Electric Guitar: A Brief History

Electric Guitar: A Brief History

Early History of the Electric Guitar

The 20th century was a big century for music! Before then, music developed at a glacial pace, gradually for hundreds of years. New instruments were invented, styles and tastes changed, but, unlike your mother-in-law’s plastic surgery, in a smooth and incremental way.

Then 1900 hit and, boom, musical development really went into overdrive (no pun intended.) For the first time, music in one decade sounded outdated by the next. Music from the 1980s would have sounded completely alien to someone in the 1920s,or even the 1950s.

That rapid development was possible because of rapid technological development. Every time some kind of technical paradigm shift occurred, it brought along new exciting ways to make noise.

And with those new noises, new styles and genres of music. Some inventions ended up being more of a novelty than a new era in music.

Theremins were invented way back in 1928, but they’re still practically more of a sound effect than a serious musical instrument. Relegated to ignoble roles like “extra layer of sound to show that the characters are in space now.”

But some inventions brought cascading effects, and brought musical paradigm shifts all on their own. In my opinion, the electric guitar is one of the most important musical inventions in history. Don’t tell me if you strongly disagree!

Originally, guitars were relatively minor instruments in big bands, and electrifying them was just a way to hear them over bigger and bigger swing orchestras. But the electrified guitar soon took a completely unforeseen life of its own.

Becoming the star of the show, then taking the place of other instruments, all the way to the inevitable destination: The White Stripes, a band that consisted of literally nothing but a singer who played electric guitar and a drummer.

Of course, the guitar has been a basic rhythm or accompaniment instrument for centuries. But it wasn’t usually taken as seriously as classical instruments like pianos, organs, and orchestral instruments.

Just like today, guitars were popular with regular folk because they were portable and easier than many other instruments to learn. Great for strumming and leading sing-alongs.

I love this quote that I found: “but now the guitar is no more than a cowbell: so easy to play, especially rasgueado (strumming), that there is not a stable lad who is not a musician on the guitar.” That could be a classical musician complaining about wannabe rock stars today, but it was said in 1611!

At the turn of the 20th century, the guitar was a popular instrument, but it was by no meansubiquitous. Some styles featured lots of guitar playing- bluegrass, folk, and other styles of music that could be called early country music.

Electric Guitar: A Brief HistoryElectric Guitar: A Brief History

But in other genres, if guitar was present at all, it was more like a guest star than a main attraction. Early jazz bands just as often used guitar, banjo, or piano to play chord accompaniment. But jazz eventually kick-started the guitar’s dominance.

By the 1930s, jazz bands tended to favor guitar over banjo, a transition probably aided by “jazz cigarettes.” Guitar could play more complex chords and had a smoother tone that blended more easily. Jazz bands got bigger, and guitarists struggled to be heard over a dozen horn players.

They wanted to play solos like the other players. Early electric amplification systems were around speakers, transistors, microphones.

It was inevitable- electric guitar amplification was coming.

Electric Guitar: Early Attempts

The demand was there, the means were there, it just had to be figured out. Early electric guitar attempts are fun, because they’re all over the place. It’s just like early airplanes.

There are a handful of different attempts, from different inventors at different times, that are debated to be the “first” and they all look pretty crazy by modern standards.

Interestingly, anyone familiar with modern electric guitars will recognize a lot of the important early names.

Adolph Rickenbacker (yes, that Rickenbacker) worked with Paul Barth and George Beauchamp to develop the “frying pan” in 1931-32. This was an electrified Hawaiian lap steel guitar, and it was the first ever electric guitar with any degree of success.

But since it was aimed at a specific scene – Hawaiian lap steel guitar players- it’s not often remembered as much as some other significant early electric guitars.

Still, it paved the way- by the late 30s, other well-known makers like Gibson, Epiphone, National, and Dobro had developed their own versions.

In the mid 30s, Vivi-Tone and Rickenbacker introduced the first solidbody electric guitars, as hollowbody guitars were prone to feedback.

The first electric guitar to really make a splash was the semi-hollowbody Epiphone’s ES-150. ES for “electric Spanish” and 150 because that was the price in 1936 dollars for theguitar/amp/cable bundle (close to $3,000 in 2020 dollars!)

