Legendary Solidbodies

George Gruhn
Guitar Player Magazine, May 1982
Solidbody guitars as we know them today were developed around 1947 or '48 in southern California, but precisely how this came about is somewhat unclear. Both Leo Fender [Sept. '71; May '78] and Paul Bigsby (inventor of the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece; see Rare Bird in Oct., Nov., and Dec. '80), working independently of each other, came out with guitars of this type at about the same time. While there were similarities in design between their creations (the distinctively-shaped headstocks with all six tuners on one side are an example of this), exactly who came up with what idea first is still disputable.

Although he did not, as many claim, invent the solidbody electric guitar, Leo Fender did have a profound influence both on its evolution and on the growth of the electric guitar manufacturing industry. An electronics engineer who started out in radio repair and custom amplifier building, Fender formed the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946. By 1948, the company introduced the Broadcaster, an electric solidbody with two pickups invented by Fender himself. Renamed the Telecaster in '51, this guitar was the first of its kind to gain widespread commercial acceptance, and over the years it has been one of the world's most popular electrics.

Equally successful was the Precision solidbody electric bass, another of Leo's creations, which came out in '51. This instrument changed the sound of popular American music, and was so influential that for many years the name "Fender Bass" was generally applied to any electric bass, regardless of its brand name. Other highly successful Fender models include the single-pickup Esquire, which first appeared in 1951; the three-pickup Stratocaster, introduced in '54, the Precision Bass with split pickups introduced in '57; and the Jazz Bass, which came out in '60. Fender also produced some of the best sounding and most reliable amplifiers then available, which also greatly enhanced the salability of Fender guitars.

Leo Fender's first solidbody guitars were characterized by a unique type of construction. The neck and body were simply bolted together; there was no glue, no binding, and no fingerboard on the detachable neck. This revolutionary design made it possible to build a highly serviceable and striking instrument with minimal production costs. An extremely practical idea, this approach to guitar construction is still used today by Fender as well as other manufacturers. Certainly, it is one of those rare innovations in guitar evolution that might never have come to light without the work of a particular individual. As such, it is one of Leo Fender's most valuable contributions to electric guitar design.

The next major milestone in the evolution of the solidbody guitar was Gibson's introduction of the Les Paul model in 1952. [Ed Note: For more about the Les Paul model goldtop, see Rare Bird, Apr. '78.] Les Paul [ Dec. '77] had been a vigorous advocate of solidbody construction since the '30s, and in 1941 he even built a peculiar experimental guitar from a 4"x4" piece of wood—which he dubbed "The Log." A virtuoso player with a knack for electronics, Les, with his wife Mary Ford, made a number of hit records that were characterized by a revolutionary, futuristic guitar sound. Paul achieved this on a solidbody guitar by his innovative use of recording techniques such as multi-tracking, muted picking, arrangement layering, echo, and overdubbing. As a result, the range of effects possible on a solidbody guitar was expanded, and popularized, as never before, which in turn greatly enhanced the popularity of the instrument.

Through the years, Gibson introduced a number of solidbody and hollowbody electrics, some of which were quite successful. Always an innovative company, Gibson also came up with many interesting construction ideas, such as the pressed plywood hollowbody electric, the thinline hollowbody electric, and solidbodies with distinctive shapes (the Flying V, Explorer, and Firebird, for example). Gibson and Fender dominated the electric guitar market almost totally throughout the '50s and '60s. A few companies such as Rickenbacker and Vox made guitars that were used by prominent rock and roll groups in the '60s, but while some of these instruments are still sought-after items today, they did not have nearly as profound an influence on electric guitar evolution as did the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Precision Bass.

Gretsch, too, achieved some success during this period, particularly with its Chet Atkins line of hollowbody electrics, and some vintage guitar experts say that Gretsch may have actually beat Gibson to the punch in introducing a thinline hollowbody electric. Interestingly, Gretsch also brought out pickups in the '50s that were quite similar to Gibson's. Gretsch instruments from the early '50s feature a single-coil DeArmond pickup (much like Gibson's P-90), and from '57 on have a double-coil pickup called the Filtertron that is quite close to a Gibson PAF humbucker. However, Gretsch didn't get into producing true solidbodies until the '60s; before then, the guitars that appear solid were, in fact, semi-solid.

Tracing the evolution of the electric guitar after World War II, it's rather surprising to notice how early most of the really important developments took place. Fender had introduced its most significant innovations by 1954, when the Stratocaster came out, and its pickup design hasn't been greatly altered or improved since it first appeared on the Broadcaster in '48. Gibson had the Les Paul by '52, and the PAF humbucking pickup by '57. Of course, a great many new electrics have come out since then with a staggering variety of interesting and improved features, but few if any have approached the Broadcaster, Telecaster, Stratocaster, or Les Paul in terms of significant impact on the evolution of the solidbody electric.