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Newsletter #25, September 2005

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Guitar players and guitar designers

A request for a newsletter focusing on Chet Atkins’ influence on music and the guitar industry prompted some thoughts about the contributions famous musicians have made to fretted instrument design through the years. In this day and time, with dozens of signature model guitars available, it may come as a surprise that very little in the way of innovation has come from most of the guitarists whose names have appeared on these guitars. With the notable exception of Chet, the designers of the electric and acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins and banjos that we consider classics today were either non-professional musicians or, in the case of many of the most important innovations, men who couldn’t play guitar at all.

The modern guitar in America starts with C.F. Martin. Martin’s guitars evolved dramatically from the time of his arrival in America in 1833, when he made Germanic guitars in the style of his former boss Johann Stauffer of Vienna, to 1850, by which time he was making a more Spanish-influenced guitar with his own X-pattern top bracing. Martin’s influences are not documented, but if anyone did have an influence on his designs, the most likely candidates would be his friend and fellow guitarmaker Heinrich Schatz (who encouraged Martin’s move to New York and subsequent move to Nazareth, PA) and John Coupa, a guitar teacher who ordered guitars and functioned as a de facto business agent for Martin in New York.

One would assume that C.F. Sr. knew how to play guitar, but it’s not documented. Moreover, musical talent of the management team has not played a significant role in the history of the company. Out of six generations of Martin family ownership, only one generation - C.F. III (Fred) and his brother Herbert - could play well enough to have their musical ability noted in Martin histories. It’s been a family of builders and businessmen rather than musicians.

The Martin company over the years has had a great deal of contact with musicians, but “artist signature” models are a relatively recent phenomenon. Artist input into Martin designs has been minimal. In 1912, guitarist William Foden began ordering Martins with an extra fret, which prompted the company to start making all Martins with 20 frets. And in 1929 Perry Bechtel is credited with convincing Martin to go from 12 frets clear of the body to 14 frets clear, although it was a move to catch up with the rest of the industry and should not have required much convincing. Martin’s major innovation of the 20th century - the dreadnought body style - came at the urging of a corporate client, the Ditson company.

Gibson, the company with the widest range of innovations through the years, started out as the one-man workshop of Orville Gibson, who may or may not have been able to play mandolin but is documented in a photo playing, ironically, what appears to be a Martin. Orville’s revolutionary concept of carved-top guitars and mandolins came, as far as we know, from within his own mind, and his career as an instrument maker was so short (circa 1894-1902, with a few more instruments as late as 1906) and his faith so fervent in his designs that it’s unlikely that he was influenced by any musicians.

When the Gibson company was formed in 1902, the two active owners were musicians of average ability. The general manager, Sylvo Reams, had owned a music store, and the sales manager, Lewis Williams, was a mandolin teacher. Williams is best known for his flowery catalog prose and for promoting the mandolin with evangelical fervor, but he also played an important role in the evolution of Gibson instruments. He patented the elevated pickguard in 1909 and co-patented the height-adjustable bridge in 1921. Two more early innovations - a bridge with slots for adjustable saddle placement and an improved pickguard clamp - were patented by Gibson employee George Laurian, who was not documented as a musician and who left Gibson for a job painting automobiles. More important patents came from a non-musician named Ted McHugh, who invented the adjustable truss rod and the double-coordinator rod for banjos and co-invented the height-adjustable bridge - all of which are still in use on Gibsons.

Lloyd Loar may have been the first professional-level musician to have a major influence on guitar design. Conservatory-trained, Loar was a touring mandolinist and violist at the time he joined Gibson in 1919. Loar is legendary today for Gibson’s Style 5 Master Model line of 1922, which featured f-holes among many other refinements. His F-5 mandolin is considered today the pinnacle of mandolin design and his L-5 guitar laid the foundation for a new genre of archtop f-hole guitars.

Loar continued to perform publicly through his years with Gibson, but when he left the company at the end of 1924, no musician took his place as an influential force on Gibson designs. The people who carried forth banjo designs at Gibson through the 1920s, developing the one-piece flange and flat-head tone ring, are unknown. Gibson had only one endorser in the 1920s, Nick Lucas, and although the Lucas model’s extra-deep body was innovative, it’s likely that the design was Gibson’s and that Lucas was enlisted as an endorser on the basis of his huge popularity (a scenario that would be repeated in 1952 with the Les Paul Model).