This was the first commercially successful electric guitar, and quickly spread across the nation’s jazz orchestras.

Almost immediately, Eddie Durham used the ES-150 to record what is recognized as the first ever guitar solo. The ES-150 was not just the first successful electric guitar; it also provided the template for the “jazz guitar.”

Any modern jazz guitarist would recognize it as such- a big semi-acoustic guitar with a single bar-style single-coil pickup, in a lovely sunburst color scheme, it wouldn’t look out of place in any modern jazz ensemble.

Gibson and Fender

Along came Les Paul. Any musician recognizes his name, and any musician who has dived any deeper than that recognizes his wonderfully weird genius. Les Paul was equal parts guitarist, singer, and mad scientist.

He is recognized for his major contributions to electric guitar development- and multi-track recording, overdubbing, and close-miking!

Les had been experimenting since his teenage years with different ways to amplify guitars. First he came up with “the rail.” Literally two feet of rail, the kind that trains run on, with a telephone microphone mounted on top, and a guitar string stretched over that.

It couldn’t do much (it was heavy and had one string, no tuners, no frets) but Les was enthralled with the tone of the electrically amplified string, that seemed to sustain forever. This led Les to the log.

In 1941, Les sawed a guitar in half, and mounted each half on either side of a 2×4. He mounted homemade pickups on the 2×4, strung the strings down it, and created a one-off frankenguitar that also happened to be a functional solidbody electric guitar. (The “wings” from the acoustic archtop were for appearances only.)

He was excited- it had the sustain of the rail, and lacked the feedback of hollowbody guitars. And in typically literal fashion, he called it “the log.”

The rail and the log. Look, no one claims he was a marketing genius!

He tried to convince both Epiphone and Gibson (separate companies at the time) to manufacture a solid-body electric guitar, but they both laughed him off.

Les Paul’s curse with most things he tried was that he was so far ahead of his time, nobody would even understand what he was trying to do for another ten years.

After all these interesting electric guitar attempts- that might be better thought of as“contraptions” than “instruments”- along came Leo Fender. He owned a radio repair shop inFullerton, California, and tinkered with guitars and amplifiers in his spare time, despite the fact that he couldn’t play guitar himself.

In 1946, he created the Fender Esquire, the first mass-produced successful solid-body electric guitar. Perhaps you’ve heard of it – it was renamed the Telecaster after a few years. I heard a saying about the origins of heavy metal once, and I’ll re-work it in honor of Leo Fender.

You can argue the first electric guitar came before the Fender Esquire, but you can’t argue the first electric guitar came after it. After all, pre-Telecaster guitars are mostly only relevant in jazz contexts, if at all.

But the Telecaster is still a widely-used guitar model. Its tone is considered to be one of the cornerstones of country guitar playing, but it’s also been pressed into service in a wide variety of genres.

Fender wasn’t done changing the world of music. In 1952-54 he and a small team designed the Stratocaster, which might be the ultimate iconic electric guitar design. In fact, the Stratocaster is so famous that it is essentially its own category of electric guitar, along with the various copies and modified versions produced by Fender and others over the years.

Its dramatic mid-century googie design is instantly recognizable – it was the first electric guitar to truly look like an electric guitar, and not a modified acoustic. Three pickups gave it much more tonal control than early one- or two-pickup models, and its tremolo arm was a significantly improved design over earlier attempts.

Some of the most famous rockstars of all time have counted the Stratocaster as a weapon of choice- Hendrix, Clapton, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Buddy Holly, Mark Knopfler, Yngwie Malmsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Electric Guitar: A Brief HistoryElectric Guitar: A Brief History

Through the late 50s and early 60s, Fender continued to innovate. Among the guitar models released during this time, three guitars known as “offset” models (after their unique shapes) are quite popular today – the 1958 Jazzmaster, 1962 Jaguar, and 1964 Mustang.

But unlike the Telecaster and Stratocaster, these guitars were not immediate runaway successes; rather, their influence burned slowly.

The Jazzmaster was so named because it was meant to appeal to jazz players, though I’ve actually never seen somebody play jazz on a Jazzmaster! It featured complex electronics that were not as influential as the innovations of the Stratocaster, and quickly became favored for the new surf rock sound.

