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
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.