Gibson experienced a golden age of design in the 1930s, highlighted by the Super 400, the Super Jumbo (J-200) and the company’s first electric guitars and amps. Given the success of these new models, one would imagine that Gibson had the input of top musicians along with an active R&D, design and engineering staff, but that was not the case. The body shape of the Super 400 and the Super Jumbo were based on Orville Gibson’s original guitars. For the electrics, Gibson did engage a professional musician, Alvino Rey, to design a pickup, but Rey had to abandon the project when he got a gig with the Horace Heidt orchestra. Pickup design was then assigned to Walt Fuller, a Gibson employee who got the assignment because he was a HAM radio enthusiast and had an interest in electronics. Gibson jobbed out amplifier design to Lyon & Healy. In general, according to John Huis, who began working at Gibson in the 1930s, new designs came from anyone who had a viable suggestion, typically from salesmen in the field who would tip off the home office to a demand for certain features. These new designs would be implemented by supervisors of the appropriate production lines and presumably tested by musicians on the Gibson staff.

The most important advance of the 1930s did come directly from a professional musician, and that was the electric guitar. The guitar was introduced by the company that became Rickenbacker, but Adolph Rickenbacker was neither a guitarist nor a guitar designer. He was the owner of a metal shop and an investor in the electric guitar project. The man primarily responsible for the first viable electric guitar was George Beauchamp, a vaudeville musician who played violin and Hawaiian guitar. Beauchamp’s desire for a louder instrument was the driving force that pushed John Dopyera to develop the resonator guitar, and Beauchamp and Dopyera were founding partners of the National company in 1928. Beauchamp’s continuing efforts to develop an electrically amplified guitar cost him his position at National but resulted in the first viable electric guitar in 1932. Although one of his partners in this new venture, Rickenbacker, has always been the name primarily associated with the first electric guitar, Beauchamp is the one who invented it.

Moreover, Beauchamp’s 1932 prototype Frying Pan, which is still owned by Rickenbacker, has a wood body (rather than the cast aluminum of production models) and a round neck with frets and - most important - fingerboard wear. Whoever put the fingerboard wear on the guitar was playing the first solidbody electric Spanish-style instrument.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, several musicians had an enormous influence on the popularity and the future of fretted instruments - Eddie Lang on acoustic guitar, Charlie Christian on electric guitar, Bill Monroe on mandolin and Earl Scruggs on five-string banjo - but they made no design contributions. Even Les Paul, whose hit records did more than any other artist to inject the electric guitar into the mainstream of popular music, was a very minor player when it came to influencing guitar design. Contrary to the lore promulgated by the mass media today, he didn’t invent the electric guitar or even the electric solidbody (Rickenbacker and Slingerland had production models that pre-dated “The Log,” Les’s homemade solidbody of 1941). And his only significant contribution - other than his monumental reputation - to Gibson’s Les Paul Model of 1952 was the trapeze-style combination bridge/tailpiece, which was quickly replaced by a series of stud-mounted designs.

The majority of important innovations of the 1950s came from two rivals, neither of whom knew how to play guitar. We’re talking, of course, about Leo Fender and Ted McCarty, who spearheaded a golden age of guitar innovation for Fender and Gibson, respectively.

Fender’s contributions are well-known. The former small appliance repairman did not invent the solidbody guitar, but he did make one as early as 1942, and he was the first to make a commercially successful solidbody with the Broadcaster of 1950. His electric bass, the Precision of 1951, was also not the first of its kind (Audiovox of Seattle made a few fretted, solid woodbody electric basses in the late 1930s), but it was quite possibly even more revolutionary than Fender’s guitars. Equally important, but often overshadowed by his guitars, are Fender’s amps. Exactly how much input Leo gathered from musicians is unknown, at least in his early years, but when you consider the crude work of Leo’s wartime solidbody and of the early K&F lap steels, it’s hard to imagine that he could have come up with the smooth curves of the Telecaster without some help. We do know that Freddie Tavares (who played the Hawaiian guitar intro that opens all the old Warner Bros. cartoons) and Bill Carson (guitairst with Hank Thompson) were among those who helped design the Stratocaster in 1954.

Meanwhile at Gibson, Ted McCarty had come on board. He immediately designed a pickguard with one or two integral pickups so that acoustic archtop players could easily electrify their instruments. Shortly after the introduction of the Les Paul, he designed the "tune-o-matic" bridge, which is still standard equipment on Gibsons today. These two highly practical inventions came from a man who was not only a non-musician, he was new to the guitar business altogether. He came to Gibson from accounting/finance positions in the Wurlitzer musical instrument company, but he always credited his engineering degree with giving him the ability to identify and solve a problem related to instruments. McCarty may have had help in developing the Les Paul Model in 1952, but except for the bridge/tailpiece, the input did not come from Les. McCarty had help from others on his staff in designing the Flying V, Explorer and Moderne of 1958, but there is no documented input from professional musicians. What may be McCarty’s crowning achievement as a designer - the ES-335 - is by all accounts his and his alone, a product of the engineer’s mind bringing elements of traditional hollowbody and modern solidbody designs together to create a new model.

