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.”
Fender’s Stratocaster truly spoke to the spirit of the times both in its appearance, which screamed modernity, and in its sound, which was bright, forward and in your face. This was an instrument with a sound just awaiting a new music to be born. And that music would be called “Rock and Roll.”
In time even the Stratocaster’s colors – originally only a rather staid brown fading into drab yellow – jumped into the Rock era when, starting in the late fifties, a purchaser was able to order their new Stratocaster in “custom” colors – which meant any color he or she wanted that was then available on an American automobile.
The “Surf Green” Stratocaster above, for instance, was painted a color most famously seen on what has become an equally iconic item: The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
Along with its iconic shape and its rockin’ colors “The Strat” (as it had come to be called) had numerous features that made it the ideal Rock and Roll guitar. Among these was its dual cutaway body –a design that gave the player easy access to the instrument’s upper frets. Another feature was the Strat’s three pickups (“PUP”s) – the electric sensors that ‘pick up’ the magnetic waves created by the guitar’s vibrating strings and send the resulting electrical signal to an amplifier to create the instrument’s sound.
On a Stratocaster the three PUPs could be used individually or, as guitarists themselves quickly discovered, with a little finagling in groups of two. (Only in the mid-1970s did Fender finally change over to the five-way switch which made such finagling unnecessary). These pickup combinations gave the instrument five distinct sounds which a creative musician could use to good effect, from bright, sparkling, leads to funky, bass filled, rhythms, and virtually anything in between.
A third feature of the Stratocaster – one which in time came to influence the very sound of Rock and Roll — was the guitar’s ingenious, but oddly misnamed, “Tremolo Bar.” –A device, in fact, not for creating a tremolo effect (which is a wavering of the instrument’s volume), but a vibrato effect (a steel guitar-like wavering of the instrument’s pitch). As time passed Rock guitarists started using this device in ways Leo Fender, its designer, could scarsely have imagined. Making swooping, “dive bombing” — sometimes even totally atonal — bends in the music’s notes and chords
The Stratocaster permanently entered the public’s consciousness as the Rock and Roll guitar in the Summer of 1957 when Buddy Holly’s first hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” reached Number 1 on the US charts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Along with Fender’s Stratocaster there is a second guitar that also made its appearance in the early 1950s and that eventually went on to become another prime tool in the quickly developing technology of Rock and Roll. That guitar was the Gibson’s famed “Les Paul.”
A Les Paul guitar, in its most popular iteration, has a rather different sound than a Stratocaster – a sound, by the way, that didn’t fully catch on among Rock and Roll guitarists until the 1960s.
The basis for the Les Paul’s sound was its “Humbucker” pickups – an entirely new design originally made, not so much for the uniqueness of the sound, but for their ability to quiet the annoying hum that had, up until that time, plagued every electric guitar. To this day Gibson Les Paul guitars from the late `50s – those with their original “PAF” pickups (named for the “Patent Applied For” sticker on their underside) — are considered the equivelent of a Stradivarius violin among guitar aficionados.
Unlike its Fender counterpart the Les Paul, with its rounded shapes and traditional set neck construction, was in many ways a very traditional guitar. –One that in fact actually pre-dated the Fender Stratocaster by several years. But its full acceptance as a rock instrument waited until the 1960s when British guitarist Eric Clapton and American guitarist Mike Bloomfied were first seen and heard making music on it unlike any that had been made before. The guitar’s unique PUPS allowed those musicians to drive their amplifiers into intense distortion — a sound that continues to be connected with Rock and Roll to this very day.
These two guitars – the Fender Stratocaster with its sparkling, bright, tonality and the Gibson Les Paul with its heavy, saturated and distorted sound — form the basis of much that has come to be heard as “Rock and Roll.” That both instruments were originally designed for other musical styles – the “Strat” for chicken-pickin’ Country music and the “Paul,” with its rich, sonorous, jazz-orinented, sound – is itself a wonder. One that speaks to the creative power of youthful energy coupled with the harnessing of totally new technologies. Two things that remain to this day at the very heart of of the music called “Rock and Roll.”