The electric guitar, established in the early twentieth century, has become one of the most common instruments in popular music. Today’s solid-body electric guitar derives from the acoustic guitar, which was first introduced as a Spanish-style guitar in the United States. The most significant difference between these two is that while acoustic guitars are hollow, electric guitars have a solid body. This development stems from guitar players’ need for greater volume.

Inventors crudely modified the predecessors of the modern electric guitar attaching wires, magnets, and other “pickups” to acoustic guitars. Nonetheless, models became more and more elaborate as technology evolved in the 1930s, and as the electric guitar started to be used as a solo instrument. In turn, this trend helped broaden musical styles. 

Earliest versions of the electric guitar

By the 1920s and 1930s, the earliest electric guitars were created. We could say that Paul H. Tutmarc invented the very first electrified guitar. He received inspiration from the telephone’s inner workings, which employed magnetics to create vocal vibrations. Tutmarc experimented with the Hawaiian guitar, creating a magnetic pickup of horseshoe magnets and wire coils that amplified the vibration of the strings of the instrument.

Les Paul, another guitarist, and inventor developed the solid-body electric guitar in 1940.  The strings and pickup sat on a solid pine block to reduce body vibrations. This innovative design was called “the Log,” due to its rigid body.

Paul took his new guitar to Gibson in 1946 but met skepticism about the solid body. However, Leo Fender understood the concept and began selling the “Esquire” in 1949, which became the first successful solid-body guitar. The guitar later received the “Telecaster” name. Today, it still holds the title as one of the most famous brand names for electric guitar. The Telecaster became extremely popular with country, blues, and rock and roll musicians. In turn, it inspired Gibson to create his own solid-body model, dubbed the “Les Paul”.

Features

The design and construction of electric guitars differ in body shape and neck, bridge, and pickup configuration. However, most guitars share basic features. The headstock houses the metal machine heads, which use a worm gear for tuning. The nut —a thin fret-like strip of metal, plastic, graphite, or bone—supports the strings at the headstock end of the instrument. The frets are thin metal strips that stop the strings at different distances when the player pushes them against the fingerboard. The metal truss rod counters the tension of the strings to keep the neck straight and is usually adjustable. Position markers provide the player with a visual reference to the playing positions on the fingerboard.  

At the neck joint, the neck is either glued or bolted to the body. The latter is typically made of wood with a hard, polymerized finish.  On certain guitars, a plastic pickguard protects the body from scratching and covers the control cavity that houses much of the wiring.

Some guitars have a fixed bridge. Others include a spring-loaded hinged bridge, coupled with a vibrato, tremolo, or whammy bar. It enables players to move notes or chords up or down in pitch and perform a vibrato embellishment.

Strings vibrating within the magnetic field of the pickups produce an electric current in their winding that passes through the tone and volume controls to the output jack. Some guitars have piezo pickups, in addition to or instead of magnetic ones.