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What Exciting New Technology Led to Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Part 1 in this series explores the fascinating origins of the electric guitar.

Don Sucher


May 21, 2014 - 4:30 pm
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Starting in the mid-1950s a new musical style appeared on the scene called “Rock and Roll.” Many predicted, and others hoped, that it would prove to be a proverbial “flash in the pan” that would quickly burn out and disappear. But now, some sixty years later, we can say that it has done neither. As Danny and The Juniors prophetically sang way back in 1958, “Rock and Roll is here to stay.”

Much has been written, and more will no doubt yet be written, about how this upstart music came to be.  About its relationship to The Blues, Country and other existing musical styles. About how the change in demographics that occurred when the post-WWII generation started to come of age resulted in the birth of something new: A “youth culture.”

But in comparison, very little is written about another change that was fundamental to this new style of music: The new and emerging technologies that would go on to shape the sound of Rock and Roll. And more than anything else this change can be described in just three words: The Electric Guitar

In truth it must be said that during its infancy Rock’s driving beat was less than fully dependent on the sound of the guitar. As often that “beat” was created by an upright bass and a boogie-woogie style piano working along with a set of drums. And back on the earliest recordings Rock instrumental solos, too, were often performed on a horn – most commonly a Tenor Saxophone. But in a short time that changed and it was the guitar– the electric guitar– that came to take the lead role in performing all these musical functions.

A sterling example of this already happening can be heard as early as 1954’s hit song “Rock Around the Clock” as recorded by Bill Haley and his Comets.

Initially the makeup of Haley’s band changed from one recording and live gig to the next. At times it included a piano, at other times an accordion. The sound of the saxophone often was prominent as occasionally was that of the “steel guitar” – an instrument common to the band’s roots in both country and so-called “rockabilly” music. But fundamental to the group’s sound was Bill himself — and his electric guitar

Interestingly the electric guitars one sees being used on these very early “rock” performances don’t look like “Rock and Roll” guitars at all, and in fact they were not. They were more typically electrified versions of the so-called “arch top” guitars that had earlier come into vogue during the Swing and Big Band eras. But in truth the “Rock guitar” as we see it in our mind’s eye today was already in existence. It was being played, not by Rock and Roll musicians, but by those playing “Country” music. The maker of those guitars was a then small company located in Fullerton, California; a company that had been started by a local radio repair technician whose name — Leo Fender – would go on to become the stuff of legend And that guitar was called the “Stratocaster.”Strat

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All Comments   (8)
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Well done, Screaming Lord Sucher.

It's interesting that, once Heavy Metal rose to prominence in the late 1960's, the Gibson SG began to challenge the Strats and Pauls for dominance.

I have a '62 SG with all original parts and it's the best I've ever had.

Special Mention for the Sears Silvertone,which was my first axe in 1974 and which I used for years to get that B-52's / Surf sound [still have it].
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, in 1961 Gibson discontinued the Les Paul in its original form and issued a totally new guitar under the same name. When Mr. Paul himself said he did not wish to have his name attached to that instrument it was renamed the "SG", short for "Solid Guitar." When the Clapton/Bloomfield phenomenon occurred the original Les Paul suddenly was back in demand (as it is to this very day), and the "SG" took on a life of its own.

The history of rock electric guitars is a fascinating one that we barely touched upon in this article. And it continues! But what is amazing is that those original guitars -- 1954's Stratocaster and 1952's Les Paul -- still pretty much rule the roost. They were that "right."

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks, all, for your thoughts and comments.

Steve F, you are so right! This entire story with its long list of important contributors and contributions deserves to be told. Take a book though. Hmmm... ;-)

And George B, you are certainly correct. Stay tuned for Part 2. :)
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Where is Charlie Chirstian? Where is Leo Fender,
who got his start producing amps for the first
mass produced electric guitars, which were NOT telecasters, they were Hawaiian Steel Guitars.
At least give these guys a mention!
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Quite an edumacation here. Thanks!
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Rock 'n' Roll instrument isn't the electric guitar. It's the electric guitar paired with a tube amplifier driven into varying levels of compression and distortion. Even today electric guitar are almost always paired with a tube amplifier to make desirable distortion followed by more powerful transistor amplifiers to make more volume.

The big trend I see on rock music is how productivity gains and inflation have caused bands to have fewer members. For example, here are the The Black Keys with just two members Not really a rock song, but this live performance of Settle Down by Kimbra shows how one person doing live looping of vocals plus the iPad app SoundPrism can make a complex arrangement with zero instruments.

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Some corrections to and additions/notes about this article:

a) The electric guitar achieved it's initial popularity *not* because of it's inherent "sound(s)" (musically known as "tambre") but because it allowed smaller groups to make the volume of larger ones. Period.  End of story.  Band leaders no longer had to hire 10+ musicians to fill a room with sound.  The distinct tambre was secondary.

b) The first Fender guitar was *NOT* the Stratocaster, as this article would steer one to believe. It was the Telecaster in 1951. The Telecaster was immediately embraced by the C/W musicians of the day

c) The Stratocaster was not even the second. It was the electric *bass* guitar, also by Leo Fender. It was also introduced in 1951.

(I should note here that C/W artists picked up on these developments years before any "rock and roll" ever existed. Indeed, "rockabilly" preceded R&R and is well-documented as doing so. Any cursory listening to early 50's electric country music will show these guys were well-versed and very comfortable with these new instruments.)

d) The Strat was not introduced until 1954.

e) the Gibson Les Paul was introduced in 1952 *prior* to the Strat.

f) and lastly this quote from the above article:

        "the “Strat” for chicken-pickin’ Country music..."

The Stratocaster is most definitely *NOT* known for it's "chicken-pickin'" sound. That step on the podium is well reserved, as has been since 1951 for the Fender Telecaster, as noted, above, and still is the guitar of choice for C/W musicians.

I await Mr. Sucher's two followup articles.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for sharing those observations socabill.

Initially the guitar, first in the form of the large bodied, arch topped acoustic such as the Gibson L5, then with an added PUP, was seen as a way to update the part banjos customarily had played in the early big band era. Often "comping" - a form of rhythm playing that emphasized the the jazz-styled voicings. The idea that this was mainly to downsize the orchestra is, I must admit, a thought new to me.

This article is focusing on the technology of rock and thus concentrates on the place of the Stratocaster. I've been a Tele player myself since the mid-sixties but initially that was more for blues than rock. (Today I use Pauls, Strats and Teles interchangeably for all styles)

As to the 'chicken pickin' you are certainly correct as it turned out -- but that was not Leo Fender's intent. He initially, pre-rock, saw the Stratocaster as a more sophisticated design to be used, as was the Tele, in Country music. Its slow initial sales is said to have disappointed him. I personally always thought the Strat a bit to "modern" for country.

FWIW the article does says that the Les Paul pre-dated the Strat, but its popularity among rock guitarists came somewhat later with the overdriven sounds of Clapton and Bloomfield in the mid `60s. The first rock guitarist I knew who used a Les Paul was Al Karp, later of The Abstracts, and that was, I believe, in 1962.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
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