Other Guitars

Electric Guitar Evolution Timeline: It was a very good year.


Apropos of exactly nothing, I was musing on my notion that particular years - or short clusters of years - saw more evidence of evolution and development in electric guitars than others. My vague sense was that a couple of years would stand out starkly, but the more I looked for corroborating evidence, the less it seemed there were only a few anni mirabulis, and the more gradual the actual process had been.

So much for my theory (though one year, as we'll see, continues to stand out starkly.)

To clear about my method, such as it is: I'm not digging directly into when guitars may have been in development, or when particular important builds or features emerged separately. I've just tracked the introduction of now-important/influential guitar models (which, of course, will have incorporated those individual developments).

And I haven't been too obscure: only Gibson/Epiphone, Fender, Gretsch, and Rickenbacker are included in the census. Can we consider them the Big 4?

I should probably include the more idiosyncratic second-tier brands: Danelectro, Valco (at their Airline-inventive best, but maybe not Harmony), and Mosrite made now-famed and long-lived (or often re-introduced) models. Many incorporated developments which advanced the state of one guitar-makin' art or another - or at least represented diverse experiments.

Also, I realize I left out most Epiphone models...

This is obviously a USA-centric romp through the years, but is it not defensible that the electric guitar (particularly in its early and classic eras) is a distinctly American phenomenon? While builders throughout the world got in on the act, off the toppa my head, I can't think of any (in the period my list covers) who innovated something American companies hadn't, or contributed models which remain "iconic" - with the possible exception of Hofner, for the Beatle bass.

The Japanese guitars of the 60s and early 70s, European guitars (particularly Italian and German), and even eastern-bloc guitars (only recently getting western exposure) all reflect an exuberant and entertaining international guitar culture, and I mean them no disrespect by leaving them out. But I was thinking of guitars whose introduction represented important milestones in the industry, so the guitars I tracked tend to be the most famous/iconic/legendary/now-standard (pick your descriptor) models - those guitars which have proven lasting in impact and popularity.

In that context, if there are any pre-1970 international which either pointed a new and influential direction, or stood alongside the American models in commercial and cultural acceptance, visibility, and fame...I'm just too ignernt or brain-blocked to think of them. Please set me right.

Also, my timeline ends (conveniently for me) in 1969 - so I didn't have to judge the importance or parse the chronolgoy of developments like Alembic and similar boutique guitars in the 70s; Bean/Kramer aluminum construction; the development and popularization of SuperStrats and locking trems in the 80s (or landmark models in that group); the PRS phenomenon; Steinberger (and other) headless; the Parker Fly; the Synthaxe and Roland/Brian Moore; Gittler and Teufel's conceptual art guitars; or the extended-range, multi-scale, and fanned-fret guitars which seem to have been the latest variations on the theme.

And off we go with years of famous American electric guitar model introductions.

Well, OK, we start with the pre-history of the commercial electric guitar, with the extraordinary efforts of George Beauchamp, who had the unfortunate impediment of an unpronounceable (to Americans) last name - otherwise, several critically important brands in the journey from this thing ain't loud enough to turn that damn thing down should probably have worn it.

Of any pivotal historical development, we can always say "well, if [Insert Famous Name] hadn't done it, someone else would have." And that's the case with George. But he was the instigator and co-conspirator of the tri-cone resonator, American technology's first pass at a louder guitar - and the early Rickenbacker electrics.

He had experimented with electrifying guitars through the 20s before helping found both National and then Rickenbacker (when it was Ro-Pat-In). If Adolph Rickenbacher (the metal contractor who made National bodies, and became a partner in Ro-Pat-In) hadn't had the instantly recognizable last name of his more famous cousin, by rights we should all have Beecham guitars in our collection.

So...the first two "electric guitars" aren't electric guitars. They just wanted to be.

  • 1927: National Tri-Cone Resonator
  • 1929: Dobro single-cone reso, product of John Dopyera leaving National in a feud with brother Rudy
  • 1929-30: Beauchamp and Nat’l employee Paul Barth develop first solid-body electric
  • 1931: Ro-Pat-In A-25 Frying Pan lap steel
  • 1935: Rickenbacker Electro-Spanish Ken Roberts: 25.5 scale w/Kauffman Vib-rola (first patented trem) is first commercial electric guitar
  • 1935: Rick Model B Electric Spanish: first commercial full-scale solidbody
  • 1936: Gibson ES-150

  • 1948: Bigsby solidbodies start

  • 1949: Gibson ES-5, ES-175; Gretsch Electromatic

  • 1950: Fender Broadcaster

  • 1951: Fender Telecaster; Gretsch Electro II
  • 1952: Gibson Les Paul, ES-295
  • 1953: Gretsch Jet, Country Club; Radio-Tel (FC Hall) buys Electro String/Rickenbacker
  • 1954: Fender Stratocaster; Gretsch Falcon; Gibson Les Paul Jr
  • 1955: Gretsch 6120, Gibson Les Paul Special, ES-5 Switchmaster, Byrdland, ES-225
  • 1956: Fender Duo-Sonic, Musicmaster; Gretsch Penguin; Rickenbacker 400 series
  • 1958: Fender Jazzmaster; Gibson ES-335, ES-355, Explorer, Flying V; Gretsch Country Gentleman, Tennessean, Anniversary; Rick 330, 325, 600 Cresting Wavers (and it's worth mentioning, Gibson Humbuckers & Gretsch Filter'Trons...)
  • 1959: Gibson ES-330, Melody Maker

  • 1961: Gibson SG; Epiphone Casino; Gretsch Corvette

  • 1962: Fender Jaguar
  • 1963: Gibson Firebird; Rick 360, 360-12
  • 1964: Fender Mustang
  • 1965: Fender Coronado
  • 1969: Fender Tele Thinline (‘buckers in ’72)

The obvious question to me: what the hell was in the water in 1958?


