fading and are often still a cherry red sunburst. A few Les Pauls from the vintage era can be found with an all over, no sunburst, cherry red finish.

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Published in: on July 19, 2008 at 3:31 am  Comments (1)