Some of Gibson’s most aesthetically noteworthy designs came from non-musical sources. The BR-series lap steels and amps of the postwar era (including the cream-and-coral Ultratone, which was technically model BR-1) were created by Barnes & Reinecke, a well-known industrial design firm in Chicago. And the Firebirds of 1963 were drawn up by famed automotive designer Ray Dietrich.

In the 1950s, the company whose guitars exhibited the greatest influence from professional musicians was Gretsch. Chet Atkins was the most famous, of course, of Gretsch designers, but Chet has credited all of the colorful and eye-catching features of the 1954 Gretsch line to Jimmie Webster. Webster was quite an accomplished musician, having pioneered the two-handed fingerboard-tapping style which he called the Touch System and which was later adapted to hard rock music by Edward Van Halen. He also invented a stereo pickup system for Gretsch that separated the three highest strings from the three lowest.

Although Webster was responsible for the big G brand, the orange finish, the cows-and-cactus engraved inlays and other Western motifs on the original Chet Atkins models, Chet contributed some important design elements of his own. Initially, he specified a Bigsby vibrola, with a metal bridge and metal nut in order to increase sustain. To further increase sustain and to lessen feedback, he closed up the f-holes and beefed up the bracing to the point where top and back eventually met. Like Ted McCarty with his ES-335, Chet created a hollow-solid hybrid that gave his Gretsches a unique character.

In terms of pure innovation, Chet’s most important achievement was the "solidbody acoustic" guitar he brought to Gibson in 1982. He had come to prefer nylon string guitars because he had brittle fingernails, but with a conventional acoustic guitar he experienced feedback problems onstage, using a microphone for amplification. By this time, piezo-electric pickups were developed to the point that an acceptable acoustic sound could be reproduced. Just the original solidbody guitar designers had done, Chet did away with the acoustic body and had luthier Hascal Haile build a solidbody. It worked, and Gibson put it into production in a nylon-string version. Five years later, a steel string version, the SST, found broad acceptance among rock and country artists, and it established the solidbody acoustic as its own genre of guitar.

Among the other well-known musicians who made noteworthy contributions to fretted instrument design:

- A.D. Grover, whose name is familiar on high quality parts such as tuners, tailpieces and banjo bridges, was a member of the Boston Ideals, the most famous of the banjo (and later mandolin) quartets in the 1890s and early 1900s.

- Fred Van Eps, one of the most famous five-string banjo players in the "classic" style at the turn of the 20th century, designed his own instrument with a metal bowl-like back. It was moderately successful in its day but not a lasting or influential innovation.

- Fred Bacon, another famous turn-of-the-century banjoist, is also well-known as the "B" of B&D banjos. Bacon started marketing his own banjos (made by Vega) with a tone ring of his own design in 1905 and began manufacturing them himself in 1912. He teamed with David Day to form B&D in 1922.

- Andres Segovia had a major impact on classical guitars, convincing Hermann Hauser I to abandon his Germanic, Stauffer-influenced designs for a Spanish-based guitar with a longer scale and a larger body.

- Mario Macafferi was a noted musician (until he damaged his hand in an accident) who designed the 1930s Selmer guitars that gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt made famous. Although they never achieved wide acceptance, they are still the required guitar for serious Django-style players.

- Merle Travis, whose finger-picking style influenced Chet Atkins, drew up the headstock design for a custom guitar that Paul Bigsby built for him in the late 1940s. Travis’s design, featuring all the tuners on one side, appeared in a cut-down form soon afterward on the Fender Telecaster and in 1954 appeared on the Fender Stratocaster in a rendering that was almost identical to the original Travis/Bigsby design.

- Les Paul did eventually design some guitars in 1969 with his own personal specifications, most notable of which was the low-impedance pickup. It offered guitarists a more direct signal into a recording console, but by this time the amplifier was such an integral part of an electric guitar’s sound that players stayed with conventional high-impedance pickups.

- Edward Van Halen, one of the most influential guitarists of the last 25 years with his finger-tapping technique and dive-bomb vibrato effects, has also had some influence on guitar designs with his home-painted graphics and his preference for a single pickup and single volume control.

- Paul Reed Smith (PRS), Charlie Kaman (founder of Ovation) and Jimmy D’Aquisto were never famous as players, but they should be numbered among the successful and influential designers who were themselves good guitarists.

Today, the plethora of artist signature models would seem to indicate that artists are active and influential in guitar design, but for the most part, these signature models only represent a new combination of existing features, such as a wider fingerboard, a hotter pickup or personal cosmetic touches. When it comes down to true innovation and influence as guitar designers, the only professional musicians who we would rank with C.F. Martin, Orville Gibson, Leo Fender and Ted McCarty are George Beauchamp and Chet Atkins.

George Gruhn and Walter Carter