THE RISE OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR AS ROCK AND ROLL’S DOMINANT SYMBOL
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.
Video pages: Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode Guitar Solo (1965) | The Beatles - Long Tall Sally (1964) | Jerry Lee Lewis - Whole Lotta Shakin' (1964) | Johnny Long and His Orchestra - In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town (1940s) | Little Richard - Long Tall Sally (1956) | Rev. Jimmie Snow - Preaching Against Rock and Roll (1956) | Graham Nash - Skiffle | Little Richard - Tutti Frutti (1957)
Image pages: Bo Diddley - "Bo Diddley" / "I'm a Man" (1955) | Chuck Berry - Roll Over Beethoven (1956) | Comparison of Ads for Sears Silvertone Electric Guitar Series (1956) and Lester Upright Piano (1950) | Fats Domino - Out of New Orleans (1993) | Fender magazine ad, 1953 | Gibson "Flying V" Model Electric Guitar advertisement, 1958 | Little Richard - Here's Little Richard (1957) | Love Me Tender film advertisement, 1956 | Play It Cool! movie poster (1962) | Popular Mechanics Magazine (July 1957) | Poster for the film Forbidden Planet (1956) | Rock Around the World movie poster (1957) | Skiffle band playing in a public street, featuring guitar, banjo, washboard, and a bass fashioned out of a wooden crate (1950s) | Steinway & Sons "Instrument of the Immortals" ad, featuring Franz Liszt, 1920 | Weird Science Comic Book, 1951
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. In 2002, Spin, a leading music magazine, published a list of the top 50 bands of all time. Display the images of the top five bands from this list. Ask students to write down all of the instruments they see in the photos.
2. Distribute Handout 1: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees. These performers are commonly considered to be the early architects of Rock and Roll. Ask the students:
1. To illustrate how the piano provided an anchor for the early Rock and Roll ensemble, distribute Handout 2: The Energy of the Rock and Roll Piano. Students will use this worksheet to take notes on the musical performances presented in the following clips.
Show clip of “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town,” a popular song during the 1930s and 40s. Students should record their observations on their worksheets. Next, show clip of Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Whole Lotta Shakin',” an early Rock and Roll recording originally released in 1957. Students should complete their worksheets.
2. Have volunteers share their observations with the class. Ask students:
3. Play a clip of Reverend Jimmie Snow preaching against Rock and Roll in 1956. Ask students:
4. Display the following two advertisements, one from Steinway and Sons (1920) and one from Fender (1953). Explain that the Steinway tagline, “Instrument of the Immortals,” was in use from 1919 to the mid-1950s.
5. Display an image of the record cover for Chuck Berry’s 1956 single “Roll Over Beethoven.”
6. In addition to being new and free from tradition, electric guitars tapped into a cultural fascination with modern technology. The “space race” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as other pursuits of modernity’s next leaps forward that were taking place during the 1950s and 60s, captivated the imaginations of many Americans.
Display images from popular culture including a Weird Science comic book (1951), a poster for the film Forbidden Planet (1956), and Popular Mechanics magazine (1957).
7. Display the following advertisement for Gibson’s “Flying V” model guitar (1958).
8. Display side-by-side images of guitarist Bo Diddley holding a guitar he designed himself and pianist Fats Domino at a piano. Both Diddley and Domino had No. 1 hits on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart in 1955 with “Bo Diddley” and “Ain’t It a Shame,” respectively.
9. Play a clip of Little Richard performing “Tutti Frutti” in 1957 back-to-back with a clip of Chuck Berry performing the guitar solo “Johnny B. Goode” in 1965, a song he originally released in 1958. Ask students to take notes comparing how Little Richard and Chuck Berry are playing their respective instruments. Students should focus on the way each musician is moving onstage.
Discuss as a class:
10. Display side-by-side images advertising early three Rock and Roll movies: Love Me Tender (1956), Rock Around The World (1957), and Play It Cool (1962).
Mention that Elvis received his first guitar around the time of his eleventh birthday. He had initially asked his parents for a bicycle, but his mother bought him a guitar because it was much less expensive. Discuss as a class:
What does this information tell us about the cost of a guitar relative to an item like a bicycle? How do you think the cost of a guitar might compare to the cost of a piano?
11. Project an image of the following quote on the board. Invite a student volunteer to read aloud.
12. Display side-by-side images of a Sears Catalog advertisement for the 1956 Silvertone electric guitar series and a 1950 advertisement for an upright piano.
13. Display table of the Average Weekly Income of a Teenage Boy in 1946 and 1956 along with Sample Costs of Goods and Services in 1950. Please note, the weekly income includes allowance received from parents plus job earnings.
Discuss as a class:
14. The relatively affordable cost of a guitar also appealed to teenagers in Britain, a country that did not experience a postwar economic boom as had occurred in the United States. Compared to American teenagers, British teens had little extra money to spend, which meant that a piano was out of the question. Many formed their own bands with inexpensive and sometimes improvised instruments. These makeshift bands would often perform in unofficial public spaces.
Play interview with musician Graham Nash discussing the popularity of Skiffle music in 1950s England. Ask the students:
15. Refer back to the image of the Top 5 Rock bands according to Spin. Note that the No. 1 band listed is the Beatles. Members of the Beatles grew up in postwar England, with connections to Skiffle music. The Beatles were rooted in a style and genre that favored the guitar.
Play a clip of the Beatles performing “Long Tall Sally" in February 1964, on their first visit to the U.S. This concert was two days after their historic television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when 73 million viewers tuned in to watch (a record for that time). Ask students:
16. Play an audio clip of Little Richard performing “Long Tall Sally” from his debut album in 1956. Ask students:
17. Display a graph of U.S. Sales of Piano vs. Guitars (1958 - 1965) on the board.
Based on the data presented, ask the students:
Label three sections of the room with the following phrases: Emblem of the Future, Performance Mobility, and Financial Accessibility. Instruct students to select one of these three options to address the following question: What do you believe is the most significant factor in the electric guitar supplanting the piano as the dominant symbol of Rock and Roll? Students will move to the area of the room that aligns with their answer. (Note: The teacher should read the following descriptions to the class for clarification before releasing students to move about the room.)
Once students have moved to their chosen area of the room, each group should select one resource from the lesson (either a video, an advertisement, or data from the graph) that supports their claim. Have groups share out their arguments with the entire class.
1. Distribute “The Switched-On-Market, How To Turn Up Your Volume” from Billboard, July 1, 1967 (excerpted in Handout 4). Invite student volunteers to read the article out loud, alternating paragraphs. Ask students to underline any interesting statistics or data that stand out to them in the article. Read aloud the following quote:
“The guitar is the instrument of our time. Bach had his piano; our generation plays the guitar. Young people can express themselves through the guitar. What they can’t say, they can play.”
-- Billy McMillin, age 17
Discuss as a class: If you had to choose, what do you think “the instrument of our time” is today and why?
2. Assign students to conduct independent research into one of the iconic American guitar players in early Rock and Roll. Students will need to create a poster on their selected artist. The poster must include an image of the artist, biographical information, a picture and description of the guitar model he’s most known for playing, a list of their early Rock and Roll recordings and their chart positions, and a description of the influence they had on future Rock and Roll artists. Students can select from the following artists:
Have students present their posters in class, noting similarities and differences between artists.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy
Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Writing 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.