The Aesthetic of Tone

How the Look of the Guitar has Evolved

From Chuck Berry to Kurt Cobain, the usage of the electric guitar has spanned nearly a century and is the most widely used, listened to, and iconic instrument in modern music, only second to the keys. This week I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the evolution of this instrument’s unique aesthetic and how it has changed from an early frying pan-like prototype all the way to the Jetsons-esque Stratocaster.

Initially, the acoustic guitar found a need to innovate during the era of Jazz in the early 30’s. Big-band jazz musicians sought a way to amplify single-note play styles that would be loud enough to be heard over a backing band, however the experimentation with electronic amplification of guitar tones started as early as the late 1800’s, with patents appearing around 1910. Amplification was initially done with button microphones (tiny little button-shaped mics) being placed along the bridge of guitars (the part where the strings attach to the body), however this proved to be largely ineffective and provided weak resonance. Shortly thereafter, Adolph Rickenbacker invented the electromagnetic pickup – the same style of pickup we see in modern guitars. The earliest consumer-grade guitar that hit the market was suitably titled the A-22 Frying Pan, named after its 22-fret neck and, of course, the body, which looked like…a frying pan.


A-22 Frying Pan, ca. 1934, Photo Courtesy of the Met Museum

Following the commercial success of the A-22 Frying Pan, the Rickenbacker “Electro String” would hit the market in 1935, and so would the Les Paul “Log” in 1941. These guitars combined form with function, making their debut as the first electric guitars that share a similar shape to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from hollow-body instruments. Cutouts on the body of the Log increased the quality of the guitar tone, similar in function and spirit to the circular hole that gives an acoustic guitar its resonance. The contours on the bodies were designed with ergonomics in mind, increasing comfort for longer playing sessions, and adding a formative aesthetic that would carry manufactures through the entire 20th century and onward.


Les Paul holding the Log, ca. 1941, Photo Courtesy of Les Paul Foundation


The guitar that would change the look, sound and production of electro-stringed instruments up to this point would be the Fender Telecaster. Initially called the “Esquire,” renamed to the “Broadcaster” and then finally titled the “Telecaster,” this instrument was the first official mass-produced solid-body electric guitar offered to the public. Featuring a solid painted body of wood, alongside an accented pickguard, this guitar would standardize the modular “Fender” look allowing for easily swappable parts, thus making the guitars more repairable and accessibly modifiable by its players. Some famous Telecaster players include Keith Richards and Joe Strummer.


Joe Strummer’s Telecaster, 1966, Photo Courtesy of the Met Museum


Gibson would also release the Les Paul in the early 50’s which acted as their answer to the electric guitar craze, primarily influenced by the Telecaster. The Les Paul would eventually find fame in the hands of players such as Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Les Paul himself.  This instrument featured a bit of a thicker and heavier design in contrast to the Telecaster, implementing an adhered set-in neck instead of a modular one. This was commonly believed to increase the quality of the overall tone of the guitar. After the lack of success surrounding the Log (Gibson aptly referred to it as a “broomstick with a pickup on it when Les Paul pitched it), the Les Paul would see massive success as a solid body electric guitar, applying it’s heavy aesthetic and sound to chunky blues all the way up to doomy, gloomy, death-inspired riffs. Truly an axe.

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Jimmy Page’s “Number One” Gibson Les Paul, 1959-60, Photo Courtesy of the Met Museum


Although I’ve skipped over many iterations of each respective instrument, and I don’t have enough time, energy or space to cover all the different models that followed them, the Fender Stratocaster (released in ’54) is quite possibly the most iconic guitar of all time when it comes to it’s looks. It was built in a similar fashion to the Telecaster, however the Strat features a double cutaway on either side of the neck where it connects to the body and three pickups to swap between when playing it. It appears as though it belongs in the hyper-modern world of the Jetsons, fitting in alongside eccentrically tapered table legs and cheetah-print rugs. This atomic-age axe has hardly undergone any major changes in appearance since its conception, following the logic of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Famous Strat players include Hendrix, Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and David Gilmour.

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Hendrix’s Stratocaster, 1968, Photo Courtesy of the Met Museum


Sources included with photos

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