The Future of The Electric Guitar
Part 1: The Electric Guitar is History
Before we can predict the electric guitar’s future, we must understand its past. Created to serve guitarists who needed more output than an acoustic guitar could provide, the electric guitar, with its unmatched potential for volume and new tones, forever changed the course of music history. And as music evolved, the guitar kept up, with luthiers and amateurs constantly creating new designs and innovations to satisfy guitarists of the day.
With this feedback loop as a framework, we can reasonably guess where the electric guitar is headed by understanding what guitarists today are asking of their instruments. We’ll have more on that later. First, a little history lesson.
The Electric Spanish Oddity
Ro-Pat-In Electric Spanish, 1932As with many historically significant inventions, crowning a unanimous “first-ever” electric guitar is nigh impossible. Several guitar makers claim the idea, including Stromberg-Voisinet (later known as Kay Musical Instruments) whose Stromberg Electro model was announced in 1928, yet never saw the light of day; it was likely a victim of the stock market crash a year later.
For the purposes of moving forward with this story, we will take the liberty of crowning the Ro-Pat-In Electric Spanish as the instrument that defined the template for all electric guitars to follow. Developed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker in 1932, the Ro-Pat-In’s “Spanish” moniker refers to the way the guitar was played: with its back rested against the player, strings facing out to the audience, similar to the classical and flamenco guitars that originated in Spain. “Spanish” guitars differed from “Hawaiian” style or lap-steel guitars, which face up toward the player. Fun fact: the “ES” in guitars like Gibson’s ES-335 stands for “Electric Spanish.”
So why did the guitar get electrified? At the time, guitarists in big bands and jazz ensembles struggled to be heard among the other musicians. Guitars of the time sported a then-new archtop design, which projected sound better than the traditional flat-top acoustic guitar. Still, to be heard over the horns and drums, guitarists needed more output.
The solution? A transducer mounted to the body of the guitar that would “pick up” vibrations of the strings, then convert them to electrical signal that could later be amplified and projected through a speaker.
“These early pickups were magnetic, but with an indirect transfer of vibrations, from the strings, through the top of the guitar, and on to the pickup coil,” Walter Carter, founder of Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville, explained. “The modern pickup operates on the same principle, but the transfer is direct, or string-driven. The string itself passes through the magnetic field and creates the signal.”
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, manufacturers including Gibson, Epiphone, National, and Dobro, followed the Ro-Pat-In’s lead and began producing hollow-bodied electric guitars for jazz greats of the time like Charlie Christian.
While popular, the hollow-bodied electric guitar wasn’t perfect. The necessity of high stage volume during live performances, when combined with the guitar’s resonant chamber and microphonic pickups, produced harsh signal feedback. As bands grew louder, it became clear that hollow-bodied electric guitars could not keep up.
Solidifying the Form
Fender Broadcaster, 1950The solid body electric guitar was beginning to form — not yet as a physical product, but as an idea that occupied the mind of more than one guitarist. In Southern California, radio repairman Clarence Leonidas Fender began tinkering with the idea after witnessing touring western swing bands struggle with feedback issues caused by their large amps and hollow guitars.
Meanwhile, in New York, an accomplished guitarist named Lester William Polsfuss grew an itch to bring the guitar tone he’d heard in his head to life. His first prototype, a Frankensteinian mashup of lumber and a dissected Epiphone body with neck and pickups attached, later nicknamed “The Log,” was rejected by Gibson in 1941.
So, who was first in creating a solid body electric guitar? Some point to Rickenbacker’s Bakelite Model B Spanish from 1935 as the original, though its body wasn’t fully solid. Others say drum company Slingerland did it first with their Songster from 1936.
But perhaps the most impactful electric solid body Spanish-style electric guitar was one produced by Paul Bigsby in the late 1940s at the request of country guitar legend Merle Travis. As the story goes, Travis sketched out the guitar on a piece of radio station script paper and handed it to Bigsby. A supremely skilled luthier, Bigsby brought this guitar to life with a thin, solid maple body meant to rest against the player’s chest, and equipped it with one pickup. Travis loved it, and even lent it to Leo Fender to take a closer look in his shop. Looking at that guitar today, it’s clear that history was made on that script paper sketch.
