Great music is due to the artist, but it’s hard to deny the influence of some gear – here are five guitars that changed music
In most creative arts, the tools required remain pretty much unchanged over the years. I mean, whilst dyes may change slightly, paints are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. In music, however, the technology involved is changing all the time. As a result, it is possible for a new musical instrument to have a profound effect on the direction music takes.
As a celebration of some of these influential bits of gear, here are five guitars that changed music.
Fender Telecaster – 1950
It wasn’t the first solid electric guitar, but the humble Tele is undoubtedly one of the most influential. Initially, the Telecaster was not intended as a production model. Leo Fender had been experimenting with magnetic pickups, exploiting the demand from the musicians of the time.
However, when local country players repeatedly approached him to ask if they could hire his solid-body test guitar, he knew he was onto something… The unusual bright, cutting sound was the key to this test guitar’s popularity.
Uniquely for a guitar at the time, it was assembly in a production-line fashion, in parts, making it easy to be built in numbers. It also made an incredibly tough, reliable instrument.
Hugely influential in development of Country, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Blues, Funk and all manner of other styles, the Tele is played by an enormous number of modern players, from Bruce Springsteen, to Graham Coxon. Its unique sound and versatility makes it one of those guitars that everyone can find a use for…
Gibson Les Paul – 1952
The Les Paul was Gibson’s first contribution to the world of solid body guitars, and like the Tele, it was pretty much born perfect. The original ’52 Gold Top was designed in collaboration with Les Paul, who had been experimenting with solid designs to fix the problems of feedback associated with hollow bodies. Modern Les Pauls are still built to the same basic design, with solid mahogany bodies, carved maple tops and set mahogany necks.
It wasn’t until ’57 that the Les Paul adopted the form for which it is best known. The P90 pickups were switched for Gibson’s PAF humbuckers. These gave the guitar its unique roar. Though its popularity waned a little in the early ‘60s, the British blues scene embraced it and, in association with the louder, higher gain amps that were emerging, the Les Paul ‘sound’ was born. This incredible combination gave rock ‘n’ roll a more rebellious, raucous tone. Chords became thicker and more powerful, and leads screamed like never before.
Though the Les Paul has remained largely unchanged, music was changed forever.
Fender Stratocaster – 1954
The Stratocaster stands as proof that the Telecaster was no fluke on Leo Fender’s part. Having designed one ‘perfect’ guitar, Fender aimed to build on its strengths, whilst increasing its versatility and playability.
The solid alder body was shaped to a super-smooth, contoured design, to sit more closely to the player’s body. This featured a double cutaway shape, with those iconic curves and rounded edges. That made it (and still makes it) one of the most comfortable guitars to play. The neck was a slim, C profile, but remained a bolt-on maple design, like the Tele.
The pickups are arguably what set the Strat apart. With 3-single coils, two volume pots and a master tone, it offered a wide range of tones, from woody neck pickup ‘punch’ and snap, to bridge pickup ‘bark’, and everything between. When it swapped the 3-way selector switch for a 5-way, this was extended further. It also provided the guitar with the tremolo bridge design upon which most modern models are based.
The number of Strat players is dizzying. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher and countless other players have used the guitar to shape music as we know it, and it remains largely unchanged today.
Martin D-1 and D-2 – 1931
Martin guitars provided the world with the very first Dreadnought acoustics, the D-1 and D-2. This guitar size was so called, as it was larger than other guitar models of the time, taking its name from the HMS Dreadnought warship. This is typified by a flat-topped body, which was larger than a parlour model, with square shoulders and bottom, and a neck joined at the 14th fret. So, it was a bigger acoustic guitar. How did this change things?
Though these changes may seem minor, their effect on the guitar’s tone and performance was pretty dramatic. Firstly, it was louder than smaller guitars, with better production. Plus, the tone was fuller, and bigger with a bigger dynamic range, but without ‘boominess’. The extra two frets increase the note range available to the guitarist, too.
Beneath the surface, it employed unique X-bracing, which enabled free resonance whist imparting strength.
Today, the dreadnought is the most popular of all acoustic guitar shapes, providing a balanced tone that is well suited to a wide variety of styles, and excellent for recording. It’s also very manageable physically, too.
The modern successors to the D-1 and D-2 are the D-28 and D-18.
Ibanez RG Series – 1987
There are, perhaps, more ‘prestigious’ guitar models in musical history, but the Ibanez RG is worthy of inclusion here (in my humble opinion, of course) due to the fact that it widely popularised electric guitars that were geared towards the extreme rock and ‘shred’ playing styles.
The range first appeared in 1987, and was derived from the Jem and Universe guitars, which were designed by Steve Vai. These premium models grew out of Vai’s need for a guitar that suited his ultra-technical playing style, having struggled to find one anywhere else.
The RG range was typified by slim, fast necks, powerful pickups, ergonomic double cutaway bodies and reliable, floating tremolo systems. As I’m sure you’ll recognise, these are all of the key elements of a heavy rock guitar, as we know it today.
The RG was not the first of its kind, in this regard, but it suddenly made this style of guitar very attainable, without compromising on quality. Like the Tele, though it wasn’t the first, it did such a great job at a fair price, that it quickly defined what people expect from this type of guitar.
The range continues today, with all of these key design elements intact.
You can find a full range of guitars online here.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.