I remember the first time I saw Eddie Van Halen on MTV, the way he played two hands on the fingerboard during his short “Jump” guitar solo.
I loved his cool “Frankenstein” guitar, so named because he cobbled together a variety of guitar parts and decorated his creation with colored tape and paint.
The simplest answer: Guitarists wanted more volume.
Through the 19th century, guitars were part of a musical ensemble.
In the 1970s and ’80s the sound of the electric guitar was stretched in heavy metal music.
As one of its leading practitioners, Van Halen pushed his self-built “Frankenstein” (based on a Stratocaster but with a mish-mash of other guitar parts) to the limit, experimenting, for instance, with “dive-bombing,” which uses the tremolo arm to drive the guitar’s lowest note ever lower.In the hands of guitarists like Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and many others, the Stratocaster became an icon of American rock and roll that took the world by storm.The Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul, and other solid-body electrics were nothing if not versatile, and rock guitarists were obsessed with versatility.The acoustic version has been around since at least the 16th century.So when I first started working with co-curator Gary Sturm on an exhibition about the invention of the electric guitar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, our driving question was: Why electrify this centuries-old instrument?Guitarists could not only change the tone, volume, and pitch, but they also could manipulate the sound by playing close to the amplifier, grinding the strings against things, and using special effects accessories like the wah-wah pedal.Jimi Hendrix was this instrument’s master of manipulation, influencing generations of guitarists to experiment creatively with their playing techniques and equipment.Then, in the 1920s, innovations in microphones and speakers, radio broadcasting, and the infant recording industry made electronic amplification for guitars possible. The electric guitar was essentially born in 1929—long before the advent of rock and roll music.The first commercially advertised electric guitar was offered that year by the Stromberg-Voisinet company of Chicago, though it was not a smash hit.Around 1925, John Dopyera designed a guitar with metal resonating cones built into the top that amplified the instrument’s sound.That suited twangy Hawaiian and blues music but not other genres.