The Jaguar was like an even-more-Jazzmaster follow-up: Even more expensive, with even more complex electronics. The Jaguar was also noteworthy for its shorter scale neck- 24” as opposed to the Stratocaster’s and Jazzmaster’s 25.5”. It also found success with surf players.

I would be clamoring for a surf rock revival if I wasn’t afraid of sharks.

Finally, the Mustang was simply designed as a student guitar, relatively uncomplicated compared to the other two offsets. It was offered with a 24” scale or an even shorter 22.5” version.

The offset guitars were relatively successful at their time, but became linked with their moment in the early 60s, and therefore were quickly seen as dated. Then, in the late 70s, they found an even more powerful second wind.

As they were seen as “uncool” (and were therefore cheap second-hand) they became early favorites of punk, new wave, and alternative musicians. Elvis Costello played a Jazzmaster, Television played both Jazzmasters and Jaguars, Johnny Marr from the Smiths played a Jaguar, and Kurt Cobain loved his Mustang.

Since then, these guitars have become favorites in many scenes- alt rock, indie, shoegaze. In fact, the eventual status of Fender offsets probably helped saved the brand. Fender had been struggling for decades before riding offset reissues back to relevance.

Fender is known almost exclusively for its contributions to solidbody guitars. But its maincompetitors, Gibson and Epiphone (which became one company in 1957) were known for an influential variety of semi-hollowbody and solidbody guitars.

This is a good moment to tease apart some oft-misunderstood terms. True hollowbody guitars are uncommon, due to the aforementioned feedback issues. Most “hollowbody” guitars are actually semi-hollowbody.

True hollowbody guitars have a completely open body, like acoustic guitars, though they may or may not have sound holes. Semi-hollowbody guitars feature pickups mounted on a solid block of wood through the center of the otherwise open body.

This wood block allows the volume to be turned up higher without feedback. The aforementioned Epiphone ES-150 is a semi-hollowbody. Among the only well-known true hollowbody guitars are the Epiphone Casino and Gibson ES-330.

Epiphone is well known for its semi-hollowbody guitars. Further developments kept the ESnaming scheme, such as the ES-250 and eventually (under Gibson) the ES-335, perhaps themost iconic semi-hollowbody of all time.

If you’ve ever watched Back to the Future, you will recognize this as Marty McFly’s guitar during “Johnny B. Goode.” (Although the original song was probably recorded with a similar ES-350.) Gibson and Epiphone’s semi-hollowbody guitars allow for a warm, dark, and somehow organic tone compared to solidbody guitars, and as such they are popular in earthy and traditional genres like blues, jazz, and rockabilly.

But Gibson was not content to just rule the semi-hollowbody world. Their solidbody guitars rival Fender’s for influence. In 1952, Gibson apparently made amends with Les Paul after laughing off his log ten years before, and worked with him to design the guitar that bears his name. The Les Paul guitar is an excellent counterpoint to the Stratocaster. It’s heavy while the Strat is light.

Its neck is shorter- a 24.75” scale as opposed to Fender’s 25.5”. It has two simple P-90 (andlater humbucker) pickups, for a full and satisfying tone, as opposed to the Strat’s three tonally complex single-coils. Its design is relatively simple. And it just plain sounds good. Les Pauls are still extremely popular, though often in different genres from Fender guitars.

While Fender guitars are favored in country, surf, indie, and alt rock, Les Pauls are more often found in rock, hard rock, punk, and metal. In my highly simplified opinion: Use Fender guitars when you want people to notice how good your tone is, and use Les Pauls when you don’t want them to notice how good your tone is.

The Gibson SG is perhaps its second most popular model, with a funny history. The SG wasactually introduced in 1961 as a redesign of the Les Paul (though it was redesigned without his input or consent.) Les Paul himself didn’t like it, and asked for his name to be taken off. So the name was changed to the SG, for Solid Guitar, and the original Les Paul was reintroduced in 1968.

The SG is much thinner and lighter than the Les Paul. It features a double-cutaway body ostensibly for better upper-fret access, but conveniently reminiscent of devil horns. The SG was cheaper than the Les Paul, and the standard model stands as Gibson’s highest-selling all time model.

