The past century has seen many stylistic changes in popular culture, none more dramatic than in music. We need only hear a few measures of a song to place it in the right decade. The sound of an era’s music reflects the state of its technology: whenever engineering can make possible tools like multitrack recorders, tape loops, samplers, and synthesizers — to say nothing of listening media like cylinders, vinyl records, and online streaming — the soundtrack of the zeitgeist has been transformed. But in living memory, surely no development has made quite so powerful an impact on popular music as the electric guitar.
“Almost all guitars currently on the market are either a direct descendant of, or very similar to, a handful of instruments that came to life during the span of one decade: the fifties.” With these words, Dutch Youtuber Paul Davids launches into a video journey through the evolution of the electric guitar as we know it, beginning in 1950 with the Fender Telecaster.
Davids doesn’t just explain the components and construction of that venerable instrument, he plays it — just as he does a variety of other electric guitars, each with a sound representative of its era. Even if you don’t know them by name, they’ll all sound familiar from a variety of musical contexts.
The invention of the electric guitar made possible the birth of rock and roll, which shows no few signs of frailty even here in the twenty-first century. The earliest models produced are ever more highly valued for their sound, their feel, and their apparent simplicity, a quality many rockers hold in the utmost regard. But despite long adhering to the same basic form, the electric guitar has incorporated a great variety of innovations — in its pickups, its vibrato systems, and much else besides — whose combinations and permutations have given rise to entire subgenres like surf, heavy metal, rockabilly, and grunge. Like rock itself, the electric guitar arrived having already attained a kind of perfection, but possessed too much vitality to stand still.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.