By 1950, Leo Fender had introduced his first electric guitar designs: the single-pickup Esquire, and the dual-pickup Broadcaster, whose name was soon changed to Telecaster. The idea of an electric solid body guitar was now a real instrument, and that instrument would soon spawn an industry.
Not to be outdone, the Gibson Guitar Company brought Lester Polsfuss back in for talks. His old “log” creation wouldn’t suffice, but Gibson president Ted McCarty saw potential in marketing a high-end electric guitar model that bore the star’s name. After some back-and-forth on the features of the prototype, McCarty and the Gibson executives finished Gibson’s first-ever solid-bodied electric guitar. It bore Polsfuss’ more familiar name: Les Paul.
With the release of the Les Paul model in 1952, the fledgling solid body guitar industry saw two distinct design philosophies emerge. You could hear it in the bright, cutting tones of Fender guitars, compared to the thick, warm sonics of the Les Paul. But the differences weren’t just tonal; they were philosophical.
Most amateurs could replace a Fender’s bolt-on neck, and those with a bit of know-how could repair or replace its electronic parts. For aesthetics, Leo Fender took cues from the auto industry: his guitars were initially only available in sunburst or blonde finishes, but in 1960, he began expanding finish options to include DuPont classic car finishes like Daphne Blue, Candy Apple Red, and Shoreline Gold. The swappable nature of Fender guitar parts even led to a similar “hot rod” culture where players would install “hotter” pickups to achieve higher gain and drive their amps harder. This do-it-yourself mentality lives on in today’s Fender guitars.
Gibson, on the other hand, had an established legacy of fine craftsmanship to maintain. Their first electric guitar needed to live up to their historic standards. The Les Paul made its debut in 1952 adorned with a lush gold top wrapped in binding, much like a high-end Gibson hollow-bodied guitar. Made of exotic, expensive tonewoods like mahogany and rosewood and outfitted with a dramatic trapeze tailpiece, it bespoke luxury. Repairing or replacing its set mahogany neck was strictly a luthier’s job.
Over the next few years, Gibson released new Les Paul iterations. The Les Paul Custom, done up in tuxedo black with gold hardware and an ebony fretboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl fret markers, established a new level of elegance in 1954. Gibson wooed students and working musicians with the Les Paul Junior, Special and TV, all budget-conscious models with flat-top “slab” bodies, either one or two P-90 pickups, and simplified controls.
Finally, the Les Paul Standard would ditch the gold top in favor of a vibrant cherry sunburst finish. Introduced in 1958, the Standard failed to catch on with the public, and Gibson discontinued the model in 1960. In 1961, Gibson introduced the thinner, lighter, double-cutaway Gibson Les Paul SG model, which Les Paul famously disliked. By the next year’s production run, the guitar was simply known as the Gibson SG — an abbreviation of “Solid Guitar.”
While Fender guitars saw sustained growth into the 1960s, the Les Paul Standard’s cancellation after just three years of production might have rendered it a mere footnote in guitar history, were it not for a young British lad with a taste for American blues.
Let There Be Loud
Les Paul Standard, 1959, and Marshall Bluesbreaker, 1964The electric guitar boomed in the 1950s, but starting in the mid-1960s, it would begin its ascent to mythic status. A new breed of rock bands from the UK, including The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Who, and most notably, The Beatles, would reinvigorate the guitar market for decades to come.
Already exalted as “God” by graffiti artists early in his career, Eric Clapton would go further in spreading the Les Paul gospel than anyone not named Les Paul. His first testament came on Bluesbreakers, a record he made in collaboration with vocalist and instrumentalist John Mayall. Clapton plugged his 1959 Les Paul Standard into a Dallas Rangemaster pedal, then into his Marshall combo amp, turning its volume up beyond loud, and into rock ‘n’ roll’s future.
The instrument’s thick mahogany body and beefy humbucker pickups were intended by their creators to achieve a clear, full-bodied clean tone. By those standards, what Clapton did amounted to heresy. Selecting both the neck and bridge pickups, then rolling down the bridge pickup’s Tone control was fine enough — that’s the jazz tone recipe for many players. But to take that sweet tone and run it into a British amplifier turned up so loud it not only began to distort, but to induce feedback? That was unheard of. And to play such a self-indulgent take on Black American blues licks with a tone like that? Who did Clapton think he was? God?