While Gibson was dominant with semi-hollowbody designs, and their Les Paul was respectable competition to Fender’s solidbody designs in the 50s, by the late 50s and early 60s they were starting to fall behind in the solidbody game.

Their solution was a series of dramatic, futuristic (for the time) guitars to stare down Fender. Unbelievably, the Flying V and Explorer were released in 1958, and the Firebird (a toned-down redesign of the Explorer) in 1963.

When I say these guitars were futuristic, they were actually so ahead of their time that it was more of a liability than an asset.

Fewer than 100 original Flying V’s were built before they were discontinued in 1959, and perhaps fewer than 50 Explorers during its initial run. Check grandpa’s attic. Some of these are valued at over $500,000!

But just as with Fender’s offset guitars, a slow-burning interest led to re-issues- 1967 for the Flying V, 1976 for the Explorer. Also just like the Fender offsets, these guitar’s moment happened long after the scene they were conceived to occupy.

The dramatic shapes of these three Gibsons turned out to be a perfect complement to the 70s and 80s glam, metal, and hard rock aesthetics. Those scenes didn’t just put style over substance- the style WAS the substance.


Speaking of Gibson, a major figure in that company was Ted McCarty. He was president ofGibson from 1950-1966, a period that some refer to as its golden age for guitars.

He oversaw the development of many of Gibson’s most notable contributions- The Les Paul, ES-335, Tune-o-matic bridge, humbucking pickups, and models like the Explorer, Flying V, and Firebird.

An ambitious American luthier named Paul Reed Smith noticed in the 1980s how often McCarty’s name appeared in Gibson patents, and he contacted McCarty and hired him as a consultant and mentor. The two developed Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars, officially founded in 1985.

PRS guitars are mostly known for their electric solid-body guitars. The guitars are still working to make a dent in the public consciousness; Gibson and Fender have decades on them, after all.

But the guitars are known for a relatively high price tag, and a remarkably flawless build quality.

Many players brag that they are the best-made guitars out of the factory. PRS guitars are also known to be extremely versatile; they can handle almost any genre with ease. But with that versatility comes a drawback, perhaps- they are so flawless, and so musically flexible, that they don’t have the character of other brands.

They tend not to make a strong impression, except as “a good guitar.” You could compare owning a PRS vs a vintage Fender, to having a modern Mercedes sedan as your daily driver, as opposed to a vintage muscle car.

The Mercedes is better-engineered and can handle more scenarios, but the muscle car will probably turn more heads.


In this author’s opinion, the 1980s are a very interesting decade for pop culture. Much of the popular aesthetics of the 70s were a smooth development from the 60s, but the 80s brought an abrupt stylistic shakeup.

Digital technology, radical new fashions and music. And with this new era, new taste in electric guitars. Fortunately, synthesizers and drum machines didn’t render electric guitars obsolete. On the contrary, the rise of heavy metal and its subgenres ushered in a new electric guitar era.

Perhaps the defining characteristics of heavy metal are super high-gain guitar tones, and fast virtuosic playing. No popular guitar models seemed to quite rise to the challenge. And strangely, many guitar gods maintained their love for the iconic Stratocaster, despite the fact that the guitar was ill-suited to metal.

The single-coil pickups were noisy and thin in high-gain settings, and the neck was long and slow. Thus, a phenomenon was born, of high-profile players modifying their Stratocasters to meet the task.

Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Michael Hampton of Parliment-Funkadelic were among the first, making modifications like swapping in humbuckers and reversing headstocks.

But the tastemaker was Eddie Van Halen, with his legendary “Frankenstrat.” Van Halen’s sound was practically the definition of heavy metal, and the world noticed that Eddie played it on an eyecatching modified Stratocaster.

Before long, companies like Ibanez, Jackson and Charvel were mass-producing “Superstrats,” the de facto classification for guitars that resembled Stratocasters but integrated popular mods.

Common characteristics included humbucking pickups, a locking Floyd Rose tremolo bridge, and more pointed and aggressive styling (with the added bonus that pointier horns gave better access to higher frets.)

Floyd Rose Bridge

The Floyd Rose bridge was a huge technical innovation, one of the biggest since the Strat’soriginal bridge. The double-locking design allowed for extreme whammy bar pitch bends without losing tuning.