Not to go all Darwinsque on you, but I figure it was a confluence of guitar tech evolution - humbuckers, guitar bodies that weren’t slabs or hollow bodies or a conventional shape and better electronics coupled with a memo from marketing that the rock n roll thing presented some opportunities

‘58 and ‘59 were pretty good years for rock n’ roll. I do not believe it was a coincidence.


This appears to be the beginning of an outline to a potentially great book. I think radiation may have been in the water in 1958. Also the first atomic blast of rock and roll was dissipating.

Check out this insightful answer by Paul Reed Smith at 17:52. It's a very interesting perspective that may explain further why guitars were being innovated at such a fast pace at that time.

"Before Elvis there was nothing." - John Lennon


The obvious question to me: what the hell was in the water in 1958? - proteus

John Lennon called them humperdingers, but humbuckers were the big thing in that year.


1947 - Gibson introduced the ES350, more significant than the ES175 two years later in that it was Gibson's first production cutaway electric. By 1949, when the ES175 was introduced, the ES350 had gained a second pickup. The single pickup ES-350 was adopted by Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel and Dave Barbour. It was a laminated, electrified L7 really.

1951 - Gibson's two top of the line solid wood archtops adopt twin pickups, the L5CES and the Super 400 CES. Kind of a big deal in that in Gibson electrifying their flagship models signals Kalamazoo realizing the electric guitar is to be taken seriously.

I can see why you're including Gretsch in this list this being the GDP, but they weren't really an innovator when it comes to electric guitars, but followed trends set by Gibson and Epiphone. By the time the Electro II came out, Gibson's twin pickup laminated cutaway electric was four years old, and Epi's (very similar) Deluxe Regent had been out since 1950.

The Duo Jet, like Guild's Aristocrat, was an attempt at a lighter weight Les Paul, and Gretsch's thinline double cutaway guitars didn't come in after Gibson's succes with the format, and Gretsch's Corvettes, just like Guild's early plank-guitars were almost Les Paul Special/SG copies.

Not counting Jimmie Webster's many gizmo's that were never more than a footnote, the real innovations with Gretsch came when they started listening to Chet Atkins, trestle bracing and humbucking pickups. Interesting synchronicity is that Gibson was working on almost the exact same things at the same time : thinner, stiffer hollowbodies, first with the 225/Byrdland/ES350T thinner bodies, and then the 335 family getting the center block. Ray Butts and Seth Lover had been working on humbucking pickups around the same time, and both companies came out with humbucker-equipped guitars around 57/58.

Interesting you're not including Fender's precision bass - a major innovation that really changed the sound of popular music.

The major thread that runs through the evolution of the electric guitar is really "more louder" - as time progresses, amps get bigger, smaller combos definitely take the place of big(ger) bands, drums get louder (the introduction of sythetic heads plays a major role there), Rock and Roll becomes a major market force, and pickups become more effecient and eventually hum-cancelling, in the scope of ten years solidbodies go from being a novelty to almost being the norm, hollowbodies get smaller, thinner, stiffer, more rigid and gain sustain and are less susceptible to feedback.


The obvious question to me: what the hell was in the water in 1958?

That's a valid question but a closer look shows things like the Gibson PAF humbuckers in 1957. And while several iconic models hit the scene in 58 it seems that Gibson mostly got it right in the 2nd year of a model.


You got the years down!

Weren't Coronados first out in '66 tho ? Of course it was Fender's attempt to get in on the Brit Invasion hollowbody scene. No one gave a damn and Strats/Teles then, and even Jaguars, etc were associated with surf music, etc. whiich by that time was dated and uncool.


What was in the water in 1958?



1958? That was the year it began to sink in that Ike was a lame-duck-- the first American legally designated lame-duck President, that the end of the post WW2 era was in sight, and that what would come after would be unlike anything seen in (then) living memory. It was also the year that the last Civil War vets passed from this mortal coil. Elvis, Buddy Holly,and Chuck Berry hit the mainstream and Les & Mary were fading. Big changes ahead and it gave the technology a lot of visibility.

And Prot's right about the major players being mostly American. The only exceptions I can think of are Vox and Hofner-- The latter made it to Canada before the Brit Invasion. Knew a guy in Toronto who had a singlecut thinline in 1960.


1959 also brought the first quality (set neck) budget thinline single-cutaway -- the Gretsch Clipper.

While thinline single-cuts had been around for a few years, all were mid-level priced guitars with corresponding appointments. Guild's T-100 (aka Slim Jim) had more in common with Gibson's ES 225, and actually upgraded to the Chesterfield headstock inlay (from a simple decal) for 1959. Gibson did have the ES 125T, but that didn't have a cutaway.

The ES125TC(utaway) is considered by Gibson to be a 1960 model, and by the time it debuted, Gretsch had 700 or so Clippers in the market.

Gretsch beat Gibson - and everyone else - to the punch.

Register Sign in to join the conversation