The guitar certainly has come a long way, with improvements that we now take for granted. Here’s our list of the Top 11 Innovations that changed the guitar forever.
Some things on this list may seem obvious – and they may be now, but upon their arrival on the guitar scene they were innovative, new, and amazing, and we’re still enjoying a much changed instrument thanks to these great ideas.
1. Vegan strings
The little things really make a difference. Today we have packaged strings that are made to spec and ready for immediate use. But strings have not always been so–centuries ago, if you broke a string you would need to make your own out of the small intestines of a sheep. What a hassle…
2. Fixed frets
How would you like to finish tuning your twelve-string, then have to perfectly space the frets yourself every time you want to play? Lutists used to do exactly that, as frets were made of loops of gut that players would tie around the neck. Frets wore out just like strings, and needed replacement as part of regular maintenance.
The innovation of using magnets wrapped in wire to convert vibration of strings into electric current is one that we still celebrate every time we strap on a Strat and rock out. The Frying Pan is an early example, though not the first.
4. Solid body
George Beauchamp was the first guitar designer to realize that in an electric instrument, acoustic properties were not only unnecessary but undesirable–the first solidbody guitar, The Frying Pan, cut down on feedback and sounded terrific through a loudspeaker.
5. Mass production
It’s now possible to produce thousands of quality guitars relatively cheaply–thanks to mass production and rising demand, companies like Ibanez have been achieving affordable great sound for decades.
Things sometimes went awry with the loudspeakers of newfangled electric guitars, leading to hideous demonic sounds that all civilized men shunned. It pains me to say that some heathens not only enjoyed this unnatural sound, but pursued it by poking holes in their amplifier cones and corrupting our youth starting with their ears. Have you no decency, sirs?!
7. Tremolo Arm
Where would we be without the Bigsby and Fender tremolo arm systems? We would have to learn telekinetic powers from martial arts masters if we wanted to slacken the strings during a solo until they slapped against the guitar’s body. Surf guitar wouldn’t be the same. And of course we must tip our hats to the Floyd Rose system, which allows us to lay our guitars on the floor and jump up and down on the whammy bar with great abandon–and never go out of tune.
8. Stomp boxes
Interrupting the signal chain to digitally process guitar sounds was an important innovation that spawned an entire industry unto itself. Want to sound like one of those plastic guns with ten different sounds? No problem! Now we have phasers, flangers, digital delay, digital reverb, simulated rotary speakers, loopers, fuzzrippers, boomnasties… pitch shifters… I know I’m forgetting a few.
9. Audio recording
Every innovation in audio recording has changed the game for guitarists. From wax cylinders and shellac records to modern-day DIY home recording, there would be no such thing in our culture as a “guitar hero” without audio capture and duplication. We would hear legends of great players, but would never actually hear them unless we saw them live while they were alive. Now, for better and worse, virtually everyone can record! It’s easy to take for granted, but recording is essentially to the way we now view music and model our careers.
10. Music notation
Where would we be without musical notation and tablature? While all players should develop their ears, the guitar is a labyrinthine instrument that does not follow a linear progression from low to high pitch like a piano. Notation makes learning tunes faster, easier, and less frustrating for new players. Even lutists who fussed with gut strings and frets consulted songbooks full of lute tabs.
Tuning devices that operate by measuring frequencies are incredibly precise, fast, and usable even on the fly in loud venues. They make sure that the whole band is on pitch and sounds good–and helps novice musicians through the learning curve of tuning by ear. Ahh, a freshly tuned guitar… one of the instrument’s zenlike pleasures.