A Brief History Of Innovation In Guitars
Forward-thinking in guitar land
Guitars are, as we know, largely the same animals they were 70 years ago. To this day you can reasonably expect a guitar to comprise little more than wood and metal. And, to compound matters, the majority still come in the same shapes and sizes that they always have done. Same goes for amplifiers and, to an extent, pedals.
Their beauty lies in their simplicity. Classic product designs which have required little-to-no tinkering or evolution for decades. That’s not to say, however, that people haven’t tried. Here’s a look at some examples of innovation in guitars over the years.
Robot tuning systems
It wasn’t until the 1980s that affordable tuning systems like pedals or clip-ons were available. Prior to that players relied upon pan-pipe type devices which were not ideal, particularly on-stage.
In 2005 however, one German company took things a step further. Tronical, with its revolutionary ‘robot’ tuning system, was set to have a big impact on the guitar world. Its specialist system could be installed at the back of a guitar’s headstock, and using a system of tiny servo motors, would automatically turn the machine heads until they were at the right pitch.
The idea was developed, allowing users to store different tunings which could be recalled in seconds. Gibson liked the idea so much it made the bold step of installing the Tronical system on all of its 2015 models. This proved controversial, to say the least. Guitarists are, largely, pretty conservative folk so the idea of an automated, robotic system encroaching on their beloved instruments didn’t go down well in all quarters.
It’s all ended quite messily too. Gibson and Tronical are both locked in a legal battle with each other. Probably best we leave it there…
The 1908s have a lot to answer for, good and bad, but one clear innovation that came out of that era was the introduction of the multi-effects pedal board.
Previously, stompboxes were created individually for each effect. So distortion, tremolo, chorus, reverb etc; all single-effect pedals. In the 1908s, manufacturers like Boss were able to digitise the effect process, therefore being able to fit in numerous effects onto a single unit. This saved loads of space at the player’s feet and brought a cost-effective way for people to experiment with new sounds and effect combinations. The flagship Boss GT-1000 is the culmination of this process, giving you access to hundreds of sounds at the press of a switch.
Although associated these days with metal styles, active pickups are actually not all that new. In the late 1960s, high-end guitar brand Alembic worked to create a pickup that delivered a stronger, more pure signal to the overall chain. It worked by adding in a small, powered pre-amp actually in the guitar itself, powered by a 9v battery.
Nowadays, active pickups from the likes of EMG are used by bands craving ultra-high output with none of the side effects (microphonic feedback). The Jackson X-Series Soloist SlatXMGQ3 is a great example of a modern metal axe with superb EMG active ‘pups.
One innovation that had a significant effect on not just the guitar world, but on music itself, was the Floyd rose tremolo system. Designed in the 1970s by jewellery-maker Floyd D. Rose, the trem provided a way of locking the strings in place using metal clamps, allowing the user to really attack their trem without fear of losing tune.
When the system took off in the 1980s, it really took off. It was the era of the virtuoso guitarist, with Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen and others all using this new system to reach around the edges of what was possible on a guitar.
The Floyd Rose system is still hugely popular these days; this gaudy Kramer Pacer makes use of it to devastating effect.
Finally, an innovation that had more of an impact on the wider world of performing and recording music: software. Yep, taking the archaic technology of guitar amps, effects and recording devices and putting them all inside a standard home computer had a revolutionary effect.
Now, for not-much-cash-at-all, players could access hundreds of sounds from within their computer. IK Multimedia is an example of one such company that led the charge. Its Amplitube software demonstrates how far advanced the technology has become and now many players rely on amp sims as a staple part of their recording process.
If you’ve not seen Amplitube in action, you should check out the IK Multimedia iRig 2, which puts an entire amp, pedal and recording studio onto your smartphone or tablet.
As you can see, there has been at least some innovation in guitars in the recent past. Brands try to offer new functionality and techniques which offer creative players the chance to explore new sounds. Not everything has been a huge success, and lessons have no doubt been learned along the way, but innovative thinking is out there. You just have to know where to look.