Conventions be damned: Clapton’s so-called “Woman” tone breathed new life into the Les Paul. But to get the full picture, we have to credit more than just the guitar. After all, doing much of the heavy lifting was that black, basketweave-grilled amp Clapton had turned up to dangerous levels…the one that bore the name “Marshall.”
The British Sound
Today, the idea of American and British tones is one we largely take for granted. In large part, it’s a matter of tube choice, which creates distinct flavors in EQ and compression properties. In more recent years, the advent of digital modeling has made transatlantic tone-hopping easier than ever. Most big time amp manufacturers from either side of the pond offer digital modeling amps that accurately mimic amp tones originating from America, England, Germany, and other countries.
But in late 1950s London, the distinct tones of the first British amps were made out of necessity. British guitarists loved Fender amps, but found the imports too pricey. Dick Denny was the first to offer a solution in the Vox AC15: a small combo amp featuring a 12″ speaker and powered by EF84, ECC83, and EL84 tubes. These components lent British amps a noticeably brighter tone. The general consensus among players is that British amps have more high-end bite, sound a bit more compressed or jangly, and have a more defined midrange “punchiness” than their American counterparts.
The “American” amp sound, defined primarily by Fender’s mid ’60s “blackface” amps like the Twin Reverb and Deluxe Reverb, is considered more full-bodied, with a somewhat “scooped” sound, where the smooth highs and lows are more pronounced than the mids. This is often attributed to Leo Fender’s adoption of the 6L6 tube in the power section of his Fender Bassman. Given Leo’s mission to create a loud yet pure tone, it’s no surprise American amps are especially beloved for their clean tones.
Of course, the tone of amps from either side of the pond are completely subject to how a player dials in their EQ and volume, as well as any effects they use, their playing style, and an incalculable set of other variables. And though these tonal lines are often blurred today, in the 1960s, these British amps would sculpt the sound of rock ‘n’ roll across the world.
As Vox amps caught on among the “British invasion” musicians — most notably Liverpool lads Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison — their trademark high-end sparkle defined rock guitar tone. That is, until guitarists once again decided they needed more volume.
Going One Louder
It would seem that two factors led to the next evolution in British amps. One is that as rock bands grew bigger, so did their crowds. The Beatles quit touring in 1966, partially because live venue sound systems couldn’t keep up with the crowd noise, and they couldn’t hear themselves onstage. At the same time, rock music was getting edgier, angrier, and beginning its love affair with psychedelics and the counter-culture.
Guitarists needed an amp that they could hear onstage. They wanted something bigger, with more speakers. They liked the snarl of a cranked Vox amp. What about an amp with even more grit?
Jim Marshall was an accomplished drummer, having taught the likes of Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. He owned a music shop in West London frequented by the rock cognoscenti of the early ’60s. Pete Townshend of the Who, along with Ritchie Blackmore, who would go on to join Deep Purple, and other guitarists, would discuss their desire for a new kind of amp. Marshall took their ideas into his shop and began modifying a Fender Bassman with new parts. After a few failed attempts, Marshall eventually created his first amp: the JTM45.
The JTM45 laid the foundation for high-volume amps for decades to come. A 15-watt head, powered by 6L6 (later KT66, EL34, or KT88) tubes, the JTM45’s tone was largely shaped by its 12AX7 preamp tube and a modified negative feedback loop, which lent an entirely different character to its harmonics. Perched atop a cabinet housing four 12″ Celestion speakers, the JTM45 satisfied Marshall’s clientele.
Until they wanted more. The emerging rock scene’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for volume led to the development of 20- and 25-watt JTM45s, then a few years later, the 100-watt 1959SLP, better known as the Plexi: Marshall’s most iconic amplifier. One-hundred watts in a tube amp seems to be enough for most players even through today, but Marshall would continue to innovate. Their JCM800, released in 1981, would remain the metal amp of choice through the ’80s, and their later offerings in the DSL and JVM lines further refined high-gain tone shaping.
