Who Really Invented The Electric Guitar And The First Song Ever Played With One 

Written by Sam Hindman
Updated: October 14, 2023
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The electric guitar isn’t just any old instrument, it’s an iconic symbol of pop culture and influential music. Since its rise in the 1930s, the popularity of this guitar has gone in an increasingly upward trend. You can hardly name on both hands the number of legendary stars known to have specialized in this instrument, but who invented the electric guitar? In this article, we’ll survey the history of this guitar, from its conception to its modern uses. If you’re a music buff or want to learn to play this instrument for yourself, you won’t want to miss out on this electrifying scoop!

What Distinguishes The Electric Guitar From Other Instruments?

Dueling Guitars

Something that distinguishes the electric guitar from its counterparts is the fact that, in order to produce quality sound, it requires an amplifier.

©mrolands/iStock via Getty Images

The first distinguishing thing about the electric guitar is how it operates. You see, wooded instruments like the acoustic guitar have a soundboard that vibrates and sends those vibrations through its chamber to produce sounds. Electric guitars, on the other hand, function a lot differently. These instruments use electromagnetic activity to amplify sound, which then grants pretty all-encompassing versatility to the guitar. If you’ve ever heard one, then I’m sure you’ve picked up on this. The electric guitar can go from a sharp and striking note to a mellow groove in little time at all.

Another thing that sets these guitars apart from their counterparts can be considered a little bit of a setback. That is, of course, their need for an amplifier. Without that amplifier, the sound that you produce is pretty much going to sound the same as any old guitar, and you don’t want that!

But, the thing that sets the electric guitar apart from other instruments is its cultural symbolism. The electric guitar has played an essential, pivotal role in the development of many beloved American music genres, especially blues, rock, and jazz. Without this instrument, these musical revolutions wouldn’t be where they are today- and they certainly wouldn’t sound the same!

Who Invented The Electric Guitar?

Legendary guitarist Les Paul on stage holding an electric guitar

Les Paul is credited with the invention of the solid body electric guitar.

©Arnoldius / CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Oddly enough, there’s a lot of debate when it comes to who invented the electric guitar. That’s because, before the eventual and metaphorical gold was struck, there were a lot of people who tried their hand at creating one! For instance, Wisconsin jazz musician Les Paul added strings to a block of pine wood, crafting the first preliminary form of an electric guitar in the process. This creation was known as “The Log,” and although it wasn’t technically an electric guitar, it utilized similar principles and came seriously close.

But, in the end, an engineer/musician duo by the names of Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp are the ones who can take credit for creating the first electrically amplified guitar. At least for the first one that functioned and proved to be commercially viable. This instrument was heavily necessary for the increasing size of music venues at the time. Bands simply struggled with being able to play over the large crowds attending the shows. So, Rickenbacker and Beauchamp got to work! It was an imperfect, flawed model, but it got the job done.

This ‘first-ever’ electric guitar was dubbed the Rickenbacker Frying Pan and officially made its debut in 1931. It received that name due to its interesting circular shape paired with its long and thin neck. Hitting shelves the very next year, rock stars were quick to get their hands on it.

The Phases The Instrument Has Gone Through

Fender Stratocaster Guitar

Through the power of three brilliant musical minds, the Fender Stratocaster guitar was able to produce some serious, necessary changes in the electric guitar model.

©Lamutabor/iStock via Getty Images

The Frying Pan was just the beginning, and soon enough, there was another model released: The Rickenbacker Electro String. Hitting markets in 1935 with some solid improvements, Rickenbacker decided after its success that it was time to take a break from the music scene. The company was sold to a man named F.C. (Francis) Hall, and the new music era soon kicked in. Here are, in order by year, some more of the most substantial phases the electric guitar has gone through.

Fender Stratocaster (1954)

During the 50s, the electric guitar really began to make headway in popularity. As a response to the increasing demand, three guitarist powerhouses came together to address some of the key market issues. Freddie Taraves, George Fullerton, and Leo Fender partnered to create a model of electric guitar dubbed the Fender Stratocaster. This guitar was so sought-after for a number of reasons, but mainly because of its interestingly double cutaway structured neck, the inclusion of three pickups, and a tremolo unit that relaxes on the bridge.

Frankenstrat (1979)

At the tail end of the 1970s, another electric guitar revolution was underway. Wanting to combine the popular models Fender and Gibson, Eddie Van Halen attempted to create a more advanced model. This was a total overhaul and restructure, but one that was highly necessary at the time. You see, people cared just as much about the looks of a guitar as its functionality. While the sound of a Gibson was stellar, the physical appeal of the Fender was preferable to the rock stars of the era. So, Van Halen wanted to create a guitar that was both beautiful and functional. Thus the name Frankenstrat was chosen, which is a reference to the popular tale of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Ibanez 7-String Guitar (1994)

In the 1990s, the iconic 7-string guitar had its historic debut. The company Ibanez Guitars worked together with Steve Vai to create this solid-bodied model, which was shown to the world when the band Korn used it in their first album. Since then, the popularity of this guitar model has flown through the roof, and it’s still one of the most popular electric guitar models to date.

The First Ever Song to Feature The Electric Guitar

The first musician to perform a song using a real electric guitar was George Barnes.

©Mizzan/CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

We might know who invented the electric guitar, but who is the one who popularized this instrument after its debut? There’s actually a bit of a debate about this. Many cite Eddie Durham as the first person to record a song using the electric guitar in 1935. However, it was found that he was actually playing a resonator guitar. These guitars might be different than the standard acoustic, but they certainly cannot be qualified as electric guitars.

Instead, the accreditation goes to a man named George Barnes. With his appearance on blues performer Big Bill Broonzy’s 1938 single “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame,” Barnes won the honor of being on the first commercial song in history to showcase an actual electric guitar. At the time of the recording, he was still a teenager! Barnes was a historic and revolutionary musician, especially in relation to guitar. He was known to have produced over 100 songs and had collaborations with many big-ticket superstars in his time.

What Was The Most Expensive Electric Guitar?

The most expensive electric guitar was owned by star Bob Dylan. Barnes even played on Dylan’s first single, “Mixed Up Confusion.”

©Chris Hakkens,/ CC BY-SA 2.0 – License

At the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1965, superstar Bob Dylan played his electric guitar. This garnered some mixed reactions from the audience. At the time, many saw this act of switching from acoustic to electric as a sort of betrayal to his audience. The industry was cautious of change, but Dylan was ready to embrace the electric revolution. It was rumored that some of the staff at the venue also critiqued Dylan’s decision, which offended him. As a result, Dylan decided to boycott the festival all the way until 2002. In December 2013, this very same guitar sold at Christie’s Auction House for nearly $1 million. This price makes it the most expensive electric guitar ever sold. The true price was $965,000, costing almost double the median home price in the US in 2023!

The photo featured at the top of this post is © mrolands/iStock via Getty Images

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About the Author

Sam Hindman is a writer at A-Z animals covering a range of topics, including pet care, plant care, pest control and travel destinations. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Multimedia Studies at Point Park University, set to graduate in the spring of 2024. A resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when she isn't writing, she's spending time with her beloved cat Archie.

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