How the Electric Guitar Changed the World

By Dave Hunter

When the electric guitar arrived in the late 1930s and then became far more viable in the 1940s and ’50s, it changed the face of popular music, and therefore culture, in ways that have never been undone.

The guitar is the single most popular musical instrument in the world today, but that wasn’t the case in the 1920s and ’30s. Back then, it was a minority instrument, superseded in popularity by the banjo and mandolin in the stringed-and-fretted family and by plenty else in the horn section. Nevertheless, guitarists were frequently included in larger dance orchestras; they just had trouble being heard much beyond a chunka-chunka rhythm at the back of the stage.

In order to get themselves heard and get into the spotlight, guitarists of the late ’20s and early ’30s began devising clever ways of making the guitar louder. The electric guitar, plugged into an amplifier, turned out to be the most successful method.

As more and more successful electric guitar models hit the market, not only was the guitarist able to become a soloist — and therefore, a star — in his or her own right, but this change in the way the instrument was heard also made the small musical group (also known as a combo) viable.

You could now entertain a large crowd in a concert theater or power a dancehall with a couple guitars, a bass, and a drummer. If this development wasn’t entirely the death knell for the big band, it certainly signaled a major shift in the course of popular music.

As the late ’40s rolled into the early ’50s, small jazz, country, and blues combos begat rock’n’roll, the first musical genre undeniably dominated by the electric guitar.

This energetic music spoke to the hearts of a younger generation, one now dubbed teenagers, and gave them an outlet and a form of expression separate from the old mores and social constrictions of their parents’ pre-War ways. Rock’n’roll essentially gave birth to youth culture, and youth culture has fed and inspired popular music ever since. Boom: World changed!