Beyond his impact on tone, Jim Marshall, along with Cliff Cooper of Orange, and Lydon Laney, changed the way guitarists played their instrument. There’s just something different about playing guitar in front of a half- or full-stack. The huge cabinets, excess of volume, and palpable air moving behind you add a sense of gravitas and mystique. There’s no question such amps helped build the legends behind Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Slash, and many others.
Infections, Acquisitions, and Hard Times
Gibson Marauder, 1980Just as the electric guitar was reaching its cultural zenith, major sociological, technological, and corporate shifts rocked the industry. No longer a curiosity, the electric guitar was now big business. This era (roughly from the mid ’60s into the early ’80s) saw the electric guitar shaped less by players and more by corporate executives, most of whom probably couldn’t strum a G chord. The cost-cutting measures, corporate acquisitions, and poorly received new models of this time are why some consider it a sort of dark age for the electric guitar.
Of course, hindsight often shows that a lot of good can come from difficult times. In this section, we’ll explore how this time period shaped the guitar industry in a number of positive ways.
The CBS Years at Fender
At some point in the 1950s, Leo Fender had contracted a streptococcal sinus infection, which slowly but surely deteriorated his health. Eventually, the infection forced him to consider an early retirement, and in 1965, Leo Fender sold his namesake guitar company to a division of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). In this new era, the company morphed from a familial firm into one overseen by national media types whose primary focus was on cost and efficiency. Some of the cost-cutting measures found on CBS-era Fender models include the larger headstock design, polyurethane finishes rather than the more expensive nitrocellulose, and the eventual adoption of a three-bolt neck plate rather than four.
That’s not to say there weren’t several successes for Fender in those days. Take for example, the Telecaster Deluxe and the semi-hollow bodied Starcaster — both of which were equipped with proprietary Wide Range pickups, designed by Seth Lover, the inventor of the humbucker pickup. These models, along with other newcomers like the Telecaster Thinline and Coronado, helped Fender gain a foothold in the emerging hard rock and punk music scenes, and are still well-regarded today.
Nevertheless, the “CBS era” is regarded as a low point in Fender’s quality control and output. The situation eventually grew so dire that in the early ’80s, Fender brought in consultants from the Yamaha Guitar Group, who directed the company to cease nearly all American manufacturing while employees were re-trained to produce top-quality instruments once again. Fender’s workforce shrunk from 700 in 1981 to just 275 at its lowest point.
Gibson's Norlin Years
In 1969, just four years after Fender’s sale, Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI) was acquired by Ecuadorian Company LTD (ECL), a cement and beer conglomerate based in Ecuador. A division of ECL called Norlin Music absorbed CMI and took control over operations at Gibson beginning in 1972.
Just as CBS did with Fender, Norlin aimed to cut costs on manufacturing at Gibson, leading to all manner of oddities. “Norlin era Gibsons,” as they are today known, bore distinctive, cheaper features like layered “pancake” bodies and three-piece necks, often made from maple, instead of the traditional one-piece mahogany necks. Though Gibson’s avant-garde designs from the ’50s like the Flying V and Explorer eventually became classics, the same could not be said of the Corvus, Marauder, and others.
Though some Gibson models from this era maintain loyal fans to this day, in general, the “Norlin era” was seen as a departure from the company’s founding values. This guitar brand once dedicated to craftsmanship and attention to detail, had seen its quality decline due to cost-cutting measures. Perhaps most symbolic was Norlin’s decision to cease production at Gibson’s historic Kalamazoo, MI factory in 1984 and move central production to Nashville.
New Challengers From Overseas
With the two leading U.S. guitar manufacturers now owned and operated by bean counters dedicated to cutting costs, the market was ripe for competition. In Japan and East Asia, luthiers were producing guitars that came close to and sometimes exceeded the quality of American guitars at a much lower price.
The names these guitars bore are too numerous to list here, but the most famous include Ibanez, Takamine, Tokai, Hondo, Greco, and Teisco. While most of the old names are long out of production, this wave of overseas manufacturing shook up the industry in ways still felt today.
By the mid ’70s, many of these brands based in Japan and other countries had over a decade of experience building guitars. Around this time, they were gaining more attention in the U.S. as an awesome value to players and as serious competition to American brands. That’s because these companies were producing replicas of Stratocasters, Les Pauls, and other famous models, priced at a fraction of the American instruments.
