The Technology That Led To Rock and Roll, Part 3

Once the technology of the electric guitar and the guitar amplifier was firmly established, Rock and Roll was ready to move forward. Never completely satisfied with what was available, rock musicians continued to search for new, different and exciting sounds.

The next tech-driven modification to the sound of Rock came first in the studio. Due to sound-absorbent baffling used to both isolate the studio’s microphones from outside sound sources (traffic and the like) and to eliminate the blurring effect of near-term echoes within the studio, recordings from the earliest days tended to sound lifeless.  Or, in sound engineer lingo, to sound “dry.”

To get back the natural feeling of space lost in the studio, sound engineers created echo chambers – small rooms with hard, tiled, walls – where the recorded signal could be played through speakers then recorded again. These echo filled recordings would then be “mixed” in with the original recording in small doses.  Their goal was not to create a new, artificial, sound, but to return the naturalness lost in the recording environment. Rock musicians, singers, and producers, however, saw another possibility: using these “echo chambers” to create something new. And so, once again, technology changed the sound of Rock and Roll.

For example, when one listens to the early recordings of Elvis Presley, what one hears is not a natural reverberant field. It sounds not like Elvis and his backing musicians are playing in a room large enough to hold them, but someplace more intimate — like he and they are present with you in your own room – or even the shower.

Once that intimate, small-space, reverb became part of the sound of Rock and Roll, musicians had a problem: How could they keep that same intimate sound when they performed live? Once again technology came to the rescue with a brilliant invention called the spring reverb.

The original patent for the spring reverb concept dates all the way back to 1939.  The concept was simple: A spring, or several springs, was stretched between a transducer (something similar to a speaker driver) and an electronic pickup. When a musical signal was sent to the transducer it would set the springs vibrating to the music and by the time those vibrations reached the spring ends where the pickup was the signal would be immediately followed by a blurred image of itself — this in a very natural and musical way. A studio engineer or a musician could control how much of this “blurred” afterimage was introduced into the mix by simply turning a knob.

By the early 1960s spring reverbs became readily available to guitarists  – first in the form of a stand-alone unit, then, a bit later, built right into the guitar amplifier.

Of course, Rock and Roll musicians being Rock and Roll musicians, the thought quickly entered their minds that “if a little reverb is good, more reverb must be better!” And with that a new Rock music idiom was born. It was called “Surf Music.” Music that took the “dry” signal produced by the electric guitar and made it “wet” – very wet! – a sound they heard as mimicking the continuous roar of ocean waves slamming onto a beach.

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Another tech-based sonic tool available to Rock guitarists was one originally built into their amplifiers for an entirely different purpose. Before “Rock” there was “Country Music” and it was “Country” musicians who first worked closely with Leo Fender in designing his guitars and amplifiers.

Popular among fans of Country music, going all the way back to the 1930s, was the sound of the laptop steel guitar – an instrument made popular first (Ready for this?) in the then faddishly and fabulously popular Hawaiian music. The laptop steel guitar – called the “kika kila” — was played by sliding a metal or glass bar up and down the strings allowing for a wavering, shimmering, sound that, along with the sound of a plucky ukulele, remains the popular conception of Hawaiian music to this day. The laptop steel guitar was first electrified in 1932 and indeed it was often laptop guitar amplifiers that electric guitarists at first turned to.

The wavering sound of a laptop steel guitar is technically a form of vibrato – a rapid up and down change of pitch – but a somewhat similar effect can be had by rapidly fluctuating an instrument’s volume. So, owing to the popularity of this sound among Country musicians, early on an electronic tremolo effect was built into electric guitar amplifiers.

As was the case with reverb, Rock musicians went with the “more has to be better” principle and an unusually deep and intense tremolo effect was often applied to the sound of their guitars.  The speed of the waver, controllable with a knob on the amplifier, would typically be set to match the tempo of the music. -A fast tremolo with up-tempo music and a slow tremolo when the groove slowed down. Much early instrumental Rock had the guitar’s sound saturated with both tremolo and reverb – a style made particularly popular in a series of hit songs by a young Arizonian musician name Dwayne Eddy.

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The third effect that technology gave to the development of Rock and Roll has an even more interesting history.  As mentioned in this series’ earlier article on guitar amplifiers, distortion was, from the very beginning, a part of the Rock sound, this initially due to the limitations of early electronic designs. It came largely from Rock guitarists turning up their amps to create loudness levels beyond the limits for which those amps were designed. But when those same musicians went into the studio recording engineers would insist that they play at a lower volume level so the microphones would not be driven into distortion (or damaged) and to enable the engineer to isolate each instrument and control its place in the mix.

This, of course, spoiled the sound from the point of view of the guitarist, and on some occasions guitarists went to extraordinary lengths to “remedy” the problem.

One method was to surreptitiously slice the speaker cone in the studio’s guitar amplifier. This provided the desired distortion at the low volume levels the studio engineers wanted. But once the sonic glory of this sound was heard by the guitarist he, again going by the “more is better” principle, was tempted to do this to his own amplifier which, when played at live performance levels, would make the distortion all the more present.

Fortunately technology stepped in before the orgy of amplifier destruction spread too widely.  Various inventors went to work looking to duplicate the “fuzz” sound guitarists seemed to be searching for. The first commercially available unit was the Gibson Maestro “Fuzz-Tone.”

Although available in 1962 the Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1 did not catch on with guitarists until the Rolling Stones featured it in their 1965 chart topper “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”  Within weeks guitarists everywhere were swooping up every fuzz pedal they could find to emulate Keith Richard’s famous eight note phrase.

As Rock guitarists took the concept to heart, inventors started looking for newer and wilder pedal-created sounds. Oddly the distortion created by these early pedals was created by over-driving the same types of germanium transistor circuits guitarists had earlier rejected because they “did not distort enough” or because their distortion was not “musical.”

As time passed, guitarists looked more and more to Effect Pedals to get their sound. These were used both singly, and in chains, where one pedal affected the sound of the next, until in some cases the guitar ended up hardly sounding like a guitar at all.

In the end, of course, music is the creation of humankind. It is a means we have of exploring and sharing our common experience on this earth.  Should it be any wonder then that, in this technological age, it was technology that provided us with our greatest shared voice? The voice of our times, the voice of Rock and Roll.