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Myth Busters: The Solidbody Electric and the Birth of Rock and Roll

Dave Hunter
|
11.04.2008

The birth of rock and roll looms large in every player’s mind. Whether you’re a punk or a metalhead, that holy conflagration of musical styles in the early to mid ’50s that launched a whole new direction for American culture remains ground zero for hot electric guitar. And rising Titan-like at the center of it all is the solidbody electric guitar, harbinger of this music of change.

The 1950s signaled a cultural, artistic and technological explosion, and much of that was born out of a clashing, then merging, of diverse streams of influence. Black meets white, country meets city, polite suit n’ tie dance music meets rollicking roadhouse rebellion — bam! How could it not happen? Add to that the significant advances in electric guitar designs, major improvements in amplification (finally allowing drummers in guitar bands to whack that snare to their hearts’ content), and an emboldened adrenaline-fired teenage populace with more social freedom than ever before seen in the western world. Rock and roll. It just had to happen.

And amid it all, the solidbody electric guitar — just coming into its own as a mass-produced instrument — is commonly credited with helping to give birth to the music. Models such as Gibson’s Les Paul, Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster, and Gretsch’s DuoJet (actually semi-hollow inside, but let’s not nit-pick) offered tighter, brighter tones to cut through the mix, and the kind of feedback resistance that finally let players turn those amps up to the volume levels that this wild-eyed hormone music demanded. Rock and roll and the solidbody electric guitar — like biscuits and butter, right?

Well … not entirely. “Solidbody = rock and roll” looks good on paper, but there’s a myth lurking in that equation. The fact is this adventurous new musical genre was born on hollowbody archtop electrics, guitars that weren’t much different from those that launched the first electric jazz music a full two decades before.

The swift confluence of sounds that gave birth to the music of the time is thoroughly documented. It is less often pointed out that the wilder, out-of-left-field rhythmic riffing styles developing in near-equal measures in country, blues and jazz were all being played on very similar equipment, and it’s fascinating to consider the rapid evolution of both playing styles and rigs in the short space of the decade that preceded rock and roll. With hindsight, it appears that the range of guitars and amps available to the player of the late ’40s and early ’50s was extremely limited, but it would have seemed to guitarists of the day as if the electric guitar had already come a long way from the first widely available “electric Spanish” guitar, the Gibson ES-150 of 1936.

Models from Gibson, Epiphone, Gretsch and a handful of others already had more elegant styling, more playable necks and more advanced pickups and electronics. Musicians were also benefiting from advancements in amplification that were arguably more significant than those in the guitars themselves. More to the point, however, the players themselves were ready to explode with a new music.

This marriage of styles was going to have to happen on the instruments that existed – as archaic as they might seem to us today – because these artists were pushing the boundaries no matter what you put in their hands, and they weren’t going to wait for some newfangled plank guitar to prove itself. The fact is, rock and roll was already being invented in the energy, drive and post-modern-hip simplicity of the riffing and soloing of everyone from Charlie Christian and Eddie Durham on the jazz scene to Junior Barnard and Bob McNett on the country scene to T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins on the blues scene, even though the music itself wouldn’t calcify into anything you could call a genre, or even be given a consistent name, for another few years.

Furthermore, players whom we could consider midwives to rock and roll when it finally did get around to being born — Danny Cedrone, Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry and others — still kitted out the maternity ward with a range of acoustic electrics.

Sure, there were flaws in these guitars and amps, as applied to this unnamed new music anyway. Acoustic archtops don’t sustain as well as most solidbody guitars, and also have a broader, warmer tone, all of which makes it a little harder for them to cut through the mix—particularly when played through the midrange-heavy, easily compressed, rather lo-fi amps of the day. And of course they also howled like a banshee with feedback of the wrong kind if you turned them up too loud or stood too close to said amp, so volume levels were inherently restricted by the technology.

There’s no doubt that some of these players would have made great use of more advanced solidbody designs if they were available in the late ’30s and ’40s — just as players like Carl Perkins, Paul Burlison, Cliff Gallup and Buddy Holly would do as soon as the new style was established. But the point is they weren’t going to wait for the technology to evolve before they started making the music. As it should be with great art, form follows function, and this holds true even for rock and roll.

Therein, I think, lies a lesson for all of us.


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