The electric guitar as a musical instrument is on its way to a century of existence, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when the real geniuses of design and construction made the models that have marked the history of popular music up to the present day. Yes my friends, we’re talking about the 50s from the last century, and still today a high percentage of the models we see in the hands of our heroes were designed in that era which witnessed the birth of Rock and Roll. That decade crowned the electric guitar in songs that filled the charts as a solo instrument far above the rest. The horn sections, and the solos, especially the saxophone, which reigned until the end of the 40s were being replaced, little by little, by electric guitar solos in the new groups and idols of Rock and Roll. That’s how the first great figures of the instrument such as Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, and Carl Perkins appeared. The rest is history, that which we review everyday in Guitars Exchange.
The funny, yet alarming thing about the universe of the electric guitar is that since that decade you can count on the fingers of one hand the new models that have been able to throw a bit of shade on the designs which we all, sons and daughters of rock, have in mind when we think of the electric guitar. A brief summary of the newcomers: the Telecaster comes in the form of its prototype called the Broadcaster in 1950, the Gibson Les Paul in 1952, and the Stratocaster in 1954. And now comes the good part, the year is 1958, which incredibly turns 60 years old in 2018, can be considered the authentic birthday of the baby boomer electric guitar models. That year the four big guitar makers of the time, put a ton of new ideas on the table (all good although some would take time to realize) making that year really the last prolific and meaningful one in the history of the electric guitar.
It was 1958, 60 years have gone by, and the four big brand names of the time introduced these models for the first time:
In 1958 Leo Fender decided to put to market what then was introduced as the luxury version of the Fender Stratocaster: the Fender Jazzmaster, a guitar that was fitted with two separate circuits, one supposedly for the rhythm, and the other for solos. Maybe it didn’t get much fanfare in those days, especially with jazz guitarists for which it was conceived, but without a doubt, time has put it in its right place, making it one of the flagships of the brand thanks mainly to the thick sound of its two simple pickups, the same ones mounted on the Tele and the Strat, but a different winding due to its size, and closer to the P-90s.
The most expensive brand at the time was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1958 with a splash, introducing the ‘Anniversary’ models from some of their creations already made but especially putting on the table what would become one of its most legendary guitars over the following years and one of the most sought after by collectors nowadays: the Gretsch Country Gentleman.
This luxury guitar (back then only the White Falcon fetched a higher price) met a few of the improvements of the brand and had Chet Atkins brooding; they wanted to make guitars narrower and with less noisy pickups.
The result was this model that features the f-holes painted on the closed-body to avoid feedback problems and the introduction of the legendary Filter Tron pickups that sought to reduce the different sound troubles and interferences that the older models had.
Its little sister, the Gretsch Tennessean, had the same pickup fittings, also introduced in 1958 as a more economic model than the older one, with just one pickup on the bridge and the Fs cut into the body.
The brand that invented the electric guitar was still a giant manufacturer in the 50s, and under the watchful eye of Mr. Roger Rossmeisl. In 1958 they would release to the market one of the models that would make history with its brand until this very day, with the Capri models from the 300 series, among them: the 325, 330, and the 360. These three models, all from 1958, became the go-to model of the 60s as it was to be used by the band that would lead the way for all the rest, the Beatles, of one John Lennon, who would not part with his 325 in those early years in the band and would get into the subconsciousness of half the planet that to make pop you needed a Rickenbacker in your hands.
Needless to say that from the Beatles to Tom Petty, and on to the Byrds or R.E.M., we have been able to listen to the lilting sound of these guitars to accompany some of the greatest melodies in history. A guitar born in the full thrust of a generation of rock and rollers, but saw its splendor hanging from the shoulders of the British mop-top boys eclipsed in the 60s in favour of the new reigning pop trends. Curiously, the television event that marked a before and after of an era was the performance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, where we can see the aforementioned guitars: Lennon with his 325, and Harrison with his Country Gentleman.
