In the early 20th century, the guitar was a purely acoustic instrument. Its limited dynamic range typically relegated it to a supporting role in ensemble performance. Surrounded on the bandstand by horns, drums and other stringed instruments, the sound of an acoustic guitar was barely audible.
In the early 1930s, as advances in microphone technology raised the volume of the singer, the invention of the electromagnetic pickup allowed guitar players to turn up the volume as well. Situated on the body of the instrument just below the strings, the pickup created magnetic fields that converted the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals. Sent from the guitar through a cable, these signals were transmitted to an amplified loudspeaker (the amplifier), and the guitar became substantially louder.
In 1936, Gibson introduced the ES-150 model, a mass-produced guitar that included a mounted electromagnetic pickup. As guitarists embraced the electrified instrument, the perception and uses of the guitar began to change dramatically. For instance, Oklahoma musician Charlie Christian adapted the language of jazz soloing, previously performed mostly on woodwinds, brass and piano, to the electric guitar’s fretboard, moving the instrument to a featured spot on the bandstand.
As the electric guitar’s popularity increased in the 1940s and 50s, new musical styles emerged, including the Urban Blues performed by southern musicians who came north to industrial cities during the Great Migration. These musicians left rural regions such as the Mississippi Delta to seek better working conditions in large, northern metropolitan areas. Once in the North, musicians performed to larger and louder audiences, and the electric guitar helped them to be heard above the crowd.
In the early 1950s, going electric was more than just a pragmatic decision, it was an idea that reflected the spirit of the times. Commercial culture was littered with products promoting an emerging vision of modernity in which life was improved by the newest, the fastest and most advanced...of almost everything. Razors, toasters, automobiles and guitars: all were offered as a gateway to the future. In addition to turning up the guitar’s volume, electricity was touted as making cooking, shaving and woodworking easier, quicker and more precise. These advances were in a technology’s function but promoted through its design. For instance, the stylized curves of the 1952 Fender Telecaster—the first mass-produced solid-body guitar—bore some resemblance to the “modern” shapes of both jukeboxes and the Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” sedan, all designed for the contemporary experience. When a guitarist strapped on a Telecaster he was wearing the look of the modern and creating new, electrified sounds. By the late 1960s, sales of electric guitars rose to nearly 1.5 million per year, far beyond the number sold a decade earlier.
This lesson investigates how electrifying the guitar was a contributing factor to the emergence of a sound that came to define Rock and Roll and, to a large extent, mid-20th century American popular culture. Featuring content from the PBS Soundbreaking episode, “Going Electric,” which includes the guitar playing of luminaries Charlie Christian, Pete Townsend, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, this lesson examines the spirit of curiosity, adaptation and invention that characterized the early 1950s and in the 1960s led to the guitar’s emergence as a versatile and attractive instrument for musicians and as the quintessential Rock and Roll icon.
Essential Question: H
ow did the electrification, amplification and design of the guitar facilitate its emergence as a dominant instrument of popular music?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- About the technology used to transform the acoustic guitar into an electric instrument
- How electromagnetism can be used to transmit sound
- About the process through which an electromagnetic pickup amplifies the sound of a guitar
- How electrifying the guitar changed perceptions of the instrument as well as its role in American music ensembles
- How the emergence of the electric guitar relates to significant cultural shifts in mid-20th century America, such as the Great Migration
- How the marketing of the electric guitar fit in to 1950s commercial culture
- How the sounds of a popular instrument can reflect broader patterns in American culture
- Be able to (skills):
- Analyze the effects of technological advancement on popular culture and art
- Examine visual texts for information, point of view and argument
- Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
- Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media formats
Charlie Christian & the Introduction of the Electric Guitar - Video
Blues Musicians Migrate to Chicago - Video
The Development of the Fuzz Tone - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
- How would you describe the guitar John Lee Hooker plays in Image 1?
- How would you describe the guitar Brian May plays in Image 2?
- Why do you think there is a "sound hole" below the strings on Hooker’s guitar but not on May’s guitar?
- Which musician do you think was making louder music? Why?
- Distribute Handout 1: The Guitar - From Acoustic to Electric. Read the handout out loud as a class and then ask your students:
- Why do you think guitarists wanted the guitar to become louder?
- In what ways might the volume increase of the guitar affect a musical group as a whole? (Possible answers may include that groups became louder or that they became smaller due to the instrument’s sound being capable of filling more space.)
- How does this clip suggest that the role of the guitar changed after it became amplified?
- How does this clip suggest that Charlie Christian changed the common perception of guitar players through his work with the Benny Goodman Sextet? What did he do that previous guitarists had not?
- In what ways do you think the electromagnetic pickup led to the guitar becoming a solid-body instrument?
- How do you think the solid-body guitar furthered the process of making the guitar a louder instrument? (Students should recognize that the reduced resonance in the body of the instrument allowed for a more direct capturing of the sound and eliminated feedback, which then allowed amplifiers to be turned up louder.)
- Who do you think might have been most interested in making louder music? What age group do you think they were?
