Les Paul And The Quest For The Solidbody Electric Guitar

December 1, 2009

While Les Paul Is commonly Cited As The“Father Of the solidbody electric guitar,” that oversimplifies what was actually a multifaceted evolution. Paul’s contributions were undeniably significant, but other brilliant innovators were also involved. As early as the 1920s, guitarists were contemplating how to amplify a guitar’s sound using the primitive technology employed in popular microphones and public address systems. These initial attempts to electrify the guitar met with little success, so when Gibson’s Lloyd Loar experimented with a pressure-contact pickup around 1924, the company didn’t go for it.

Meanwhile, an inventive boy named Lester Polsfuss was growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The future Les Paul started playing guitar in 1929, was quite an inquisitive tinkerer, and he also felt the need for a louder guitar with a clearer tonality. Young Lester jammed the needle from his mom’s Victrola into the top of his Sears guitar top to be heard at the local drive-in, and he also began experimenting with a piece of railroad track—a truly solid body—and various transducers.

Soon, a small but growing revolution began.

In 1931, National’s George Beauchamp and Paul Barth experimented with a Brunswick transducer on a 2x4 wooden plank, and then wound copper coils around six polepieces on the kitchen table using a sewing machine. They discovered that fitting two opposing horseshoe magnets around the strings increased the magnetic field, and that the strummed string would disturb the magnetic field, creating voltage. They now had a signal to amplify, and National foreman Harry Watson made a Spanish guitar with a small, round body to hold the pickup. The “Frying Pan” was introduced in August 1932 as a solidbody, cast-aluminum Hawaiian guitar. In 1933, Volu-Tone produced a solidbody steel guitar with electrically charged strings, and, in 1935, Stella also built a solidbody steel guitar.

Gibson finally saw the “electronic” light, and Walt Fuller developed a bar-magnet pickup to be used on the company’s EHG and EH-150 steel guitars in November 1935. Epiphone jumped on the bandwagon that year with its Electrophone and Electar electrics, and Paul Tutmarc produced his solidbody Model 736 Electronic Bass Fiddle (predating the Fender Precision by more than 15 years). Slingerland’s Electro Model 401 became the first commercially available solidbody-electric Spanish guitar (at $135, a high price for 1936), and Rickenbacher (as it was originally spelled) introduced its Bakelite Spanish and BD-6 steel models in 1935, which many consider to be solidbodies.

Our hero, Les Paul, was far from idle during this time. He famously put an Epiphone neck on a 4x4 chunk of wood, and spent Sundays refining the project at the Epiphone factory on 14th Street in Manhattan. After performing with his “broomstick with pickups on it,” he added the wings of an Epiphone archtop to make it easier to hold and more cosmetically appealing. The famous “Log”—the first two-pickup electric guitar—was born in 1941. Paul tried to get Epiphone to manufacture it, and they tossed him out. Gibson wasn’t too accommodating, either.

And still more innovations were coming. On May 25, 1948, Paul Bigsby constructed the solidbody Merle Travis guitar, and after seeing the Bigsby on the bandstands, Leo Fender and George Fullerton started on their Broadcaster prototype in 1949. When the renamed Fender Telecaster became a success in 1950, Gibson’s Ted McCarty brought Paul on as a consultant—the solidbody “Log” finally getting some respect. However, controversy remains over Paul’s input. McCarty claimed Gibson showed Paul an almost complete prototype, and that Paul contributed his name on the headstock (to boost sales), the trapeze tailpiece (which turned out to be a misstep as the unanchored tailpiece was easily knocked out of tune), the gold color, and other cosmetic suggestions. One thing is certain, though: In May 1952, Gibson sent early samples of the new solidbody to Les Paul and Mary Ford, and they performed with the instruments immediately. The rest is truly history.

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