A Concise Timeline of the Electric Guitar

By Dave Hunter

You may think electric guitars have come a long way from the first commercially available models, but it’s amazing how many aspects of very old guitar designs are still in use today. This timeline takes you through the most significant early developments in the field:

  • 1931: Electro-String (which later became Rickenbacker) developed the first significant and commercially available electric guitar pickup. Invented by guitarist George Beauchamp and engineer Paul Barth, the horseshoe pickup, named after the shape of its magnet, appeared on Electro’s aluminum-bodied “frying pan” guitar in 1932.

  • 1936: Gibson released the ES-150, a traditional acoustic archtop guitar with a built-in electromagnetic pickup. The first production electric guitar from an established guitar maker, it carried a pickup (soon known as the Charlie Christian pickup for the jazz guitarist who used it) that was used on the EH-150 lap-steel guitar unveiled the year before.

  • 1946: Machinist Paul Bigsby built a solidbody electric guitar for Country & Western artist Merle Travis. He built several others before giving up guitar making to establish his famous vibrato business, but these were among the first solidbody guitars played by major artists.

  • 1949: Gibson introduced the hollowbody ES-175, its first guitar made with a maple-ply top and back. It became a major favorite of jazz guitarists.

  • 1950: Leo Fender officially released his Broadcaster (later known as the Telecaster), the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar.

  • 1952: Gibson debuted its first solidbody electric guitar, the Les Paul Model, originally made with single-coil P-90 pickups, an unusual wrap-under trapeze tailpiece, and a gold finish on the top of its body.

  • 1954: Fender introduced the Stratocaster, with three pickups and an ingenious new vibrato. It proved to be the most influential design in the history of the electric guitar.

  • 1955: Gretsch released its Chet Atkins Hollowbody and Solidbody models, named for their new star endorser. They became favorites of early rock’n’rollers and remained mainstays on the rockabilly scene long after.

  • 1958: Gibson changed the Les Paul’s finish to sunburst, which, along with the humbucking pickup added the year before, eventually made it the most valuable standard-production electric guitar on the vintage market.

  • 1958: Gibson continued a banner year: The influential ES-335 semi-acoustic model was released, to near-instant acclaim, and the futuristic Flying V and Explorer were unveiled. The latter two weren’t fully appreciated until several years later but are now acknowledged as icons of electric-guitar design.

  • 1958: Fender introduced the Jazzmaster. Originally aimed at jazz guitarists, it would instead — in time — become a favorite of many punk, new-wave, and alternative artists.

  • 1961: Gibson changed the Les Paul’s body style to a thin, double-cutaway design with two sharply pointed horns — a guitar known after 1962 as the SG.

  • 1963: Rickenbacker designed the 360/12 electric 12-string, which was soon a favorite of both the British invasion and the American folk-rock scenes.

  • 1965: Leo Fender sold his groundbreaking company to the Columbia Broadcaster Corporation (CBS).

  • 1969: Gibson’s long-time owner CMI sold the company to the Ecuadorian Company Limited, later known as Norlin.