- Looking at the diagram included on the advertisement in this handout, are there any ways in which you think the marketing of this instrument might have appealed to people interested in technology in general?
- Why does this clip suggest it was uncommon for Blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and 30s to use electric guitars?
- Why does Muddy Waters say that he, and so many other musicians moved from Mississippi and the Delta region to Chicago and other northern cities?
- How do you think moving from a rural to a metropolitan area may have affected musicians’ opportunities to perform? In which location do you think they performed to more people? Why?
- How does this clip suggest these migrant musicians made use of the new possibilities of the electric guitar?
- Thinking of a musician such as Muddy Waters, who moved from a rural community without electricity to a major city, what do you think a new instrument like the electric guitar might have represented? (Encourage students to consider how an electric guitar might be a symbol of wealth and sophistication to a person who grew up poor and without electricity.)
- What adjectives do you see used to describe this product?
- What does this advertisement suggest this product could do for you?
- What is the purpose of this product?
- Is this a completely new product, or an older product that has somehow been updated?
- Does this advertisement feature any references to something other than the product itself?
- Does this advertisement seem similar to any of the other advertisements you’ve seen today?
- Add any other notes about this advertisement that stand out to you.
- Do you notice any recurring themes in these advertisements? What are they, and what do they seem to suggest about the products in general?
- In what ways is the advertising for Fender instruments similar to the advertisements for the other, non-musical items?
- Do you get any general feelings of what, in the broadest sense, these advertisements are suggesting about the mood of the time period?
- What do you think a Telecaster might have represented to a suburban teenager?
- Having seen these advertisements, what do you think a Fender Telecaster might have represented to a migrant musician such as Muddy Waters?
- How would you describe the sound of distortion? What do you think it means to “distort” a sound?
- Does distortion give you any emotional feelings that are different from a clean sound? (Encourage students to discuss whether distortion sounds “angry” or “mean” and also where they usual hear the effect.)
- Why do you think the “Fuzz” effect got its name? Does it sound different than the distortion to you?
- How does “chorus” affect the sound? Can you tell what is happening when you use it? (Students may suggest that the sound is “doubled” and chorusing is a process adding layers to the sound.)
- What adjective would you use to describe these effects? (Encourage your students to think if any of the sounds make the guitar “tougher” or “smoother” or “scary” for instance.)
- How do you think intentionally distorted guitar might have sounded to people invested in the ideas of “progress” offered by the products you saw on the gallery walk? (Encourage your students to reconcile the ideas of technology as a means of perfection and the deliberate use of something that sounds “broken.”)
- What connection do you notice between the song in this clip, “Rocket 88,” and an advertisement in the Gallery Walk? In what ways might the "distortion" or "fuzz" on the guitar also connect to the theme of that advertisement? (Students might answer that the "rocket" implies space travel, and to the ears of those only accustomed to guitar with a pure "clean" tone, the "fuzz" might have sounded "alien.")
- In what ways do you think the development of the electric guitar might be related to American life more broadly in the 20th century? What do you think this new instrument might have represented to people beyond its direct musical implications?
- Can you think of any other instruments or types of music that are tied to technological developments?
- Are there any types of current music or instruments that you think represent a similar connection to technology in American culture?
- Have students research the rise of the guitar as the dominant instrument of Rock and Roll in the years following the breakthrough success of The Beatles. Why did the guitar replace the piano as the genre’s “lead” instrument? Why did young people gravitate to the instrument? Have students research popular bands of the mid and late 1960s, sales figures of the guitar, and how the instrument was represented in popular culture. Students may also wish to view these other lessons on TeachRock: “The Birth of the Electric Guitar” and “The Rise of the Electric Guitar as Rock and Roll’s Dominant Symbol.”
- Conduct a brief discussion with the class about the historical and social context surrounding Jimi Hendrix’s ascension to popularity in the 1960s. Topics of discussion should include how during this time in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement was occurring, the President of the country was assassinated, Martin Luther King Junior was also assassinated, the U.S. began military operations in Vietnam and anti-war protests, as well as numerous social and counterculture movements, were taking place.
- Display Image 3 of Jimi Hendrix playing in Wilson Pickett’s band and Image 4 of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
- Ask students to conduct research and write a brief essay addressing either of the following questions -
- How would you describe the change in Jimi Hendrix’s appearance from when he played backup in Wilson Pickett’s band to when he was the frontman of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and how does his look, along with his music, reflect the counterculture movement of the late-1960s?
- Given the social context of Jimi Hendrix’s mainstream success in the late-1960s, why do you think that his guitar playing was identifiable and appealing to many, despite being so radical, and how might it relate to Jeff Beck’s quote in Clip 3 about the guitar sounding “threatening"?
- Students may conduct the following Science Experiments via Exploratorium
- Demonstration of sound being transmitted through electromagnetic fields, similar to how the guitar pickup functions - Modulated Coils Experiment
- Demonstration of how an electrical signal can produce sound through a speaker - Cup Speaker Experiment
Photo Credits: Photograph by Lawrence N. Shustak