The Rise of the Electric Guitar as Rock and Roll’s Dominant Symbol

Essential Question

What factors led to the rise of the electric guitar as the dominant symbol of Rock and Roll?


In 1919, Steinway and Sons launched an ad campaign for their pianos with the tagline “The Instrument of the Immortals,” depicting the piano as a symbol of tradition. This was not surprising; the piano had a centuries-old connection to popular music, both “high” and “low.” Despite this association with tradition, the instrument played a key musical role around the dawn of Rock and Roll, when teenagers were regularly rejecting the culture of the past.

Because a piano’s sound is created when felt hammers strike steel strings, the instrument is commonly classified as a member of the percussion family. Given the rhythmic emphasis of Rock and Roll, the piano’s percussive character helped to establish the prominence of “the beat” in early Rock and Roll ensembles. When Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his 1957 version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for Sun Records, the rhythm he pounded out of his piano was so pronounced that it almost rendered the bass and drums unnecessary. That record became Jerry Lee’s first hit single, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues charts as well as No. 3 on the Pop chart, evidence that the driving piano sound was helping to push Rock and Roll into mainstream America.

Jerry Lee was in a cadre of piano players that helped usher in the Rock and Roll era, including Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. These four musicians were all inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a class that contained early Rock and Roll’s most celebrated pioneers. The piano is as much of a presence in that class of Hall of Fame inductees as the guitar. But something happened after Rock and Roll’s earliest years that all but erased the piano’s centrality in the story of Rock and Roll’s birth: the rise of the electric guitar.

The popularity of the guitar began to escalate in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. While piano sales hovered around 200,000 units per year during that time, guitar sales increased 400%, surging from 300,000 units in 1958 to 1.5 million in 1965. Commenting on the rapid escalation of instrument sales in the U.S., a 1967 Billboard article reported that “the golden-growth instrument has, of course, been the guitar.” The increase in sales was mirrored by the guitar’s presence in the music itself. The electric guitar in particular was everywhere in popular recordings, a trend that had started in the 1950s. By 1969, musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton helped make the electric guitar a powerful symbol and the guitarist a larger-than-life figure. The phrase “Clapton is God” reportedly began to appear graffitied on walls in Britain, signaling the reverence that some audience members had for the electric guitar virtuoso. The piano and those who played it never got such attention, not in Rock and Roll culture.

Teenagers of the late 1960s displayed an obsession with their generation’s Rock and Roll guitarists. But this never would have happened had the electric guitar not captured the attention of young people a decade earlier. Throughout the 1950s, there was a global fascination with technology, speed, and innovation, set against the backdrop of the “space race” and other pursuits of modernity’s next leaps forward. Electric guitars became coveted objects for their modern design and their capability to produce new distorted sounds through electronic manipulation. If the piano was “the Instrument of the Immortals,” a symbol of tradition, the guitar was an emblem of the future.

Electric guitar marketers and retailers in the 1950s had their eye on a particular future – the new generation of young people. American teenagers, who wielded an immense spending power during the postwar economic boom, became the target demographic for companies like Fender and even Sears. Knowing that a piano wouldn’t be an affordable purchase for a teenager, guitar makers introduced models like the 1950 Fender Telecaster and the Silvertone electric guitar series (the latter marketed to millions through the Sears Catalog). These instruments were priced on a comparatively lower scale that allowed teenagers to purchase electric guitars without parental assistance – or approval.

Of course, the success of the electric guitar hardly rests on the efforts of its designers, marketers, and retailers. It was the way guitarists looked and sounded while playing that allowed the guitar to commandeer the musical space once occupied by piano, and go well-beyond. The diverse sounds and styles of early Rock and Roll artists seemed to offer a host of options for young people to emulate. Chuck Berry was the slick showman who danced with his guitar onstage while playing Boogie Woogie-style riffs lifted straight from the piano. Elvis was the hip-swiveling, handsome star that young guitarists admired for blending styles like Country, Bluegrass, and Rhythm and Blues. Buddy Holly had the accessible, bespectacled charm of the boy-next-door and inspired countless new Fender Stratocaster owners, and others, with his rhythmic playing. Bo Diddley emphasized the percussive nature of the electric guitar, showing how the instrument could cover what the piano had done in earlier recordings by Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and others. The frenetic piano-playing style that drove Jerry Lee’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to the top of the charts was now transposed to the guitar.

The disparity in the popularity between the piano and the electric guitar became more pronounced still after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Their instrumentation, consisting of two electric guitars, electric bass, and drums, became the archetype for the next generation of popular musicians. There was hardly a piano in sight, even if it still appeared on recordings. When the American Music Conference issued a survey in 1967 to report on the explosive growth of electric instruments, 17-year old survey respondent Billy McMillin aptly said, “The guitar is the instrument of our time. Bach had his piano; our generation plays the guitar.”

Through a comparative analysis of magazine advertisements, graphs, and statistical data, students will discuss the factors that led to the surge in guitar sales in postwar America. Live performances by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Beatles serve to highlight the role of piano versus that of the electric guitar in defining the look and the sound of the Rock and Roll band.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
  • How the piano was arguably the central instrument in early Rock and Roll, before the dominance of electric guitar
  • The growth of the purchasing power of teenagers in postwar America
  • How the electric guitar became a symbol of modernity, tapping into a cultural fascination with technology in the 1950s
  • Various cultural and historical factors that led to a spike in electric guitar sales in the U.S., as compared to piano sales, in the 1950s and 1960s
  1. Be able to (skills):
  • Analyze live music performances, comparing and contrasting different instrumentation and performance styles
  • Interpret and discuss the meaning of a variety of primary source materials, including a 1950s magazine advertisements and a 1967 Billboard article on the growth of electric guitar sales
  • Common Core: Integrate quantitative analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text (CCSS Literacy in History/Social Studies 7)
  • Common Core: Engage in collaborative group discussions where students will build on each other’s ideas and express their own opinions (CCSS Speaking and Listening 1)