The bridge was invented by Mr. Rose in 1976, but found its moment in the 80s; think of all the Van Halen-style solos that feature dramatic warbling among the finger-tapping and pick slides.

Electric Guitar: A Brief History

Charvel and Jackson

Charvel’s story echoes Fender’s beginnings as a repair shop, and is also interestingly tied toFender itself. Charvel was a guitar repair shop in Azusa, Southern California in the 1970s. Itspecialized in repairing Fender guitars, and started to get a reputation among pros.

With the rise of modified Stratocasters, Charvel started custom-making Superstrats to order. They employed one Grover Jackson among their staff.

Opportunity struck in 1980 when Randy Rhoads of Ozzy’s band commissioned a highly modified Flying V from Charvel and Jackson. This was the first Jackson guitar.

Throughout the 1980s, Charvel and Jackson were among the most well-loved makers of heavy metal guitars, both Superstrat and otherwise.

Fender, struggling in the 1980s, released a few models of Superstrats themselves. Ironically, these were among the least successful Superstrats. Fender wasn’t known for quality as it had once been, and as it turns out, actual Fender fans were not interested in buying Superstrats from Fender, preferring Fender’s more iconic models.

Most Fender Superstrat models were only produced a few years. But as Fender and Gibson knew all too well, tastes change. With the rise of grunge and alternative in the 90s, hair metal quickly went from cutting-edge to gauche.

Makers like Charvel and Jackson, who relied heavily on heavy metal guitar designs, weresuddenly the ones struggling to adapt. And in a final irony, Fender purchased both brands in 2002.


The story of the Japanese brand Ibanez mirrors the story of Japan and the way it enteredWestern pop culture in the latter 20th century.

Ibanez has been making musical instruments as Hoshino Gakki since 1908, but in the 50s and 60s they joined the Japanese craze of building cheap and flamboyant electric guitars.

Ibanez also took to making guitars that were essentially unlicensed copies of well-known American brands such as Fender and Gibson. This is now known as the “lawsuit” period, resulting in a late 70s lawsuit from Gibson that ended the practice.

But starting in the 80s, Ibanez started to redefine itself, and managed to transition from novelty to serious guitar competitor. In the mid 80s, Ibanez collaborated with guitar virtuoso Steve Vai to design the JEM and the Universe.

Both are Superstrat solidbody guitars. The JEM is instantly recognizable for the carrying handle cut out of the body. The Universe forgoes the handle, but it is noteworthy as the first production 7-string guitar. Ibanez also developed another superstrat model known as the Roadstar, or RG.

Ibanez was able to meet a moment – their superstrat models came to the right place at the right time. Steve Vai’s name gave the JEM and Universe serious credibility, and the Universe satiated metal players hungry for more strings.

The RG is known as a great ax for high-speed shredding, perfect for thrash metal. As such, the RG is one of the top-selling ever superstrat models.


ESP is another Japanese manufacturer, whose story is comparable to Ibanez. They started out producing custom replacement parts for other makers’ guitars, but transitioned to producing their own guitars.

Much like Ibanez, many of these were similar to American designs, and a Gibson lawsuit also forced the company to rethink their designs. But before the lawsuit, James Hetfield of Metallica made a splash playing an ESP Explorer clone.

ESP went on to become associated with thrash metal particularly in the 1980s. Then, the company benefited from fortuitous circumstances once again in 2002, when Fender bought Charvel and Jackson, two of ESP’s biggest competitors.

Many well-known Jackson-endorsed players switched to ESP as a result, and sales ballooned. ESP remains a beloved brand with metal guitarists.


Much like Charvel, Schecter started as a high-end guitar repair and custom shop in Southern California. In the early 1980s, Schecter began to build their own guitars from scratch, but they kept volume very low and prices and quality very high. This proved to be a winning combination.

Many musicians took notice, most notably Yngwie Malmsteen. Finally, investors decided tocapitalize on this reputation and expand the brand.

Incidentally, Shechter is now owned by Japanese entrepreneur Hisatake Shibuya, who also owns ESP – but he keeps the two brands completely separate, as their characters are very different.