An Era of Experimentation
Another positive outcome of this era was its embrace of innovation. There were experiments in MIDI compatibility in guitars, and built-in effects. New pickup manufacturers like EMG, DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, and others created their own pickup designs to offer players more output and better articulation. Even manufacturers steeped in history like Gretsch and Martin began to experiment with solid body electric guitars.
And as for Leo Fender, he landed on his feet, finding further career success in two new guitar companies: Music Man and G&L. At Music Man, he’d design some of the world’s most popular bass guitars, helping define new timbral possibilities for the instrument. And at G&L, which he founded with his longtime partner George Fullerton, Leo gave the world a glimpse into where he could have taken Fender, crafting high-quality guitars outfitted with proprietary Magnetic Field Design pickups. Both companies are alive and well today.
Fair Warning: An Eruption is Imminent
Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein,” 1975By the mid ’70s, the electric guitar industry’s dark ages had come to a close, and its renaissance was just a finger tap away.
Released in early 1978, the Van Halen album was not just a shot in the arm for the electric guitar, it was a second big bang, redefining what a guitar could sound like, and how big a guitar hero could be. While the mainstream press and most fans fawned over the magnetic David Lee Roth, guitarists fixed their gaze on the enigmatic impresario with the stripey guitar, the one whose back was always turned to them during solos, the one named Eddie Van Halen.
Of course, it must be said that there were plenty of other very fast players before Eddie. There were other solos you could consider “shredding.” There may have been others who employed the famed tapping technique before he did. But no one put it all together like Eddie. No one else cruised along the fretboard with such laid-back ease, no one else mystified arenas of fans playing music that belonged, as Village Voice critic Robert Cristgau said, “on an aircraft carrier.”
Add another milestone to the electric guitar’s timeline. Following The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Eric Clapton’s work on Bluesbreakers, we can add “Eruption.” Has there ever been a more apt track title?
Harder, Better, (And Most Importantly) Faster
Eddie Van Halen did not play a standard guitar on “Eruption.” Fittingly dubbed “Frankenstein,” his guitar was a mutt. The body and neck were purchased from luthier Wayne Charvel, and it was equipped with a PAF humbucker taken from a Gibson ES-335, later to be swapped for a Seymour Duncan humbucker. The tremolo bridge originally came from a 1958 Fender Stratocaster, to be later replaced with a Floyd Rose tremolo.
The guitar world, needless to say, noticed. So did manufacturers. If a standard-issue guitar wasn’t good enough for the world’s newly crowned guitar god, they would have to improve. Thus began the age of the “Superstrat.”
While obviously based on the Fender Stratocaster, the Superstrat was not an official name, but rather a generic term for guitars that borrowed its double-cutaway body and six-in-line headstock. That, however, is where the similarities end. Superstrats often ditch the traditional three single-coil pickup array for at least one humbucker pickup, resulting in a combination of a humbucker and single-coils. A Superstrat’s pickups are often overwound for “hotter” output, so the player can coax more gain from their amp — perfect for the emerging hard rock and heavy metal scenes.
Another Superstrat must-have is a locking, or at least floating tremolo bridge. Be it a Floyd Rose, a Kahler, or Rockinger (a precursor to both adopted by Eddie Van Halen), these systems allow guitarists to push their whammy bars all the way down to the body for dramatic “dive bomb” effects, without the strings going out of tune.
Pickups and bridge aside, a Superstrat was worthless if it didn’t help the guitarist play faster. To this end, Superstrats often sported neck profiles that were slimmer and flatter than the traditional Strat neck. These necks, often referred to in letter shapes like “D” or “thin-C,” allowed players to better maneuver their hands across the fretboard. To push the speed limits even further, fretboards themselves grew to be flatter in radius, which made for easier legato runs and sweep picking.
Superstrats birthed their own market within the industry. Several new brands emerged around this time, many of which began life as parts suppliers or repair shops. In America, these included Charvel, Kramer, Schecter, and Jackson. Such brands then became established as premier custom shops catering to the shred impresarios of the day, like Randy Rhoads, Marty Friedman, Phil Collen, and many others. Major brands took cues from these upstarts, as the likes of Fender, Gibson, and Ibanez began creating models with pointier headstocks and speedier necks to cater to the emerging market. Remaining popular into the early ’90s, Superstrats evolved over time to sport more and more radical finishes and pointier shapes. Active pickups by the likes of EMG began to appear in several models, as popular tastes leaned heavier.
