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.”