Boutique Guitars

At this point, you may have noticed a trend. Many well-regarded modern electric guitar brands start as small operations, often as custom or repair shops (usually in Southern California- it seems to be a regional tradition.)

The companies build a reputation for quality, score a big endorsement or interesting innovation, and gradually grow.

Now that brands like PRS and Schecter are relatively mainstream and can be found in any Guitar Center, adventurous players can look to boutique makers for a taste of a young brand. You never know who will become a household name!

Among the boutique brands gaining a reputation are Suhr Guitars, based in Lake Elsinore, who count Mark Knopfler among their players.

Tom Anderson, a protégé of Dave Schecter, who were the first makers to use a multi-purpose CNC machine (among other manufacturing innovations).

Deimel and Kauer, two makers who are innovating with offset guitar designs, picking up where Fender left off in the 1960s.

What Makes an Electric Guitar?

After all these explorations of the history of electric guitars, and the different makers who have defined the instrument throughout its life, no discussion would be complete without a deeper dive into what precisely makes an electric guitar.


Tonewood is very literal – it refers to any wood that is used when making musical instruments, particular for its tonal properties. Electric guitars often feature one kind of tonewood for the body, and another for the neck.

Popular tonewoods for electric guitar bodies include alder, a popular choice for a balanced tone; ash, with relatively less mid-range frequency resonance and a lovely choice for a natural unpainted finish; basswood, which is inexpensive and which some dislike for a supposedly “cheap” sound; mahogany, Gibson’s favorite wood, famously hardy with a warm bassy tone; and maple, with a sought-after satisfying bright tone.

Most fretboards are rosewood, with its warm richness of tone and smooth feel; ebony, with a bright tone and an enticing dark color; or maple once again, which gives yet more brightness when used on the neck.

Electric Guitar: A Brief HistoryElectric Guitar: A Brief History


Pickups are, of course, one of the defining attributes of an electric guitar. It would be an acoustic guitar otherwise! The vast majority of pickups are single-coil or humbuckers.

Single coil pickups are inexorably associated with Fender – all the famous models mentioned above employ them. Generally, single-coil pickups are physically thin compared to other types.

They are known to be somewhat limited in application compared to other types- not great for high-gain genres, and often with a very characteristic tone.

But that fussiness has a payoff. Nothing compares with a single-coil pickup well-used in its element. To hear single coil pickups at their best, listen to surf rock or country. But they are equally at home in funk, blues, reggae and ska, and less-hard rock genres.

Humbucker pickups are the yang to single-coils’ yin. They are fat, both physically and in tone.

They are associated strongly with Gibson and Epiphone’s classic solidbody models. There is nothing better for cranked distortion in hard rock. Again, though, they can be well-pressed into a huge variety of other genres- they just tend to have less distinct character when it comes to clean tones.

Finally, the P90 pickup is a unique and less-common type. It’s technically a single-coil pickup, but distinct enough to deserve its own category. This writer loves his Epiphone Wildkat, a semi-hollowbody featuring two P90s.

This pickup is actually the predecessor to the humbucker, and was the original Gibson Les Paul pickup. The P90 sort of acts like an in-between for single coils and humbuckers. Better for high-gain than a single-coil, better for clean than a humbucker.

It does have a distinct tone, with tons of midrange. It sounds vintage, thick, and earthy to my ears. Great for blues and medium-hard rock.


A pickup alone, does not an electric guitar make. A suite of electronics is required in tandem with the pickup to make the guitar function. Pickups are generally wired to potentiometers, or “pots,” as well as switches.

A basic electric guitar with two pickups will include, at the very least, a volume pot for each pickup. The player can play with both pickups full volume, just the bridge for a lead tone, just the neck for a rhythm tone, or some blend of the two to taste.

Often, a switch will also offer a shortcut. On Les Pauls, for example, the player can keep both volume pots at full volume and switch between the middle position (both pickups) or just the neck or bridge.

The Stratocaster is famous for its 5-position switch, allowing different combinations of the three pickups.

Capacitors are often used as tone controls in electric guitars. They function as primitive analog low-pass filters. In other words, they let you cut the low frequencies out of your tone.

Often, a player will cut the low frequencies for rhythm parts (making more room for bass, vocals, and drums in the mix) and then dial up the tone for lead parts.

