Going Electric: How Electricity Helped Bring The Guitar to the Forefront of Popular Music

Essential Question

How did the electrification, amplification and design of the guitar facilitate its emergence as a dominant instrument of popular music?

Overview

In the early 20th century, the guitar was a purely acoustic instrument. Its limited dynamic range typically relegated it to a supporting role in ensemble performance. Surrounded on the bandstand by horns, drums and other stringed instruments, the sound of an acoustic guitar was barely audible.

In the early 1930s, as advances in microphone technology raised the volume of the singer, the invention of the electromagnetic “pickup” allowed guitar players to turn up the volume as well. Situated on the body of the instrument just below the strings, the pickup created magnetic fields that converted the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals. Sent from the guitar through a cable, these signals were transmitted to an amplified loudspeaker (the “amplifier”), and the guitar became substantially louder.

In 1936, Gibson introduced the ES-150 model, a mass-produced guitar that included a mounted electromagnetic pickup. As guitarists embraced the electrified instrument, the perception and uses of the guitar began to change dramatically. For instance, Oklahoma musician Charlie Christian adapted the language of jazz soloing, previously performed mostly on woodwinds, brass and piano, to the electric guitar’s fretboard, moving the instrument to a featured spot on the bandstand.  

As the electric guitar’s popularity increased in the 1940s and 50s, new musical styles emerged, including the Urban Blues performed by southern musicians who came north to industrial cities during the Great Migration. These musicians left rural regions such as the Mississippi Delta to seek better working conditions in large, northern metropolitan areas. Once in the North, musicians performed to larger and louder audiences, and the electric guitar helped them to be heard above the crowd.  

In the early 1950s, “going electric” was more than just a pragmatic decision, it was an idea that reflected the spirit of the times. Commercial culture was littered with products promoting an emerging vision of “modernity” in which life was improved by the newest, the fastest and most advanced…of almost everything. Razors, toasters, automobiles and guitars: all were offered as a gateway to the future. In addition to turning up the guitar’s volume, electricity was touted as making cooking, shaving and woodworking easier, quicker and more precise. These advances were in a technology’s function but promoted through its design. For instance, the stylized curves of the 1952 Fender Telecaster—the first mass-produced solid-body guitar—bore some resemblance to the “modern” shapes of both jukeboxes and the Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” sedan, all designed for the contemporary experience. When a guitarist strapped on a Telecaster he was wearing the look of the “modern” and creating new, “electrified” sounds. By the late 1960s, sales of electric guitars rose to nearly 1.5 million per year, far beyond the number sold a decade earlier.

This lesson investigates how electrifying the guitar was a contributing factor to the emergence of a sound that came to define Rock and Roll and, to a large extent, mid-20th century American popular culture. Featuring content from the PBS Soundbreaking episode, “Going Electric,” which includes the guitar playing of luminaries Charlie Christian, Pete Townsend, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, this lesson examines the spirit of curiosity, adaptation and invention that characterized the early 1950s and in the 1960s led to the guitar’s emergence as a versatile and attractive instrument for musicians and as the quintessential Rock and Roll icon.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the technology used to transform the acoustic guitar into an “electric” instrument
    • How electromagnetism can be used to transmit sound
    • About the process through which an electromagnetic pickup amplifies the sound of a guitar
    • How “electrifying” the guitar changed perceptions of the instrument as well as its role in American music ensembles
    • How the emergence of the electric guitar relates to significant cultural shifts in mid-20th century America, such as the Great Migration
    • How the marketing of the electric guitar fit in to 1950s commercial culture 
    • How the sounds of a popular instrument can reflect broader patterns in American culture
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze the effects of technological advancement on popular culture and art
    • Examine visual texts for information, point of view and argument
    • Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
    • Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media formats