After 80 years, we still don’t really know.
You know the Gibson Les Paul: It’s that chunky electric guitar hanging off the shoulders of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, the classic axe thrust skyward by Guns N’ Roses’ lead guitarist Slash.
You know Gibson’s great rival Fender, too, even if you don’t know guitars. It makes the iconic Stratocaster Jimi Hendrix played and the workhorse Telecasters so often seen in the arms of Bruce Springsteen.
The names of Les Paul and Leo Fender grace many of the most famous electric guitars. Designed in the 1940s and ’50s, their instruments helped create the musical world of today, where the electric guitar is ubiquitous and its impact on culture incalculable. But the real origins of the instrument go back further, to a weird and murky prehistory.
It wasn’t guitar gods who pioneered this technology. It was amateur radio enthusiasts from the 1920s—garage-bound tinkerers with Popular Mechanics subscriptions and patent aspirations. The story of the instrument shows that its invention, like so many others, was not a neat event when one genius saw a need and created a technology to fill it. It was a messy, scattered process, one that’s difficult to piece together even 80 years later.
Somehow, we still don’t really know who invented the electric guitar.
Recently, this mystery drew the world’s foremost experts to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum in Kansas. Over three days, these researchers met to compare findings, dismiss myths, and attempt to settle where exactly the instrument came from. I went to see what they found.
Tinkerers and Rebels
It turns out many of the technologies necessary for the electric guitar were around long before anyone dreamed of a whammy bar or a fuzz box. At the core of the instrument is the electrical principle of induction, which Michael Faraday discovered in 1830. Electric guitars have a pickup (or two or three), which is usually a coil of copper wire wrapped around a magnet. Because of induction, when steel strings vibrate in the vicinity of the pickup, they produce an electromagnetic signal in the copper wire. This signal travels from the guitar through a cable to an amplifier, which increases the signal strength and sends it to a speaker.
The principle of induction is so simple and useful that devices based on it were widespread even before the 1900s. Telegraph keys used it, and some telephones did, too, though the first ones used primitive carbon mics. (The word “phony” comes from the awful facsimile of human speech produced by the early telephone.) Human communication was crucial in spreading the technology that would eventually become the electric guitar. “No one would have cared about this if it wasn’t initially about talking,” Lynn Wheelwright, a guitar historian and collector, explained in Wichita.