Guitars emerged from the ’80s as streamlined, supercharged instruments built for speed and aggressive tone. Players maintained their thirst for speed into the ’90s, but soon, musical tastes would undergo another massive shift. The hard rock party had become a hangover, and speedy, flashy guitars were starting to look so passé.
A New Appreciation for the Past
Up through the early 1990s, the electric guitar had evolved at a breakneck pace. The first 45 years or so saw the development of the first solidbody electric guitars, followed by their splicing into hundreds of different shapes and configurations, culminating in the guitars of the late ’80s being the sleekest, fastest-playing, and highest-output models yet. So where could the guitar go from here?
To say that flannel-donning grungy teenagers overthrew the Aqua-Netted hair metal stars in one fell swoop is an oversimplified take. A better explanation is that grunge and popular metal were on opposite trajectories starting in the late ’80s. The guitars of the times were a bit of a muddled mess, too. On one hand, you had Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Billy Duffy of The Cult wielding classic Les Pauls and Gretsch guitars, respectively. On the other, some grunge newcomers, like Jerry Cantrell, rocked a Superstrat-esque G&L. So what did guitarists want in the ’90s?
Pawn Shop Pride
Fender Jag-Stang, 1993Nuance aside, there is one watershed moment from 1991 whose influence cannot be denied. It took place in a dingy school gymnasium, where Kurt Cobain, Krist Noveselic, and Dave Grohl introduced the world beyond Seattle to grunge, through Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. And key to this new sound was the guitar strapped around Cobain’s shoulders: a left-handed, 1969 Fender Competition Mustang.
That Mustang, transmitted through cable on MTV, would define the tastes of guitarists for years to come. Rather than some pointy, cutting-edge model, it was vintage, even for the ’90s. It was a Fender, but not the storied Stratocaster of rock gods past, nor the old reliable Telecaster. The Mustang was an affordable “student” model, marketed to novices upon its release in 1964. Cobain’s Mustang had a distinctive “competition” racing stripe design for just a hint of charm.
Affordable. Obscure. Quirky. These were the prized attributes of guitars in the grunge scene. Similar models and artists would soon gain exposure through this movement. Kim Thayil of Soundgarden famously rocked a Guild S-100. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney preferred an Epiphone SG Special for nearly a decade. Both Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine rocked Strats, but each chose to do his up with handpainted graphics or socially conscious messaging. These choices seemed like a reaction to the optimized, peacocking guitars of the ’80s. In the grunge and alternative scenes of the ’90s, a flippant, “whatever” attitude seemed to apply.
To see this illustrated perfectly, consider perhaps the definitive guitar of the decade: Kurt Cobain’s original design, the Fender Jag-Stang, famously conceived of when he took two cut-in-half photos of a Jaguar and a Mustang, and fit them together. The body shape looks off at first glance, probably because it was designed not with ergnomics in mind, but an ethos of why-the-hell-not.
Heavier Than Ever
Trends, by definition, never last, and by the late ’90s, grunge had been diluted into the amorphous “alternative” genre, spearheaded by groups like Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime, Beck, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their soupy blends of rock, funk, grunge, and pop (among other genres) were just as eclectic as their guitar choices. As often as you’d spot a Jazzmaster at the first Lollapalooza, for instance, you’d see a Les Paul, a Danelectro, and a Charvel Superstrat.
The next real definitive shift in guitar tastes came at the close of the ’90s, with the arrival of nu-metal. A hybrid strain of metal and hip-hop, nu-metal required something nu of the guitar. Now asked to share the mix with DJs, slap bassists, and growly singers doing double-duty as rappers, guitarists of the era dropped down in tuning and dialed in guttural, high-gain tones to lend authority to aggressive, stuttering riffs.
This era also saw upstart manufacturers experimenting with alternative materials and designs. Introduced in 1993 by Ken Parker and Larry Fishman, the Parker Fly is perhaps the most notable example. With a body made of composite materials, it was extremely light weight at just 4.5 lbs, boasted incredible resonant properties, and was carved in an ergonomic style.