Guitar wiring can get much more complex, with more switches and pots, coil splitting, phase cancelation, and more. But this covers the basic electronics found on almost all production electric guitars.

Neck Shape

Neck shape, otherwise known as “back shape” or “neck profile” refers to the cross-section of the neck. There are six common neck shapes, quite literally named, and each with differentattributes.

C-shape, otherwise called the oval-C. The most common type, a good compromise between all the shapes, comfortable for most hands and most styles.

D-shape, or modern flat oval. With a flatter back than the C-shape. U-shape, sometimes known as a baseball bat neck. As the name implies, it is thick, ideal for players who rest their thumb on the neck, but perhaps a struggle for small-handed players.

Telecasters use this shape.

V-shapes, divided into soft, medium, or hard V necks. Medium V necks were more popular onvintage models, and associated with thumb-over-the-top playing in country and blues.

Soft V necks are a compromise between the V shape and a more oval shape, and are used on the SRV signature Stratocaster. Hard V necks are considered an extreme shape, usually found only on custom models.

Body Shape

Body shape is an interesting topic for electric guitars. Most instruments rely on body shape as an integral part of creating a musical tone- think of brass instruments, violins, grand pianos, and more.

Some instruments are electronic, and body shape is totally arbitrary- like a digital keyboard. Electric guitars are unique because body shape is important sometimes and not others. As mentioned earlier, electric guitars are usually semi-hollowbody or solidbody, or rarely, true hollowbody.

Hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars typically have certain design elements in the body shapes. A rounded top and back, otherwise known as an archtop, and f-holes. These elements allow the greatest acoustic resonance to complement the pickups’ tone.

Body shape is not as important to tone in solidbody electric guitars, though. Speaking again of Back to the Future- in the very beginning, when Marty is testing a comically large amplifier at Doc Brown’s workshop, his guitar has an equally-comically tiny body.

This is an Erlewine, and its body is barely large enough to mount a bridge, a single humbucker, and a lone knob.

As you can see, as long as you have enough room for the essentials, the size and shape of the body is unbelievably flexible.

Most electric guitars also feature a single or double cutaway in the body. This refers to anindentation near where the neck meets the body. Single cutaway designs, such as theTelecaster and Les Paul, are functional- better access to high frets. Double cutaways- such as the SG and Stratocaster- are more aesthetic.


Other than the obvious- neck, body, pickups, and electronics- electric guitars are finished offwith a set of hardware that keep the whole ensemble together. The most prominent hardware includes tuners, pickguards, and bridges and saddles.

But the category also involves elements like the string nut, the knobs and switches themselves, instrument jack mounting plates, and all manner of screws, nuts, washers, and springs found throughout the instrument.

DIY Modifications

Electric guitar owners are like car owners. Some just want to buy something great made in a factory, and enjoy it “stock.” Others look at an electric guitar as an opportunity for endlesscustomization and modding.

As you may have gleaned from the Superstrat section, this taste for customization extends to pro players. Brian May of Queen famously built his “Red Special” from scratch with his father’s help, the neck wood coming from a fireplace mantle.

Modding electric guitars might sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a luthier for some of the easier DIY mods.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable swapping strings or even setting up your own guitar, you might set your sights on some popular home mods. Many players like to swap out pickguards or tuning knobs, bridges or saddles, or even pickups.

In fact, while researching this article, I came across forum users discussing Carvin guitars. The seemingly unanimous opinion was that Carvin guitars are excellent instruments with terrible pickups. One user suggested that part of buying a Carvin was making a plan to swap out the pickups!

If you play a guitar that has issues with hum, you can do some simple shielding DIY fixes. This can involve mounting foil tape inside your guitar, or swapping out the pickups for specialized “noiseless” pickups.

And there you have it- a brief history and survey of electric guitars. It’s truly a wonderful instrument, a gift that keeps on giving. You could spend your life playing electric guitar, exploring different ways of playing and owning electric guitars, and never tire of the possibilities.

True, electric guitars are in a cultural downswing at the moment, but in this author’s opinion, they will return.

Nobody could have foreseen the popularity of metal in the 80s or grunge and alt in the 90s, each of which breathed new life into the instrument. So keep playing and always feel the joy of the music!