And we finish off with our review of 1958 with the brand that had more and better things in 1958. Gibson saw how Fender kept selling guitars to the younger set of players and tried to do the same, however it didn’t turn out well...in the beginning. To attract the new public’s attention that was starting to get interested in this instrument by always listening to songs along the lines of a Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochran, the American company decided to put out two models that emphasised the aesthetic more than the construct or technical innovations: the Gibson Explorer and the Gibson Flying V.
These two models, today mythologised by innumerable guitarists, were an absolute flop in 1958 due to a striking design that the cowlick greaser lads didn’t take well, but some 10 years later would become a real success, this time with the bearded ponytail lads at the end of the 60s and throughout the 70s.
The Explorer had a set of two humbuckers on its ‘Martian’ shaped body added to it, a shovel-shape never seen before until it was designed by Grover Jackson (who would go on to form his own brand of pointy guitars with his name). However, the real precursor and creative mind behind the Explorer and the Flying V was the then vice president of Gibson Ted McCarty, not as well-known as Leo Fender, and who didn’t play the guitar either, like Leo, yet of supreme importance to Gibson's history and the electric guitar in general, through his achievements of having been one of the big brains behind the first humbuckers pickups, or the Tune-O-Matic bridge, besides creating the two models we were talking about, or the SG and the Firebird.
Oddly, these two models had such little impact on the market that they only made a few dozen units, turning the Explorer and Flying V from ‘58 into the most valued modern collector’s item in an out-of-control vintage guitar market.
However the lack of success of these two models didn’t put a dent into Mr. McCarty’s company that year, and that same year gave birth to one of the brand’s most legendary guitars, which was a commercial triumph from day one in the shops: the Gibson ES-335, or what amounts to the same - the most famous, sold and copied semi hollow guitar in history.
What they got with the ES-335 (ES is short for Electric Spanish) was a warmer sound than they had achieved with the Les Paul, its solid body, reducing the feedback problem in box guitars until they almost made it disappear, a major achievement in the Les Paul models. Without question, they did a spot on job on this model design with a solid piece that goes through the guitar’s body, leaving the hollow parts on both sides with the corresponding f-holes.
They were so sure of its success that in the same year the brought to market ‘luxury’ versions with slight variations of the model: the 345 and the 355, both now legendary.
To finish with 1958 and Gibson, it goes without saying this was the year the planets aligned themselves around their Les Paul model. In ‘57 the Les Paul started to be fitted with the famous PAF humbuckers, pickups that even today some say have mystical powers, the bridge Tune-O-Matic was already part of the design shortly before that, and it was in the year 1958 when the gold or black finish gave way to the notorious ‘burst’ which left the wood grain open to see, like the violin style of past centuries, making the guitar an absolute beauty in the eyes of the world. Nonetheless, between 1958 and 1960, Gibson chose to take it off the market, they produced less than 2000 Les Paul units with those features, something you must realise that here at Guitars Exchange we refer to as the ‘Holy Grail’.
All this happened in 1958 in the U.S.A., cradle of the electric guitar. Sixty years later the electric guitar is not as present on sales figures as it was then, nothing compared to the sales of the 60s and 70s, but today there are bands and festivals that attract hundreds of thousands of people; if we look closely at those festivals we’ll see a great majority of artists playing with guitars designed in the 1950s.
Why do we keep using the same guitars over and over again? For the same reason we buy boxing gloves to hit harder with softer effects. The human being, a species which a common guitarist barely belongs to, tends to give properties to things that they don't really have and our pattern of behavior always begins with us emulating our idols; and sincerely, it’s much easier to buy a Jimi Hendrix guitar than to play like Jimi Hendrix.
Sixty years ago the electric guitar just about developed to perfection. The best techniques when it came to eliminating noises, feedback and signal precision were after 1958, practically a thing of the past, but did the evolution of the electric guitar end there? Many manufacturers like Ibanez, PRS, and Music Man have tried to prove otherwise, but are drops of water in the ocean where the two big fish seem to be swimming alone , Fender and Gibson, and whereas it is true that they introduce new, better technologies like the auto-tuning system on the Gibson, it is also true that they put them on models whose designs just turned 60 years old...