The modern electric guitar is a surprisingly youthful thing – here are four of the guitar designs that made it was it is today…
When something has been around for your entire lifetime, it can feel as though it has been around forever. To some, the guitar must seem like that.
But, the guitar as we know it today has a fairly short history. It was shaped by some seminal guitar designs, many of which are still available today, pretty much unchanged. It’s a remarkable testament to how ‘right’ those designs were in the first place.
As a tribute, here are four of the most influential guitar designs ever.
Fender Telecaster/ Esquire/ Nocaster/ Broadcaster – 1950
Though it wasn’t the first solid body electric guitar (Rickenbacker’s frying pan guitar predates it, having been produced as early as 1935), it was the Telecaster that truly opened up a world of sonic possibilities to guitarists, and changed music forever.
Leo Fender had been producing electromagnetic pickups for country musicians for some time- chiefly for lap-steel guitars and mandolins. These greatly reduced issues of feedback, making it easier to amplify without problems.
He and partner ‘Doc’ Kauffman crafted a crude solid body guitar as a test rig for their designs. When musicians began to ask if they could borrow it for gigs, they realised there may be something in this…
Until then, the only reason for going electric was to amplify the sound. Now, musicians wanted to play an electric guitar for its tone.
A slab-bodied design was put together, with a bolt-on neck and a single pickup. It was named the Esquire. The lack of a truss-rod caused issues with the neck, however. The initial design was replaced with the two-pickup Broadcaster, which had a truss rod for adjusting the neck.
As Gretsch had a guitar named the Broadkaster, the name was changed to Telecaster. The early models, which had no name printed on them, are generally called Nocasters.
The Tele is pretty much unchanged today.
The Gibson Les Paul Gold Top – 1952
Les Paul was similarly pioneering in the development of a solid-bodied guitar. His 1940s ‘log’ design, which was a solid, neck-thru-body design with attached ‘wings’ to give it a conventional guitar shape saw him move into a partnership with Gibson guitars.
Gibson had seen the potential of solid guitar designs from the successful Fender’s Telecaster. Paul had approached Gibson with his design in ’51, but seen it rejected. The two parties worked together, however, and the result was a design classic: the Les Paul Gold Top.
This initial design had twin P90 pickups, whose wider coils gave a thicker, warmer tone than the Telecaster, and it was built with a more luxurious mahogany body with carved maple top, with a glued-in neck design contributing to its legendary tone and sustain.
The Fender Stratocaster – 1954
Leo Fender proved that the Telecaster’s success was not down to luck with his second, iconic guitar- the Stratocaster. This had a number of innovations over its predecessor.
Firstly, it now had three pickups, providing a greater range of tones than any other electric guitar. Secondly, the body was not ergonomically shaped, to increase comfort. Gone were the slab-bodied Telecaster’s sharp edges, in favour of smooth curves, including the ‘beer gut’ body scarfe on the reverse of the body.
The three-saddle bridge of the Tele was swapped for a 6-saddle design, so that strings could be adjusted individually, and the first ever tremolo bridge was introduced.
Capable of tones that ranged from woody and punchy, to snappy, to powerful barking bridge tones, the Strat was quickly established as the most versatile of guitar designs. It would be fair to say that it still holds this title today.
Gibson Les Paul ’57 – 1957
It was in 1957 that the Les Paul became what we know as the Les Paul Standard today, in all but cosmetics.
Earlier, issues with intonation and tuning stability had been fixed with the Tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece. This allowed individual string intonation to be adjusted, along with bridge height, whilst keeping everything rock-solid, and with incredible sustain.
Meanwhile, engineer Seth lover had developed a new twin coil pickup design with eliminated the hum associated with magnetic pickups. In addition, the opposing coils thickened tone, and increased gain.
All of these characteristics would contribute to what is still widely regarded to be the ultimate rock guitar, and to the sound of rock music itself.
The Les Paul Standard is the modern ancestor of this guitar.
All of the above guitar models are still available in various forms. See our range of electric guitars 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.