Baseball, apple pie, and ‘57 Chevys are American icons that are ingrained into
our culture. That is a simple fact that no one can debate, but not far behind on that list is the electric guitar. America has a love affair with the electric guitar and all things rock’n’roll. But why?
The electric guitar’s origin is the subject of debate, but there are examples of solidbody guitars from as far back as the early 1930s. Les Paul came up with his first electric guitar, dubbed “The Log”, in 1940. This was the beginning, and his creation of an “electrified” solid body guitar, along with his prominence in the music industry, paved the way for what was to come.
America’s, and subsequently the world’s, infatuation with the electric guitar began in the 1950’s when images of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens came flickering into the living rooms of impressionable youth on their families’ black and white televisions. The electric guitar had arrived. Moreover, rock’n’roll had arrived, and nothing has been the same since. Kids all over the United States, and soon the world, would be asking their parents for electric guitars. Allowances would be saved, lawns would be mowed, and papers would get thrown all in the name of rock music. In 1957, the retail price of a new Fender Stratocaster, just like the one Buddy Holly played on tv, was $275.00. That was A LOT of money then, and so what happened? The market responded and within a few years every major department store had their own brand of electric guitar, so parents everywhere could give their kids that little slice of rock’n’roll on a budget. The Silvertone, Harmony, and Kay guitar brands were born. These, among others, would be found under Christmas trees for years to come.
But why do we “love” the electric guitar? What is it that ignited that passion and turned it into the icon it is now? Well….it is a lot of things. The U.S. was just coming off of WWII, and the youth were ready for a change. Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard came on the scene and were putting out something that the kids were latching onto by the thousands. The door for rock’n’ roll was opened and more artists were walking through it every day, and much like the pied piper, the kids were following. Everything about it…..the beat….the sense of abandonment and “danger”…….the rebellion. The kids wanted it, and the electric guitar was a way to get it. They could make it their own, and all they had to do to get it was order it out of the Sears catalog.
From there, the sky was the limit. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin took the electric guitar to another level. Muddy Waters went electric, and to everyone’s shock, so did Bob Dylan. The Byrds turned the electric guitar into a thing of beauty, while Pete Townsend turned the guitar into a weapon. All of these different artists were making groundbreaking music in one of the most vital times in modern history and they all had one common denominator: the electric guitar.
I try to remember this now when I sell a family their kid’s first electric guitar. I have even tried to explain it to parents, about how their son or daughter is looking for something that is theirs, and theirs alone. I tell them that their kids are going to start locking themselves in their rooms, playing their guitar for hours, and turning their music up too loud. I also tell them that it is going to be okay. A fourteen year old kid can take a Fender Strat into the bedroom, turn the amp on, and feel like he or
she is on top of the world. It’s not that different than burning down the highway on a motorcycle or hitting a home-run. Turning up the volume and hitting a power chord can be a sublime moment when nothing else exists. You can forget your homework or your mortgage, and for a few minutes, you can go “somewhere else”. As long as people get this feeling from the electric guitar, it will remain relevant, no matter what shape or form modern music may take. And that is why the electric guitar is an icon.