Still, what we saw at the turn of the millennium were guitars that excelled at low tunings and high output. Manufacturers like Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, and Schecter were well-suited to the task, offering overwound or active pickups that could handle copious amounts of gain. Also popular during this time were seven-string and baritone models that could reach the low tunings played by Korn, Linkin Park, Deftones, and others.
The Modern Age and the Shape of Guitars to Come
Having recently emerged from the 2010s, it’s hard to look back on our most recent era and identify any obvious trends in the guitar market. At the upper end, we’ve seen near-perfect recreations of legacy models from the Fender and Gibson Custom Shops command top-of-market prices. And at the entry level, there are more options than ever, whether the player wants an affordable take on a classic, or a well-made, budget-friendly metal machine.
But if it seems like the electric guitar hasn’t seen major innovation in some time, perhaps that’s because we’re not looking closely enough.
Look Under the Hood
Although most guitars you’ll find on the rack today look like what you could have purchased 20 years ago, most experienced players agree on one fact: they don’t feel or play the same!
“The big evolution has been in hardware,” said Joe Naylor, founder of Reverend Guitars. “Now you have tremolos that stay in tune, you have pickups that don’t hum, all different kinds of switching, active pickups, passive pickups, locking tuners, low-friction nuts, two-way truss rods — all these incremental improvements that players have become very attuned to in the last five to 10 years.”
Hardware improvements over the years have made guitars that are easier to play, better sounding, and, paradoxically, both more versatile and more specialized. Another indisputable improvement over the past 50 years can be seen in the quality of lower-cost and entry-level electric guitars.
“A $200 guitar back then (late 1950s), when minimum wage was $1, would be the equivalent of around $1500 today,” explained Walter Carter. “You can get a good functional guitar today for half that or even a quarter of that.”
Jamstik Studio, 2020As mentioned earlier, the electric guitar has always incorporated technology of the day, to varying degrees of success. But here in the age of Kickstarter and 3D printers, the pipeline has never been bigger. At the time of writing, a simple search for “guitar” in the technology category of Kickstarter yielded 239 results. There’s the world’s lightest all-in-one guitar amp, an optical pickup whose tone you can customize from your phone, and a wireless guitar system that transmits your signal over Wi-Fi, among many others. Are any of these destined to change the guitar forever? Not likely, but if making history is a numbers game, crowdfunding platforms can go a long way toward fostering the next big thing.
One specific area in which we can expect much growth is in MIDI guitars. Guitarists have always sought to create new sounds, and while pedals and other outboard gear continue to offer more, the potential of MIDI guitars is nearly endless. Innovations like the Fishman TriplePlay system and the Jamstik Studio have streamlined the once clunky, uber-expensive world of MIDI guitar and brought it to the masses. With guitars now able to sound like brass instruments, polyphonic synths, or even vocalists, the rise of affordable, accessible MIDI guitars could be a huge story over the next 10 years.
Freedom of Choice
The electric guitar’s big shift in this past decade has been not one definitive trend, but rather the incredible breadth of options available to buyers. Anyone can now find quality guitars, suitable for any playing style, in any finish, at almost any price point. We’ve seen the emergence of fully online custom builders, overseas factories making jaw-dropping instruments that cost less than $200, and even the return of guitar brands that have been dormant for 20+ years — welcome back, Harmony and D’Angelico! If the guitar has always adapted to the demands of the player, it is now clearly responding our demands as consumers in an e-commerce and social media-driven world.
Another question to consider: who is playing guitar these days? In the past few years, we’ve seen the industry start to give female guitarists the attention, acclaim, and opportunities they’ve long deserved. St. Vincent, who designed her signature Ernie Ball Music Man model, was the first woman to design a mass-produced, original solid body guitar from scratch. If the industry is wise, she will be far from the last.
So, has electric guitar design already peaked? Perhaps for past generations, the answer is yes. It’s true that the old standbys remain, but with music always evolving, we can be sure guitarists will be asking more of their guitars, and the industry will respond. Today, with guitarists of all backgrounds, races, and genders being heard, we can definitely expect some fresh ideas ahead.